Teaching Children Who Are Hard to Reach: Relationship-Driven Classroom Practice


Michael J. Marlowe & Torey Hayden

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    Preface by Mike Marlowe

    This is a text for future and current teachers of children who are resistant or hard to reach. Its focus is the philosophy, classroom practice, and teacher stories of Torey Hayden, a teacher of children with emotional and behavioral disorders, coauthor of this book, and author of eight books chronicling her day-to-day work in special education and child psychology. Hayden's first book was One Child (1980), the story of Sheila, a silent troubled girl, who had tied a 3-year-old boy to a tree and critically burned him. One Child was followed by Somebody Else's Kids (1982), Murphy's Boy (1983), Just Another Kid (1986), Ghost Girl (1992), The Tiger's Child (1995), the sequel to One Child, Beautiful Child (2002), and Twilight Children (2006).

    All of Hayden's books are particularly helpful for understanding relationships. Her stories stress the interpersonal dynamics and emotional connections involved in working with resistant children and emphasize relationship skills, intuition, and the social milieu in changing children's behavior. Both new and long-term teachers need the perspective Hayden provides in her stories of classroom life.

    This book reflects the growing interest in teacher education in building theories from successful practice rather than just trying to put theory into practice. There is increased recognition of the authority that derives from expert teachers' careful examination of real-life classroom events and the complexities of what it means to teach children. And there are signs of a renewed respect for the importance of practice expertise in building a knowledge base of teaching (Cook, 2012). Without turning to the work of reflective practitioners and their grounded knowledge, our understandings of what it means to teach children remain disconnected from the real world.

    I first became aware of Torey, as her students call her in her stories, in 1992 when examining books for possible adoption as texts in a university course on the education of emotionally disturbed children. The last page of a paperback had an advertisement for Torey's books with the hyperbolic tag line “The World Needs More Like Torey Hayden.” Beneath the ad was a coupon for ordering the books of this proclaimed “miracle worker.” Curious, I put it in the mail.

    What drew me to her work was the difference in her approach, as backdrop to her stories, to emotionally disturbed children in contrast to the primary approaches today. Current American research shows that classrooms for emotional and behavioral disorders in the public schools today rely on heavy use of behavior modification programs, which seem primarily aimed at achieving obedience. These classrooms have been described as curriculums of control, and they are widely viewed as ineffective. Here was a viable alternative, an approach that centered on relationships and appropriate social interaction and caring in a very real way.

    I was also drawn to Torey's work by how her writing accurately portrays what it feels like to work with children, transporting me back to when I taught in classrooms for emotional and behavioral disorders in the public schools of Indiana and Kentucky. Here was a kindred spirit, as she articulated the feelings I had experienced—compassion and anger, joy and sadness, and enthusiasm and frustration. Her stories evoked thoughts, feelings, purposes, images, and aspirations not contained in the research bound texts I normally assigned in teacher education, so taking a new direction, I adopted three of her books.

    This proved to be a popular decision with the students. They sensed the excitement of a writer who was there before they were and writes it like it really is. End-of-course student evaluations of the books were superb (e.g., “A wonderful learning source”; “I'm now a member of the Torey Hayden fan club”; “When in doubt I ask myself, what would Torey have done?”). Vicariously, students saw themselves in Torey's classroom stories; they imagined new possibilities for their own teaching.

    Two decades later, I continue to use Torey's stories in teacher education and in doing so have distilled from them an approach to educating children with emotional and behavioral disorders, which could be termed the relationship-driven classroom. The crucial foundations of a relationship-driven classroom are the individual relationships between the teacher and the child and those among the children and the group or unit relationship. What sets the relationship-driven methodology apart from other methodologies is its active use of interpersonal relationships as a means of change.

    The importance of relationship became apparent to Torey when she was a college student and took on work as an aide in a preschool program for disadvantaged children (Hayden, 2002). Torey had been given responsibility for Mary, a 4-year-old, who did not speak, was afraid of men, and spent the whole time hiding underneath a piano. Torey's charge was to get the girl to come out. The director did not tell Torey how to do that or what to do.

    Torey began her relationship with Mary by lying under the piano with her and carrying on a long, very one-sided monologue while she just watched. When Torey ran out of things to talk about, she started reading to her. It took months to achieve a relationship with Mary and get her to speak again, but it did happen, and the connection between its happening and the long hours Torey spent apparently doing nothing more than spending time with her was not lost on Torey.

    A second experience soon followed reaffirming the importance of relationship (Hayden, 2005). As a graduate student in special education, Torey devised a small research project in learning disabilities. She divided children with identified learning disabilities and poor reading performance into three groups. In the first group, children were paired with trained tutors who used the most up-to-date learning-modality-based methods to help them improve their reading; in the second group, children were paired with an untrained college student who simply read books, magazines, and comic books to them; and the third group was a control group who had no special interventions. The tutors/college students met their children twice a week for half an hour, and the project ran for 6 months.

