Take CHARGE Day 14: Behavioral and social skills
Updated: Jan 24
Take CHARGE of the Classroom
For many young students, how we respond to them when they are upset will inhibit or enhance their self-regulatory skills. With their inner speech developing around the age of 7, adults often serve as a surrogate conscience until theirs is fully formed. But what can teachers do to support and solidify the process? How can they slowly wean them off of external guidance so they make the right decisions of their own volition?
This is one area that I think teachers are doing much more damage than they even realize. The traditional classroom setup is built on rules, consequences, and rewards. Break the rules and suffer a consequence, such as staying after class or going to the office. Do well and either avoid punishments or receive a reward, like classroom bucks in a token economy or trinkets from a prize box.
While this might work in the short term, the carrot-and-stick approach does nothing to help students develop self-regulation. In fact, it inhibits it because the motivation for everything, whether it be consequences or rewards, remains external. It's the fear of detention or an office referral that keeps students from misbehaving. It's the promise of a prize that gets them to comply.
But what happens when they stop caring about prizes? What happens if they don't fear getting sent to the office because they've become a frequent flyer? External punishments and rewards, a staple in classrooms across the country, are Band-Aids. They are quick fixes, not designed as long-term solutions. If we want to grow children's internal mechanisms for developing a conscience and doing the right thing on their own volition, we have to take the long view.
Reward and punishment systems impede higher-order brain function and do not teach children to self-regulate. Their goal is to make children feel a certain way about their actions: feel good when you do good, feel bad when you do bad. The message is "do not feel your feelings; feel the ones assigned to you." In these systems, the adult judges the child's behavior as good or bad. These children are likely to develop an external compass for moral living. They come to depend on the judgment of others, in this case teachers, as the basis for their moral decisions.
A better method would be to take the value of student actions and slowly move them from from the outside to the inside. Whoever owns the action owns the power to change it. For students to drive their own actions, the responsibility and judgement for their actions needs to be cultivated from within. The motivation to change comes from owning the consequences of our actions, reflecting from the higher centers of the brain, and consciously choosing a new action.
Instead of thinking in terms of punishments for misbehaviors, let's try thinking about natural consequences. Effective consequences have a different mode of operation. They help children focus inward to reflect about their choices and then draw conclusions about the wisdom of their actions. The great thing about effective consequences is that they are natural. If I put my hand on a hot stove, I'm going to receive a consequence. My hand will be burned. That's natural and will teach me a lot more than if I had lost 5 ClassDojo points.
For most classroom disruptions, there are already natural consequences if we just take a moment to think them through. A child is talking too much and disrupting her tablemates. A natural consequence would be to move to another desk for a while so her tablemates can work productively. While many teachers do this, they miss out on the important teaching moment that accompanies it.
Children who learn to reflect on their feelings, choices, and outcomes become conscious of their own actions. If a child is bothering her tablemates, she can quietly yet firmly be directed to move to another table or desk. This involves no fussing, anger, or emotional outcry from the teacher because it's not about the teacher, it's about the student. Punishment and blame don't facilitate the reflective learning process; they stop it.
After a few moments, the teacher should lead the child through a short reflection. What happened? Why was the student moved? How did the child's actions affect her? Her classmates? How can she do better in the future? Once that's talked through, she rejoins her tablemates. That's it - no need for writing notes, signing folders, documenting behaviors, or taking away points or classroom dollars. Those change the consequence to a punishment, from internal to external.
And for those thinking, "What about if they are doing something crazy, dangerous, or outright refuse to comply?" See Day 9.
More than simply learning to regulate their own actions, students need to grow their ability to manage their social interactions. Rarely does misbehavior rear its ugly head without involving or hurting other students. Giving them the tools to mend and manage relationships is a small skill that will pay large dividends for years to come.
Sometimes, saying "sorry" isn't enough. Even if we can lead a student to a point that he understands how his words have been hurtful, getting him to apologize is only the first step. It assumes that the student knew exactly how to make his feelings known appropriately and purposefully chose to express them in a hurtful way. Sometimes that's true, but oftentimes students either don't know how to handle certain emotions appropriately or they've had so little practice that they've basically forgotten.
One simple act to try instead of apologizing is to hit the reset button and begin again. Do it over. "Daniel, your words made James feel sad. Try that again, but say your words in a way to make him happy." This not only helps repair the relationship between Daniel and James, it helps Daniel practice a conversational tool that he can use in the future to avoid causing a breach.
Sometimes perspective taking is a more powerful tool. If the student in need of practice doesn't even see that there's a problem, you can lead him in some role-play. "Daniel, let's stop and do this again, but this time think how James feels not being invited to play. I'll pretend to be you. 'James, you can't play with us.' Now you be James. How does he feel? What does he think about being left out?"
Remember that the purpose of using a do-over or a role-play is to build missing skills, not punish students. If these activities are used in a hostile way or delivered with loads of judgment, the focus will stay on the adult's perception of the action rather than the child's. That then keeps everything external rather than internal and thwarts the development of the internal guidance systems that we want students to develop.
To help students begin to solve problems on their own, Michele Borba's UnSelfie encourages students to learn how to STAND.
Stop, look, listen to feelings: Stay calm, take a deep breath
Take turns telling the problem: Each child takes a turn using "I" statements, then students put into words what the other student was saying using "you" statements
Alternatives: Brainstorm options for fair solutions
Narrow choices: Eliminate choices that aren't safe, possible, go against rules, or aren't supported by both
Decide the best choice: Shake on it and stick to it
To take this idea to the next level, teachers can designate an area in the room for peer resolution. Taping two sets of shoeprints or footprints on the floor that face each other, the steps for taking a STAND can be displayed on the wall next to the footprints. When students need to work something out between themselves, the teacher can lead them to that area and work through the steps while each child stands on a set of footprints facing each other. When this has been done multiple times, students will feel empowered to do this on their own and will take the initiative to begin to solve problems autonomously.
Action: Designate a corner or area in your room as the conflict resolution center. Post the STAND directions or something similar, along with footprints on the floor, so students know how and where to work through interpersonal issues. Model how to use it to resolve student-student conflicts.
Reflection questions: Do you handle misbehavior with punishments or consequences? Do your students own their actions or do they rely on external judgments of right and wrong? How can you think through some natural consequences of everyday misbehaviors so that you help students process the effects of their actions?
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.
Borba, M. (2016). UnSelfie: why empathetic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. Simon and Schuster.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your childs developing mind. Vancouver, B.C.: Langara College.
To read Day 15, click here.