Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School

A radical educator’s paradigm-shifting inquiry into the accepted, normal demands of school, as illuminated by moving portraits of four young “problem children”

“Riveting, luminous, and terrifying, this little book gives us the tools, the vision, and the confidence to free our children to change the world.” —Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams

In this dazzling debut, Carla Shalaby, a former elementary school teacher, explores the everyday lives of four young “troublemakers,” challenging the ways we identify and understand so-called problem children. Time and again, we make seemingly endless efforts to moderate, punish, and even medicate our children, when we should instead be concerned with transforming the very nature of our institutions, systems, and structures, large and small. Through delicately crafted portraits of these memorable children—Zora, Lucas, Sean, and Marcus—Troublemakers allows us to see school through the eyes of those who know firsthand what it means to be labeled a problem.

From Zora’s proud individuality to Marcus’s open willfulness, from Sean’s struggle with authority to Lucas’s tenacious imagination, comes profound insight—for educators and parents alike—into how schools engender, exclude, and then try to erase trouble, right along with the young people accused of making it. And although the harsh disciplining of adolescent behavior has been called out as part of a school-to-prison pipeline, the children we meet in these pages demonstrate how a child’s path to excessive punishment and exclusion in fact begins at a much younger age.

Shalaby’s empathetic, discerning, and elegant prose gives us a deeply textured look at what noncompliance signals about the environments we require students to adapt to in our schools. Both urgent and timely, this paradigm-shifting book challenges our typical expectations for young children and with principled affection reveals how these demands—despite good intentions—work to undermine the pursuit of a free and just society.


“I absolutely LOVE how Shalaby’s work humanizes ‘troublemaking’ and skillfully challenges us to rethink oppressive and punitive responses to problematic student behavior. This is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in shifting the prevailing consciousness that has fueled the criminalization of our children.”
—Monique W. Morris, author of Pushout
“The implications of this book for our schools, and for our society, are truly radical. Every teacher and teacher-in-training should read it. Come to think of it, so should every policy-maker and every education activist. This outstanding book raises tough questions. If we want humane schools and a just society, we have to ask them.”
—Brian Jones, teacher, writer, activist
“In engaging, detailed descriptions of four early elementary-aged children already labeled ‘troublemakers,’ readers see the real challenges they pose along with their keen insights, creativity, and resistance that could and should enrich all our lives. This moving work calls on us to re-imagine schools as places where we could learn from the children who, against all odds, ‘sing freedom.’”
—Deborah Menkart, executive director, Teaching for Change
“Writing about classroom dynamics involving children who have trouble sitting still, following directions, and generally being ‘good’ in class. . . . [Shalaby’s] vivid descriptions of young children will remind many readers of Jonathan Kozol’s best work. . . . Recommended for all academic libraries, especially those serving future teachers.”
Library Journal
“Shalaby illuminates critical lessons for all of us about living and learning and about growing and developing as whole, free human beings. Troublemakers is a necessary book in these troubled times.”
—Bill Ayers, author of Demand the Impossible! and To Teach
“An important work that every teacher and parent should read.”
—Gloria Ladson-Billings, author of The Dreamkeepers
“I thought I knew a thing or two about freedom until I read Troublemakers. Carla Shalaby reveals how we mistake wild curiosity and wisdom for willfulness, punish children like inmates, and then wonder why there is a school-to-prison pipeline. Riveting, luminous, and terrifying, this little book gives us the tools, the vision, and the confidence to free our children to change the world.”
—Robin D.G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams

Goodreads Reviews