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).

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