By Mary Beth Hewitt
This article is reprinted with the
permission of Mary Beth Hewitt. It is reprinted from CHOICES.
See the bottom of this page for more information.
1) You ask a student to open his book and read. He pushes his
desk, swears, walks to the other side of the room and yells, “I’m
not opening that book. If you’re so helpless that you can’t open
a book, you might as well not even teach."
2) A student finishes his part of the activity ahead of his classmates. He starts drumming his hands on the desk. You ask him to stop, but he continues.
3) You ask a student to leave the room. He does, but on his way out he turns off the lights.
4) A student arrives in class wearing his hat. You remind him of the rule but he continues to wear it.
Some students seem determined to disengage from their educational program and to alienate the people around them. Resiliency studies indicate that the single most important factor in determining a student’s success is the establishment of a supportive relationship with at least one significant adult. So how can we create an environment that supports and engages all of our students, even during their worst moments?
Rudolf Dreikurs first identified four basic motivations for behavior: avoidance of failure, attention, revenge and power. (Dr. Mac's note: For more information on these four factors, see the home page link titled "Figuring out why kids misbehave".) He went further to state that a student’s motivation would create the same counter-feelings in the people around him/her. Students who are avoiding failure will cause the adults to feel inadequate, helpless and fearful. Students who are motivated by attention will elicit annoyance. Angry students will make the people around them feel angry and vengeful. Finally, students who are motivated by power will generate feelings of stubbornness and control. If helping adults become consumed by their own “counter feelings” they can easily become sidetracked from their original intentions. They may then respond from an irrational, emotional basis and make situations worse. If, however, they recognize their “new” feeling it can provide them with clues about students’ underlying motivations for behavior. The significant adults can then make rational choices, which will enable them to continue on their original course.
It sounds relatively simple, but a great many times
the rational choice runs counter to our belief systems. What we “could
do” seriously conflicts with what we “want to do” or what we’ve been taught
we “should do.” Until we step back and look at the whole picture
our behavior will not change. When I was first learning about this concept,
someone told me that the art of adjustment or compromise was like water
flowing in a stream. When it encounters a rock, it does not try to
move or forcibly remove it; rather, it yields and flows around the rock
to continue on its’ original course. The act of yielding eventually
wears down the rock. Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water;
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. (Tao
AVOIDANCE OF FAILURE
You ask a student to open his book and read. He pushes his desk, swears, walks to the other side of the room and yells, “I’m not opening that book. If you’re so helpless that you can’t open a book, you might as well not even teach!"
In my workshops I show a video clip of a boy who is working with a teacher for the very first time. All the teacher asks him to do is to open the book. The boy has a very intense reaction. As he pushes his desk and walks to the other side of the classroom he screams, “There’s no way I’m opening that book!” He swears at the teacher and tells her in no uncertain terms that she is a worthless teacher if she is so helpless that she can’t even open a book. He repeats his refusal, “I’m not opening that book!” The teacher responds by saying “I hear you. How about coming back over here and I’ll open the book for you.” Immediately, the boy returns, replaces the desk and begins to work with her.
When I show that clip, I ask the audience what they think about how the teacher handled the situation. Most people say that she “gave in” and that the boy “won.” The teacher’s act of compromise is seen as giving in or molly coddling. The basic belief seems to be that if a child responds to a situation in an inappropriate manner then his/her behavior should be addressed firmly, immediately, and directly. To do anything else is viewed as being permissive and weak.
I then ask the audience, “What
do you think would have happened if the teacher did address the inappropriateness
of the behavior at that time by saying something like:
“That language is unacceptable.”
“You can’t talk this way in here.”
“Go to the office!”
Most people respond by saying that the boy probably would have made an inappropriate comeback, escalated his behavior or would have left the room. No one thinks that he would have stopped, apologized and tried to work with her. When students are upset and they are confronted, they rarely say things like, “Thank you for pointing out what I jerk I just was. You are absolutely right. What a wise teacher you are.” Instead, they defend their actions, rationalize their behavior and/or project blame on the adult. The cycle of conflict continues.
