Problem Student Case Study Examples


Case Studies in the Classroom



Abstract
We and others have created case studies to engate students in the process of designing solutions to complex programming problems. Case studies involve learners in activities of expert programmers such as identifying decisions, justifying choices among alternatives, and evaluating the consequences of these choices. Case studies improve computer programming courses by emphasizing the process rather than the product of problem solving. This paper describes specific uses of case studies in freshman and sophmore-level courses.

This paper was presented at the Twenty-Third SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, Kansas City, MO, March 5-6, 1992, and published in SIGSCE Bulletin, volume 24, number 1, March 1992, pages 220-224.

Introduction

What is a Case Study?
A cast study describes a programming problem, the process used by an expert to solve the problem, and one or more solutions to the problem. Case studies emphasize the decisions encountered by the programmer and the criteria used to choose among alternatives.

Learners are engaged in the case study through questions that are interspersed in the presentation. Students can "think along" with the experts by making predictions, helping with parts of the solution, or analyzing alternatives. More comprehensive questions ask students to modify the solution, apply the ideas to new problems, detect bugs in related problems, and reflect on their own methods for solving problems.

A sample case study is outlined in Appendix A. It deals with the problem of completing a program to print a calendar for a given year. The problem specifies that two subprograms are to be supplied: a function NumberOfDaysIn, which returns the number of days in a given month in a given year, and a procedure PrintMonth, which prints the calendar "page" for a given month. (The solution to this problem is treated in more detail in Clancy and Linn [4].)

What are the advantages of case studies?
Case studies engage students in a kind of "apprenticeship" with an expert programmer (cs. Collins et. al [5]). Linn and Clancy [11] elaborate on their advantages, which include the following:

  • They model efficient ways to organize programming knowledge.
  • They help students construct techniques and strategies that reduce or postpone the complexity of program design and development.
  • They guide students to apply program design skills to large, complex problems and to learn context-dependent design strategies.
  • They encourage students to reflect on completed solutions, comparing them to one another.
  • They stimulate students to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses (in order to guard against the latter).
  • They make large programs accessible to students, and thus give students a better picture of the nature of "real programming".
  • They form the basis for assessment of a student's ability to design, understand, analyze, modify, and debug code that is both educational and effective.
  • They provide a vehicle for active rather than passive learning, and exploration in teams.

Why aren't case studies more commonly used?
The case study approach is atypical in introductory and intermediate programming courses. One reason is the relative scarcity of appropriate material. Published sources of case studies include the "Literate Programming" columns in Communications of the ACM [13], the books by Bentley [1][2], Kernighan and Plauger [6], and Clancy and Linn [4], and excerpts from books such as Ledgard and Tauer [9], Kruse [8], and Reges [12]. Much of this material is intended for experts or teachers, not students.

Many CS 1 and CS 2 courses are packed with details, and instructors may believe they have no room to include case studies. In such courses, however, it is easy for students to lose sight of the big picture, gain only superficial understanding of program design, and fail to appreciate the problem-solving power of a programming language.

Perhaps another reason that case studies aren't used is an impression by instructors that novice programmers are not ready, or inclined, to appreciate the issues discussed in a case study. Personal experience and informal surveys indicate, however, that students learn from case studies both in college introductory courses and in precollege programming classes.

Lastly, instructors may not be aware of the variety of ways to incorporate case studies into their classes? hence this paper. We describe how case studies can enhance laboratory and homework exercises, small group work, examinations, and lectures. We or all colleagues at Berkeley and elsewhere have tested, in introductory and intermediate programming courses, all the techniques we describe. These techniques are useful in more advanced settings as well.

Laboratory and homework assignments
A case study presents opportunities for students to analyze, modify, or extend a large program, or reuse the code to solve a related problem. The accompanying narrative makes the code easier for the student to understand, and thus reduces the complexity and maximizes the benefit of the assigned exercises.

