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A Cycle of Conflict in the Classroom

James, a student in Diane Newton’s kindergarten class, begins his educational experience by kicking the teacher. Connie, Mitchell Elementary’s school counselor, struggles to deflate the escalating conflict when Diane demands that James be placed in a classroom for students with emotional disabilities.


Connie had been a school guidance counselor for six years, five of which were spent at Mitchell Elementary, a school with a large population of special education students. Before becoming a counselor, Connie had been a special education teacher herself, so she could relate to that experience very well. She often helped the teachers deal with difficulties they were having with students. The teachers found her support very useful and often came to her for advice. Six weeks into the new school year, Connie was growing increasingly concerned about one of the students in Diane Newton’s kindergarden class for students with disabilities.

This was five-year-old James’s first year at Mitchell. He had been placed in Diane’s class after being diagnosed with a communication disorder. James was an attractive child but had some difficulty attaching to people. He was affectionate at times, but it was usually best to allow him to initiate contact. When James was unhappy he was known to act out and on occasion he would even bite. Early in the school year James had kicked Diane, beginning a bumpy road for both of them.

Connie had observed the incident between Diane and James. She saw Diane with her hands firmly placed on James’s shoulders shoving him down into his chair. James responded by kicking Diane in the leg. Diane then sent him out of the room. When questioned about the incident, Diane said, "I had asked James to sit down and he refused. I had to do something."

Connie helped Diane with some general behavior management tips. "Be mindful that your directions are clear and as brief as possible. Also, keep in mind that we are talking about James here. You know he doesn’t like to be touched. Be very conscious of invading his personal space." Diane nodded in agreement.

Although Diane seemed to listen and agree with Connie’s suggestions, her method of dealing with James did not change over the next few weeks. Connie was even concerned that Diane might hurt James when she observed Diane sitting him down in a chair so forcefully that his head nearly hit a brick wall.

Diane appeared at Connie’s office door shortly after the incident visibly shaken. Connie listened intently as Diane explained; "I don’t know what to do with James. I have tried your suggestions but they just don’t work with him. I have always been so successful with all of my students in the past, even the challenging ones. It really bothers me that I’m not successful with James."

"Why don’t I stop in to observe your classroom tomorrow? I’m sure we can come up with some ideas," Connie offered.

"Okay, Connie, but make it in the morning if you can. I’m at my wit’s end with that kid! Maybe he doesn’t belong in my class at all. I’m beginning to think that we should refer him to the class for students with emotional disabilities over at Smith Elementary." Diane left Connie’s office in a rush to get back to her class.

After Diane left the office, Connie reflected on what had just transpired. She suspected that Diane was as much to blame as James was for his acts of aggression because her responses escalated his behavior. "Diane is an experienced special education teacher. She has worked successfully with a number of children with different disabilities. However, she has never worked with children labeled emotionally handicapped," Connie reminded herself as she considered the situation. "I know that Diane is a good teacher, but I have some real concerns about the ethics of the behavior management techniques she is using with James."

The next morning, Connie went to Diane’s classroom to observe. After an hour, the class went to physical education giving Connie and Diane a chance to talk. Connie suggested that if James was given choices rather than directives he might respond more positively. She also recommended that when James became visibly frustrated with an activity, Diane might respond by redirecting his attention to something else for a while. "A brief change of focus might be a helpful strategy to use with James as a means of defusing his frustration," Connie advised. She finished the conversation by assuring Diane that she would be available to help at any time.

Diane agreed to try the suggestions, but that afternoon Connie overheard her informing the principal of another confrontation.

"I want you to know that he just hit me again," Diane said sternly and proceeded to describe the incident blow by blow.

Connie cringed when the principal called her into her office. "We are sending James home until he can be placed into an EH classroom," Ms. Knight said. "I have put in an emergency call to our special education coordinator, and a meeting will be scheduled as soon as possible to discuss the procedures we need to follow."