Next, I ask the participants to think about possible reasons why the boy responded in such a hostile manner to a seemingly innocuous request. They offer these possibilities:
1) he gets bossed around a lot at home and is sick of it
2) he had a problem before class and he’s upset about something else
3) he can’t read
In this particular case, the last reason is true. He can’t read. I ask, “Why doesn’t he just tell her he can’t read?” The response, “Because he is embarrassed.” Many of our students would rather appear bad than look stupid. I daresay that most adults, when faced with a screaming, verbally abusive student would have sent him out of the room. In this case he would have gladly complied. In the office he could escape the humiliation of being asked to read. What the adult would view as punitive, the child would view, if not a reward, at least a respite.
The teacher’s original goal of working with the child on reading would have been lost. The child’s unconscious goal of getting out of reading would have been fulfilled. The message communicated to the student might have been, “If you have a tantrum, then you don’t have to do the hated task.” By offering to open the book for the student, the teacher sent the message “I am willing to help you with this task no matter what.” That was the message this boy received and is what prompted him to immediately return to the table to work with her.
In this scene the teacher’s original agenda was to read with this child. By offering what Fritz Redl would have termed “Hurdle Help” (the extra attention or assistance provided to help a student start an activity which might be frustrating or anxiety producing), she accomplished her goal. If you must think of it in terms of win/lose, I think that she won. Ross Greene, who wrote the book “The Explosive Child” advises that we need to take the phrase, “giving in” out of our vocabulary. We need to stop looking at things from the standpoint of winning and losing. We need to focus on our original goal and not get sidetracked. In order to accomplish this, I personally had to redefine “giving in” in my mind. Since I cannot control the behavior of another person, my definition has become, the power to change what I am doing to help me pursue my original goal. If, at the time of misbehavior I can focus on my original intention (What can I do to get this child to read with me?) then the act of offering help is a means to achieve my goal.
At this point in my workshop someone usually asks, “But what will the other kids think? If you don’t nip that type of behavior in the bud, the other students will think that it is an acceptable way to behave.” I ask the participants to put themselves in the positions of students who are looking on. Anyone who may find reading difficult might think, “This is a nice lady who will help you no matter what.” Anyone thinking that throwing a tantrum will get you sent out of the room so you can avoid work, might think that strategy wouldn’t work. Anyone who finds reading easy may think, “That kid was a real jerk but my teacher didn’t get mad at him. I may not understand what’s going on but I feel safer with her than with someone who yells.” The way we handle a situation also sends a message to the other students.
All too often, when a student violates a rule or misbehaves our immediate reaction is to exclude the child from the activity and/or withdraw our positive attention. Although this may solve the immediate problem of having a disruptive student in the classroom, it does nothing to change the long-term behavior and does not engage the child in the class. I strongly believe that the student’s inappropriate behavior needs to be addressed. The timing of when the behavior is addressed is all that has changed. Dr. Greene also makes the point that the adjustments we make are only temporary. He refers to them as “emotional wheelchair ramps.” Once we’ve accomplished our goal, we most definitely need to go back and teach the child a different way to get his/her needs met without misbehaving.
How do you go about addressing the inappropriate
behavior? Once the child is working with you, you can share your
observations, “Reading seems hard for you.
How did you let me know you didn’t like to read? It’s OK to feel
nervous when someone asks you to do something hard, it’s not OK to swear
and push your desk. What do you think most people would have done
when you did that? How can you let people know how you feel about
something without swearing and pushing your desk? That’s what you
can do next time. What’s the consequence for swearing?”
The student is more likely to listen to a person that supported them when
he/she was in crisis than to an adult who excluded him/her.
A student finishes his part of the activity ahead of his classmates. He starts drumming his hands on the desk. You ask him to stop, but he continues.
