George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"So many people (children and youth) are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully if only you were interested in them." - Sylvia Plath

I was thinking this afternoon of the misunderstood "language" from developing children and adolescents that we often receive as educators. This is the type of language that catches us off guard as we posture for the perfect discipline-minded "one-up" response. Sometimes it feels frustrating -- and actually downright awful -- when we hear our reactions unintentionally mirroring those anxious or angry emotions, personalizing these conversations when, in actuality, it has nothing to do with us!

The Meaning Behind the Language

Every day, we observe these developing minds and hearts as our students try to find their place, purpose, and way in the world. My question is: If we could decode and understand what is possibly being stated beneath a lexicon that feels inappropriate, disrespectful and hurtful, would we choose different responses and communication strategies? I believe we would.

Below are some recent examples of student responses that I've heard over the past few months and years in moments of hopelessness, shame, intense anger, and escalating conflict. I've arranged the student response and the possible deeper meaning or underlying feelings side by side.

What They Say   What They May Be Trying to Say
F*ck you!   I'm so angry, and you cannot possibly understand how I feel!
Go ahead, I don't care.   Nothing matters right now, and whatever you say to me or do to me will just add to the troubles I am facing and feeling!
Whatever!   We are so far apart on our views, it doesn't matter, because you will never walk my walk.
You think I care?   What you don't realize is that I am protecting myself and defending all I have -- myself!
I wasn't even talking! You didn't get mad at her!   Life feels very unfair to me, and no matter what I say, when I say it, or what I do, it's always my fault.
Oh. My. God!!   Once again, you are so far away from understanding or hearing me! I don't even want a relationship with you! I can not trust you!
I'm over it.   I need you to give me some space and time. Come back when you're ready to listen to learn instead of just listening so you can respond.

From my experiences and perspective, all of these responses originate from a perception of lack and scarcity. They are stating, "I am not enough," along with the pain-based thinking of shame. Feelings of shame create a self-protective and self-destructive cycle, and teachers often see this pattern more than any other adult. I believe this is why functional behavioral assessments are so helpful, because engaging in this process leads educators to look at the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of an event or experience.

7 Ways to Begin a Dialogue

The most helpful strategy in this type of escalating conflict is really not a strategy, but a way of being in dialogue, checking in with "you" and recognizing the pressure-filled moments in the relational atmosphere. Our students are closely observing our responses. If modeling is one of the best practices we can employ, then modeling kind and personally detached dialogue is key in understanding so many of our students' underlying needs.

Questions are processed in the brain long after they have been asked, so the power of providing a question for deepened understanding presents an opportunity for our children and teens to answer in a completely different tone and direction. Sometimes we feel almost frantic to get the consequence into place -- right now! We can provide a consequence, but we can also wait to provide it until we are able to feel more neutrality between us.

The following questions and invitations call for a period of reflection between a negative reaction and a needed conversation.

  1. I know you are so angry! I also feel that I could never know what it feels like to be in your shoes. But if you want to share what happened, I can promise you I will listen -- and listen hard.

  2. It must feel so frustrating to come into this classroom and always feel that you are being picked on, or you are unable to do something successfully! What can I do? What do you need from me to feel even just a little better this morning?

  3. Is there anything about you, your life, or experiences that you could share so that I could know more about how we can work this out together?

  4. I am learning every day, just as you are, and honestly, I become frustrated sometimes that I don't have enough time for getting to know everyone better. What more can you share that would help me understand?

  5. Do you think we could create a plan for the two of us? How could we develop some type of communication or agreement where we meet each other halfway? (This could be a behavior agreement, homework agreement, etc.)

  6. Do you think or feel at some point that you might want to share your challenges or frustrations with other students, and then share your plan of action with them? I see your strong mind and hot emotions, and these form a perfect equation for being a leader! How could you serve others in our school as you learn more about yourself? Could we make a plan for this over the semester or next few weeks?

  7. If it's difficult to put into words, could you explain your feelings or the situation in another way? Art? Music? Poetry? Is there anything from home that you would like to share that would help me to understand more of who you are?

How do you defuse intense situations in your classroom and reach a greater understanding with your students?

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I appreciate that you were able to see beneath the abrasiveness that some kids (heck some adults!) bring to difficult situations. It's easy to just get offended and write people off. This helps reframe the interaction into something positive.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Love this. I too do lots of "decoding" of this type of language each day, and your translations are spot-on. This post over on my blog addresses really similar strategies for how to respond to those types of statements:

One cool tool is the paradoxical response. When students are stuck in negative thinking, often they fall into a certain script they are used to or that they see play out around them: "I'm the bad kid, you're the teacher trying to get me down, and we're never going to get along." A paradoxical response helps break the script and create cognitive dissonance for students to then rethink how they're actually feeling.