    At the end of six months, both treatment groups had made statistically significant improvements in reading. Both groups improved whether the children were being actively taught or whether they were simply listening to an adult read. Torey's conclusion from this was not that we don't need to actively teach children to read but that the significant influence was human interaction, rather than the method used. The results of the study spoke of how much it matters to us that someone else is willing to take the time to be with us, that our problems tend to improve simply by being with people who pay positive attention to us.

    Source: The previous three paragraphs are based on material in Twilight Children by Torey Hayden. Copyright © 2005. Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

    These insights into the power of relationships shaped Torey's approach to teaching children in classrooms for emotional and behavioral disorders. Her focus is on human interactive concerns rather than methodological concerns. There is no best method strategy. She thinks about the child, not the model. She reasons and reflects on a case-by-case basis. Her practice is derived directly from experience, using relationship as a process. She asks, “Who is this child? And what affirmations and experiences does she need to make her more humane and strong enough to survive?”

    Objectives of the Book

    The book's purpose is to describe the philosophical principles that underpin relationships as a means of change and present the teacher skills and concepts fundamental to creating and maintaining a relationship-driven classroom. Hopefully, teachers will not only gain insight into how to implement a relationship-driven classroom but also become more reflective about the meaning of teaching and learning with at-risk children and grow and change, both professionally and personally.

    It is not just teachers of special education, however, that we seek to engage with this book. The majority of students identified as emotionally or behaviorally disordered spend at least a portion of the school day in regular classrooms, and such children form a substantial portion of the school population. Federal child-count data reported annually by states confirms that in 2003 to 2004, there were approximately one-half million students identified as having a serious emotional disturbance or about 1% of the school-age population (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). But many experts claim that emotionally disturbed children are grossly underidentified. They estimate between 3% and 5% would be more accurate. Mental health epidemiological studies suggest even higher rates (Kauffman … Landrum, 2009).

    The behavioral, social, and emotional difficulties of the students in Torey's books are variations of the same persistent problems that many general education teachers experience with their most difficult students. The knowledge and practice of a relationship-driven methodology will be useful to general education teachers in their efforts to understand and teach students who are resistant or hard to reach.

    Most teachers strive to make emotional connections with their students. However, making this a priority can be difficult since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the demand for higher state test scores and accountability. High stakes tests are not likely to go away, and a relationship-driven classroom promotes both emotional connections and learning. We know that students are more likely to attend school and excel when they feel like they belong. Feelings of connection lead to greater effort, greater persistence, and positive attitudes. Feelings of rejection have the opposite effects.

    Outline of the Book

    Chapter 1, “The Relationship-Driven Classroom,” describes the relationship-driven classroom model and how it differs from the three most common approaches to childhood behavioral problems: the behavioral model, the market or business model, and the medical model.

    Chapter 2, “Relationships as a Means of Change: Goal Versus Process Orientation,” describes how relationships are a process, not a goal, and how process orientation—the ability to focus and work in the present—is at the core of a relationship- driven model of treatment and management of emotional and behavioral disorders.

    Chapter 3, “Teacher Skills Needed to Develop a Relationship-Driven Classroom,” describes the social skills needed to create strong and healthy bonds necessary for effectively using relationships as a medium of behavioral change and the philosophical principles which underpin and inform all action taken in a relationship-driven classroom.

    Chapter 4, “Discipline,” describes laying the ground rules for a relationship-driven classroom, how to respond when misbehavior happens, and how in a relationship-driven classroom consequences are not the only appropriate responses to discipline and control.

    Chapter 5, “Positive Classroom Climate,” describes how one builds into a structured routine the opportunities for joy and enthusiasm, expression of feelings, stress reduction and relaxation skills, and communication.

    Chapter 6, “Teaching Relationship Skills to Children,” describes the importance of actively teaching relationship skills to troubled children, who often need direct and active help in developing these skills to a useful level.

    Chapter 7, “Developing Teacher-Student Relationships,” describes the importance of teacher-student relationships and teachers acting as functional adults while showing their warm and friendly side.

    Chapter 8, “Successful Peer Relationships,” describes how the teaching of the social skills children need to make and keep friends and to be a valued member of group are built directly into the curriculum.

    Chapter 9, “Successful Group Dynamics,” describes five strategies to strengthen the classroom group: concrete identification, deemphasizing comparisons, group responsibility, group problem solving, and group celebrations.

    Chapter 10, “The Future,” discusses the implications of a paradigm shift for teaching resistant children, away from control models, toward a relationship-driven orientation.

