Case Study No.4

Solving students’ conflicts using a strength-based approach

Belgium

UNIVERSITY OF LEUVEN – LIMBURG (UCLL)

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Key words

 Migrants, male, disruptive behaviour, education, truancy, career, guidance

School involved

Secondary Education, Vocational School Path:  office administration

Detailed description of the situation

The school is situated in a multicultural and impoverished neighbourhood in a large Belgian city.  The City Council sees the neighbourhood as one of its most problematic. Young people, who grew up in the neighbourhood, rarely leave it and, often, refuse to go to a school that is located physically and figuratively ‘outside of their comfort zone’, even when the school offers a study path that better fits with their strengths and interests.

 

This case study is about Youssef, a male adolescent (16 years old) with Moroccan roots.  He attends a vocational school and follows the study path in “office administration”.  He says that he chose this study path because ‘it’s the easiest, with the least amount of work.’  Next to study, Youssef plays football at a local football club. He trains two days a week and plays one match during the weekends.  

The club plays in the middle level competition; sometimes the better clubs will scout during their matches in order to find good players to move up to their teams. Like many football players of his age, Youssef dreams that one day he will be selected by a better club.  When he was 12 years old, his trainer once told him that if he worked hard, he might one day become a great player. 

Because Youssef is banking everything on football, school doesn’t interest him. He feels that he needs to be rested before training and prefers to sleep in, arriving late at school, when he comes at all.  He chose ‘office administration’, because he is still school-age and ‘has to’. He never does his homework and makes life difficult for some of his teachers with his disruptive behaviour. He intervenes in the conflicts of other students in order to gain attention and is able to manipulate the entire class to go against the teachers.  

 

Youssef’s case is followed up by internal guidance counsellors. After the consequences of a very difficult day, where he was consecutively sanctioned by three teachers and sent to the guidance counsellor, the school decided that he should receive a ‘support card’. This means that in the future, he will be monitored more closely and will be given less autonomy. For example, students who receive a ‘support card’ need to get a signature from every teacher at the end of each lesson.  The sanctioned students are encouraged to show positive behaviour in the class.  When they refuse to do so, they can be suspended or receive more intensive instruction outside of school.   

The school follows a programme where both the guidance counsellors and teachers are trained in valuing the strengths of students and in incorporating them in the student’s learning process.

What would you do in a similar situation? 

Share your ideas and suggestions on TEACHmi online Forum!

Here are few questions for self-reflection:

  • Can you think of a situation where a student’s negative behaviour prevented him/her learning?

  • What strengths can you potentially see in this (negative) behaviour?

  • Are there any interested parties outside the school, who can potentially help the young person to see things from a different perspective and help them to open up to learning? 

  • How is it possible for young people, based on the strengths of their negative behaviour, to use them (more) positively?

  • What does this new learning process look like from the perspective of the implicated young person, their classmates and their teachers? Are there any possibilities to create a space to fail?  

  • Which initiatives are necessary to provide the young person with a new longer-term perspective?

Initial reaction

After the abovementioned day, Youssef is sent to the school guidance counsellor.  She compares Youssef’s attitude at school with his football trainings: he manages to arrive on time, he always brings what he needs, he is able to listen to the trainer’s instructions, even with football exercises that he doesn’t like to do. Youssef agrees, but it doesn’t really sink in.  The counsellor asks him to ‘do the same in school’.  

She tries to motivate him to look at his behaviour at school from the perspective of football and writes on his support card that from now on, he will make sure that he cooperates in school.  

At first glance, and from the perspective of working with students’ strengths, it seems that the guidance counsellor is using Youssef’s strengths in football to motivate him in school.  But in reality, she is not doing this. In fact, she is mapping out what the school needs in order for him to adapt his behaviour. 

During their meeting, he was rarely given the opportunity to speak and to be heard. His understanding of the conflicts in school and the reasons for his nonchalance with school work was actually not discussed. The school counsellor believes that he should ‘already know’ all that, given the previous discussions. Next week, Youssef is once again sent to the school guidance counsellor, because he has accumulated too many negative reactions from his teachers on his support card.

