Saturday, February 11, 2017

Now, Say You're Sorry

Unresolved hurt breaks down classroom community and obstructs learning. Should teachers require students to apologize when they’ve behaved unkindly? Yes, and no. Yes, because saying “I’m sorry” is part of bringing about restoration and accepting grace. And yes, because many people do not know how to make a proper or sincere apology.  

If a child feels no regret, however, extracting an insincere apology forces that person to tell a lie. The best response--when guilty students appear impenitent--is to help them sense the need to apologize, and remove any obstacles that stand in the way of expressing their regret. But how do we encourage students who are reluctant to apologize?
I'm Sorry
Remove the Obstacles
Defensiveness is one of the most common apology hurdles; it’s painful to admit we’ve offended someone. Your can mitigate defensiveness by speaking calmly, but the overall climate of your classroom also makes an impact: if your children know they are loved in spite of their shortcomings, confession is easier.

A skill deficit may stand in the way, too. Our students learn by watching us respond to our own mistakes. Don’t make excuses or shift the blame when you are in the wrong; show young people how apologies are done.

Remember the Grace
If a conversation with the troublemaker leads you to believe an apology is warranted--then encourage the apology. Stop short of requiring young persons to express regret, though. For one, if a child outright refuses to apologize, that response may be an indicator of other problems which need to be addressed, such as unresolved conflict. Forcing apologies amid unsettled situations is pointless and usually detrimental.

Moreover, apologizing should be associated with grace rather than with punishment. In stating this point, I do not suggest that teachers do away with consequences; students need accountability for their behavior. However, when we make apologies seem like penalties, we encourage students to run from remorse instead of experiencing the “gift of regret.” Here are a couple of sample “apology invitations”:

“Naki isn’t feeling so great right now. I think you owe her an apology.”

“Your actions made it tough for me to teach this afternoon. A ‘sorry’ would help me to move past this.”

“But It Was an Accident”
Students who hurt others by accident may mistakenly presume that they do not need to apologize. “I was running for the ball, and she got in my way. Why should I apologize?” “I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings with that comment; he just took it wrong. Why should I tell him I’m sorry?”  

In situations like these, a little coaching is helpful:
“For now I’m going to trust that you meant no harm to Bethany. But when you didn’t go back to see if she was okay, you appeared uncaring. Please tell Bethany you are sorry for knocking her down and explain that you didn’t mean to hurt her. Then ask if she is feeling better.”

“You may not have meant to offend Cole with your comment, but he was still hurt as a result of your words. That means you owe him an apology.

When Students Mean to be Mean
What if it seems that the hurt was intentional, and there is no remorse after you’ve talked with the offender? As with any discipline situation, consider the student’s motivation before responding.  

If the person’s behavior is the upshot of unresolved conflict, for instance, find ways to help the offender and victim work through their conflict. If you are the target, you may be tempted to react, but reacting only deepens the rift. Instead, provide upset students with appropriate ways to express their frustration, and build trust over time through working on positive relationships. You may still recommend an apology, but it’s better to wait until the offender and injured party are on the road to healing.

If outright cruelty--rather than conflict--is the motivator, the child may have an underlying mental health condition or trauma history, and may need professional assessment and treatment. Attempting to guide the student on your own is unwise: team up with your school counselor and with the parent or guardian, so that they can begin the process of seeking qualified help.  

Finally, continue teaching appropriate outward behaviors to students who offend others, despite their inner motivations. Students who cause hurt or damage property, for instance, should make restitution. And offenders can still be encouraged to apologize, even if the apology is not fully sincere.

To Sum It Up
Unresolved hurt or conflict weakens classroom community and interferes with learning. When troublemakers are reluctant to apologize, work to minimize defensiveness--and so encourage culprits to accept responsibility. Model proper and sincere apologies through your own interactions, and coach students through the process of apologizing when necessary. Finally, remember to convey that saying “I’m sorry” is about seeking forgiveness, rather than about enduring a punishment.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Guiding Unremorseful Students

What can be done about students who behave unkindly but show no remorse for their actions?  This post is the second in a series on guiding troublemakers who appear indifferent when confronted about meanness or insensitivity.

Before we go any farther, I want to make one point clear: despite the discomfort, regret is actually a good thing!  “Feeling sorry” helps us to turn from wrong, and it reveals our need for grace.  However, forcing remorse upon children is seldom a good idea.  I have explained why here.

For better results, aim for empathy instead.  Young people who learn to identify with the feelings of others show more kindness in their behavior, and they generally need less “outside help” in responding appropriately when their actions have been hurtful or uncaring. 

Unfortunately, not all students are receptive to the attitudes we attempt to grow.  Therefore, we work toward the ideal but modify our practice with those who cannot meet that goal.

