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.