One set of exercises requires students to use a compiled executable version of the code. A version with the sizes of the data structures reduced for experiments is provided. With executable code? a source listing need not be provided? Students can still accumulate a substantial amount of information about a program, by predicting its behavior given sample input, providing input that produces a given bahavior, distinguishing legal from illegal input, and devising good examples to teach new users about the program. They can also probe the limits of the program: How much input can it handle? What are constraints on the input format? How are out-of-bounds or overflow cases handled? Finally, students can evaluate the user interface, and compare it and the program's capabilities to other similar programs they have used.

With online source code, students working together can play "debugging games". One partner (or staff member if students are to work individually) inserts a bug into the program; the other attempts to find it. This requires that students have read the program but do not have the code listing nearby. It encourages students to invent thorough sets of test data, and to think about what aspects of a program's style and organization facilitate testing and debugging.

Typical laboratory or homework assignments using online code include modifying a program to change its user interface, replacing its data structures, and adding or extending features. Such activities can be profitably done in teams as well as individually. They illustrate the importance of code readability, planning, and incremental development, and introduce subtle issues, for instance, that the program should be modified in the style in which it is written.

Other online exercises include using the code in a larger application, or solving a similar problem. The advantages of rewriting reusable code are apparent in both activities.

Students can also be encouraged to create their own case studies. This activity reveals student thinking and helps instructors make sense of students' understanding of the material. Instructors can also incorporate the student solutions into subsequent course activities.

One other activity, that of solving the problem before seeing the solution and accompanying discussion, would seem to be good preparation for a case study. Students might be expected to be more sensitive to the decisions described in the narrative. Linn and Clancy [10] noted, however, that this approach was not always productive. Some students, having written one program to solve the problem, weren't interested in alternative.

Example exercises involving the "Calendar" case study
The solution programs in teh "Calendar" case study read a year from from the user, then print the calendar for that year. Students might be asked to perform experiments with executable versions of these programs, to determine how the programs handle years before the Gregorian reform of 1582, and whether erratic behavior results from negative or exceptionally large year values.

There are many places in the program to insert bugs, such as off-by-one initializations and off-by-one or reversed comparisons.

Possible modifications of the programs include highlighting of holidays or other significant days, and printing weekend days in a special format. Code from the calendar programs can be reused in a variety of applications involving date computations, and in programs to produce different kinds of calendars. Examples of the latter are the Jewish, Muslim, Mayan, Chinese, and French Revolutionary calendars, and a fantasy calendar without Mondays.

Small-group discussion
Discussion is most effective when students can contribute diverse perspectives and expertise. Naturally-occurring differences in problem-solving style among group members provide good grist for discussion and brainstorming. For instance, what aspects of the style and organization of the program make it easy or hard to understand, and why? What parts of the program match code that group members have seen before? Which of the design or development decisions would group members have made differently, and why?

One way to ensure that students have different types of expertise is to ask subgroups to study different case studies and then present the ideas to the rest of the class.

Discussion can also take advantage of previous online exercises. What were various ways of approaching these exercises? What aspects of the style and organization of the program made it easy or hard to modify? How does one set of test results provide better evidence for the correctness of the program than another? How did a partnership divide the problem, and how were the skills of the partners put to effective use?

Finally, discussion can provide opportunities for students to reflect on their own behaviors. The discussion leader might ask the group to compare their abilities to detect errors in output, to locate errors in code once they�ve been detected, and to find the simplest ways to fix the errors. Discussion might also encourage students to recognize and admit their programming weaknesses, such as propensities to "rush to the computer" or to test too much code at once.

Assessment
Learning to program well requires the acquisition of a number of subtle skills. The course objectives of ACM�s CS 2 [7], for instance, included the following:

  • To continue developing a disciplined approach to the design, coding, and testing of programs written in a block-structured high-level language.

How can these skills be assessed? In the typical programming course, the end product of a programming assignment is graded rather than the supposedly "disciplined approach to design, coding, and testing" that created it. An exam is constrained by limits on the time available to take it and the time available to grade it. Exam questions tend to focus on isolated facts rather than on complex problems.