I always say if what you’re doing isn’t working, don’t try the same thing harder, try something different. One of the things I love about my job are those times when a teacher recognizes that the way he/she handled a situation did not have the desired effect and asks for suggestions on what he/she could do differently. I was doing a consultation, observing a group of elementary students who were doing morning activities (calendar, show and tell) at a table. One of the little boys, after having had his turn to share and listening to a few of his classmates, began drumming on the table. The teacher asked him to stop and listen. He continued to pound. The teacher reminded him of the rules and the consequences. He drummed louder. She warned him that if he continued to disrupt, he would have to leave the table and sit away from the group. He persisted in drumming. She told him to leave the group. He refused. He was told he could walk on his own or someone would escort him from the group. He wrapped his legs around his chair and continued to drum. Eventually, he was physically escorted from the group.
What the teacher was using to try to manage the student’s behavior was a pretty standard type of behavior management system consisting of warnings and consequences. This is a valid strategy that sometimes works. In this case, however, it was making the behavior worse, not stopping it. Her original goal to stop the disruption and get the student to re-engage was lost. She did not feel good about how the situation played out and asked me for ideas of what she could have done differently.
My first question was, “Why might the student have been creating the disruption?” She thought that he might have been bored and was having trouble waiting. She added that this was a typical problem for this student. I then asked her how she felt when the drumming started. She said she was annoyed. Annoyance is an indication that the behavior may be attention seeking. If the student is seeking attention, you can give it to him in one of two ways. You can focus on what he is doing wrong and try to get him to desist or you can engage him in a constructive activity. Constructive activities may be things like helping the teacher, running an errand, acting as the “host” for the Show and Tell show. In essence it’s employing a form of redirection. Many parents have told me that their children drive them crazy just before company arrives, however, they’ve learned that if they find a helping task for their son/daughter to do like preparing the salad or making place cards, the misbehavior stops.
The notion of giving positive attention to a student who is misbehaving runs counter to most people’s belief systems. Helping tasks are generally reserved as rewards for students who are behaving appropriately. Actually, those are the students who already feel part of the group and naturally get positive attention from their peers and teachers. It is the students who do not feel “a part of” that need these types of activities the most.
The fear in using this strategy is that the child
is being positively reinforced for disruptive behavior and the incidents
of disruption will increase. That might be the case if you continue
to use the strategy in a reactive manner rather than a proactive manner.
Proactively, you need to consider how you will keep a student busy who
has a low boredom tolerance. If you create an environment that engages
him before he becomes disruptive you can decrease the incidents of disruption.
At the same time, you need to teach the child the skills of how to seek
attention appropriately and how to deal with boredom.* When you are
confronted with a situation in which the student is seeking attention,
think to yourself, “I have a choice…I can give him negative attention or
positive attention. Which choice will meet my goal at this time?”
Later you need to consider, “What can I do in the
future to be proactive and what skills do I need teach him long term?”
(*A good resource for pro-social skills training is the Skillstreaming
series by Arnold Goldstein published by Research Press)
You ask a disruptive student to leave the room. He does, but on his way out he turns off the lights.
Your original goal was to have the student leave the classroom so the disruption would stop. He complied, albeit not the way you wanted him to. By turning off the lights he was expressing his anger through behavior. If you fly out of the room and order him to return to turn the lights back on, do you really think he’ll come back happily and willingly? If he was angry when he left the first time, do you think he calmed down while he was in the hallway? Ask yourself this question, do you really want an angry child back when he’s still angry? If the answer to that question is “no,” then let him go.
The concept of “letting go” is probably one of the hardest concepts to swallow. Some of my workshops participants say, “But I have to do something!” I used to think that way too until someone pointed out to me that making the decision to do nothing right now is, in fact, doing something. By deciding not to deal with the issue now, you can return to teaching. Granted, the student’s behavior was disruptive and inappropriate but, by not missing a beat, turning the light back on yourself and continuing to teach, you have minimized the damage. Not only that, you are continuing to give attention to those students who need and deserve it instead of further interrupting their instructional day by engaging in a no-win power struggle with their emotionally charged classmate.
