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Employment of Repeated Narrative Writing by a Teacher in Coping with Social Rejection and Behavior Problems of One of Her Sixth-Grade Students

Written By

Clodie Tal and Hind Meyma

Submitted: January 30th, 2022Reviewed: February 18th, 2022Published: April 15th, 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.103796

IntechOpen
Interpersonal RelationshipsEdited by Xiaoming Jiang

From the Edited Volume

Interpersonal Relationships [Working Title]

Prof. Xiaoming Jiang

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Abstract

This study examined a teacher’s use of repeated narrative writing (RNW) based on Pennebaker’s expressive writing method to cope with emotionally loaded incidents related to social rejection and behavior problems of a sixth-grade student in Israel. An analysis of 28 narratives written by the homeroom teacher and an extended narrative written by the student herself at the end of the school year revealed that RNW helped the teacher overcome helplessness, regulate negative feelings toward the student, and form an emergent plan for coping with the student’s difficulties. The teacher’s plan included enhancement of the teacher’s relationships with the student, her peers, other teachers, the school principal, and the student’s parents. At the end of the school year, the student was better integrated in the class, learned to trust the teacher, and lean on her for support, and showed improved academic performance.

Keywords

  • repeated narrative writing
  • expressive writing
  • coping with behavior problems
  • social rejection
  • self-regulation
  • classroom management

1. Introduction

In this paper, we present repeated narrative writing (RNW) by preschool and elementary school teachers as a method for coping with difficult behavior problems in the classroom. RNW is based on the expressive writing method proposed by Smyth and Pennebaker [1, 2] for dealing with emotionally loaded events or traumas. It refers to writing that is repeated (at least four or five times) about an emotionally laden event involving a child with a behavior problem. The preschool or primary school teacher is instructed to focus on the emotional event that undermines her, for one reason or another, and to write about it however they choose, linking the narrative to individuals, feelings, or thoughts, as they arise. The teacher is instructed to write about the same event again and again each day over the course of several days, without regard to accuracy, spelling, or grammar. In the 1980s, Pennebaker and Smyth [1, 2] found that free narrative writing about an emotionally laden event that takes place on four or five occasions, day after day, or at intervals no longer than a week apart, without regard to syntax or spelling, eventually brings a sense of relief, emotional well-being, and sometimes lowers blood pressure and improves daily functioning [1, 3, 4, 5]. A more recent meta-analysis aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of expressive writing in patients suffering from advanced disease showed limited improvement in symptoms such as pain relief, anxiety, and distress. Nevertheless, Kupeli et al. [6] conclude that the findings of their review “highlight that the use of expressive writing as a therapeutic intervention in people with advanced disease is feasible but that a more tailored, focused intervention may be required in order to improve outcomes.”

Tal [7] proposed that RNW be employed to help preschool and elementary school teachers cope with difficult behavior problems, a frequent cause of concern for both veteran and novice teachers [8, 9], which often contributes to thoughts of leaving the teaching profession. Indeed, despite the range of interventions available for addressing behavior problems [10], the negative feelings felt by teachers toward children with these problems [11] often seem to undermine success.

The idea of “importing” expressive writing from therapy into the classroom is consistent with the practices of collecting and analyzing critical incidents [12, 13, 14] and journal writing [15, 16] as strategies to develop a reflective approach to educational practice. RNW and journal writing, as well as the documentation of critical incidents, are all based on the assumption that expressive writing about significant experiences, even harsh or traumatic ones, enables the writer to better understand their feelings, improve comprehension of the situation, help regulate emotions, and allow for greater understanding of how different perspectives affect educational relationships. As seen in the research of Tal and others [17], all these can lead to the formulation of educational strategies that take into consideration the feelings and thoughts of the teacher as well as a range of factors that affect the learning and emotional well-being of the students.

This self-awareness of feelings, the ability to regulate negative feelings, and the understanding of educational praxis are critical when teachers address behavior problems, particularly regarding children who are experiencing rejection by their peers.

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2. Behavior problems and social rejection

Challenging behavior has been defined as “any repeated pattern of behavior, or perception of behavior, that interferes with or is at risk of interfering with optimal learning or engagement in pro-social interactions with peers and adults” [18]. Aggressive behavior is often part of the behavior problem, and aggressiveness by students with behavior problems often leads to rejection by their peers. One should keep in mind, of course, that not all children who show aggressiveness become rejected and not all rejected children are aggressive [19].

Indeed, in the initial encounter of the teacher with the student under discussion here, behavior problems were quite evident: aggressiveness toward her classmates, chronic tardiness, vocal arguments with teachers and other students. In the course of the repeated writing about events that involved this student, it became clear to the teacher that this student was being rejected by her classmates.

Rejection is a social phenomenon in which others do not want an individual to become part of their interpersonal relations or reference groups [20]. Rejected children are those who are disliked or despised by the other children in the preschool or elementary school. This is manifested by an unwillingness to sit beside them, participate with them in activities, learn with or play with them, or generally include them. They are certainly not invited to their homes [20]. In short, rejected children are those whose peers do not want to affiliate with them.