Case studies allow assessment of analysis, design, and development in the context of a challenging problem. Here are some example question patterns. They must, of course, be asked in the context of a particular case study.

Analysis

  • Show where in the program a given variable can get a given value, and describe the circumstances under which this happens.
  • Describe circumstances that would cause a given variable to have the same value as (or a greater or smaller value than) another given variable.
  • Where in the program can the following condition arise?
  • Suppose that a line of the program has been changed; the altered program then produces the following output. Does the output indicate a bug? If so, where might it be?
  • Given the following output from the program, what was the input?
  • The user types the following input to the program, and gets an error message. What could it have been?

Design and Development

  • Suppose the program is to be extended to accomplish the following task. Which subprograms in the program should be changed, and how? In what sequence should the changes be tested and debugged, so that you would have the best chance of having a new improved version of the program working at all times?
  • Suppose you wish to reimplement a given program data type as follows. Which subprograms should be changed, and how? In what sequence should the changes be tested and debugged?
  • Which of the following changes to the program require modifying only one subprogram?
  • Why test and debug one given procedure before another?
  • Suppose that a line of the following procedure has been changed erroneously. Design a set of test data that would expose the error.
  • Install consistency checks in the program.

Such questions, based on the context provided by the case study, are much less open-ended and much easier to grade than entire programs. They also require much less reading during an examination, since case studies can be reviewed in advance, than do questions in which a context must be set up from scratch. They therefore allow good programmers with reading deficiencies a better opportunity to display their knowledge.

The narrative description of design and development decisions is an important component for assessment. Linn and Clancy [10] found that students who received expert commentary did significantly better on their tests than students who received documented code without commentary.

Examples of assessment using the "Calendar" case study
The programs described in the "Calendar" case study, though each no more than two pages of code, provide surprising opportunities for questions about analysis, design, and development. Here are some examples.

Analysis

  • Suppose that your lab partner, who is not so adept with the text editor, deleted a line in the program by accident, with the result that February in a non-leap year is printed with 1423 days. Where would you first look for the error?
  • What small error in the program would produce output in which the first week of the month started a day too early and ended on Friday rather than on Saturday?
  • Suppose that the LeapDay function were rewritten as follows. Is the revision equivalent to the original? If so, explain; if not, provide an argument to LeapDay for which the two versions return different results.
  • During the output of which month(s) of 1986 would the variable startOfWeek have the value --3?

Design and Development

  • Write a driver program that would allow you to test the PrintMonth procedure in isolation.
  • Write a procedure for either version of the Calendar program that prints calendars for a user-specified number of years in a row.
  • Suppose you wished to produce the output for each month by repeatedly filling a two-dimensional array with the appropriate dates, then printing it. Should the array elements be of type char or type integer? Explain.
  • Describe what changes to the program would be necessary to make the modification just described.
  • Suppose you wished the program to work for Julian years (pre-1582). Which subprogram(s) would have to be changed? Explain.
  • Suppose that America implemented the four-day work week by eliminating Monday. Change the week-by-week version of the Calendar program to print months without Mondays. January 1986 (assuming it still started on a Wednesday) would then look as follows: January 1986 S T W T F S 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Lectures
One might guess that lecturing about a case study would be difficult; the narrative description contains much of what a lecturer might wish to say about the problem solution. How, then, can a lecturer provide an interesting, enthusiastic presentation for students?

One good approach is to give suggestions about how to read the narrative and program: how to find the important parts, how to take notes on the program, what experiments to try, and what collection of input data should be built to test the program. The lecturer can also point out what programming patterns and good habits are illustrated in the case study, and relate them to students� previous experiences in the class. In addition, the lecturer might enrich the problem solution by supplying missing information and structure for the students, and by adapting the material to their experience and background. Hints for the homework are an obvious source of material. Much of the published case study material discusses the design but not the development stage; the lecturer might present a model sequence for testing and debugging the program.