Connie was concerned. Experience had taught her that once an EH label was applied to a student, it was seldom removed. She also worried that James’s parents were already too harsh with him and might see this as validation for their harshness. To make matters worse, placing James in a classroom for children with emotional handicaps would mean a transfer to another school because there wasn’t an EH classroom at Mitchell.

"It will be very difficult for James to start over in a new school with new people," Connie advised Ms. Knight. She then shared her views regarding the dynamics of the conflict that she had observed between Diane and James.

"I respect your opinion," Ms. Knight said after listening to Connie’s concerns. "Do you think there are better options for deescalating this situation?"

"I don’t think you should refer him to EH. In my opinion that is not an appropriate placement for James. I think it would be better to see if we can work things out here at Mitchell. After all, we’ve only been in school for six weeks and I have been trying to help Diane come up with better strategies for dealing with James’ behavior. She has been very receptive to my suggestions so far and seems committed to modifying her approach so that James will be more successful."

Ms. Knight agreed to reconsider and suggested that they meet with Ms. Alton, the diagnostician, to come up with a plan.

Later in the week, Connie, Ms. Knight, and Ms. Alton met to discuss options for James. Ms. Alton suggested that James be moved to the EH classroom not because she thought that he had an emotional disability but simply as a means of getting him out of Diane’s classroom. She shared Connie’s view that Diane was part of the problem and considered a different placement for James as the best solution.

Connie disagreed. "If we identify him as EH and place him in a special class, he will have to leave familiar surroundings and go through another adjustment. It just doesn’t seem fair to penalize him because his teacher has difficulty connecting with him. We know that he has a communication disorder that makes it difficult for him to express his needs. I think that is why he is so frustrated and acts out."

The group decided that they would keep James in his classroom and implement additional changes to support Diane while James adjusted. When Connie informed Diane of the decision, she took it as a personal affront. She was obviously disappointed that James would be staying in her classroom and not be placed in an EH program.

Over the next few weeks, Diane tried to follow the guidelines that had been suggested to her for dealing with James’s behavior. She called Connie often for assistance when she was having trouble. Unlike other teachers who called for help, Diane would proceed with teaching and managing her classroom so Connie could give her feedback. After Connie observed Diane’s class, they would meet to discuss what could be done differently. On occasions where Diane was escalating a situation, Connie would intervene and they would discuss it later. Connie suggested that Diane use less intrusive strategies, such as leaving the classroom and going for a walk with James.

Diane tried this but insisted on holding James’s hand, which made him uncomfortable. On occasion, she would even hold his wrist and drag him out of the room. Diane sometimes insisted that James face with her while she held his hands in front of him. He would, in turn, attempt to scratch or pinch her. Even after Connie pointed out that James perceived such physical contact as a threat, Diane continued the approach.

Then, one afternoon in the media center, Connie observed Diane sitting directly behind James while a story was being read. Anticipating that he was going to misbehave, Diane was again, unintentionally, in James’ space. Sure enough, as if on cue, James turned around and scratched her.

Connie felt that James was being "set up" time and time again. It became increasingly clear to Connie that when James turned physical, the situation was initiated by Diane. Diane seemed to be getting increasingly angry and frustrated. Something needed to be done to protect James from being scapegoated.


Discussion/Study Questions


  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?


Additional Questions

  1. Do you think Connie’s method of consulting with Diane was effective?
  2. Why do you think Connie is getting so frustrated with James? Do you think that she is aware of her contribution to the cycle of conflict?
  3. What do you think Diane’s perception of the situation would be?
  4. Is it realistic to think that a teacher will be able to connect with every student?
  5. Do you think that James should be placed in an EH classroom? Why or why not?
  6. What are Connie’s ethical responsibilities in this situation? Do you think she met those responsibilities?
  7. If you were in this situation how would you approach Diane and facilitate a resolution?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Ethical considerations inherent in classroom behavior management.

Teacher attitudes and behaviors that positively or negatively influence student behavior.

Other Areas

Issues in definition and identification procedures for individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Educational implications of characteristics of various exceptionalities.


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