Social rejection undermines the fundamental human need to belong, defined as the desire to form and maintain close interpersonal attachments [21]. Rejection evokes powerful feelings among those rejected—from the insult at the heart of the experience to anxiety, anger, sadness, depression, and jealousy [22]—and these often elicit powerful reactions by those rejected. There may be aggressive behavior (among the aggressive-rejected) or withdrawal and/or self-generated social isolation (among the withdrawn-rejected) [19]. In all cases, these are nonadaptive reactions that only exacerbate the situation of rejection. A vicious cycle emerges in which the aggressiveness and withdrawal distance the other children from the rejected child, who responds with more intensified aggressiveness, which continuously feeds the cycle. One must also distinguish between sporadic incidents of rejection by the child’s peers and “chronic rejection” by the cohort [23].

Furthermore, the status of social rejection seems to remain stable over time, i.e., children identified as socially rejected retained that status even 4 years later [24]. The continuity of the social rejection status can be attributed to a number of factors: the tendency of rejected children to respond vengefully and aggressively to rejection, thereby exacerbating their situation; the tendency of classmates not to allow them to improve their behavior; the tendency of teachers to ignore the rejection itself and its adverse effects on the children and instead focus on the aggressiveness.

Although teachers know that social competence in a child is important [25], many seem to value scholastic achievement more [26]. Furthermore, teachers tend to ascribe to parental influence or genetic factors more influence on the social competence of the child than the teacher’s own classroom interventions [26, 27]. Most publications that discuss rejection and interventions to foster social competence include recommendations for strategies that were not evaluated in systematic research [28].

Dealing with social rejection seems to require that the school or preschool adopt a proactive, ecological-systemic approach similar to that proposed by Olweus [29] for dealing with bullying: modifying conditions in the school so that the teachers, the uninvolved students and students involved in the rejection change their perceptions of and behavior toward the aggressive-rejected student. Importantly, one should not expect rejected students to change their behavior on their own without support and direction from the teachers.

Abraham [30] and Bierman [31] highlight the negative behavior of the peer group that contributes to and sustains the social rejection status. Indeed, they propose that the teacher focus first on the group (encouraging empathy and solidarity) and only then on changing the behavior and enhancing social competence of the rejected child. Research seems to confirm the impression that school and preschool teachers tend to ignore social rejection. Studies by Yoon and Kerber [32] suggest that teachers intervene less in cases of social rejection compared with cases of physical or verbal aggression.

The motivations of rejected children in their social interactions with their classmates are often destructive: exacting revenge, causing harm, a desire to defeat them. Clearly, their repertoire of strategies for resolving conflicts with other children is limited, e.g., hitting them or bribing them with games or candy. A rejected child’s assessment of their own social competence is not always realistic [31].

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3. Classroom management and coping with social rejection

The approach underlying the research described here is that it is not enough for teachers to work with the peer group in order to end the social rejection, but that the starting point has to be examination of the teachers’ own attitudes, perceptions, and actions that could perpetuate or even exacerbate the social rejection. This is because teachers are the “classroom managers”—responsible, together with other staff, for creating conditions to ensure the emotional well-being and learning of every single child, whether “good” students or challenging ones [33, 34]. It should be recognized that the classroom is a socially organized system in which the teachers serve as leaders; subject to their management are people (students and adults) as well as the resources of time and place [35]. Tal defined classroom management as a meta-competency, the ability to guide staff and students toward the achievement of learning goals in the classroom—emotional well-being and significant learning for all. The meta-competency of classroom management not only includes traditional leadership that takes responsibility and guides the system toward emotional well-being and good learning conditions for all the children, it also takes a proactive approach toward the system, including routinely thinking about future scenarios and making decisions in consideration of these scenarios (e.g., never dividing the class into voluntary pairs knowing that such a division in a class with rejected children would only deepen their sense of rejection when no child is willing to learn or interact with them). At the heart of the ecological-systemic approach is the understanding of relationships between people and the diverse perspectives in the classroom (e.g., understanding that ignoring the ostracism of one child, or scolding the rejected child in front of the entire class would make matters worse for that child). Thus, it is imperative for teachers to understand the balance of power in their classrooms, including their effect on it. But no matter how deep their understanding of the powers at play, including future scenarios, it is not enough. Therefore, the meta-competency of classroom management as defined by Tal [33] must also include good relations with and among the students as well as self-regulation of the teacher.

Indeed, meta-analysis studies reveal that effective moral management of classrooms in which there is good coping with behavior problems and good interpersonal relations is founded upon trust and caring about and among the students (including those who have serious behavior problems), a positive emotional climate, and a sense of joint responsibility among teachers and students for what is happening rather than external control over behavior through reward and punishment [36, 37].

We present in this study research regarding the use of RNW of emotionally charged events by a homeroom teacher as a means of improving the social status of a student rejected by her classmates.