Another source of lecture material is extension of the ideas in the case study. A lecturer might discuss how segments of the program could be used for other problem solutions, or discuss problems that can be solved in ways illustrated in the case study. A lecturer might also talk about more general applications of case study activities. An example might be a technique like mutation testing, in which the goal is to build a test suite that catches standard types of errors intentionally introduced into the program (see Budd [3]).

Finally, the lecturer can personalize the presentation with his or her opinions about controversial aspects of the design or development. Discussion of the lecturer's personal experience with similar problems or approaches can fascinate a class.

Summary
As textbooks for CS 1 and CS 2 get thicker and thicker, are your students memorizing more and understanding less? Case studies allow students, guided by an expert, to explore and experiment with design, analysis, and modification of programs they might not be able to create on their own. Students can solve what seem like "real" problems by altering expert solutions. Instructors can assign homework, lab activities, and discussion topics related to real problems, and easily prepare examinations that both educate students and provide significant information about student progress.

References

[1] Bentley, J., More Programming Pearls, Addison-Wesley, 1988. [2] Bentley, J., Programming Pearls, Addison-Wesley, 1986. [3] Budd, T.A. "Mutation Analysis: Ideas, Examples, Problems, and Prospects", in Computer Program Testing (B. Chandrasekaran and S. Radicchi, editors), Elsevier North-Holland, 1981. [4] Clancy, M.J. and Linn, M.C., Designing Pascal Solutions: A Case Study Approach (working title), W.H. Freeman and Company, 1992. [5] Collins, A., Brown, J.S., and Newman, S.E., "Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the Craft of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics", in Cognition and Instruction: Issues and Agendas (L.B. Resnick, editor), Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989. [6] Kernighan, B. and Plauger, P.J., Software Tools in Pascal, Addison-Wesley, 1981. [7] Koffman, E.B., Stemple, D., and Wardle, C.E., "Recommended Curriculum for CS 2, 1984", Communications of the ACM, August 1985, volume 28, number 8. [8] Kruse, R.L., Data Structures and Program Design (second edition), Prentice-Hall, 1987. [9] Ledgard, H. and Tauer, J., Pascal with Excellence: Programming Proverbs, Hayden, 1986. [10] Linn, M.C. and Clancy, M.J. "Can Experts� Explanations Help Students Develop Program Design Skills?", International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, to appear. [11] Linn, M.C. and Clancy, M.J., "The Case for Case Studies of Programming Problems", Communications of the ACM, to appear. [12] Reges, S., Building Pascal Programs, Little-Brown, 1987. [13] Van Wyk, C.J. (moderator), "Literate Programming" columns, Communications of the ACM (July 1987, volume 30, number 7; December 1987, volume 30, number 12; December 1988, volume 31, number 12; June 1989, volume 32, number 6; and September 1989, volume 32, number 9).

Appendix A

Outline of decisions encountered
in the "Calendar" case study

Decision Reason
read the first program from back to front rather than from front to back
start with the design of NumberOfDaysIn rather then PrintMonth
Use a case statement rather than an if... then... elsein PrintMonth

code the case for February as
NumberOfDaysIn :=28 + LeapDay(year) rather than as an if statement or a call to a function FebDays code LeapDay as positive tests rather than negative tests
test NumberOfDaysIn and LeapDay in isolation.

test with years 1986, 1988, 1900. and 2000
decompose PrintMonth into routines that print the heading and print the dates.
code PrintHeading as a case statement rather than an if... then... else
print the dates day-by-day or week-by-week?

choose test data appropriately (left to the reader)

compare day-by-day vs. week-by-week decompositions

program structure for this program is likely to be more important than data structure
NumberOfDaysIn will be easier, and likely to be needed by PrintMonth
a case statement shows more clearly that essentially the same thing is being done for each case
to show more clearly the exceptional nature of a leap year while retaining consistency with the other cases
they're easier to understand

to gain confidence in its correctness before we have to use it somewhere else
to test all cases of leap years
to match the structure of the output

case is more concise, and better conveys the equivalence of the cases
(both alternatives are considered; decisions for each version appear separately)
to detect problems within a month, problems between months, and problems with the year
day-by-day decomposition leads to less code and probably is more natural; week-by-week decomposition allows easier enhancement of output to match real-life calendars

September 1999
clancy@cs.berkeley.edu

Improving the classroom management of tough cases can be a long, long process.

