Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School
reviewed by Claire Cameron & Amy Mace - July 31, 2017
The child who deviates, who refuses to be like everybody else, may be telling usloudly, visibly, and memorablythat the arrangements of our schools are harmful to human beings. Something toxic is in the air, and these children refuse to inhale it. It is dangerous to exclude these children, to silence their warnings.
-Carla Shalaby, Troublemakers, xxxix
In Troublemakers, Carla Shalaby examines the worlds of four young students who struggle to match their behaviors with the expectations at school. These children consistently fail to comply with teacher requests, and consequently, they spend a great deal of time alone. But rather than offering tips or strategies for individual situations, Shalaby instead asks the reader to look with a broader, social justice lens at situations that would typically be dismissed as matters of classroom management. As a former elementary teacher with graduate degrees in education from Rutgers and Harvard, Shalabys research examines childrens struggle for freedom, self-determination, and self-expression within the classroom. Shes currently affiliated with the University of Michigans TeachingWorks organization, which is driven to create a system for preparing people to be skillful teachers. Shalaby also co-edits a lesson plan book for social justice teachers.
Zora, Lucas, Sean, and Marcus (pseudonyms), deemed troublemakers by their teachers, attend two different schools in the Northeast U. S: a wealthy, mostly white suburban school; and a racially and socioeconomically diverse urban school. Shalaby intentionally selected high-performing schools and asked their principals to place her with their strongest 1st or 2nd grade teachers. This strategy emphasizes one of Shalabys themes: children identified as having behavioral problems are present in all U. S. schools. Given that, she wonders, is the problem with the children, or their environment?
A core tenet of social justice work is the necessity of upending, often through disruption, the existing oppressive system to create qualitative change. The books introduction explores in some depth the familiar metaphor of miners canaries, which were used in the early 20th century to warn coal miners of dangerous carbon monoxide leaks. Shalaby encourages her readers to consider school experiences from the childs perspective, and to understand that their behavior, however unconscious, is a warning signal to us adults that something is wrong in todays schools, and it is not the childrens fault.
The portraits of each child are vivid with detail. Interviews with the children and teachers informed the book along with observations in and around the classroom, and Shalaby manages an impressively dispassionate description of all the participants. For example, creative Zora constantly disregards the requests and needs of others, and her behavioras for all the children who followedoften brings the consequence of being called out or excluded. Shalaby writes in a way that the reader feels compassion for Zora as well as her teacher and schoolmates. At times, Shalaby goes beyond her data, inferring that Zora deliberately chooses nonconformist behaviors, which seem just as likely to be products of impulse. Yet Shalaby argues convincingly that through watching the resulting misbehavior-reprimand-or-exclusion cycle repeatedly, Zoras Caucasian peers are receiving their first lesson in noticing, excluding, and demonizing people of color. The subconscious implications of this inadvertent lesson should spur reflection and radical change, even for the educator who may be exhausted by their own exuberant and sometimes rude child with behaviors like Zoras.
The portraits of Lucas and Sean further help the reader understand how school can perplex children in ways that contribute to, if not directly cause, misbehavior. Whether its because classroom requests seem arbitrary at times, or because caregivers at home actively socialize children in behaviors that arent welcomed in the classroom, school pains the young student who enters with his own intense inclinations and interests.
Ultimately, Shalaby argues that all four children have unmet social needs that underlie their misbehavior. Marcus, the subject of the final portrait, values relationships, social connection, and physical proximity, whereas his classroom requires academic focus and behavioral parsimony. Shalabys emphasis on relationships resonates with the results from large-scale studies. A large body of research has established that positive, high-quality relationships among teachers and students are a significant resource in childrens development, and support positive outcomes in both academic and social skills (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Mashburn & Pianta, 2006). A recent study of 470 preschoolers found that teachers who spent 20 to 30 minutes per week of non-instructional, one-on-one time with their most behaviorally challenging preschoolers reported, along with parents, decreases in those childrens problematic, acting-out behaviors (Williford et al., 2016).
Though Shalaby intends to ask, What is good here?, missing from the book is an analysis of situations when the featured children actually had success in the classroom, or when their teachers met their needs. In a too-brief and at times vague conclusion, Shalaby recommends that teachers listen to children and be love. This advice does not resolve an underlying necessity, however, a concept that researchers call self-regulation. In any thorough treatise on childrens freedom, we must talk not only about ones rights within a learning situation, but also about the right to be free from ones own unconscious reactions: reactions to which all four children are subject (McClelland, Geldhof, Cameron, & Wanless, 2015). The childrens teachers claim that they are responsible for socializing self-regulation through promoting conformity and practicing exclusion. These may not be appropriate or even ethical solutions, Shalaby asserts, but someone does need to guide children to share, to treat others considerately, and to process emotions like anger and disappointment. Troublemakers doesnt address whether teachers, with their many responsibilities, deserve this charge or have just had it foisted upon them from larger social forces.
The embeddedness of children in social settings beyond the classroom is evident mainly in glimpses in Troublemakers, but must be considered in any lasting solution. To her credit, Shalaby admits in a closing statement that her work has only begun, writing, All I can offer here is a start, a way to move us toward being able to leverage the creative expertise of children and young people in the classrooms (p. 175). Her humane and urgent takeaway from Troublemakers, and the research, is that education professionals must strive to create a feeling of belonging and community within the classroom for all children, lest some children begin a long life of exclusion. This book also successfully argues that a system-wide shift necessarily begins with a change in perspective. Here is our favorite: classroom management is not a technical or a mechanical skill; it is deeply relational, human work (p. 172).
Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2001). Early teacher-child relationships and the trajectory of children's school outcomes through eighth grade. Child Development, 72(2), 625-638.
Mashburn, A. J., & Pianta, R. C. (2006). Social relationships and school readiness. Early Education and Development, 17(1), 151-176.
McClelland, M. M., Geldhof, G. J., Cameron, C. E., & Wanless, S. B. (2015). Development and self-regulation. In W. F. Overton & P. C. M. Molenaar (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science (7th ed., Vol. 1: Theory and Method). New York, NY: Wiley.
Williford, A. P., LoCasale-Crouch, J., Whittaker, J. V., DeCoster, J., Hartz, K. A., Carter, L. M., & Hatfield, B. E. (2016). Changing teacherchild dyadic interactions to improve preschool children's externalizing behaviors. Child Development, 88(5), 1544-1553.