I was recently at an intermediate school observing the classrooms of teachers who had signed up for assistance in working with one or more of their difficult students. As expected, I saw a range of inappropriate behaviors among the kids I was asked to observe, including Keegan wandering around the room, Carlton with his head on the desk, Shaleesha and Louisa bickering over a pencil, and Manny making squeaky noises. Later on, I met with each of five teachers to discuss their concerns and explore strategies.
While every teacher had no trouble reciting a litany of these students' disruptive behaviors, I was amazed that, three months into the school year, not one was able to tell me any of the students' favorite out-of-school interest, hobby, or activity. Hiding my shock, I suggested that it might be a good idea to engage each student to discover these things so that, going forward, they might be better prepared to reach out and connect in a positive way.
Perhaps it's unfair to generalize from this small sample, but these five teachers, although frustrated by those students, struck me as caring people truly dedicated to turning them around. Further, the teachers probably had numerous prior opportunities to connect with each student -- and probably thought that they'd tried. In fact, virtually every teacher claims to care about all students when asked. Yet I wondered if any of these kids actually felt cared about. In fact, student surveys consistently find that fewer than half believe their teachers care about them. I would guess that the numbers are even lower among the behaviorally challenging population.
Why the disconnect? And what are the remedies?
1. Too Much Reliance on Consequences
Consequences work only when someone cares more about what is lost than gained because of their behavior. Losing recess because you didn't do your work is only effective if a student's need for recess is greater than what he gets in class by not doing it. The threat of losing sports eligibility may at best work during the season but rarely beyond. Suspension only works when kids care more about being in class than being out. Restorative justice works when students believe that the system cares about them. Notice that the operative word for effectiveness is care. Most tough kids rightly or wrongly feel like unwanted outsiders and therefore don't allow these methods to work.
In order for consequences to work, the student must see the teacher as an insider. Consider the answers to these questions: Does my teacher. . .
- Know what I'm afraid of?
- Know what I'm proud of?
- Know what I'm anxious to talk about?
- Recognize my interests, dreams and disappointments?
- Openly share who he or she is?
- Know me?
If not, we're viewed as someone trying to wield power, and we become yet another enemy to be resisted.
2. Failure to Connect
Since most challenging students build walls to protect themselves from disappointment or worse, it takes time, effort, and patience to become an insider.
Make it a daily priority to:
- Greet tough kids in a friendly way: "Good to see you."
- Get to know how they are outside of class: "What do you like to do when you aren't in school?"
- Learn about their hopes: "If you could spend more time with someone, who would it be?"
- Learn about their dreams: "When I was a kid, I remember wanting to be a fireman. What about you?"
- Share your own story of successes and failures.
Even with all of this, most kids will continue to visit their old behaviors as they are acquiring new ones. So expect backsliding, and when it occurs, view it as a sign that positive changes are beginning to take hold.
3. Lack of Dialogue, Negotiation, and Agreement
How effective have you found this approach to be for promoting an apology?
Matthew, that was a nasty, inappropriate, hurtful thing to say. Apologize to Briana right now, and I don't want to hear that again! Move your card to yellow right now [or some other consequence].
Good discipline should be a trigger for reflection and insight, not an action that results solely in pain or pleasure. In his book The Village Way, Chaim Peri speaks of the DNA of effective discipline -- meaningful punishment as a process of dialogue, negotiation, and agreement (DNA). While the following approach to promote an apology is more time-consuming, it's also more likely to promote empathy and insight:
Matthew, how do you feel when someone says nasty, hurtful things to you? What would you want that person to say or do that might make you feel better? I know I'd feel upset and maybe mad, and I'd want someone to apologize and really mean it. Unless you can think of a different way to make things better, I think a good start would be apologizing to Briana for the hurt you caused. I also wonder if moving your card from green to yellow would help you remember not to say that again. What do you think?
Initiating this kind of dialogue with a youngster who breaks rules requires that we share how the behavior is problematic for us, others, or the student. This affords the student an opportunity to explore other ways of getting his needs met. It's an opportunity to let him see you as someone who sets limits, yet can also share the personal experience of remembering when adults set limits for you. By doing this, you encourage input from and possible negotiation with the student, leading to agreement.
I discuss all this and much more in my book Connecting With Students.
What are your thoughts about traveling a road to change that runs through connections rather than consequences? What strategies have you found helpful? Please share in the comments section below.