Sometimes you'll find the key to changing behavior quickly, but most often it will take a long stretch of classroom interventions and dedicated effort.

Frankly, sometimes you will never really figure it out to the level that you hope for. You may figure out how to alter the classroom behavior somewhat for the better, but never truly resolve it. Alternately, you may figure out what the student needs, but not truly be able to provide it.

An example, from one of the case studies below, would be a kid who really just needs his father around, but dad is in prison. And you can't be dad.

Whatever classroom discipline plan or approach you decide on, it will be unique to each individual student. So unique, in fact, that I can't really categorize a particular approach for a particular set of circumstances. Instead, I'll provide some case studies and together we'll see what response patterns emerge.

Classroom Discipline Case Studies

I don't shy away from details in these case studies. The names have been changed but the circumstances are fully explained… including my assessment of my own impact (or lack thereof). I'm leaving out a few details, like how many times they went to the office; based on the behavior I was dealing with, you can fill in those blanks easily enough.

These are in order from less to more challenging.

Tamara: my budding gang member

On the first day of school, no one could tell if Tamara was a boy or a girl. She showed up new to our school dressed as tiny little nine year old gang member: baseball hat, puffy coat, mean expression. A few private get-to-know-you conversations convinced me it was all an act… an act that needed to be cut off before it became the real thing.

I pretty much told her repeatedly to “knock it off.”

“Tamara, why are you using such a mean voice? Knock it off! You have a beautiful voice when you choose to use it.”

“Tamara, you know we can’t wear hats in school, so quit bringing it. It just hides your pretty hair anyway.”

I didn’t let her get away with any of her faux gang behavior and it didn’t take long for her to give in. She needed permission to be a little girl who didn’t have to be tough to make up for her small size.

When she learned that my classroom was an open and accepting place, not a gang where status had to be earned, she made a dramatic switch from puffy hooded coats to pink jackets with sparkles.

  • Time to resolution: 3 weeks

Jake: self-labeling as a failure

Jake was overweight and had been retained once in the past, so he was one year older and much taller than others. He was used to failure and often told me, “I’m no good.” He was disrespectful and taken to muttering in the background, counteracting any instructions I gave to the class.

I started by separating him from any table grouping (but close to my desk) to keep him from drawing other kids off task. I then made him my helper in ways that took advantage of his size and height. For example, I made it a point to ask him to assist with things that took a “big man:”

“Jake, can you get the fire escape door closed for me? It’s sticking.”

“Jake, please get that tub off the top shelf and bring it to me.”

“Jake, I’d really like it if you could push that science kit out into the hallway for me.”

This helped him feel like his size was a benefit to the classroom, not something to be embarrassed about.

I also noticed that he had a knack for explaining math problems slightly differently than I did during instruction. I capitalized on this by asking him to work one-on-one with kids who were struggling in math. His confidence allowed his math scores to skyrocket along with the students he peer-coached!

Jake quickly got himself under control and was reintegrated with a table group.

  • Time to resolution: 3 weeks

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Brandon: knives, fighting and violence

Brandon came with a history of violence from the preceding year. I was warned by his former teacher that he was the worst in the school: brandishing knives, serious aggression, repeated suspensions, etc. My first belief is that a teacher should never let history set a kid up for failure before you get to know him, so we started with a clean slate.

But a clean slate doesn’t mean that the behavior won’t continue. Brandon was very smart – smart enough to be stealthy in his actions. He chose kids who were barely making it with their own behavior and schoolwork and pulled them off task with whispering or spit wads from a distance.

I told Brandon that he needed to be an island to learn how to meet expectations. I taped a piece of paper with some palm trees drawn on it to the side of his desk and put him right up against my own desk. Together we were “The Island.”