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4. Methodology

4.1 Type of research

This research is a case study in the use of RNW by the homeroom teacher as an intervention for a sixth-grade girl with behavior problems who experienced social rejection. A case study enables the observation of human activity at a specific time and place in order to deepen understanding of the phenomenon under examination [38, 39].

4.2 Field and study participants

The research was carried out in a public, 6-year, elementary school in the Arab school system of Israel. The school is located in a mixed city (where both Arabs and Jews live) in the center of the country. At the time of this research, 630 students were enrolled in the school distributed among 18 classes. Most of the students’ families are in the middle class socioeconomically.

The main participants in the study were a homeroom teacher, who also coauthored this article, and a sixth-grade girl in her class. The research took place in the 2016–2017 school year.

The homeroom teacher also teaches math. At the time of this study, she was a 20 veteran of teaching. She had served as the homeroom teacher of that class for 3 years, from grades 3 to 6. The homeroom teacher initiated the research and wrote the narratives.

The student Nur (a fictitious name) had also attended this school in third grade, but switched to a different school for fourth grade. In fifth grade, she returned to the school and had the same homeroom teacher. The girl lives with her parents and eight brothers and sisters. The father works outside the home and the mother is a housewife.

Other participants: classmates with whom Nur had daily interactions, Nur’s mother, the school principal, and other teachers who taught the class that year.

4.3 Research tools

The data for this research were the 28 narratives written about five incidents chosen by the teacher that were particularly laden emotionally and an expanded narrative written by the student. The teacher also kept a journal during the school year—the findings are also based on this journal. The narratives were written in accordance with guidelines given by Tal [7] based on the directions of Smyth and Pennebaker [2], as follows:

I would like to ask you to write a personal story concerning a stressful, difficult, or traumatic incidentin which you were involved that is related to a child who exhibits behavioral difficulties in your class. Please write your thoughts and deepest feelingsabout this incident…Feel free to learn about your thoughts and feelings. You can relate this subject to your interpersonal experiences; you can relate it to the present, your past or future.

The student was asked by the homeroom teacher to write a narrative at the end of the school year, a time in which the teacher played no formal role.

4.4 Ethics

The student and her mother gave agreement to participating in this research, understanding that the research was part of an intervention program designed to improve the student’s social standing in class and ease her transition to middle school. The names of all the students, the school, and the town in which the research took place remain confidential.

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5. Findings

We begin this section with a description of the problems in the student’s behavior from the perspective of the homeroom teacher and the student herself. We then present findings about the multiple negative emotions that come up in the documentation of events and the use of RNW to help regulate feelings and guide the formulation and improvement of an intervention program that emerged through the course of the writing. We present evidence of the teacher’s efforts at self-regulation and the principles of the emergent intervention program. Finally, we offer an interim evaluation of the program based on excerpts from the narrative written by the student herself at the conclusion of sixth grade.

5.1 Much time and self-reflection by the teacher are required to realize a child is experiencing rejection

The homeroom teacher discerned the difficulties Nur was having when she moved back to this school in fifth grade. From the outset, Nur engaged in disruptive activities that were sometimes violent physically, verbally, and socially toward other students and sometimes the teachers and was said to have a negative influence on the atmosphere in the classroom. Her behavior only deepened the rejection of her classmates and the anger of other students and teachers.

But over the course of about a year and a quarter—until the end of the first third of sixth grade—the teacher focused on “the problems caused by Nur” and the impudent way she approached both adults and other children. As noted by the teacher in the summary and evaluation of the intervention program:

(Unfortunately), it never occurred to me even once that she was [also] a victim and not [just] an aggressor…I prayed to myself that she would change classes or schools…I never once looked at her face except when I was angry and scolded her. For every problem in the classroom or school yard, I always thought that she was guilty, without even thinking for a fraction of a second that perhaps someone was trying to make her look bad or cast blame on her for something she did not do.

At the beginning of sixth grade, Nur’s multiple behavior problems were plainly evident. There were documented incidents of physical and verbal aggressiveness toward other students: She hit children, flouted boundaries and rules, disrespected the teachers, hassled other students.

All this behavior seems to have led to Nur’s rejection by her peers. None of the other students wanted to play with her or sit beside her. Most of the students rejected her, made fun of her, and taunted her, apparently to get her to lose self-control. Despite the warning signs, it took time for the teacher to realize that the blatant behavior problems were masking a deeper and more serious issue—social rejection. Thus wrote the teacher in her journal:

As a result of my conversations with her [Nur], and after giving this thought night and day, I realized that she was indeed rejected, and this was substantiated by the narrative that Nur herself wrote at the end of the 2016–2017 school year in summing up the intervention process that I developed for her, as she presented a troubled picture of social rejection that undermined her sense of self. The narrative that Nur wrote shocked me; I felt terrible because I had not seen it for so long. Feelings of guilt and sorrow enveloped me, I rebuked myself. It was an irresolvable dilemma: I had asked Nur to write about herself and her years in the school, but, on the other hand, I regretted that request. The narrative seemed to be a mirror through which I now saw my real self. I saw how I had treated her with contempt and ignored her (naturally not on purpose). But through this same mirror, I also saw my success in integrating her into the class after years of rejection and lack of acceptance.