I had to realize that I had choices. I may not be able to control a child’s behavior but I can control mine. If I kept my head about me and was able to focus on my original goal, I no longer felt compelled to react.
This will also work when a student says something
that you don’t like under his/her breath. If you heard it and didn't
like it the first time, do you really want him/her to repeat it?
Employing the technique of “Planned Ignoring” (see
CHOICES Newsletter Volume 7, Number 1) at the time students
make parting shots generally works. When I suggested this strategy
at a recent workshop, one of the participants was very concerned that her
other students would perceive her as being weak if she did something like
planned ignoring. I asked her what advice she gave her students when
they complained about being teased. She said that she tells them
to ignore it. I then asked, “Did you ever think
that they won’t believe that is OK to ignore something they don’t like
if they don’t see adults ignoring similar behavior?” If you
recommend ignoring inappropriate comments to your students, they need to
see you modeling that behavior. Again, remember that the behavior
needs to be addressed at a later time.
A student arrives in class wearing his hat. You remind him of the rule but he continues to wear it.
Perhaps the most difficult time to do the types of things I’m suggesting is when you are dealing with a student who is motivated by the need for power and control. Power plays are a form of oppositional behavior. It is these types of situations that will elicit intense feelings of powerlessness in you. You will react to these feelings by wanting to force the student to comply. Students who feel powerless over the big things in their lives will seek to control the little things. You need to consider how much power you give a student if, simply by wearing a hat, he is able to bring the class to a screeching halt. In cases like this, you maintain your power by not allowing this to happen.
Before the student entered the room, the original goal was most likely to get the class started on time and begin teaching the lesson. You have a class of 20+ students who are on time and ready to learn and they need you to do your job. You have one student who, by violating a minor rule, is trying to sidetrack you from that goal. Are you going to let that happen? You addressed the violation when you reminded him of the rule. The proverbial ball in now in his court. He either continues to wear his hat or he takes it off. It is his responsibility. If he chooses to continue to flaunt the rule, he is subject to whatever consequences there are for that action. You also have a choice. You can be sidetracked from your original goal of teaching the class by making the issue the removal of the hat or, you can pursue your original goal. Ask yourself this question, “Do I want to get into an argument about a hat and give attention to someone who is misbehaving, or do I want to teach my lesson and give attention to those students who are behaving?” If you want to continue with your original intention, you will continue to teach. At the end of class, the student will be given the consequence for his behavior.
What will the other students think? If you
have proactively taught your class that you use “Planned Ignoring”
(the decision not to pay attention to the behavior at the
time it happens) then they know that the rules have not changed
and the behavioral infraction will be addressed later. If you
have not discussed this technique they may be confused by your reaction
but they may also be grateful that your attention focused on doing your
job, teaching them!
When things are flowing along smoothly and suddenly you encounter a “rock” in your stream, remember to ask yourself these questions:
1. What was my original goal?
2. What might be the student’s motivation for the behavior?
3. Will traditional interventions (warnings, punishments, exclusion, and orders) work now or
make the situation worse?
4. What can I do to adjust my behavior right now to meet my original goal? (offer help, planned
ignore, involve the student)
5. What type of follow-up is needed to teach the student new skills so he/she can learn socially
appropriate ways to express himself/herself in the future?
Greene, R. (1998). The explosive child. New York: Harpercollins.
Dreikurs, R. and P. Cassel. (1972). Discipline without tears. (Reissued in 1995). New York:
Lao-tzu. Tao-Te-Ching. Translation of: Tao te ching by Stephen Mitchell. (1988). New York:
Redl, F. and D. Wineman, (1952). Controls From Within: Techniques for the treatment of the aggressive child. New York: The Free Press.
**If you like the tips of Mary Beth Hewett, you can purchase both volumes
of CHOICES (there are about 25 to 30 articles by her in each volume) by
going to the web site www.edutech.org/choices/choicesf.htm
, calling 315/332-7255, or faxing
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