Watch for Warning Signs that a Child has Taken a Wrong Turn

We need to keep a close, caring eye on our students.

Teaching is more than just the subject matter and the classroom environment: It’s about connecting with young people. Helping them through the somewhat rocky waters of growing up is a large part of our teaching responsibilities.

Keeping a child on the right path requires staying alert for changes in behavior.While most students pass through our classrooms with ease and positive experiences, we need to always be on the lookout for the emotionally struggling student. Outside of school and away from our watchful eyes, they may be dealing with things they are desperate to talk about.

How can you help ease their troubles? Start by keeping these tips in mind:

Watch for a noticeable, steep drop-off

Take note of a sudden lack of interest in areas that had been sources of enjoyment and strength. Falling grades, less participation in school activities and a sudden change in friend groups may signal that something is amiss. If you find that one (or all) of these are occurring, a small, non-intense and friendly conversation with the student is in order.

The good news is that you most likely have been building a strong, positive rapport since the beginning of the year, so your questions won’t be met with hostility. The important thing isn’t to “get the child to talk” but rather to signal you’ve noticed the drop-off and to convey your concern. The first conversation, as stilted as it may feel, will be necessary to set up a second and perhaps more important later conversation. The initial talk is about planting a seed that you are there and available.

Confer with colleagues

Confirm your concern by circling back with fellow teachers. If you’re noticing a problem that’s confined to your classroom, the issue may be academic, but if people are seeing things across multiple subject and discipline areas, then you have something to work on.

Conferring with colleagues also opens the door to gently reminding them (and yourself) that a key responsibility is to care for our students. Some colleagues will always benefit from that reminder from time to time. Discussing it in the context of a student makes it easier to have that talk.

Use school-based resources

There should be a student services support structure in your school. Visit the child’s school counselor or your building vice-principal to share your concerns. Discuss what you’ve seen and documented, what you’ve done to address the student’s decline and how you would solve these problems.

This will help speed the process along and keep you from having to reinvent the wheel to help the child. Be prepared to step in and take action yourself if your school lacks the structure.

Make sure you understand the child’s perspective

Some children are not troubled at all — they’re just quiet and introspective. I once had a student who sat alone in the corner of the cafeteria and read a book during lunch. This worried the lunch-room staff, who assumed that an engaged and socially active child was the best possible outcome.

I sat and spoke with the child, who explained to me that he lived in a busy and active home, had a lot of afterschool things to do and didn’t have a lot of time to read the books he loved. He just wanted a little alone time to do something he enjoyed. No alarm bells. No concern. Just a child whose behavior pushed up against an expected norm — and there was nothing wrong with that.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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