Example: student says, "You can't make me f-ing do this! I'm going to drop out of school!" The Script says we respond to this by either saying, "Well, you do need to do this" or we ignore it and move on. A paradoxical response might be, "You're right. I can't make you do this and I'm not going to - that's your choice. And you can drop out of school if you want to. Do you want to talk about your options as a 16-year-old for your education?" The script-breaking helps the student pause and think...wait...I have power here!

Love to keep hearing more thoughts on how people experience these types of scenarios and their go-to strategies!

Chelsea's picture

The examples of student quotes and their translations really hit home for me, being a middle school math teacher. There always seems to be a deeper meaning beneath student negativity and outbursts. In working with teens, dialogue is so important. Socializing is one of the most prominent parts of their adolescence. I enjoyed reading your seven ways to begin a dialogue with a student after an inappropriate remark is made. Along with diffusing situations after they occur, I also try to prevent them from occurring in the first place. The link has "Tips for Teaching Teenagers," which have also proven useful in dealing with teens. I especially like the teaching methods shared and the resources given.

Anne Bell's picture

The dialogue examples remind me that each and every student needs to make a connection with at least one adult in their learning environment in order to improve student learning. Our students who face behavioral challenges need to know that we care for them before, during and after their explosive behavior. It is important to tweek your dialogue based on the individual student. Our academic team meets regularly to discuss strategies for positive behavior interventions.

Holly Bauknecht's picture

Prior to the start of school this year, the faculty at my school spent a portion of our back to school in-service reviewing some basics. Discussing mindfulness and how we address our concerns with students was a focal point. From aspects of non-verbal communication such as stance, positioning, facial expressions, and posture to aspects of verbal communication such as volume and tone, we reminded ourselves that keeping ourselves in "check" is crucial to not only developing positive relationships with students, but for maintaining our own sanity as well. My assistant principal told us that times have changed, but that we have very little control over those changes in our students; but we still have control over ourselves and how we handle a situation. I appreciated that you took the time to consider what each student response could possibly mean; this helped reinforce the idea that students' are not the problem, but the behavior is. Keeping this in mind can help teachers deescalate a situation before it gets out of control and provide the necessary supports to aid in the success of the student.

daykr09's picture

I so appreciated and enjoyed the translation of common student comments! Being a high school special education teacher I often get these types of comments! Sometimes it is difficult to not take it personally - and you made a fantastic point regarding modeling appropriate reactions during conversations! I believe that modeling is such crucial behavior, especially when working on social skills! These dialogue examples made me remember that every student needs that connection to improve their behavior and learning experience. The idea of using dialogue or comments that "call for a period of reflection between a negative reaction and a needed conversation" is a great strategy for allowing yourself to calm down thus taking away the reaction the students are so accustomed to. In my Master's course we are currently discussing the importance of a pause and reflection moment during times of frustration and this provided me fabulous strategies to use as well as real life examples and uses of this pause and reflect moment.

I think that during intense emotional situations that occur with students it is important to remember that we don't always know where they are coming from, what they are going through or experiencing, and even if we do KNOW, we don't always understand. When this occurs, it is crucial that we inform the student that we don't know or understand, but that we are here for them - whenever they are ready. I never push the student(s) to divulge more than they want - instead I make sure they understand my door and ears are always open.

Thanks for such a great post - I enjoyed reading it and even better I learned something from it!! :)


Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Kelsey - love your point about the difference between "knowing" and "understanding." One great rule of thumb is: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." I find I make much more headway when I listen, listen, listen first before saying what I feel I need to say. Sometimes the student even gets to my point without me ever having to make it!

Dr. Lori Desautels's picture
Dr. Lori Desautels
Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University

Thank you to everyone for all the great comments and thoughts regarding the understanding beneath the words!! So important!!

Caitlin Hogan's picture

I'm a preservice teacher who is hoping to one day work with the EBD population. This article is super helpful! I will hear negative language and harsh words pretty regularly and seeing how to handle it in a positive and productive way is great. I will think of your translations and utilize your tips to help my future students and to not take what they say personally!

Arielle's picture

I hear many of these comments from students on a daily basis. While I try to be understanding, I don't always know how to respond. Your article was very helpful and informative.

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