Showing and Telling
So how do we move self-centered children to contemplate the hurt or annoyance they create for others?  By minding both the tone and substance of our words.  Let’s examine tone first.

Our voice tones serve different purposes.  The show voice is a sound we employ when we want to draw students in or open their eyes something, such as the way cucumber sprouts lean toward the sun, or how a particular metaphor adds to the meaning of a poem.  The spirit of this voice is an invitation: “You may let go of the distractions around you; there is something I want you to see.” 

Our tell voice, on the other hand, is an imperative, useful for gaining students’ attention or for asserting authority.  The character of this voice is more insistent: “I’m in charge.  Don’t mess with me.”

When students hurt or offend others, the tell voice may be needed initially to disrupt unkindness.  However, when it is time to help students see what the behavior must have felt like for those on the receiving end, that tell voice leads wrongdoers to protect themselves--to deny guilt, make excuses, or shift the blame.

The show voice, conversely, reduces defensiveness.  Essentially it conveys this message: “You may stop worrying about yourself; take a look at this with me.”  Guilty students who hear their teachers’ show voice in a confrontation are more likely to listen, more apt to consider a different perspective.  Obviously, the show voice would make less of an impact if either party is agitated, though, so give yourself and the culprit some time to cool off first.

What about the words?  What can we say to get through to students who behave unkindly, without apparent regret? 

Again, make an attempt to show the effects of a person’s actions rather than tell.  Language that tells accentuates what was bad about the behavior, or focuses on the (bad) character of the wrongdoer, or zeros in on impending judgement.  Whatever the case, tell language ultimately leads students to defend themselves rather than open their eyes to the feelings of others.  Here some comparisons of tell versus show statements:

Tell: "We have a zero-tolerance policy about name-calling here."
Show: "I know that Tyce appears unconcerned about the nickname you’ve invented for him, but we can’t always be sure about what a person feels on the inside."

Tell: “Students, you know the rules; hallways in our school are considered ‘silent areas.’”
Show: “Did anyone notice the problem we created when we forgot about our noise level in the hall?  Mrs. Cromwell was trying to give a demonstration to her class, but a number of her students turned around to look at us.”

Tell: “What possessed you to make a remark like that?”
Show: “Brielle’s shoulders drooped when she heard that comment.  I think you may have hurt her feelings.”

Tell: “Your behavior in class today was very disrespectful.  If you continue to act this way, you’ll have to start serving detentions.”
Show: “Teaching takes a lot of concentration: I have to focus on the best way to communicate the material, and I need to monitor the responses of students--to check if they are “getting it.”  When you make random comments in class, you force me to pay attention to yet another thing.  As a result, my teaching isn’t what it could be, and some of your classmates are struggling with their learning.  If this problem doesn’t improve, you and I will need to make a plan for resolving it.”

Tell: “If I report the gesture you made at me, you’ll be in a heap of trouble.”
Show: “I was offended by your gesture, especially because I don’t remember trying to hurt you or show disrespect to you.”

Moving the Slow of Heart
Conversations that show troublemakers the effects of their actions are much more likely to yield genuine apologies and honest attempts at restoration.

What about young people who remain unconcerned about their actions, even after seeing the effects of their behavior?  May we require apologies from students who do not appear sorry for what they have done?  We’ll address these issues next time.

One final note: the suggestions provided here work best in the right classroom climate.  If you find troublemakers reluctant to change their ways, check out my book, Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline (Dordt College Press), for advice on building a classroom atmosphere that deprives negative attitudes of their needs and encourages more desirable attitudes to grow in their place.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Guilty Student Is Not Sorry

Katrina can’t believe the nerve.  After hearing snickers in the back corner of her classroom, she turned to catch Gabe making an offensive gesture at her backside.  Initially he had looked embarrassed, but out in the hall he regained his cocky composure.  He didn’t even seem to care about the consequence he would have to serve.

Ted is also disappointed in his student’s response to a confrontation.  When he talked to Jane about excluding Naki from the game of foursquare outside, Jane downplayed the problem and suggested that Naki play basketball instead.  Ted asserted that shutting people out is rude and that Jane should apologize for her unkindness.  Reluctantly Jane conceded and told Naki she was sorry, but the apology was a fake.

What do you do with students who show no regret for wrongdoing?  How do you discipline young people who feel sorry about getting punished, but not about what they have done?  Before responding to any student who appears unremorseful, a teacher should first try to gain a sense for why the regret is lacking. 

Concealing It, Or Just Not Feeling It
Sometimes children feel guilty on the inside but resist showing it on the outside.  A common reason for this reaction is defensiveness: students who fear that others will think badly of them may try to minimize the seriousness of their wrongdoing.  However, for others who conceal their remorse, the situation is more complicated.  I have worked with young people who feel so badly about disappointing others that they cannot allow their regret to emerge.  For those students, the thought process goes something like this: If I don’t show that I am sorry, maybe the hurtful event never really occurred.