Corroboration of this teacher’s impressions regarding what Nur experienced can be found in the narrative Nur herself wrote upon conclusion of sixth grade:

[The other students] stayed away from me and did not want to sit beside me or talk to me and of course not play with me. I felt terrible. And when I complained about one of them, the teacher replied, “I’m sure you were bothering him, so he got back at you.” I think this answer was very cruel. I’m not that way and I do not want to be that way, but I have no choice. I have to disrupt and annoy so that they will yell at me or punish me, at least that way I’ll be part of things and they’ll have to deal with me, it does not matter how.

Excerpts from the teacher’s journal and the student’s narrative reveal the distress of the rejected student. They suggest that the student was aware that her behavior was disruptive and grating, and that she saw this problematic behavior as signaling her state and need for care and attention. One can also see, however, that time and an emotional effort by the teacher are required to rise above the behavioral issues and discern the underlying distress. This takes adoption of an introspective-reflective stance in order to understand that social rejection is not just due to being a problematic student, but also a consequence of the teacher’s own attitudes and the attitudes of the other teachers toward the student and her behavior. One can glean from the two narratives that angry and alienating responses by teachers exacerbate negative behavior in rejected children. It seems in retrospect, based on the words of the student and teacher, that construction of the image of a rejected student as a “troublemaker” leads to the student being blamed for sins they did not commit, which only deepens the anger and vengeful feelings of the rejected child and the subsequent avoidance of them by other students. The narratives depict a dead end from which only an adult can find a way out. In the case of the teacher, the writing of a journal, documentation, and RNW about these incidents led to her realization that she bore responsibility for maintaining and even escalating Nur’s social rejection. This insight, as noted, led to the teacher’s profound sense of guilt, which, although difficult to bear, is an important step toward initiating an intervention to engender change.

We now present the gradual process that led to change in the teacher’s attitudes toward the student.

5.2 Multiple negative feelings as part of daily coping with a rejected student

Analysis of the narratives written about five emotionally loaded incidents reveals an outpouring of words that convey negative emotions. Behavior that is aggressive and flaunts authority always evokes strong negative feelings. Anger and a sense of powerlessness in the face of this behavior were the most salient and frequently cited negative emotions. The anger was also often accompanied by sadness and guilt. The teacher notes that incidents caused a storm of emotions that accompanied her even after working hours. She writes regarding the first incident, for example: “I went to see my mother to consult with her about this. I started talking and felt so emotional that tears fell from my eyes” (first incident, fourth narrative).

Some examples of the teacher’s anger, which appeared prominently in the narrative writing:

“I was very angry at whoever had done this despicable deed” (first incident, first narrative). “I became even more exasperated and yelled” (third incident, first narrative).

“At that moment, I saw red and wanted to shout to the heavens” (third incident, second narrative).

“I left the classroom boiling mad” (fifth incident, second narrative).

Unlike the feelings of anger that were prevalent primarily in the first and second writing of each incident, the teacher’s sense of helplessness appeared in all the narratives:

“I was very surprised and felt helpless,” (third incident, fifth narrative).

“Again, I felt powerless and broken,” (fifth incident, third narrative).

The arousal of guilt feelings played an important role; to a large extent, the sense of guilt led to the teacher’s acceptance of responsibility and the determination to act on behalf of Nur. Indeed, toward the end of the process of narrative writing, the teacher wrote in a kind of summation, “The guilt feelings together with a kind of sadness ultimately led me to want to take responsibility for what was happening in the classroom with regard to Nur, and then to think about a course of action” (fifth incident, seventh narrative).

Some expressions of the teacher’s guilt feelings that came up in the narratives:

“I felt as if I were giving her [Nur] short shrift,” (third incident, first narrative). “And I almost blamed myself for causing her to be rejected by the class” (fifth incident, seventh narrative).

A piling on of negative emotions is oppressive. However, in the context of RNW, these unpleasant feelings can lead to soul-searching, in-depth thinking, and a taking of action, as the teacher herself wrote: “These words hurt me deeply and led to soul-searching” (third incident, first narrative).

5.3 RNW helped enhance self-regulation of the teacher, allowing for formulation of an intervention program

RNW helped, first of all, in self-regulation—controlling the influence of negative emotions over the teacher’s thoughts and actions and bringing out thoughts and decisions about courses of action. In the words of the teacher, “My main goal became how to help the student – how to help improve her social standing, and how to improve her functioning prior to the expected transition to middle school.”

An example of enhanced self-regulation of the teacher can be seen in the first incident in which she discovered that Nur had distributed notes in the class on which she had written derogatory names. This evoked the teacher’s anger, and repeated writing about the incident brought about an effort at self-regulation: “I decided to slow down and become as calm as possible” (first incident, second narrative).