    Preface by Torey Hayden

    Mike Marlowe and I met in a serendipitous way. It was 1998, and the Internet was just finding its feet. A friend at work mentioned to me that the night before she had been playing around with Alta Vista, then the most sophisticated search engine, and had put in my name. Following the links, she came across a message board for a university she'd never heard of, but there were a lot of my fans there, discussing my books.

    Curious, I went home and did what we all do at some time or another on the Internet—put my own name in to see what was there. I found the message board my friend had been talking about. It belonged to Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina and had been put up by a professor of reading in the Department of Reading Education and Special Education named Dr. Gary Moorman. He'd created the forum for his students to discuss course work, and in this instance, they were talking about books that had inspired them to become readers. Someone mentioned one of my books.

    The eerie aspect of the Internet took over at that point, because, of course, while such web pages often feel like local, private corners of the universe, the truth is, one never knows who's happened across it. Readers of my books from Sweden, France, and Japan, as well as other parts of the United States, started joining in with questions and comments, and soon they had monopolized the message board. By the time I came across it, both the course topics and the university students for whom the message board was created had long since been squeezed out.

    While it was good fun reading the lively discussions, I was embarrassed to be inadvertently responsible for swamping some university professor's efforts to go about his academic business. Seeing an e-mail link at the bottom of the page, I sent a few lines to Dr. Moorman and apologized for what had happened to his forum. He wrote back, bemused. He had, in fact, forgotten all about the web page. He'd set it up for a class the year before. The course was long since finished, the students departed, and he'd simply neglected to take it down. That it was now so active with my fans was as big a surprise to him as to me.

    At the end of his e-mail, almost as a postscript, Dr. Moorman said, “We have someone here at the university who will be very interested to hear I've received an e-mail from you. He's a professor in special education, and he's written four research papers based on your books.”

    That was my introduction to Michael Marlowe, that e-mail response from his colleague to my apology for having accidentally filched his internet space. Since that unexpected start, Dr. Marlowe and I have had many discussions about educational methods, trends, and philosophies, both in the teaching of teachers at the university level and in the special education classroom itself. These discussions finally culminated in a two- day conference in March 2005 at Appalachian State University wherein I talked about how my real-life classrooms had been set up and shared video footage of my work and various examples of my students' work.

    I am humbled that Michael Marlowe has given my books such a meaningful application in the field and pleased he has been able to show the efficacy of using these kinds of stories in teacher training. However, I wish to avoid imbuing my books in hindsight with a gravitas they do not have. They are not and never were academic or biographical records. They are narrative nonfiction, written for people who have had little experience of special education and with the sole intention of sharing what I found to be an extraordinary world.

    Narrative nonfiction is a subjective story based on true events, unlike academic, biographical, and autobiographical work, which are literal and hopefully objective records of events. What this means in regards to my books is that while the stories are based on real experiences, they are told from my perspective. It also means that in the process of telling the stories, I alter names, dates, chronological order, and location. I also reconstruct dialogue and details, and, occasionally, I composite characters. As a consequence, this means I too become a composite character in the books.

    There were several important reasons for choosing to write the accounts this way, as opposed to straight autobiography. Some are philosophical. I wanted to open up what was then, more than 35 years ago, a very hidden world. Friends and acquaintances had reacted with surprise and occasionally horror to my decision to work in special education, and I was often asked why I wanted to “waste my talents” on defective, rejected children who would never amount to much. My first books were written in response to this comment. I endeavored to open this world up and give wider access to some genuinely very beautiful people by writing in an accessible, narrative fashion. Later books were more issue oriented. Choosing incidents from my own experience, I attempted to exemplify the challenges and complexities surrounding certain topics in a way to which general audiences could relate. For example, I wrote Ghost Girl in the mid-1980s, when false memory syndrome, satanic cults, and such were at their height, because I wanted to illustrate just how hard it is for professionals to make an accurate assessment of a child's behavior and how easily cultural influences can skew our interpretation. I wrote Beautiful Child because I wanted to show just how easy it is even for caring and involved professionals to miss child abuse.

    Another reason for choosing to write narrative nonfiction is that it makes the legal issues more straightforward to deal with. While it has been my practice to get signed consents and to give main characters the option to proof my manuscripts, the fact remains that some people do not want to be portrayed and refuse permission. There are also complex legal issues related to writing about minors. Narrative nonfiction allows people to be left out of the account entirely, when necessary, and the story reconstructed around them.

    In other instances, people will give their consent to be portrayed but only if they are not in any way identifiable. As events in the stories occasionally render everyone directly involved easily identifiable, it is then necessary to composite characters in order to meet this legal requirement.

