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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Positive Intent

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(The following is a sample chapter from an upcoming book I'm working on called Take CHARGE. It looks at six steps to set up successful classroom management and six steps for deescalating behavioral outbursts. The first part of successful classroom management is confidence and the second part of confidence is positivity. The first part of positivity can be read in the previous post.)

Why won’t kids simply behave?

Wouldn’t it be easier if they just acted obediently and stopped getting into trouble?

What’s wrong with parents these days? Why won’t they discipline their children?

If that was my child, he would act like that only once and then I’d put a stop to it. Don’t parents know the power of a good butt-whooping?

Questions like these roll through the minds of teachers frequently, more often when they step out of the classroom momentarily to speak with a colleague only to step back in and find the room has turned into a mosh pit at a heavy metal concert.

As valid as some of these questions might be, as squarely as some of these judgments might land on the lack of parenting ability possessed by the families at our schools, they are ultimately useless. Focusing on deficits, missing traits, and behavioral gaps ultimately perpetuates a negative climate, something we must move away from in order to take charge of the classroom.

No one is perfect. Everyone is doing the best they can with the best they have. Parents aren’t keeping their best children at home and sending the dysfunctional ones to school. Students aren’t saving their best behavior for home and running amok at school for sheer variety. What you see is what you get.

Mirror offering

There’s a lie that many teachers have unfortunately bought into, either intentionally or unintentionally. They believe that they can sit in silent judgment over their students, their students’ families, and even the community in general without it affecting their interactions or outlook. Driving in from their privileged town home, 30 miles away in an upper-middle class zip code, they feel as if they can offer love and affection to their students while a small part of them sits in quiet disapproval over their students.

That is a lie.

Becky Bailey, in Conscious Discipline, spends a part of her book talking about intent and how it affects the classroom. Whatever teachers offer to their students, both openly and subliminally, they strengthen within themselves. If teachers give their young scholars love and acceptance, those qualities become stronger within themselves. If a part of them dwells in criticism or condemnation, those become a more permanent fixture within them.

We cannot satisfactorily separate ourselves into two parts. The public part that offers love and acceptance to students of different socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, and even religions must match the private part that evaluates the worth and value of all of these things that students hold so dear.

Positivity is the fuel that drives our classroom. With it, we can shape the behavior and conduct in students while also supporting their autonomy and individuality. If our private musings are filled with condemnation and judgment, then our classroom environment will always hold an underlying tone of critical disapproval. It is only through faith in the goodness of others that we can create the positivity and kindness that we want to see in our classrooms.


It’s easy to stay positive and non-judgmental when things are going right. But what about when a student mouths off to you and finishes with, “And my momma said you can’t do anything to me because you ain’t the principal!” Those are the situations in which, as a teacher, it would be helpful to have already done some work on assigning intent to students’ actions.

Here’s the thing with intentions. The only intentions you can only really know are your own, and even those are often hidden from you. So many adults believe that, unlike others, they possess a magic ability to truly gauge the intentions behind every action of students. Teachers are quick to lay malice and subversion at the feet of students because they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the student is inherently wicked and thus his actions must come from a place of evil intentions.

The only person that truly knows another’s intentions is God. And you’re not Him.

So often, things happen in the classroom that aren’t explicitly good or bad. They are somewhere in between, in that area of gray that is a lot larger than we’d ever like to admit. When deciding on whether the action is or is not worthy of punishment, then, most of us go for the intentions. Why did the child do that? What was he trying to accomplish? Is this the first step toward anarchy or simply a mistake?

When these conclusions are drawn from flimsy or non-existent data, we sit in judgment over the student, declaring our interpretation of the action as the correct version and decreeing punishment for not only what happened but also for what the child intended to happen. We assume to know the intentions behind the action and, more often than not, include those as a large part of our evidence.

But we can never know the true intentions of children. When hard pressed, it’s hard to even put our own intentions into words. To believe that we are so thoroughly aware and perceptive that we can peer behind every action and accurately discern the intentions of others is at best problematic and at worst delusional. We simply can’t.

Yet intentions matter. Why not assume the best?

Positive intent

Becky Bailey, in continuing her discussion about intentions, shares that holding positive intent for our most difficult and challenging children is essential. More than likely, these children will have defined themselves, either partially or completely, as “bad” or “unworthy.” These judgments begin to seep into their self-conceptions and they perpetuate them by living them out at school.