And in the third incident, which required the involvement of the teacher to separate Nur from another girl, the teacher wrote, “I collected myself and asked her [Nur] to come with me” (third incident, first narrative). In the second narrative of this incident, she wrote, “I restrained myself and replied, no problem at all.”

Indeed, the number of negative emotions expressed declined significantly from the first to the fifth incident (t = 7.28, p < .05)—from a mean of 2.2 negative emotions expressed after the first incident across five narratives (SD = 0.8) to a mean of 0.71 negative emotions after the fifth incident across seven narratives (SD = 0.88). The statistical analysis is based on counting and comparing the total number of words reflecting negative emotional expressions in each narrative—inclusive of all negative feelings.

5.4 RNW contributed to insight formation and emergence of a course of action

RNW led to an intervention program that was dynamic—growing, crystallizing, and improving during the course of the writing. The emergent intervention program focused on the following elements:

  • Improved communication with Nur

  • Efforts to change Nur’s image in the eyes of her classmates

  • Involvement of the principal and teaching staff in the intervention program

  • Involvement of Nur’s mother

5.4.1 Improved communication with Nur

From the teacher’s journal:

Through the course of the narrative writing, I understood that one way to cope with the irregular incidents was to connect with the student emotionally, to love her more, to understand her, and to relate to her as a human being so I could prove to her that I am not against her and do not hate her, but rather the opposite.

The following is an excerpt showing how the idea took root of becoming someone the student could turn to:

I suddenly had the idea of proposing to Nur that she tell me about every problem or incident that happens to her in the school, on the way home, in the street, or even at home, and that I would take care of the matter, together with her, of course. Once this idea came to me, I felt my body and head relax, I promised myself that from now on, I would not disappoint Nur and I hoped that I could change something in her feelings (second incident, fifth narrative).

The day after she had the idea of getting closer to the student, the teacher described what she did to implement it. In the sixth narrative of this second incident, she writes that she waited for Nur at the school entrance and invited her to walk together in the school yard so she could talk to her. This was in place of the usual scolding about Nur’s lateness. The teacher wrote that she had decided “to temporarily ignore her [Nur’s] negative actions” in order to deepen her connection with the student. First the teacher asked Nur what she thought of the buildings in the surrounding area and whether she would change anything. Nur got caught up in the conversation and volunteered good ideas for improving the look of the surroundings. Then the teacher asked Nur to talk a little about herself—good things about herself, what she likes in herself.

The strength of interpersonal relations is tested at a time of crisis, and one soon followed. The third incident tells of a scuffle with another girl in her class. The teacher entered the room after hearing shouts, and Nur immediately stopped her aggressive behavior. As soon as Nur stopped pulling the hair of the other student, she broke out in tears, saying, “You’re always against me, you’re all against me, nobody understands me or believes me, now for sure you’ll tell my mother to come and take me to the principal.” After some reflection, the teacher decided to invite Nur for a conversation. In this talk, Nur asserted that she had pulled the girl’s hair because that student had made fun of her in the morning about her repeated lateness and her arrival at school with her hair unkempt. Nur decided to pull the hair of that student, she said, “so that her hair would also be messy.” In light of this conversation, the teacher had the idea of empowering Nur by asking her to suggest ways to overcome her behavior problems—particularly her aggressiveness toward other students and her ongoing tardiness. Nur showed up early in the morning for the conversation with the teacher, but she had no real suggestions, only accusations against the girls in her class who seek to undermine her. After that conversation, the teacher thought about suggesting that Nur take on a role with responsibility, such as submitting the class attendance record, maintaining the cleanliness of the closet and blackboard, or arranging the tables in the hallway.

Despite the obstacles, the teacher remained resolved to stand by Nur and hear her out. Through the course of her ongoing work, the teacher began to understand the complex dynamics between the student and her classmates and other teachers. Based on the connection slowly forming between them, the teacher began to add more elements to the intervention program.

Of interest in the teacher’s conduct was that in her awareness of her own feelings and by giving thought to Nur’s behavior in the relationship, she avoided impulsive reactions, adopting a reflective approach that allowed for gradual formulation of a program based on proactive and ecological-systemic thinking. The teacher took into consideration the effect of her actions on Nur and the other students as well as the influence on Nur of the other students, teachers, and her parents.

5.4.2 Efforts to change Nur’s image in the eyes of her classmates

Social rejection of a student is characteristic of interactions within a peer group, among the students themselves. The rejection—expressed as unwillingness of the students to engage in activities with or be in the company of the rejected student—is sometimes the outcome of the rejected student’s behavior (aggression, irritating actions, failure to be attentive to the other), and the rejection itself feeds the insult, anger, and jealousy of the rejected student, escalating their aggressiveness. Hence, it is critical to understand that without intervention, the rejection will only increase and deepen the emotional damage to the rejected child (see [31], for example). One of the narratives written by the teacher notes that Nur explains her aggressive behavior as a reaction to feeling rejected or to act of rejection by the other students. Aware of Nur’s feelings, the teacher chose actions to moderate the rejection and a proactive strategy to rehabilitate her image with her classmates.