I developed a relationship with Brandon day by day, engaging in short conversations about topics that interested him and reinforcing any good work he accomplished. He got to the point where he would do anything for me and I even heard him defending me to anyone who complained that I was too hard or mean:

“She wouldn’t have to be mean if you’d get your work done!”

He chose to remain by my desk for several weeks because he began enjoying being successful and not spending time in the office. Together we decided when it was time to go back to sit with the rest of the class and I asked him to choose his table partners. Knowing he could not stay on task with certain other boys, he chose correctly.

He had his disciplinary ups and downs in my classroom for the remainder of the year and I had to move him to different table groups more than once, but he stayed on task sufficiently to make academic progress – and to not impede the progress of others.

  • Time to resolution: 6 weeks… with ongoing management for the remainder of the year.

Rolando: angry and explosive

Rolando was a broken little boy. He was angry and had an extremely explosive temper, throwing chairs, shoving desks, then isolating himself under a table and refusing to come out until his dad arrived at school.

He had been homeless on the streets in Arizona with his mom and sister until his father came to take him back to our state. Although his mom had a diagnosed mental illness, his father was helpful and supportive of my efforts.

Rolando was very smart and capable of doing all schoolwork. What he needed was a stable person he could trust and lots of guidance on how to interact with other kids.

I dealt with the crisis moments by giving him choices. This started with choices that were very easy for him to make, but reinforced that he could choose how to behave For example:

“You have a choice: you can stay under the table to wait for your dad or sit in the office to wait.”

Gradually, this became:

“Rolando, you can choose to take a moment to calm down and stay in the room with us, or be angry in the hallway until I come talk to you.”

Rolando was very self-aware and slowly he became able to discuss upcoming potential problems with me:

“OK Rolando, what do you think is the best choice for when I’m gone tomorrow? Can you stay in the room with an option of going to Ms. Smith's room if you get angry, or should you just start there?”

Throughout this process I repeatedly told him that I cared and wanted to help him. Slowly he came to believe that and was willing to take my advice on how to avoid exploding when frustrated. When I could see him about to blow, I would walk by and whisper, “Do you need some time?” as a cue for him to apply self control. He understood that this meant taking time to walk, talk or just breath.

  • Time to resolution: 5 months. By February he was solid in his self-management. The following year he continued to do well in another classroom.

Taylor: pulling others off task

An engaging child with diagnosed ADHD that was un-medicated, he was constantly out of his chair, off task and pulling others off task 90% of the time.

I kept track a few days and found that I was redirecting him over fifty times a day. Without that redirecting, Taylor did absolutely no work on any subject. With one-on-one oversight all day long – and I mean the teacher standing right by his desk – he was barely capable of learning.

But what teacher can devote 100% of her time to one student, ignoring all the rest?

Parents were no help in this situation and the home environment was the major problem. His mother wouldn't take the time to follow up on filling prescriptions and had her own medical issues which she put first. The family was heading for declaring bankruptcy, dad was in and out of the picture, etc. He idolized his older brother, a high school student who was suspended as often as he was in school.

I seated him separately from the rest of the class to keep him from pulling other kids off task. I arranged for a volunteer math tutor once a week and for volunteers to read with him. In addition, I used every method I knew for engaging ADHD kids:

  • using technology (laptops, Smart board)
  • delivering instruction in very short chunks
  • giving him room to move around away from other students

In the end, I simply could not get Taylor to care about learning. His skills never rose to grade level in spite of my efforts and I worked with my administration to obtain an IEP. By the end of the year, in addition to the methods I employed, he was also receiving extra attention in the Special Education room.

I continued to give him chances to engage constructively with other kids in the classroom, but after three warnings, which always occurred within 30 minutes, he had to be separated to allow others to learn.

I would put three sticky notes on his desk. Each time he drew other students off task, I quietly walked by and took one. When the last one was gone, he had to move his desk next to mine.

  • Time to resolution: 9 months and counting. This case I count as a failure and feel inadequate when I consider it. You must never stop trying, but that’s the reality sometimes.