Some children, on the other hand, experience a delayed onset of remorse.  I can identify with this problem because I also process things slowly.  The guilt sector of my brain works on its investigations while I sleep, so the realization of wrongdoing usually comes in the middle of the night--like a cop banging on the door.  Jolting awake, I suddenly realize my error and the disappointment others must feel.  I want to go and apologize, but I can’t--because it’s three o’clock in the morning!

Home life can also have an effect on the way students deal with their wrongdoing.  If the parents of a child seldom apologize for their own mistakes, for example, a young person may lack the skills of showing remorse.

Finally, some children seem unable to feel remorse, at least on their own.  Even though these students are the most difficult guide, our situation with them is not always as hopeless as we might believe.

The Gift of Regret
Interwoven with these obstructions is one more regret blocker: remorse is painful! When we’re sorry, we have to confess that we were wrong. 

Just to be clear, I am not referring to the act of admitting an honest mistake.  How many times in a week do we apologize for simple blunders--like calling a student by the wrong name, or dropping a book on someone’s toe, or delaying the start of class to find a misplaced lesson plan?  (Lost-in-thought people like me are remarkably experienced in making these sorts of apologies!)  The part of guilt acknowledgment that really smarts is coming to terms with the unloving motivations that drive some of our actions. I would rather get jabbed with a needle than confess that I have acted in selfishness, or arrogance, or greed.  The attitudes of our hearts are much more agonizing to acknowledge than the occasional mistakes we make.

Despite the pain of admitting our inconsiderate motives, though, regret can also be a blessing if we learn to do remorse with grace.  How do we remorse with grace?  After admitting our guilt--and the egocentric spirit which may have spawned our actions--we need to forgive ourselves and take hold of the freedom that was purchased through Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  Released from guilt, we can turn the pain of regret into something useful, such as motivation to apologize and make peace with those we have offended.  Over the long term, the discomfort of past regret can also nudge us--like an elbow in the ribs--when we’re tempted to make the same mistakes again. 

Responding To Unremorseful Students
How can teachers give the “gift of regret” to guilty students who won’t apologize or show remorse?  Before we get to specifics, let’s note a couple of key ideas.  For one, sincere remorse is deeply personal.  We can’t always know, from the outside, how a person feels on the inside.  In addition, bear in mind that remorse cannot be forced.  It’s a gift; remember?  Adults who become preoccupied with making sure children “feel sorry” for their bad choices tend to activate defensiveness or shame.  Defensiveness, at best, results in offenders who feel sorry about getting caught but not about what they have done.  Shame leaves kids stuck in their guilt and unable to move on.  Now let’s look at a couple of strategies for helping students to do remorse with grace.

First, if you're upset, wait to talk with the student until you have had a chance to calm down.  Emotionally-charged confrontations usually turn into personal battles.  Waiting helps us to see the problem more objectively, and it provides students the time they need to process their actions.  In addition, calming oneself before confronting leads to openness in dialogue.  Children who feel safe--who trust that their teachers won’t pounce on them--are more likely admit their guilt.

Some teachers question the strategy of waiting to talk with students about wrongdoing. They reason that others in the classroom may conclude the teacher doesn’t care about misbehavior, or that the culprit got away with something.  This concern is legitimate, of course; we do need students to know we are committed to addressing misbehavior.  If other children witnessed the misdeed, they should be aware that we have a plan for responding, but they don’t necessarily have to see the plan carried out.

Katrina, the teacher in my opening story, demonstrated her concern with Gabe’s behavior by pulling him into the hallway during class.  Once out of the room, however, she might have said, “What you did was wrong.  I am surprised and disappointed, but I don’t feel ready yet to decide what I should do.  Please stop in my room before school in the morning.”  The initial conversation conveys, both to Gabe and his classmates, that the teacher is resolved to hold Gabe accountable.  In addition, the wait time will likely prompt some soul searching in the heart of Gabe.

Finally, as you converse with guilty students about their behavior, approach the topic of “attitude” with care.  As I said a moment ago, it stings to acknowledge the motivations that drive our behaviors.  When others prod our skin in search of negative attitudes that lie beneath, pulling away is a reflex.  Yes, young people should acknowledge when their actions are disrespectful or selfish, but I suggest leading students to that place through the door of empathy rather than guilt.

