I was speaking to my husband who is a first-year teacher and the topic of navigating student discipline came up, as it often does. He teaches middle school like me, and if there is one thing I know about middle-schooler it is how often they do not think through their decisions before they act. It leads to a lot of funny moments, but at times, also a lot of behavior displays that can be rather disruptive to the rest of the class or to themselves.
He asked me what I do when a child continuously disrupts. How do I approach them to help them change? And while I laughed a little because I am not sure that we can really make a child change, I do believe that there are ways we can invite them into a conversation about their choices without jumping right into punishment. And that has been a major change for me; slowing down before jumping to conclusions, but then how do you do that at the moment when perhaps you also feel heated and a bit indignant at yet another disruption?
I use a simple question, “Are you okay?” before proceeding with any decisions. I have used it so often that it is now hardwired into my language. This is to slow me down, to increase communication, to recognize behavior as a way of communication, and to center my approach in unconditional positive regard.
When I first started using it many years ago, I had to really think about it. Our brains are wired to jump into decision-making rapidly, in fact, educators reportedly make thousands of decisions every single day, each one opening a new instructional possibility. No wonder we often switch into a rapid-fire mode when navigating a child’s seemingly poor decisions; we have so many other things to juggle at that moment. But it is often this automaticity that can backfire in the long run, rather than recognize the uniqueness of the situation at hand, we treat it as if it is routine. Perhaps sometimes it is when handling a child’s repeat decisions. And yet, we must come into each situation recognizing its uniqueness and its opportunity for exploration. Asking, “Are you okay? “ and following up with “This does not seem like you…” (even if it is a repeated behavior pattern) signals that we are concerned about the human in front of us and not just the choice they have made.
That pause also allows us to recalibrate ourselves and get our emotions in check before proceeding further with a conversation. This can make the difference between strengthening a relationship or doing further damage.
Of course, if students are engaged in dangerous behavior, such as fighting, or physical destruction on a larger scale, I don’t often use this approach. When safety is at risk, other communication methods are used, but this does not happen as often as our brain sometimes wants us to believe. Slowing down, seeing the child as a child, no matter their size, and recognizing the inherent power imbalance at play, can help us navigate many behavioral situations.
And more importantly, I am worried about them and their well-being. So why not ask before we jump to further conclusions?
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