Andreas: death threats and sexual harassment

Andreas threatened to kill me twice. His harassment of girls in the class included telling them the sexual fantasies he enjoyed while masturbating (and worse). He fondled himself in class. He fought and he stole things. His father was in prison on drug-dealing charges.

There was no help coming from home for this child. Andreas (a fourth grader) had a very strong desire to run with a gang and in fact had previously run drugs for his dad. According to the police, his mom was known to shelter wanted felons in their home.

Andreas was a Special Education student; he loved to write but struggled with all other subject areas.

The first step was to keep other kids safe from him. He spent most of the year with his desk right by my desk, where I did my best to build a relationship through conversations. I also began logging his inappropriate behavior – in this instance, I had to use this log to convince my principal that actions needed to be taken for the safety of other children.

I granted him a favor of having his own tub in which to keep several books he liked so he wouldn’t have to feel like he needed to “steal” them from the other kids (this was only slightly effective). I occasionally gave him a chance to rejoin a group, and his ability to interact appropriately gradually increased… but never to the point where he did not require constant oversight to avoid inappropriate behavior.

  • Time to resolution: 7 months… if you count “resolution” as not being sent home or suspended at least once a week.

Trey: weapons, hitting, and stealing

Another very difficult home situation (gangs, drugs, absent father) with no support from either parent for anything occurring at school.

Trey was fascinated by weapons and once threatened me with a ruler that he had sharpened into a knife. He hit other kids and took their personal possessions, ruining them before giving them back. Trey also practiced self-mutilation, scraping his arms with pens and rulers until they were raw or bleeding and picking at any resulting scabs.

Initially, moving Trey to an isolated desk near me allowed him to function well and get his urges under control. After a couple months, he was able to move back with a table group. Unfortunately, his home life further deteriorated and he had to be isolated near me again.

This situation continued for several months until he ultimately qualified for a local, in-resident, clinic-based behavior management program. He came back a different kid.

At this six-week program, he was given glasses to help his vision and medication to address his diagnosis of OCD and depression. When he returned he had calmed down dramatically. He was not angry anymore, just a little “rough around the edges.”

Frankly, I wondered if he was overmedicated, but trusted that his physician would continue to work on appropriate dosages as he grew older and larger. In any event, it was significant that he was no longer harming himself or others.

  • Time to resolution: 8 months. In this case, “resolution” meant achieving a state of non-violence that would hopefully equate to academic advancement in future grades.

How to disarm an elementary student

When Trey brandished a sharpened ruler at me, I immediately said “Whoa! That is so cool! Can I see it?” Not what he was expecting. When he handed it over, I of course retained it for the discussion with the principal and parent.

Being a mother of two boys helped in this situation. Having seen multiple sharpened sticks come back from Cub and Boy Scout campouts, I knew that first and foremost Trey was very proud of what he had done and his desire to show it off would supersede his desire to harm me.

I also knew from that day forward that I would never allow students to keep scissors in their desks!



Lessons Learned from Handling Tough Cases

1. You are either going to get a handle on the classroom behavior in a month or you will be in it for the long haul

This raises the next point…

2. As you should be able to tell from this website, I absolutely do not believe in giving up on any child

This is not to imply that simply being dedicated will always bring results; rather, you should be prepared to not give up on your classroom discipline plan for a full nine months, no matter what.

Throwing up your hands and isolating the child at the back of the room for months, or sending her to the office every morning as soon as she makes a peep (I've see both methods in action) is not up to the standard of commitment that I expect from the teaching profession.

Another reason to not give up: Consider that you are working with rapidly-growing kids who change a lot during a school year as they physically and mentally mature. Even if the classroom interventions and approaches that you settle upon are only minimally effective, keep at it – sometimes the child's own growth will bring him to a position where your efforts become more effective even if those efforts have not changed.

The child's family and social environment may also change, thereby altering the student's reaction to your ongoing classroom management discipline efforts.

3. Desk location is very important

But there is a right way and many wrong ways to make kids “islands.” I discuss it in greater detail on this seating page.