When students empathize with those they have offended, they usually need less "help” in feeling guilty.  Children who are led to understand the pain or disappointment they cause tend to become aware of their guilt without coercion.  For the sake of illustration, let's consider Ted, the other teacher in my introduction.  His initial response to Jane's behavior was appropriate: she needed to be told that her actions were unkind.  But if Ted's ultimate goal is to foster a change of heart, he may need to focus on more than just the rudeness of Jane's actions; he should also help her to identify with the person she has excluded.

How do we teach seemingly insensitive students to empathize with the feelings of others?  I hope to address that question in my next post.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Stop the Negativity in My Classroom

Do students whine about the activities you assign?  Groan or gag in disapproval of others' ideas?  Has something suppressed their curiosity or their willingness to engage in discussions?

Negativity in the classroom is an infection that saps learner motivation and siphons the fun out of teaching.  Thankfully, you don’t have to endure negativity.  There are ways to contain and diminish this problem, but first you need to understand what negativity is and how it behaves.

Diagnose Correctly
Not every complaint or bored expression should be classified as negativity.  Students occasionally have off days, and some children are less eager to learn than others.  Isolated cases of complaining and resistance—like runny noses and body odor—are part and parcel of the teaching experience.  If it’s a sniff or a whiff, you offer a tissue or crack a window and move on.  If it’s random bellyaching, sprinkle on a dose of humor and let your skin grow a little thicker.

Outbreaks of negativity are characterized by an occurrence of symptoms in various students over a prolonged period of time.  Complaints, groans, and voiced yawns are among the more aggressive signs, but mild indications can be just as problematic: ordinarily talkative students opt out of discussions, and naturally inquisitive children stop asking questions.  Those who were previously eager to learn may demonstrate a loss of motivation or an avoidance of risks and challenges in learning.  

Understanding the Condition
Sometimes negativity is the upshot of ineffective teaching practice.  Before you attempt to alter the way your students respond to learning, ask if your own choices have contributed to the problem.  Does your teaching style include variety, for example?  Are you providing opportunities for the students to move around occasionally or to take an active role in their learning?  Do you invite student input regarding any of the topics they study or about the methods they use for exploring those topics?  Does your content provide adequate challenge?  Are you working to ensure that every child has opportunity to experience success?  If any of these aspects of effective teaching is lacking, the cure to student negativity may lie in adjusting your own approach.

On the other hand, if you’re doing your best to account for the needs of your students—and continually striving to improve—then it’s time to look for clues among the children themselves.  Try to determine who is driving the problem and why.

You see, student negativity is a strain of attitude germ.  Outbreaks of attitude germ usually begin when one or two influential students become infected and spread the virus to others.  As a result, some children will demonstrate symptoms in order to secure the approval of dominant classmates.  Others may bottle up their appetite for learning out of fear.  Effective treatments for negativity, therefore, address both instigators and those affected by their behavior.

Remedies for Instigators
Outside of class, initiate a conversation with the person you believe is causing the trouble.  Watch your tone, though: like other types of attitude germ, the negativity bug is resistant to change.  For this reason, adults often feel led to intimidate or threaten instigators; but most children become defensive or stubborn when they are addressed in that manner.  A non-confrontational approach opens the door to honesty—and hopefully—a willingness to change.

Furthermore, even though your goal is to foster a change in attitude, avoid comments that refer to the person's attitude.  Our attitudes reflect what lies in our hearts, so we naturally protect ourselves from accusations about our attitudes.  Likewise, students put up walls when they hear adults say “Your behavior is disrespectful,” or “You need to change that attitude,” or “Stop being so negative.”  Instead of zooming in on the person’s attitude, focus on the behavior and the effects of that behavior.

The teacher’s side of a behavior-effects conversation might sound like this: “You’ve been turning out some really expressive yawns in my class.  Are you tired, or is something else going on?”  Later in the dialogue, the teacher could explain: “When people yawn loudly, it’s usually a way of saying—without words—that a person or an activity is boring.  Your habit makes me feel like I stink at teaching, and it spoils the interest that others have for learning.”

In addition, perturbed adults often forget to listen when they talk with students about behavior.  Yet listening is crucial.  For one, listening helps you to determine the cause of the negativity so that you can properly address the problem.  It also models the kind of behavior you would like to see in students.  Finally, if a person feels upset about a problem that you are unable to change, allowing that person to vent can relieve some of the frustration that has led to the behavior and reduce the child’s need for acting out.

As you listen, avoid defensiveness and demonstrate a desire to work things out.  Perhaps the student’s negativity was the result of a poor decision you have made.  If so, apologize and assure the person that you will use better judgment in the future.  Maybe the student finds your class to be dull and uninteresting.  Can he or she suggest a way of learning that would seem more engaging, without sacrificing the quality of learning?  If yes, then offer to make adjustments.