If students only see themselves as bad, as unintelligent, as incapable of anything that resembles quality work or behavior, their energy is going to be largely spent on defending themselves psychologically and meeting their needs in various ways. There won’t be anything left for trying to rise above the labels placed on them by adults.

Positive intent is a choice that teachers must make. There are many other things that teachers must decide every day, such as what tasks to assign, how to group students, and what instructional practices to employ. Why not choose, at the beginning of each day, to assume positive intentions for your students, especially the difficult ones?

Positive intent defines the core of the student as good enough. The child’s behavior, not the child, is what needs to change.

Positive intent keeps us, the teacher, in the higher centers of our brain where solutions and change are possible and accessible. In this frame of mind, we can wisely discern which executive skills the child is missing and begin the teaching process.

Positive intent defines the child as one who makes mistakes and is willing to learn in the eyes of classmates and teachers.

These intentions are largely hidden from both students and teachers. When in doubt, why not reach for positive intent as an explanation? The alternative is not very palatable.

Negative Intent

What happens when we believe the worst about children? How does our judgment affect their attitudes, actions, and self-beliefs?

Negative intent defines the core of the child and his or her behaviors as bad.

Negative intent throws us, the teacher, into the lower centers of our brains where blame and punishment are the only options. Solutions and positive change are not available here.

Negative intent defines the child as bad in the eyes of classmates and fellow teachers.

Surprising as it is, in that it produces a result that teachers would all admit to wanting to avoid, negative intent encourages children to be more oppositional. There is nothing quite as motivating as feeling slighted or a victim of injustice and using that as fuel for raging against the machine.

Negative intent also unconsciously labels and defines children as bad, mean, selfish, or inconsiderate. Children usually accept these labels over time and become aggressive, withdrawn, and/or exhibit bullying behaviors.

Positivity is power

Jon Gordon, in The Energy Bus, shares that a gift you can give to others every day is your presence of feeling good and being happy. When you choose positivity, to see the best in others and focus on positive rather than negative intent, your students feel happy and positive. Being around happy and positive people rubs off and affects the emotions of others.

More importantly, when you feel happy you give from power. Teaching is very much a giving profession. It asks a lot from teachers, constantly draining them of energy, passion, attention, love, effort, and patience. One quick test of whether you are giving from power or not is to gauge how you feel at the end of a day.

If you feel absolutely drained, wrung out like a sorely-used dish cloth, then you are most likely not operating from positivity. All the goodness is being sucked out of you because you feel bad but are trying to feel good by pleasing your students and the other adults in the building. Instead of filling you with energy, it drains you because you are trying to fill yourself with something that is meant to be given away.

Choosing positivity, to see the best in others, gives us a deep emotional reserve to draw from. At the end of a day spent giving to our students, we have more than enough left to satisfy our own needs. If we teach from a place of negativity and evil intent, goodness and love are scarce resources that can only be doled out in small portions. To give too much away would be to deprive ourselves and our loved ones of these commodities.

Choosing positivity allows us to give freely of ourselves without counting the cost. When we view others with positive intent, we operate from a position of power. All the love and care we extend to our students do not diminish our own reserves because positivity is an inexhaustible resource. It replenishes itself continually, giving us an endless power supply for our teaching.

Emotional contagion

So what? You become all happy and sappy, but how will that affect your students? What good does it do, you ask, if you drink the happiness Kool-Aid all day but your students continue to be ornery and argumentative?

I’m glad you asked.

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond makes an important connection between neuroscience and how we teach and interact with students. Emotions are contagious. If one student in the room gets hijacked by his amygdala and goes into a rage, others will also become infected with anxiety, resistance, or disengagement.

The opposite is also true, however. If one person in a room is happy, laughing, and smiling, others will also likely become infected with this attitude. A large part of this is due to mirror neurons that reside in each of our brains. These “smart cells” help us understand others’ actions, intentions, and feelings by firing when we see someone else experiencing an emotion, such as happiness, fear, anger, or sadness. Mirror neurons serve as a basis for empathy because they allow us to share the emotions of others vicariously.

Mirror neurons are why I tear up in the opening of The Hunger Games when Jennifer Lawrence’s character Katniss Everdeen volunteers to substitute herself for her sister and enter the arena. They are why I turn away when I see too much blood and gristle and why my wife knows not to go into too much detail as she excitedly describes someone’s injury and the operation used to repair it. We all, deep inside our minds, can feel the feelings of others simply by watching, hearing, or even reading about the experiences of others.

We are wired to empathize, so why not use that to your advantage?