While writing the narrative about the first incident in which she discovers that Nur is the one spreading notes to classmates using derogatory names, the teacher decides, “…not to tell the students in the class that it was she [Nur] who spread the notes, hoping that she will stop her improper activity.”

Later, while writing the narrative about the third incident—the hair-pulling of the other student—the teacher resolved to change Nur’s image in the eyes of her classmates by assigning her a job. To that end, she asked the class for a volunteer to bring the class attendance record to the secretariat at the end of every school day. All the students volunteered except Nur. The teacher turned to Nur in front of the class and asked her why she was not volunteering. “Anyway, you won’t give me the job,” responded Nur, “so why should I raise my hand, I saved you the trouble.” The teacher was surprised by Nur’s response, yet informed her that she wants to assign her responsibility for the class attendance record. In her narrative, the teacher wrote that Nur’s face lit up, manifestly happy with the teacher’s offer, and accepted the job.

But changing the image of a rejected child in the eyes of one’s classmates is a long and arduous process. Indeed, the next day the teacher again hastened to a noisy row between Nur and a group of other students. When asked for an explanation, Nur told her that one of the students took the attendance record to the secretariat even though the whole class should have known that this was Nur’s job.

In response, the teacher decided to clarify the matter to the entire class the next day, to give full public backing to Nur. The teacher went to school that day even though it was her day off and asked the full forum of the class who did Nur’s job of taking the record to the secretariat the previous day. One student raised his hand and said that he had done it. The teacher asked him whether he was aware that this was Nur’s job. “Nur is not responsible at all and should not take any job upon herself,” replied the student. “She doesn’t even manage to get to school early, she’s late every day.” The teacher understood that the student’s reply was an opportunity to clarify to him and the entire class in the presence of Nur that “everyone in the world has his own job, and one is not allowed to take the job of another, and also one must never judge people any way one feels like it.” The teacher wrote that Nur suddenly looked happy. Nur herself felt that how the teacher handled this issue, the public defense of her, strengthened her. Later, the teacher wrote that from that day forward, Nur stopped being late for school.

5.4.3 Involvement of the principal and teaching staff in the intervention program

As part of the ecological-systemic insights gained by the teacher during the narrative writing, she realized that an intervention program that attempts to improve the social behavior of one of the students requires the cooperation of the other teachers of that class, keeping the school principal informed, and receiving support from the principal as well.

In the course of writing the fourth narrative of the second incident, the homeroom teacher concluded that she should convene a meeting of the other teachers concerning Nur’s intervention program. At that meeting, she presented to the other teachers the incidents in which Nur was involved—most recently, planting a pencil case of one student into the bookbag of one of the high-achieving students. In parallel, the homeroom teacher shared the insight she had formed in light of the narrative writing and her conversations with Nur—that the student was in need of support and acceptance by the teachers, evidence that they see her as a valued person, so that Nur can forego the manipulations she uses as a way of coping with feeling rejected.

Afterward, while writing a narrative about the second incident, which primarily concerned Nur’s ongoing late arrival to school, the teacher decided to meet with the principal. At that meeting, she presented her difficulties in coping with the challenges posed by Nur. A decision was reached to involve Nur’s parents, primarily because of her chronic late arrival to school. The intent was to understand what takes place at home and the parents’ attitude, and not just, as in the past, a call to complain about their daughter’s behavior. And indeed, the teacher held a phone conversation with Nur’s mother. Later, while writing about the fifth incident, the teacher came to believe that Nur’s difficulties required in-depth thinking. She understood that the context of the problem may be more complex than she originally thought. She again consulted with the school principal. In the first meeting with the principal, she had spoken of her difficulties and need for support, and the principal provided it. Subsequently, the teacher and principal met again to explore more deeply the context of Nur’s difficulties. Here the teacher shared everything she knew about the student, and they decided to invite the mother to a face-to-face meeting with the teacher and principal to formulate an intervention program together.

Above all, the teacher left with a feeling of unconditional support from the principal, which reassured her.

In sensitive cases such as social rejection in which the students, parents, and teachers are involved and when various parties may resist or have complaints against the intervention, the school principal must provide unconditional support. Such support gives strength to the teacher to implement the intervention program.

5.4.4 Involvement of Nur’s mother

Through the course of the writing, the homeroom teacher gradually realized that it was necessary to involve the parents of the rejected student in information and the intervention efforts. Through her writing and conversations with Nur and her mother, the teacher surmised that the student was not receiving enough attention and direction at home, which raised her level of concern. In this context, a decision was made together with the school principal to invite the mother to a conversation at school.

This conversation revealed that the mother was aware of some of the difficulties with Nur, and she herself took responsibility for some of Nur’s tardiness. The mother shared with the teacher that some of Nur’s tardiness was caused by the mother’s request that Nur help with chores around the house. Despite the embarrassment and unpleasantness felt by the mother during the conversation with the principal and teacher, she expressed deep satisfaction that the teacher was creating an intervention program for Nur.