Lastly, if your conversations aren’t making an impact, identify a few specific behaviors that you would like to abate and design a consequence for those behaviors.  Teachers are sometimes reluctant to issue penalties for fear of worsening the problem, but consequences themselves do not aggravate negativity; rather, it’s the teacher’s approach that stirs up resentment or soothes it.  Use calmness and respect to speak into a person’s heart.  Employ consequences—if needed—to show you are committed solving the problem.

Remedies for Classrooms
How can you free the rest of your class from the hold of dominant children who propagate resistance to learning?  One essential to keep in mind is that instigators of negativity often desire attention or a feeling of power.  Each time we react to their behaviors, we yield both attention and control to those students—and encourage others to follow their lead.  Respond, then, with age-appropriate positive attention for any behavior that contributes to the learning community, but be stingy about drawing attention to actions that obstruct learning.  Empower individuals to express grievances in respectful ways, and try to confront students about negative behavior in private.

More importantly, remember that the success of any discipline strategy depends upon state of the classroom climate.  Instead of fighting negativity, then, work to create a classroom climate that focuses on learning.  Model an interest in learning, for example, by the way you share your content, and make room for students' questions and original ideas.

A positive classroom atmosphere is not easy to build amid resistant students, unfortunately.  My book, Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline, addresses many of the questions that arise when teachers strive to alter their classroom atmosphere: How can I stop reflecting the negativity of my students and become a transforming influence instead?  What can be done to capture the interest of students when my enthusiasm is not enough?  How can I shift the dynamics in a classroom where negativity is winning the day?  How can I provide discipline that fosters a change of heart, in addition to a change in behavior?

Additionally, a free discussion guide is now available for group study.  Send a request by e-mail if you would like one (access e-mail in the profile section).

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Got a Score to Settle With Misbehaving Students?

Retribution can be gratifying.  That sense of balance we crave in our lives is somehow restored when wrongdoers are compelled to pay for their wrongs. 

Naturally, teachers also want to give mischief-makers and rule-breakers what they’ve got coming.  How can a person maintain order in the classroom without penalties for misbehavior? 

Unfortunately, a retributive view of discipline leads teachers to respond in ways that compound the problem of resistance in students.  Harshness, humiliation, and biting sarcasm give rise to resentment or embarrassment, prompting students either to fight back or to withdraw from learning activities.  Is there a better way to address wrongdoing in young people?

A heart-centered approach to classroom discipline holds students accountable for their behavior while also encouraging right behavior.  This approach adheres to the biblical theme of grace.  Let’s explore this theme and the way it relates to classroom discipline.

The price for our wrongdoing has already been paid.  Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross has cancelled the penalty that was owed for sin.  The punishment we deserve is paid in full!  Contrary to what we may be inclined to believe, however, this wonderful reality does not cancel the need for discipline.  Instead, it changes the focus of discipline.  Responding to misbehavior is no longer about making others pay; it’s about helping young people to avoid the outcomes of a wrongful path.

Allow me to explain.  Children who control others through bullying not only make life miserable for their victims; they acquire habits that may prevent them from forming meaningful, loving relationships.  In addition, students who habitually make negative comments in class not only stifle curiosity and risk-taking in their classmates; they fail to benefit from the good that others have to offer.  Furthermore, those who show disregard for authority not only turn their teachers into crabs; they miss out on the guidance that they could gain from adults.  To sum it up, children who attempt to meet their needs in self-centered ways often wind up hurting themselves, in addition to others.

How does this perspective change discipline?  Because the debt for our wrongs has been cancelled, discipline isn’t about giving children what they deserve; it’s about providing what students need.

What do misbehaving students really need?  First, erring students need teachers who understand that behavior is driven by various motives, so they need teachers who consider what lies beneath the surface when they respond to misbehavior.  Second, wayward children need to see the effects of their behavior upon themselves and others, and they need to accept responsibility for that behavior.  Finally, because people who feel attacked or humiliated are less likely to accept responsibility for what they have done, misbehaving children need to be treated with respect.

Where is the accountability in discipline that is guided by grace?  I want to clear up a common misunderstanding about grace.  Adults often presume that, in order to show grace, they must withhold discipline.  “I’ll give you grace this time, but next time...”.  But grace does not leave misbehaving children stuck in their wrongful ways.  Instead, grace is a gift that can provide what young people need in order to help them escape the path of wrong and learn to love the good.

In situations where the standard consequence for a particular misbehavior would alienate children or foster resentment and more wrongful behavior, teachers may choose to talk with wrongdoers in lieu of a penalty—or provide an alternative consequence.  Such responses are sometimes the best way to redirect students back to the right path. 

In other situations, children may need an imposed consequence in order to understand that their teachers are serious and that their behavior cannot be tolerated.  If consequences are given in ways that help young people to see their wrong for what it is—and if they foster a desire to turn from that wrong—those consequences also are a form of grace.