Suggested solution

Based on a discussion with an external support counsellor, two new initiatives are taken:

1. The school contacts the football trainer to speak to Youssef.  Teachers would like to know: 

  • Does Youssef really have a chance to become a professional football player? 

  • How does Youssef behave during football trainings? As a football trainer, what strengths do you see in Youssef?   

2. The school organizes a new meeting with Youssef. The school counsellor will now attempt to map Youssef’s strengths based on his negative behaviour in class and in connection with what he does during football trainings.   

The football trainer lets the school know that Youssef is a very trustworthy and loyal player. He’s able to motivate the team, especially when things are down. As to the question whether Youssef has the chance to become a professional, the trainer responds clearly: “No, he is not strong or talented enough”. 

The counsellor says that Youssef thinks that he can have a professional career based on what the trainer told earlier. The trainer remembers when he told him that, but one uses another form of motivation with a 12- year-old than with a 16-year-old. It’s agreed that they will speak openly to Youssef about the problem. In that way, the trainer will be able to speak to Youssef about his behaviour at school without needing to make a judgement or give him the impression that they are speaking ‘behind his back’.  

A new meeting is called with Youssef. Youssef explains that he really has a problem with teachers when they are unreasonable with students who make mistakes. He starts to feel really angry and has difficulties to control himself. That explains why with some teachers he is ‘difficult’, while with others he is not.  

The counsellor notes that this is one of his strengths:  he has an ability to stand up for his peer, who he feels are unjustly treated, as well as to motivate other students. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, he is now using those strengths to prevent the teacher from continuing with the lesson. Now, the counsellor connects his behaviour in the lessons with football training.  This time Youssef is able to see the parallels.  

Talking about his future, Youssef tells her that he was very affected by what the trainer told him, but he had already anticipated it. Based on his negative, but especially positive, behaviour in football as in school, together, they begin to map out his strengths. They come to the conclusion that a more ‘social study path’ would suit him better for what he would like to become. 

In the short term, the support card is totally re-evaluated.  Youssef is asked to defend the other students when that is really necessary, but it must now happen in three steps:

  1.  He informs the teacher that he does not agree with their behaviour and then asks the teacher to speak with him about it at another time.  

  2. After the lesson, he checks with the affected student about how they estimate the teacher’s reaction. With this information, he can go to the teacher (and eventually to other students) to discuss it. The condition is that he himself must be able to propose an attainable solution (one of his other strengths is his verbal abilities that he, until now, has only used negatively).  

  3. He calls a meeting with the teacher in order to calmly discuss the situation.  

With respect to his incomplete tasks, it’s been agreed that Youssef will first get two weeks of time to think about his future and whether he would now like to continue in this school. If he chooses for another study path, then, it will be determined for which courses he needs to put in more effort and for which courses he can do less in function of the new possible study path.  

The guidance counsellor now limits the support card to the teachers who are involved in the case.  She explains her analysis and asks for their assistance. She also requests some time for Youssef to ‘practice’ the new rules. When it doesn’t work this time, it means that Youssef hasn’t been able to gain control over his emotions.  That is an area on which he will need to work.  

After this discussion, Youssef’s behaviour fundamentally changes.  The number of conflicts in the classroom are dramatically reduced and, with respect to his peers, Youssef positions himself as a motivator and mediator.  

Youssef decides to continue with the same programme.  He sees a future in eventually starting a little business.  The counsellor helps him to put this in perspective and in subsequent talks, if this is really his dream, she motivates him – after completing his ‘office studies’ – to continue with further studies.  Thanks to his changed behaviour and attitude, he’s able to find a good internship.  He completes the year with strongly improved results for all courses and is able to catch up with the delay in other courses.

Why is this case-study relevant?

This case study clearly shows that sometimes a student and a school have very different understandings of the future.  When a school chooses for a more open and transparent approach with all of those involved, there is more of an opportunity that the student will be able to correct his or her own behaviour accordingly.  For that reason, it’s really important for youth, but also teachers, to see and acknowledge the potential strengths of their negative behaviour.