Everything we do, as teachers, is a teachable moment. Positivity does not mean sunshine and daffodils 24/7. As I stated earlier in the book, everything sucks most of the time. When we choose positivity, we choose to embrace the suck and let it grow us rather than define us. In Mindful Discipline, Chris White and Shauna Shapiro remind us that even when our students see us consciously work through difficult emotions like hurt, frustration, and being overwhelmed, they are learning through that example.

Positivity is a choice we make every day, much like the choice you made this morning to put on a dress or slacks, jeans or shorts. As a teacher, you can choose to put on positivity, to clothe yourself in it every morning. As you put on these rose-colored glasses, you are making an intentional decision to see others with positive intent. You are choosing to take the trials of the day as they come and respond with love and acceptance rather than by taking every fluctuation as a personal assault on your authority.

And the students are watching.

As they see how you handle the stresses of the day, with a large part of these stresses coming from misbehavior and plans gone awry, they are learning how to handle these situations. When they see you calmly talk to one of their peers about his behavior and you lovingly expect the best from him, they are internalizing these interactions through their mirror neurons. When they see you viewing troubled students with positive intent, they are more likely to do the same. This, then, affects their own interactions with those students. You are unintentionally teaching your students how to interact with each other simply by how you interact with them.

Do you want them to view each other with love and acceptance or with suspicion and fear?

Collect data

In Happy Class, Jenna Sage describes how an environment in the classroom that is focused on positivity, hope, optimism, strengths, the ability for growth, and the like, can be beneficial for not just students but the teacher as well. This takes practice, and one of the first steps is to gain an accurate assessment of where you and your classroom currently stand on the positivity continuum.

Remember, what you pay attention to shows up more and more in your life. It might take some mental aerobics to begin focusing on what is right rather than what is wrong and believing that all students, even the misbehaving ones, are capable of growing and learning. The first step to take, therefore, is to collect data. One area of study should be the ratio of positive to negative/neutral statements that you make in a typical class period.

One option for collecting these data would be to invite someone you trust, a colleague or coworker, to come and observe your classroom. While you would know the purpose of the visit and would probably act a little unnaturally with someone watching your every move, most people revert back to form after just a few minutes of observation. The observer, sitting unobtrusively in the back of the room somewhere, could take simple notes on statements and create a tally chart, scripting the exact wording if time and circumstances allow.

For those of you that don’t have the luxury of inviting someone to come in and observe your classroom, or if your students would act so differently in the presence of another adult that the data would be skewed, a digital option remains. Place a tablet or even your smartphone in an indiscreet place, perhaps on top of a filing cabinet, and hit record. Though the sound quality might not be ideal, this serves as a simple solution to the problems that arise from an in-person observation.

While there is no set standard for the ideal ratio between positive and neutral/negative interactions, the former should largely outweigh the latter. If the ratio drops below 4:1 (positive:neutral/negative), then the classroom could most likely be described as one with a cold or even negative atmosphere.


Presuming positive intent would be a significant change for many educators. Like any new skill, it will take time, persistence, and grace. You will mess up and you will lose your cool. Perfection is not realistic so go ahead and forget about that.

Take a moment to think about your most troubled student. It can be a current student or one that is seared into your memory. Think about some of that student’s most heinous actions and narrate them using positive intent. What was the child thinking or doing that caused the behavior? Here’s an example.

Daniel is in one of his moods. He runs in from the hallway, shoves past two students also walking in, and jumps onto the bean bag in the library center. The book balancing on the bean bag flies across the room, smacking Desiree in the face and causing her to instantly tear up. Drew, sitting next to Desiree, thinks that the whole thing is hilarious and laughs harder once he sees that Desiree is crying!

It would be easy to assign negative intent to Daniel. But perhaps he was just excited. Coming in from recess, he typically has a hard time settling down to silent reading time. He’s still full of energy and he usually roams throughout the room for several minutes before finding a seat. Today, his group was going to be able to read in the library center. Maybe he wanted to claim the bean bag for himself. While his actions still need to be addressed, they can be discussed from a different frame of mind when viewed through positive intent.

In the scenario above, Daniel would have probably been willing to practice walking into the classroom and even apologizing to Desiree if the teacher recognized his eagerness and gave him an opportunity to try again. If fussed at, however, he would have gotten defensive and a negative spiral would have begun yet again.

Try it out yourself. Recollect a recent experience and revisit it through a positive lens. How would that assumption have changed your interactions? Could the subsequent power struggle have been minimized or even avoided if you had approached it differently?

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