How can grace and discipline function together?  A recent discipline situation that I addressed at school may help to illustrate the blending of grace and discipline.

One of our larger sixth graders (I'll call him Patrick) was pulling a smaller classmate under his arm through the hallway.  I knew that Patrick meant no harm because I could see that his "victim" was laughing.  However, his stunt was clearly outside our rules for hallway behavior, so I gave him our standard penalty for horseplay, "community service."

The consequence was relatively light: he was required to spend five minutes cleaning in the lunchroom after he finished eating the next day.  Another teacher supervised the penalty because I was scheduled to attend a meeting.  When I returned to school, the teacher told me that Patrick did the work, but he also complained that he had done nothing wrong and that his consequence was unfair.  So, I initiated a conversation with Patrick the next time I saw him.  Our talk went something like this:

"Patrick, I heard that you were upset about having to clean up in the lunchroom yesterday."
"Yeah.  I didn't do anything wrong."
"I saw you pulling your friend through the hallway under your arm.  That's horseplay."
"Well, other people do it to me!"
"Who has done that to you lately?
"I don't know.  Lots of people."
"Where does this happen?"
"In the classroom."
"Does it happen in my classroom?"
"I would like to know who is doing this to you if you can tell me."
"I can't think of anybody right now, but other people do it, too."
"You're probably right, and that's why we watch students between classes: we want to know if anyone is behaving this way."
"But what's the big deal?  I wasn't hurting him."
"I know.  Students at your age sometimes like to show friendship through roughhousing.  But there are others who could get hurt by it, so we can't allow it inside."
(Long pause).  "Okay."
"Do you think I was being fair when I assigned the consequence?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Okay, thanks.  You may go back to class now."

Both the consequence and the follow-up conversation endeavored to provide Patrick with the "needs" of misbehaving students.  Because the motive of his behavior was to show friendship, for example, my response was different from the way I might respond to a bullying incident.  In addition, the respectful dialogue softened Patrick's defenses, so that he could consider my point of view in addition to his own.  Finally, the penalty was my way of holding Patrick responsible for his behavior, but my conversation helped him to accept responsibility for his behavior.

Discipline strategies that promote grace are most effective within the context of a heart-centered classroom climate.  If you are interested in discovering practical ways to build a heart-centered climate, you may find my recent book, Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline, to be a useful guide.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Down in the Dumps about Classroom Behavior?

If you’re feeling cranky or depressed about student behavior, a fresh perspective could improve your state of mind and reveal solutions that were previously hidden.

The power that student attitudes hold over the outlooks of others is a phenomenon known on this blog as “attitude germ.”  As I have said before, the motivating forces beneath behavior act like microbes that break free from their original hosts and spread to other victims.  Sometimes one or two willful students influence the mindset and behavior of a class, but resistant children can also affect the outlooks of their teachers.  Eventually we’ll get to remedies for dealing with attitudes that spread among students; this post is devoted to the breed that attacks teachers.

I am familiar with the cloud of funk that hangs over adults when students are unmanageable, and I’ve also behaved like a curmudgeon around unruly kids.  When situations seem impossible to change, it helps to step back and recheck one’s point of view.  Motivational theory is a sound place to begin if a person is seeking to understand and influence student behavior.  However, the narrative of Scripture is what helps me to make sense of wrongdoing and find the inspiration to face it.

I’d like to share the way this narrative has shaped my outlook on teaching and discipline.  My intention is not to persuade you that this view is the only way to interpret student behavior.  Instead, I merely wish to be transparent about my presumptions regarding classroom discipline.  Let’s look at two related, biblically based assumptions about students:

First, children are not mass-produced; they are created.  In many school settings, the work of an imaginative Creator is evident in racial or ethnic diversity.  However, we also see the Creator’s touch in various personalities and behavior tendencies.

Unfortunately, a diverse set of personalities or dispositions does not always harmonize with our desire for efficiency in schooling.  We value students who conform to our instructional methods and management systems because they spur productivity—they make us feel proficient in our work.  Those who diverge from our expectations, on the other hand, bring about frustration—they are not as easily shaped or controlled.

One remedy for the frustration is to stop viewing students through a “factory mindset”—where all children must conform to the same standards—and begin to view young people instead through a “creation mindset.”  A creation mindset presumes that children are different by design.  This model searches out the fingerprints of the Creator in each child, even in those who seem prone to choose wrong over right.

