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.

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