    The other major reason for choosing to write narrative nonfiction instead of autobiographical nonfiction is the ethical consideration surrounding this kind of story. When one is hired as a teacher, there is an implicit expectation of confidentiality about what happens in the classroom. This is particularly important because the majority of those involved are children and not capable of giving informed consent. In this era of reality television and celebrity gossip, we're no longer clear about what constitutes privacy and what constitutes exploitation, but as someone in a position of trust, it is important to be very respectful of these boundaries.

    In addition, while I present the classroom experiences as my perspective of what happened, and this thereby gives me some degree of ownership of these events, the fact remains that unlike stories in the pain memoir genre, I am not writing about my own abuse, emotional distress, or affliction. My stories are about other people's suffering. It is a very fine line between sharing worthwhile experiences for the greater good and exploiting others for personal gain, and I do not want to cross over it.

    A further ethical consideration is the ongoing impact of the books. I worked with vulnerable children in public school situations. These children had no choice about being in my care nor about being taught by me. Several were still minors when I wrote the books that included them, so they were still incapable of signing informed consents for themselves and had no real choice about whether they appeared in my stories. Many of the events in the books are of a highly personal nature and often related to significant suffering. In real life people grow, change, and move on. We acquire new ways of coping; we outgrow childish behaviors; we gain insight; we learn how to move past painful experiences; and consequently, we progressively mature into different people. This doesn't happen to characters in books, however. They are permanently trapped in their 300- page worlds, their experiences as new and raw as when they happened. It is common—and normal—for a new reader to feel as if the events in the story have just taken place, because to him or her, they have. Readers typically react as if the people in my books are personally known to them because they themselves have been personally affected. So it is necessary to provide a protective space around the 6-year-old character in a book so that readers' enthusiasm does not unintentionally wound the 40-year-old person she's become.

    The other important distinction between narrative nonfiction and academic nonfiction is that ultimately it makes me more a storyteller than an educator. I did not write any of the books to illustrate my prowess at teaching, to give a literal blueprint of my experiences, or to suggest that I have special techniques that others should follow. My formal career as an educator was only 12 years long, whereas my formal career as a writer has spanned more than 30 years. While I like to think that I was a good teacher during my time in the classroom, and I also like to think that my teaching career continues to this day in the larger classroom-without-walls of my readership, there are many, many teachers out there who are as talented or more talented at teaching than I am. I know. I've seen them at work. The real difference between them and me is that I can write. That is my true gift, that ability to bring an audience with me and let them experience what I experience. It is crucial readers of this book are able to discriminate between these two skills— teaching and writing—and thereby understand that at no time do I claim special mastery. My books are just stories of life in the classroom. There are millions of classrooms out there, millions of earnest, committed teachers working in them. The only thing that really distinguishes me is that I have a voice.

    Dr. Marlowe has done a remarkable job of distilling a consistent methodology from my stories. He, however, is the true architect of this approach. I am both astonished and humbled that he could see what gave me heart so clearly and create from it a substantial, verifiable process. I am honored to be part of this process and hope that with it we can in some small way signpost a viable path through a complex and often disturbing world.


    Corwin wishes to acknowledge the following pee reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance:

    • Carla Bluhm
    • Assistant Professor
    • College of Coastal Georgia
    • Brunswick, GA
    • Tara Howell
    • AP Environmental Science/Earth Science Teacher
    • GATE Team Leader
    • Science Department Chair
    • University City High School
    • San Diego, CA
    • Sharon Jefferies
    • Teacher, Third Grade
    • Lakeville Elementary
    • Apopka, FL

    About the Authors

    Michael J. Marlowe is a professor of special education at Appalachian State University in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. He has also taught special education at the University of Wyoming and Tennessee Technological University. He specializes in coursework in emotional and behavioral disorders and classroom management.

    Prior to university teaching, Mike taught children in classrooms for emotional and behavioral problems in the public schools of Indiana and Kentucky.

    Mike has published extensively and presented at national and international conferences on Torey Hayden's approach to teaching children with emotional and behavioral problems. Mike and his artist wife Susan have three children, who all live far away: Auckland, New Zealand; Los Angeles; and Denver. He enjoys nature, hiking with his yellow lab, Gracie, and an occasional round of golf. Questions or comments can be directed to marlowemj@appstate.edu.

    Born in Montana, Torey Hayden has spent most of her adult life working with children in distress. Starting out as a special education teacher for children with emotional difficulties, she latterly moved into research and therapeutic intervention, specializing in psychogenic language disorders. Now living in Great Britain, she provides counseling and advice services for several child-oriented charities.

    Torey is the author of several internationally best-selling books about her experiences as a teacher and a therapist, such as One Child, Ghost Girl, and Just Another Kid. She also has written three novels and The Very Worst Thing, a story for 8- to 12-year-olds.

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