5.5 Evaluation of the intervention program at the end of the school year: the student’s perspective

The program evaluation presented here is based on the words of the student—the teacher’s evaluation appears in other sections of the findings. The student described the changes she felt in herself in sixth grade, the year the intervention program was implemented by the homeroom teacher to address the social rejection Nur was experiencing. The teacher gave Nur paper and a pencil and requested, “Please write about yourself and your integration into the school from the first day you arrived.” The text was written by the student in Arabic and translated by the homeroom teacher into Hebrew and thence to English. (The division of the text and their subtitles were given by the authors.)

5.5.1 The student’s evaluation of her scholastic performance

I started learning in sixth grade. I felt that I matured a little, and I felt within myself that I wanted to make progress and improve my achievements, but I forgot to say that my grades in third grade were good, but in fourth and fifth grades, they were terrible, very low. I never got more than a 50, which really bothered me, but I had no choice. The teachers and students took the desire out of me to study and improve…I have to add that my grades also went up, I started to get 75 or more. This made me really happy and pushed me to be okay with everyone…

5.5.2 Positive change in the homeroom teacher’s attitude toward her

Suddenly out of the clear blue sky, I felt that the homeroom teacher began to treat me differently. She began to make sure that no one bothered me. She gave me jobs, classroom chores, I found myself coming out of the place of humiliation I was in.

5.5.3 The changed attitude of the homeroom teacher affected her relationship with other students

I started to see that the homeroom teacher smiled right at me, was concerned about me, listened to me when I complained about one of the students. The students in the class began to make friends with me, started to play with me…

5.5.4 Changes in herself

Truthfully, I also began to calm down, I stopped disrupting and annoying the students for no good reason, which wasn’t what happened before.

5.5.5 Summing up

I was really happy when the teacher told me she wanted to write things about me and talk with me as part of her college graduate studies, I felt very important. I really love the homeroom teacher, and it’s too bad this did not happen a long time ago. That could have saved me lots of worry and suffering. Because then I did not love her at all, and I did not even like going to school. I would come to school late and be absent lots of days only because I did not like the homeroom teacher and the students, but after things changed for the better, I started to come early and wasn’t absent. These days we are organizing a farewell party for the sixth grade. The teacher put me into the choir and a few other things.

The narrative freely written by the student enables an understanding of how she perceived her own behavior and of those around her in sixth grade in school and in general. Her words suggest that she attributed her poor scholastic record in fourth and fifth grades to the fact that “the teacher and students took the desire out of me to study and improve.” Her words also suggest that good grades were important to her, but that she was in need of support from her classmates and teachers for her to want to make an effort. Of interest, Nur indicates in her writing that she takes responsibility for her behavior. She “admits” that she herself stopped disrupting and annoying her classmates “for no good reason.” Strikingly, she attributes the overall change in her functioning and the class atmosphere to the homeroom teacher’s changed attitude toward her. In her perception, the teacher rather suddenly changed her attitude toward her from one extreme to another. Suddenly the teacher expressed affection for her, listened to her, and defended her from baseless complaints of other students. Moreover, Nur expressed her sorrow that the change in the teacher had not occurred earlier, which would have saved her “lots of worry and suffering.” She explains her tardiness and frequent absences from school as a result of feeling unwanted in school itself. After the changed atmosphere in the class, she declares that she made an effort to arrive on time to school and her classes. Nur also views the fact that the teacher includes the intervention program in her graduate school studies as an expression of her importance in the eyes of the teacher.

In cases of social rejection, there is always concern that without sufficient support, the student will return to behavior that could again undermine her relations with classmates and teachers. Therefore, the homeroom teacher continued to maintain telephone contact with Nur and take an interest in her for several months after she completed sixth grade. The teacher reports that, according to Nur, her social and scholastic functioning in middle school was strong.

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6. Discussion and conclusion

This paper presents a case study of coping with the social rejection of a sixth-grade student through the RNW of the homeroom teacher.

Despite prolonged familiarity of the school with the child and to some extent with the family, until fifth grade, the school had not invested any serious thought into what this student was experiencing or the root of the problem that led her to change schools. At the beginning of fifth grade, attempts were made to cope with Nur’s behavior problems primarily because they were disruptive to classroom management. These included chronic tardiness to school, frequent absences from school, involvement in fights, aggressive behavior toward other students, and failure to respect the teacher’s authority. Nur’s poor scholastic performance was not initially of interest to the school system.

It took time for her homeroom teacher, and then the other class teachers, to see Nur’s problematic behavior as rooted in social rejection that disturbed and hurt the student herself. Changing the definition from a behavioral issue and classroom management disruption to social rejection that harms the student herself took place during the course of the RNW about emotionally loaded events in which Nur was involved. The definition was changed from the student being “the problem” to an understanding that a large part of the problem was the learning environment, not just the student’s behavior. In the course of the writing, awareness grew that how the classroom was managed at the beginning of the school year did not afford a real opportunity for the student to improve.

