Disruptive Children: Are Drugging and Dismissing Them Our Only Options?

In this educational era, resonating with appeals for standards and standardization, driven by the requirements of accountability and evaluation, the words, metaphors, and images that come to our minds and haunt our public consciousness carry just the opposite meaning: they speak of uniformity and conformity, management and control, of achievement and success as measured by narrow assessment tools and remote, quantifiable metrics. They tend to be blind to, and mute about, those powerful dimensions of classroom life that are shaped through intimate relationships, through community building, through honoring the rich variations and differences among us. They do not recognize or appreciate that education is a complex human enterprise requiring creativity and imagination, heart, mind, and soul, struggle and suffering, grit and grace. In our efforts to control and measure, in fact, we often confuse difference with deviance, illness with identity; we pathologize, exclude, and then label those children who do not fit the norm – who trouble the waters, who misbehave – and we reward the teachers who contain and squelch the troublemakers.

These words are from the foreword, written by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, to a heartbreaking book called Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School, by Carla Shalaby.

The book is painful to read…but I believe it’s important that every educator tackle it. Shalaby, an educator herself, tells the story of four six- and seven-year-old students, whom she observed both in school and at home. She chose these four children by asking teachers to identify those students who presented the most challenging behaviors in their classrooms. She writes:

In my countless visits to classrooms over the last decade, I have witnessed these troublemaking children being punished with regularity – reprimanded, detained, isolated, removed. They are not described as leaders, as children from whom we might learn. Instead, the descriptions are invariably disparaging: angry, damaged, disturbed, out of control, impossible. Justifications for their daily mistreatment are made on the basis of their own alleged bad behavior, as if they themselves have chosen to be treated as less than fully human in school. Thus, they are held personally accountable for the assaults to their personhood that they endure daily in our schools.

Shalaby refers to these children as miners’ canaries – because she sees their disruptions as “a signal cry…that there is poison in our shared air.” It is a disturbing and painful comparison but, I’m afraid, an accurate one. Shalaby points to the “toxic social and cultural conditions of schools” and hopes that by shedding light on the stories of these “troublemakers” educators and parents will look to clean the air, rather than forcing children to tolerate the poison.

I must say that the teachers of the four children profiled in this book were in many ways good teachers. But even they failed these children – in large part because our education system is not set up to support children who refuse to comply with attempts to control and change them. Given the right environment, they might well become the artists, innovators, and leaders among us. We’ll never know the magnitude of the potential lost, as children with strong, independent characters are either drugged or dismissed.

Troublemakers brings to mind two sayings that periodically make the rounds on social media:

If kids aren’t learning the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.


Instead of preparing kids for school we should be preparing schools for kids.

Why are we putting systems and institutions above the needs of our children? We proclaim that we value children above all else, but I see too little evidence of that in the decisions that have been made, and continue to be made, on their “behalf.”

As Shalaby writes at the conclusion of her book:

We need all raise our voices in fierce resistance to throwaway lives, so the burden to sing freedom does not rest alone on the shoulders of our children.


  • Hello Rae Pica, and thank you for bringing the publication to our attention. I know from my sister-in-law who teaches in New York, and what happens in Ireland, that due to the reduced teacher and assistant ratio per students, play time has been curtailed. I believe this is crucial when looking at children who are called disruptive and then gain a reputation which follows them through their school career. All children need THREE hours of free play every day. Outside in the yard, the park, no matter the weather. Parents MUST take up the slack, take up their responsibility. A child CANNOT concentrate in class, especially boys, if they haven’t run themselves ragged during a break and worked off all their excess energy. This is not just common sense – there is mounting evidence of the negative mental health and education deficits for children who do not get enough unstructured physical exercise. The constrained lives most children now seem to lead, makes it difficult for them to have time to play freely, getting muddy, discovering Nature, and their own bodies, minds, and imaginations. Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci were always in trouble for ‘daydreaming’ in class! Could we please move away from an obsessive, bureaucratic-led, society to one where we cherish all our children equally. Dr Montessori knew children learn what they need to learn when they need it. That cannot be put in tick boxes, that knowledge is not collectable. Teachers don’t have the time and numbers to work one-to-one with every child in the classroom. They are plagued by a requirement for tests, results, marks, endless reports, especially for year end. My sister-in-law spends more time on these than she does on preparing work for the classroom. This is CRAZY! These so-called disruptive children are behaving naturally, according to their physical needs. Would someone in charge of these matters please read the data, learn that squashing a child doesn’t work, drugging a child as a control mechanism is an abuse. This is a matter of great importance to me and I get very angry indeed. I scream in my mind when I hear of this prostriptive method of classroom containment. This has nothing to do with Learning, and absolutely nothing to do with Education. People are leaving teaching in droves because they cannot support the uber-bureaucratic tendencies – of course, these are the very teachers we would wish to retain. Children’s lives are being ruined by the system that is supposed to support them. Are they heading for an orange jumpsuit because they were let down from their earliest days in school?

    • Rae says:

      Ah, Iseault, we are indeed kindred spirits. I too get really angry and do a lot of screaming in my mind. And I completely agree that many behavior problems are the result of not letting children play and move! We are asking children to stop being children — which, to me, is like asking the color yellow to stop being yellow!

      The points I made in my piece on school shootings apply here as well. What we are doing to children in the name of education is inexplicable and unacceptable.

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