In summary, no matter why it is done, isolating kids from other students must bring the child closer into your sphere of influence so that you can more efficiently provide additional guidance and build stronger student-teacher relationships. It can never be simply punitive.

4. Giving choices is important

This is true even if the choices are not really different, as in:

“You can choose to do your worksheet at the desk in the corner or in Mrs. Jenkins' room, but you can't rejoin the class until it is done and you can offer an apology to the group.”

In spite of the almost non-choice nature of this “choice,” it provides the child an “out” where he feels he can control his own destiny a bit – and in so doing, you are slowly reinforcing that he can always make choices about how he acts.

5. Your tolerance for extreme misbehavior must be flexible

There are events that require immediate action, but you simply cannot send a tough case to the office every single time he has an angry explosion, or swears, or is defiant. If you do, you are giving up your ability to use that teachable moment to slowly bring the behavior in line.

However, the rest of the class must be fully informed of what is happening, understand why it is fair and be on your side in helping. (See below.)

6. And last but not least: Parents are critical for classroom discipline

Especially if a kid has a diagnosis, to be truly successful the parents must cooperate to some extent. If you do not have parent support, you will not be fully successful in altering extreme behaviors. This is not surprising – parents are supposed to be the major influence in a child's life; it just means that you will have to work even harder.

Involving the classroom community

When it comes to tough discipline cases, your classroom community needs to be kept informed of what is happening.

The kids will know something is going on anyway because you are constantly explaining classroom behavior expectations and it is obvious that someone is not meeting them. It is not necessary to have a class discussion on every discipline issue, but if you can tell that you are undertaking a long term behavior modification project, then let everyone know what is going on.

The stage is set for honest conversations by your team-building efforts, and by now, you have read books about accepting other people for who they are and not making fun of them.

Next, let the tough behavior case know that you'll be letting the class in on what is happening so that they can help him meet expectations.

Never sell a kid out

Don't using language that piles blame on them in front of their peers. You know and I know that it is the child who must step up and learn how to act, but it does not need to be stated outright. Instead, use words like this:

“Everyone, James is having trouble meeting expectations so he's being moved over here by my desk so he can get his work done. You are going to see me working one-on-one with him a lot.

“Remember, just like we've talked about, no one can control whether they have red hair or need glasses. Well, sometimes a person has difficulty controlling certain behaviors. It is my job as a teacher to teach exemplary behavior, too. So I'm going to be working extra with James to help him learn how to meet expectations.”

Kids don't want to be made fun of for some unique issue they may have, so they will accept that no one should be making fun of James for his behavior issue. Also, since you take the time to give every child individual attention at least once a week, they will not mind that you spend extra time with James.

Let them know how they can help

“You can help James by asking him politely to be quiet when he talks at the wrong times. And you can also notice when he is working well with your group and thank him.”

As always, model the behavior that you want if you haven't done so before. Show the kids how to quietly put a finger on their lips and “shush” – they'll follow your lead in this rather than telling each other to “shut up.” Also, give them the words to use when asking someone to stop doing an inappropriate classroom discipline behavior.

The classroom community in action

I once had two boys who were able to control themselves in class but could not keep it together on the playground – tackling, pushing, arguing. Every day after lunch it took ten minutes for the class to complain and to sort out who had done what – and it always came down to something started by Jimmy or Ken.

“JK” were well liked when they were in class and were frustrated by what happened outside. Every day I tried to talk through how they could make better choices, to no avail.

Finally, someone in the class suggested that every day, someone needed to take turns reminding them to stay out of trouble. The whole class liked this idea, including Jimmy and Ken, so I established a roster for “JK duty.” Every recess, someone stuck right by them and pulled them into four-square or wall-ball games, or just talked to them, or simply reminded them that they didn't need to start pushing during a soccer game.

I was a little surprised that it worked. It certainly would not be a solution that would work in every class, but it does show what a classroom community is capable of achieving when they value the close-knit group you have built.

You'll find that kids are eager to help with classroom discipline when you take the time to get them on your team.


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