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.

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