Where do we look for the positive traits in young people who aggravate us?  Ironically, the helpful aspects are often flip-sides of the flaws.  Peter, whose eyes never seemed to focus on the front of the classroom, could always direct me to items I had misplaced.  Cassidy sometimes manipulated her friends into complaining about my teaching; but if I ever needed to tend to an interruption or emergency, she would skillfully take over the lesson and move the class into the next activity.  Daniel’s impulsiveness required constant monitoring, but he regularly lightened my mood with his funny remarks.  Regardless of where the gifts lie—whether they appear as reverse sides of faults, or whether they are more isolated in nature—those redeemable aspects are easier to find if one begins with the presumption that every child has them.

Focusing on the strengths or aptitudes of difficult students is a helpful first step in overcoming attitude germ, but how might a creation mindset help us to cultivate a change in student attitudes?  The solution lies in a second assumption about the nature of children.

Students are persons, not products.  Even though God could have designed people as robots and programmed us to behave exactly as he wanted, he chose instead to make us truly alive.  As humans, we possess the capacity to sense or perceive the things that happen around us.  We were also made to think, to feel, and to act in response to our thoughts and emotions.  In essence, our attitudes—the tendency to behave according to our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings—are a key aspect that separates us from machinery.

Despite the fact that teachers work with persons, however, we often treat students as products.  We choose the lesson content and instructional strategies, and we determine the rules and consequences, often before the students even arrive.  Effective teachers make plans, of course, but when we forget to consider the thoughts or questions of our students, we miss something fundamental about their nature and invite resistance.

To illustrate an approach that views students as persons instead of products, I will share some strategies.  Please note, however: teaching and discipline strategies rely upon classroom climate for success.  My recent book offers practical suggestions for changing a classroom climate that has gone sour.  The ideas listed below are most effective in classrooms where teachers are working toward that sort of climate.

Each of the following strategies for teaching seeks to acknowledge the reality that people have different ways of seeing things:
  • When you launch into a new unit, consider inviting students to generate questions about the things that make them curious.  This practice works best, by the way, when teachers use a preview to build interest.  Photos, stories, short activities, and discrepant events are great ways to conduct previews.
  • Whenever possible, explore the questions students ask, but don’t forget to voice your own questions about the subject matter.
  • Of course, single-answer questions are sometimes necessary in school: What is the volume of that box?  Which character screamed?  Where do plants get their energy?  What is a “crescendo?"  However, open-ended questions invite students to connect and to make meaning: How did you find the volume of your box?  Why did the author make that person scream?  What kind of experiment would prove what you said about plants?  How does the crescendo change this song?"
  • Do your best to avoid defensiveness when someone disagrees with you.  Instead, model a desire to learn from those who hold different viewpoints.  Children are more inclined to listen and to learn from adults who take the thoughts of children seriously.
Discipline strategies presume that students operate according to their way of seeing and that changing a perception requires building and maintaining a person's trust.
  • If you use calmness in confrontations, wrongdoers are more likely to speak honestly and to take responsibility for their behavior.
  • When confronting, avoid statements that judge a person’s character: You’ve been disrespectful.  You’re unmotivated.  Why can’t you understand?  Focus instead on the specific actions of the student and on the ways those actions affect others.
  • Listen to the person’s explanation of his or her behavior without interrupting or “pouncing” when you sense a discrepancy or detect a lie.
  • If you need to impose a consequence for misbehavior, find ways to communicate that you still care about the student as a person.
  • Don’t despair if a person’s attitude appears unaltered after you confront; fostering change in the hearts of others takes time.
In sum, the remedy for attitude germ begins with a new perspective that includes learning to see each child as a unique creation with a distinctive set of gifts and shortcomings.  Furthermore, viewing students as persons enables teachers to become a transforming influence in their classrooms.  Next month’s post continues the discussion of attitude germ with a look at the nature of wrongdoing and the nature of grace.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Unearthing Attitudes (Part Two)

“I’m ready to quit my job.  These students just don’t respect me.”

“Well, I hate to break this to you, but most kids don’t instinctively fall in love with their teachers.  What have you done to earn their respect?”

“Oh, please!  They preached that stuff to us in undergrad, and I’ve tried it all: showing interest in students’ personal lives, teaching with enthusiasm, and staying consistent with discipline.  But some of the kids won’t even look at me when I talk to them.  They act bored or whine when I teach, and half of them treat my classroom management plan like a joke. 

“Bummer.  What do the other grade-level teachers say?”

“They tell me the same kids are fine in their classrooms.  It’s like I said: these students just don’t have any respect for me.”

Disrespect is a classic attitude issue, especially as it relates to the interpretation of “attitude” that I shared in October.  First, disrespect is a perception, a way of seeing.  Second, various emotions, such as contempt or indifference, may accompany that perception.  Finally, the attitude of disrespect is often manifested in certain behaviors.

