“You need to change your attitude!”
“I am so frustrated with these kids. All they give me is attitude!”
The greatest challenges in classroom discipline lie not with mere behavior but with the spirit that occasionally drives behavior. Why are uncooperative attitudes so difficult to address? For one, they’re elusive. Outward actions (such as talking back, tuning out in class, and refusing to share) may be limited through rules and consequences. However, motivating forces (like disrespect, self-centeredness, and apathy) are seldom dislodged through behavior plans alone.
That slippery nature of attitudes became real to me early on in my teaching experience. On one occasion, I devised a rule to end derogatory comments in class, only to see the malice that drove those remarks spring up in new places. For example, not long after I announced my new consequence for putdowns in class, the jocks in the group began a pattern of standing by our classroom door and whispering to each other as the girls walked in.
Another directive about complaining during lessons extinguished the problem of grumbling, but it failed to smother the attitude that was sparking the opposition. After a day or two, a handful of disgruntled students convinced the others to slam their books on their desks as they entered my classroom and then talk to each other continuously while I tried to teach.
Beyond that elusive, slippery nature of attitudes, there exists another dimension that adds to the challenge of responding: uncooperative students tend to affect the attitudes and behaviors of others. Have you ever noticed that teaching is easier when certain class members are absent? The motivating forces beneath behavior often act like microbes that break free from their original hosts and spread to other victims.
One example of a contagious attitude is disgruntlement, as well as its classic symptom, bellyaching. If the bug infects a leader in the classroom, that discontent soon spreads to others. Prejudice and apathy are other communicable conditions. Those shunned by an individual with influence, for example, can become a target of avoidance or harassment among others. Likewise, young people who avoid learning sometimes stifle the motivation in their classmates.
Unfortunately, the attitude germ also takes its toll on the outlooks of teachers. When students avoid learning or resist correction, we may assume that the behavior is about us. It is almost as if the misdeeds were an attempt to expose our deficiencies or self-worth. As a result of this frame of mind, two different and yet related conditions often develop.
First, resistance in children may lead to discouragement in teachers. In the face of student obstinacy, have you ever questioned your effectiveness as a teacher or even your value as a person? It’s difficult to keep oneself inspired among young people who lack motivation—or who seem motivated only to do wrong. I am no stranger to the funk that hangs over teachers when negative attitudes dominate the classroom. During my most recent bout, which lasted nearly three years, I even considered changing occupations—until it occurred to me that quitting my job would probably undermine my credibility as an author on classroom discipline! The fallback factory position, though enticing, just wasn’t an option. Thankfully, through reflection and research, I eventually learned ways to overcome the discouragement and once again provide the guidance that my wayward students needed.
Another condition that may develop as a result of student obstinacy is a mindset of retaliation. In reaction to students who defy rules or resist learning, adults sometimes attempt to overpower the opposition through discipline that is harsh or vindictive. Consequences then become a form of payback instead of a tool for correcting. Regretfully, I have also exercised harmful approaches—like sarcasm and humiliation—in an attempt to gain control over resistant students.
Of course, the discouragement germ and the vengeful germ can also become intertwined with each other. Teachers who experience feelings of inadequacy, for instance, may retaliate against students in order to protect themselves or to mask their discouragement.
“Heart-centered classroom climate and discipline” is an approach to working with children in ways that engage motives as well as behaviors. It provides a model for those who wish to become a transforming influence in their classrooms instead of caving in to student negativity or reciprocating it. The heart-centered approach is more than a management system or a behavior plan. Even though heart-centered teachers may choose to employ systems that concur with their beliefs about children, they understand that management plans depend upon the larger context of classroom climate for their success.
In my recent book, Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline, I describe the heart-centered approach and provide suggestions for building a positive classroom atmosphere among children who resist their teachers, who antagonize each other, or who avoid learning. The book also offers practical assistance to teachers who want to “aim for the heart” in the discipline strategies they choose.
The purpose of this blog is to furnish a monthly supply of encouragement and advice for teachers who struggle with uncooperative children. In the next two posts, I will share my perspective on negative attitudes. How might we understand the motives behind misdeeds in the classroom? Then, after a brief survey of the heart-centered approach, we will take a look at ideas for addressing that other challenge about student resistance: the attitude germ. How do we inoculate ourselves against student recalcitrance so that we can guide young people in the right way instead of succumbing to their negativity? Finally, in the months that follow, I will present various issues and scenarios related to negative attitudes and share workable solutions for responding according to a heart-centered mindset.
Keep in mind that the suggestions shared on this blog are to be seen as illustrations of a heart-centered approach in action—not as formulas or recipes for behavior problems. You and I are different people, and the children you teach are not the children I teach. Teachers need to consider the various factors that play into discipline situations before responding. In addition, the suggestions provided here will work most effectively in the context of a classroom climate that focuses on the heart. Readers who wish to concentrate solely on student behavior—and not on the spirit that drives behavior—should look elsewhere for guidance.
Until next time, I wish you blessings as you work with the young people in your care!