Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Obnoxious Child

According to my lap top thesaurus obnoxious means 'loathsome, hateful, insufferable and abhorrent' amongst many others. Students present with a range of developmental needs and it is teachers business to find out what those needs are and how best to address them. What do we do when we have concluded that a particular child is loathsome? What have we done when we have labelled a student so?

If you are an educator or someone who works with children you may have had moments of utter frustration where you have declared to yourself or to others that so and so is a total ‘shit’ and is ruining what is otherwise the ‘perfect’ class. What do you do when you think this way? What do you do when you feel this way? How do you act when you think and feel like this?

Your frustration may be fleeting as you talk to others and reflect on the situation and anger and frustration eventually gives way to concern as you again try to find another way to support this child.

On the other hand your anger may be sustained and your resentment towards this child may build to the point where you believe the only satisfactory outcome would be if this child could be removed from your class, the school, your life!

Interestingly the same obnoxious child we are talking about may not evoke the same sentiments in your colleague who works with this child. Why? We are talking about the same child are we not?

Let’s consider the above scenario from an REBT/REBE perspective in regard to the teacher and the student and perhaps suggest ways in which the teacher can manage a trying and challenging situation.


Ellis strongly recommends that we examine our core philosophical beliefs about others. He talks about unconditional acceptance of others, acknowledging that people will make mistakes and do inappropriate things, which don’t/can’t negate the positive aspects and qualities of the person. From this viewpoint we can say that the child may have done/does ‘obnoxious’ things but is herself not obnoxious. Having an attitude of acceptance of the person separates the person from the deed and whilst it may not be easy to do it is well worth cultivating such an attitude for the benefit of the child and the teacher.

If we believe that people can be totally bad or obnoxious we then may feel resentful and angry towards the ‘bad’ person. This feeling of anger and resentment will be sustained as we maintain the belief that this person is making us angry. Logically then it will follow that we can only be happy when the source of our unhappiness is removed (the obnoxious child is making us angry). REBT holds that this philosophical stance is self-defeating for the teacher (I only accept people who are ‘good’ and not ‘bad’) because it maintains the unhealthy feelings outlined above and leads to poor actions towards the child e.g. ignored, constantly criticised, put down. It is important to be clear about the source of our anger and resentment towards the obnoxious child (and any other person we decide is ‘bad’). Albert Ellis said, “We feel and act as we do because we believe as we do!” He calls this Conditional Acceptance of Others; we only accept others when they meet our demands to behave as we want them to behave when we want them to. When we don’t get what we must have we feel angry. WE MAKE OURSELVES ANGRY BECAUSE OF THE WAY WE THINK!

What are the consequences for the child? She is in a perilous position because a very significant person in her life (you) has decided that she is not worthy of your attention or respect. She is bad (not good) and bad people should be punished (ignored, put down). Not only does she do bad, she is bad! This will only reinforce her belief that she is bad (a shit, an arsehole, worthless) and this will manifest in longer-term behavioural and emotional problems. The Dalai Lama says:

“In our daily life a certain way of thinking makes us happy, and a certain way of thinking makes us unhappy.”

What can the teacher do to manage this situation effectively? How can she manage her feelings and behaviour? How can the child be supported in this challenging situation?

1. Understand that you determine how you feel and behave. Not others.
2. Examine your beliefs. Do you accept others only on certain conditions?
3. Cultivate an attitude of acceptance of others; understand the difference between behaviour and person.
4. Monitor your self-talk. Beware of shoulds, oughts and musts.
5. Accept yourself (look up Unconditional Self Acceptance).
6. Accept that things may not always work to plan.
7. Think in preferences not shoulds. ‘I would prefer she did as she was asked but I accept she doesn’t absolutely have to.’
8. ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Address the child’s needs from a whole school perspective. Enlist the help of others.
9. Believe that the child is not essentially bad. Damn the sin not the sinner!

Are you a bad person for believing that a student is bad? Absolutely not! You have many positive qualities and capabilities, which can never be taken away. You are always worthwhile no matter what. Is this not also true of the ‘obnoxious’ child?

“In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher." Dalai Lama

Dr Albert Ellis

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