Unfortunately, the attitudes of students often affect the emotions and behaviors of teachers, and the problem of disrespect is no exception.  I call this phenomenon the “attitude germ.”   Two reactions to disrespectful behavior are common among teachers.  Some perceive it as an assault: they tend to feel vindictive and use discipline as a form of retaliation.  Others conclude that the issue lies with a deficiency in their own personality or teaching: they may feel inadequate and become discouraged.  Of course, the two reactions occasionally go hand in hand.  Teachers who feel incompetent amid disrespectful students, for example, might try to prove themselves with discipline that is more severe.

I would like to offer another interpretation of disrespect, one that leaves us with more hope than the two inferences I just shared.  Before I do, though, allow me to make one point clear: disrespectful behavior in the classroom is intolerable.  Over the course of time, this blog will feature a variety of strategies for addressing problems related to respect.  However, because the true identities of attitudes are easily mistaken, adults sometimes respond to disrespectful behavior in ways that escalate the problem.  Seeking to understand what is occurring beneath the surface leads to better choices in responding.  Let's take a look now at an alternative way to consider the problem of disrespect in students.

Disregard for authority is often related to a lack of trust in one's teachers.  You see, closely related to the perceptions component of attitudes is a fourth element occasionally mentioned in attitude theories: the beliefs aspect.  The way we perceive things is often colored as much by what we do not see as it is determined by what we do see or experience.  Regarding the problem with respect, students sometimes think, feel, and act in relation to their presumptions about teachers instead of holding attitudes that reflect a teachers’ actual behavior.

Various factors can contribute to such an ill-founded view.  Students may prejudge teachers on their rules, the appearance of their classrooms, or their clothing style.  They may also form impressions according to reports that they hear from other students.  Children who feel that they have been treated unfairly in a particular situation, for example, may retaliate by convincing classmates that the teacher is unkind.  As a result, children who normally display a positive regard for authority can turn uncharacteristically negative or obstinate.  Their beliefs about the teacher play a bigger role in determining their attitude toward the teacher than their actual experiences do. 

How do we address respect issues that stem from a lack of trust?  How might we respond when students’ impressions are misguided?  Building, or rebuilding, their trust is crucial.  I have experienced favorable outcomes by focusing in three areas.

First, as one of the teachers in the opening dialogue suggested, show respect for students.  Act with courtesy, even in the process of discipline.  Confront in private—not in front of others—and exercise calmness when you need to impose consequences for misbehavior.  Try to avoid group penalties if the instigators of a problem can be determined.  Finally, show unconditional respect: don’t allow behavior or academic performance to affect the way you relate to children.  Show consideration for all of your students, all of the time.

Second, demonstrate transparency in decisions that affect the members of your class.  Teachers tend to feel attacked—or disrespected—when students complain about the choices they make.  However, if you genuinely desire a classroom climate where learning is meaningful, where students feel safe and have an opportunity to succeed, then you have no reason to become defensive when someone questions your decisions.  Of course, young people should be taught to voice their objections in respectful ways.  My students are asked to write me a note or to talk with me at break time, for example.  But if you suspect that a problem with respect may be related to a lack of trust, developing a pattern of openness is an effective way to increase that trust.

Third, try asking your students for their input.  This suggestion may seem outlandish: when young people fail to show due regard for authority, the last thing we may think they need—or deserve—is more power.  The logic behind seeking input can be found in motivational theory.  Social psychologists have long known about a basic human need for control: when we have no choices about things that matter to us, we tend to find ways to regain control, even if our methods are incongruous with our other values, such as honesty or respect.  Inviting students to share their opinions does not require turning one’s classroom into a democracy.  Instead, begin by thinking of a few areas in the instruction or management of your classroom where you could afford some flexibility and allow students to offer their suggestions.  As I look back, two of the most dramatic shifts I have seen, in regard to issues of respect, occurred when I finally stopped fighting with students and started paying attention to what they were trying to tell me.  Inviting input builds trust in authority and dispels disrespect.

To summarize, our beliefs influence our perceptions in the same way that our actual experiences do.  Therefore, teachers can cultivate respect in students by earning their trust.  By now you may be wondering: how can we know if disrespectful behavior stems from a lack of trust or if it is pure defiance?  In most cases, we cannot determine the true nature of an attitude.  Therefore, I recommend presuming that the problem is a trust issue and respond in the ways that I have already outlined.  In addition, whereas external control over attitudes is an unrealistic goal, we can insist on respectful behaviors.  As I said a moment ago, my students are required to air their complaints with discreetness.

Next, we will begin to address that troublesome “attitude germ.”  Amid our struggles with resistant children, how can we inoculate ourselves against the temptation to retaliate or to become discouraged?  If you are looking for more immediate advice on dealing with discipline issues in the classroom, you might try my book Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline.  Until next time, I would encourage you to think of ways to increase the trust of your students in you as their teacher.