Bierman [31] reminds us that social rejection is a group process, not the characteristic of an individual. Nevertheless, the focus becomes both a description of the phenomenon and of how interactions between the child and their peer group are handled. Bierman [31] and Abraham [30] emphasize the need to invest efforts in changing attitudes toward the rejected student by the peer group prior to addressing the issue of the rejected students themselves. In this paper, the teachers are perceived not just as external factors who intervene in order to change the perceptions and behaviors of the students, but as factors whose perceptions, emotions, and behavior have an effect on the social dynamic in the classroom [11].

And, indeed, in the research presented here, the key to changing the social status of the student was improved relations with the homeroom teacher. Relations with the teacher and, through her mediation, with other teachers and students, were perceived as a necessary though insufficient condition for improving the social status and scholastic performance of the student. In the words of the homeroom teacher:

Analysis of the narratives indicates that the writing led to one of the main components of the emergent program – an emotional connection with Nur, one that expresses my growing emotional commitment to her that allows her to trust me, to see me as someone she can turn to when she feels bad.

The case study presented here shows an emergent intervention program for the student that gradually evolved for the homeroom teacher from one narrative writing to another—the intervention program was informed by the insights that arose during the writing and analysis of her thoughts and feelings. The writing and subsequent reflection helped the teacher better understand the contexts—classroom, school, and family—and develop ideas that would allow for the social integration of the rejected student.

The intervention program that emerged included, above all, establishing a good relationship between the homeroom teacher and the student, fewer negative emotions of the teacher toward the student and the situation, recruitment of the teaching staff and principal to change the atmosphere in the classroom and school to one that supports the student, changed perceptions of the other students toward the rejected student, changes in the perceptions and behavior of the student herself, and parental support of the intervention program. Although she gave empathy and unconditional support to the student, the teacher did not refrain from addressing her tardiness and integration difficulties. What stands out in the narratives is the teacher’s sincere attempt to understand what was taking place in the classroom and home without judging the student. Even when she viewed sternly the student’s behavior, the teacher was more disturbed by the harm the student was causing to herself, not the disruption caused by her behavior. This is how the teacher explained the essence of the intervention program to the school staff: “We have to find a way to get Nur to stop this conduct and this, of course, will not happen if she does not feel that we love her and believe her.”

The attempt to use RNW to create an intervention program for a student whose behavior undermines the preschool or elementary school teacher is based on previous research [17] describing two case studies in which the preschool teachers used expressive writing [2, 3] manifested in RNW to deal with multiple behavior problems in their preschools. Research by Tal et al. [17] shows evidence of improved self-regulation of the preschool teachers that brought about a significant reduction in negative feelings cited in the narratives and improvement of their classroom management competencies evident in greater initiative, self-determination, and leadership instead of helplessness—intervention programs based on proactive and ecological-systemic thinking—and all these were founded upon improved interpersonal relations between the children, the staff, and the teachers.

In the current research, RNW for emotionally loaded events to deal with students’ behavioral problems was expanded to grapple with social rejection in the school, not just the preschool. More importantly, in addition to the narratives written over long months by the homeroom teachers, narratives written by the rejected student were added. The writing of the student herself makes a significant contribution to corroborating the findings derived from the teacher’s narrative writing, providing critical evidence that there was marked improvement in her situation and functioning. Based on the testimonies of both the student and homeroom teacher, the student changed her attitude to herself and to others, leading her to believe in herself as a person of value, and no longer believing that everyone was against her. All this came in the wake of the changed mindset of the homeroom teacher. As a result, asserted the student, she invested more in her studies, improved her grades, and was able to fit in with the other students and school activities (such as the choir). The vicious cycle in which the student’s aggressive and grating behavior brought about her rejection by the other students and the indifference of the teaching staff, which exacerbated the student’s behavior, were replaced by an educational process founded upon the encouragement and support of the homeroom teacher and other teachers, allowing the student to express her abilities and realize her ambition of learning and progressing.

In summary, this research finds that RNW by one teacher can be an effective tool for coping with social rejection and behavior problems of an elementary school student. The same homeroom teacher reported that she adopted RNW in another case of a third-grade student with serious behavioral problems and particularly low scholastic performance. That child would not enter the classroom and was not capable of third-grade-level reading or writing. In the first stage, the homeroom teacher responded with anger, but she soon embarked upon RNW. As a result of RNW over the course of several months, she created for this child an emergent intervention program, leading to behavior improvement and scholastic achievements for this student as well.

Although this is a study of one student with one teacher in one school blessed with a supportive and understanding principal, this case is one of several [7, 17] showing the effectiveness of RNW in coping with difficult behavioral problems and social rejection in preschool and elementary school. This is an “inexpensive” coping mechanism accessible to every teacher, and therefore, one can recommend that preschool and elementary school teachers try using RNW over several months to cope with challenging behavior. In all the cases reviewed, between five and seven cycles of RNW were required for creating and implementing an effective intervention program to cope with behavioral problems.

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Written By

Clodie Tal and Hind Meyma

Submitted: January 30th, 2022Reviewed: February 18th, 2022Published: April 15th, 2022