Take CHARGE Day 17: Intentions
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
(To read Day 16, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)
Take CHARGE of the Moment
Even with the best of intentions, we often do the wrong things accidentally.
Imagine that your family owned 1,300 acres of pine forest adjacent to your home. Primarily used as a nature preserve, the forest has been in your family for five generations and you hope to maintain it for generations to come. Through drought, blight, and logging interests, you've fought for the family forest and have dedicated a good portion of your free time to keeping it pristine.
Yet lately you've found yourself under fire. Literally. Wildfires have started sparking in various parts of the forest. At first you attributed it to lightning strikes but the last several fires have come on clear and cloudless days. The time and cost of constantly putting out the fires is starting to strain your limited reserves.
So you make a momentous decision. You take a loan against the value of the forest to invest in a Bell 204 firefighting helicopter. With the ability to attack fires within minutes of their notice, you hope that this large investment will secure the forest that your family has husbanded for so long.
Yet unbeknownst to you, the purchase of a helicopter was completely unnecessary and the cost of upkeep will eventually take away a large portion of the forest it was bought to protect. Rather than going after the cause of the fires, you went after the effect. In fact, it was two teenage brothers who would sneak away to smoke some of their uncle's cigarettes who inadvertently started the various fires. If you had investigated further, you might have been able to save the forest simply by confronting the errant adolescents.
When teachers focus on children's behaviors instead of helping students manage their inner mental and emotional states, when they create more and more elaborate rules and regulations to manage misbehavior, they are putting all their resources into the helicopter rather than trying to find the fire-starters. Teachers would do well to change the focus of their attention from punishing the behaviors to helping students manage the emotions that lead to those behaviors.
Our intention energetically enters the situation before we do like a bow wave. Bow waves happen when water is displaced by the bow, or front, of a ship moving faster than the speed of the wave moving across the water. Similarly, our intentions move in front of us, signaling our attitudes and desires long before we ever interact with students. We must be conscious of our intent and its impact, especially during disciplinary moments. When our words and intentions don't line up, it'll be the intentions that are taken as truth.
During confrontations with students, most teachers are so concerned with the moment that they don't consider the long-term effects of their actions. Our intentions while delivering consequences will determine whether children grow to view mistakes as opportunities to learn or as personal failures reflecting innate flaws. As teachers, do we want to send the message that students who behave badly are in fact bad kids? Sometimes, the behavioral descriptor we label them with moves inward, held in the hearts of students as a judgment on who they are.
For the most part, teachers have one of three goals in mind when disciplining students - to punish, to save, or to teach. While it's the final intention that is most admirable, teachers oftentimes have different intentions for different students. How teachers treat various students might be hidden from the teacher's eyes but is readily apparent to the students watching. When some students get treated differently, it erodes trust in the teacher and damages relationships.
Intention to punish
When teachers react rather than respond, they enter discipline situations with the intention to punish. The goal, conscious or subconscious, is to make children feel bad about themselves or guilty for what they've done. The thought is that students won't like this feeling of guilt and will do everything in their power make the guilt go away. The ideal response, then, would be for children to renounce their wicked ways and never stray from the straight and narrow path again.
Unfortunately, the effect we want is not usually the effect we get. When we intend to punish, children learn to use their intelligence and energy to blame, defend, and deflect instead of taking responsibility for their actions. They'll lie and say, "I didn't do it," even if the teacher, the principal, and three video cameras witnessed the event. Students will create narratives that shift the blame to others rather than owning it themselves. Even if they are somehow cornered into admitting wrongdoing, they'll most likely take the wrong message from the situation. Rather than turning inward to try and do better next time, they'll hold onto the idea that it wasn't fair and that the teacher is out to get them.
Being punitive, or doling out punishments, especially when we are angry or reactive, can be counterproductive. Instead of building up the inner voice of students, it distracts them from the physiological and emotional messages of their own conscience. This powerful force in developing self-discipline is stunted because judgment remains external, handed down from an authority figure. While some students might accept the judgment as is, too often students turn their energy toward fighting against the decree, undermining its damnation in an attempt to maintain their own self-determination.
Intention to save
At the other end of the spectrum, some teachers avoid conflict like the plague. Perhaps because of their positive predisposition toward the child, or perhaps because of a desire to avoid anything resembling a disagreement, some teachers enter discipline situations with an intention to save. The goal here is to rescue children from intense feelings of discomfort by saving them from the consequences of their actions. While seemingly acting from noble desires, this intention is more about the adult rather than the child.
It's the adult's discomfort of conflict that leads her to move quickly and decisively away from consequences. Out of a misguided notion that emotional distress is to be avoided at all costs, teachers intending to save shy away from harsh words and harsher penalties. Instead, they explain away or outright ignore anything that resembles conflict. A typical response to poor behavior often heard from these teachers is, "Kids will be kids." In other words, don't bother them with minor matters because nature will take care of itself.
In these environments, children learn to use their intelligence and energy for manipulations and entitlement instead of responsibility. When cornered and faced with inescapable proof of their wrongdoing, students will begin to cling to various rationales as to why it isn't their fault. The teacher, the other party in this dance of deflection, will grasp onto the first viable excuse and use it as justification for delaying, downplaying, or outright deleting any consequences for poor behavior.
Intention to teach
Finally, then, we come to the noblest intention of all in disciplinary situations - to teach. The goal here is to help children reflect on how they feel about the impact of their choices in order to take responsibility for their actions. When children make unwise decisions or can't manage their emotions, teachers need to remember that discipline is about teaching. Though the term itself has come to be identified with harsh punishments, the original meaning comes from the Latin term discipulus which means instruction or knowledge.
When teachers hold the intention to teach, children learn to use their intelligence and energy to manage intense feelings, take responsibility for their actions, and create healthier options for themselves in the future. They are taught how to handle the causes of their actions, the fire-starters, so that they are not always reactive, being pulled to and fro by their feelings. Though having the intention to teach does involve consequences, they are derived naturally from the event itself. Suffering consequences are not the primary teaching method in these situations but rather the connection between the teacher and student.
When our intention is to help children be successful, we foster integration and the development of self-regulation. If, however, our intent is to make (or get) children to behave, we impede integration as control and power replace connection and teaching. While harsh punishments might temporarily take care of the issue at hand, much like purchasing a firefighting helicopter did in the opening scenario, it doesn't deal with the causes. To help students prevent future misbehavior, our intention, which precedes us like a bow wave, should be to help them be successful rather that make them behave.
Action: Think about a student that has continuing behavioral issues in your classroom. Take a moment to visualize a typical scenario that occurs in which the student misbehaves. Picture yourself entering the scenario with each of the three intentions mentioned (i.e., to punish, to save, to teach) and how those intentions will affect the outcome of the situation.
Reflection questions: What is your typical intention when entering tense behavioral situations? Do you go in wanting to punish misbehavior? Do you want it to go away as quickly as possible? Or do you hope to teach students alternative actions that are more productive?
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.
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.
To read Day 18, click here.