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Reframing: Seeing Students in a New Way

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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There has been a lot of talk lately of what makes a good teacher. It is easy to make lists of hundreds of values, skills and attributes that make for good teachers, but there are two skills that separate the good teachers from the great ones. One skill is the ability to "reframe" a situation for students, which I will discuss today. The other, which I've mentioned in earlier posts, is the recognition that "fair is not equal." I will devote next month's post to some specific teaching techniques which build on this.

Redefining the Event

Reframing is having the insight to interpret events in different ways -- and to choose interpretations that lead to better outcomes. The truth is, we don't act on what children do, we respond to the name we give it. Since interpretation can be heavily subjective -- and since we can't always know of our students' intentions -- we never know which name is the correct one. Thus, we have the freedom to choose any name that leads to the best possible outcome. Is a student who sticks to his view "resolute," meaning that he doesn't quit when things get tough? Or is he "stubborn and out to get me"? Which interpretation helps you reach the student and leads to a better resolution of the issue? If you see a student in the hall talking to friends when class is about to start, which interaction leads to a better result?

  1. Teacher 1 frames the student as irresponsible: "Get into your seat now; it's time for you to learn some responsibility."
  2. Teacher 2 frames the student as being a loyal friend: "I'm glad your friends are so important to you, but it's time to start class, and I want you to be in your seat. Later we can discuss ways to talk to your friends without missing class time."

Notice that in both cases the student must sit down, so even when we reframe the situation, as Teacher 2 did, we still aren't letting students get away with inappropriate behavior or conning us to reduce the consequence for it.

A Vivid Example

Here is a powerful example of bravery from a teacher who used the reframing tool and more than likely saved a severely troubled young girl’s life.

My friend Sally Blake was once a third grade teacher for emotionally disturbed and learning disabled children at Graceland School in Kansas City, Missouri. One of her students, Rachel, was sexually and physically abused at a very young age, and had severe learning difficulties. She was now living in a foster care home, one of the several in which she had been placed over a relatively short period of time. One day some students teased Rachel. She began crying and lifted up her blouse exposing the scars that still remained from beatings. "None of you know what it’s like to be me; none of y'all were ever beaten like me."

The students, shocked by what they saw, formed a circle around her and said, "No one ever insults Rachel again or they will answer to us. We will protect you, Rachel." Later that day, Rachel sat in Sally's lap and said softly, "You are the only person I can trust, Miss Blake, because I know you will never hurt me."

The next morning Sally caught Rachel stealing items from her pocketbook. Sally was livid after what Rachel had said the day before, and was ready to call the police. After several discussions, we examined thoroughly what was going on, and thought of what Rachel had said. If Sally was the only one Rachel could trust, then she couldn't trust her current foster parents. Maybe Rachel was stealing so she could have a piece of Sally at home to make her feel safe and loved. We decided that Sally would try a unique approach and not treat Rachel like everybody else. Sally reframed theft as Rachel expressing a need for love and security. With great courage mixed with a sufficient supply of anxiety, Sally gave Rachel one of her fancy belts and told her, "Wear this belt whenever you need me, and imagine that it is me wrapping my arms around you." This incident exemplifies the best of reframing. Most students who steal cannot be given a present for it. But Rachel was not like most students.

A year later, Rachel was institutionalized. When Sally went to visit, the staff told her that the belt might have saved Rachel's life. Institutions do not allow patients to have belts, strings or any other item that could be used for self-harm. But Rachel's need for the belt was strong enough to convince the staff that the belt was special, and they let her keep it while monitoring her closely. Rachel clutched to it during a severe period of depression and kept repeating that Miss Blake loved her. Without the belt, the staff believed, she might not have pulled through.

Positive Impact

This reframing would not work in most cases, but I use this example because it's such a powerful reflection on what reframing can do. Great teachers are those that have the ability to pick the best way to resolve issues with the best possible result. This takes practice, a willingness to see beyond the obvious, and great courage.

How have you used reframing in your classroom and what is the impact you've seen?

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mindy Keller- Kyriakides's picture
Mindy Keller- Kyriakides
High school english teacher and blogger.

This is a powerful point to make, Richard, and I'm so glad you provide a concrete example for teachers! I used a similar method with my high school students, but I called it my "Positive Presumption". I presumed they had a reason for whatever it was they were doing, or I presumed that they really didn't understand that what they were doing was wrong or inappropriate. Thus, my reactions to perceived negative behavior were not an immediate, "Stop that!" but more thoughtful or surprised. Since my perception of the students was not an immediate negative one, they responded more favorably to a redirect. It's hard to "live down" how someone sees us! : )

Jen Q's picture
Jen Q
Kindergarten Teacher, Seattle, WA

I completely agree Richard. As a kindergarten teacher I often have students making mistakes (it's how we all learn) and approaching these with the attitude described above in the "sit down" scenario is by far the most productive and integrity saving way to interact with students. Students, especially at this young age, often just have a different idea of what to do and need to be given the words of what they are doing (talking with friends) and what right now they need to do (sit down) and how you can still do the other positive thing...just not right now.

ritaste's picture
From a Nurse to a Teacher

Although, I do not have a lot of experience in the classroom as a teacher, I can provide a different perspective as an older student. Even though, I did not have behavioral issues like the student in the article. I had issues that adults have in their lives, whether it is children or caring for an older parent. Many of the teachers in my program did not have compassion for their students and the responsibilities that these students had in life. If a student did not turn an assignment in or it was late he or she received a zero. All the students were treated equal, but many times it was not fair. The ability for a teacher to re-frame his or hers interpretation is essential to the relationship between the students and teachers. Teachers who choose not to accept this skill as a responsibility to his or her students are doing them an great injustice.

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