Take CHARGE Day 18: Perceptions of misbehavior
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
(To read Day 17, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)
Take CHARGE of the Moment
Perception is reality.
This is something I learned long ago as an administrator. One of my least favorite jobs as a principal was to field calls and emails from parents. They would contact me because their child had a problem with their teacher. The teacher was mean, had said something rude, or was generally not a good fit for their child. They would contact me because, as the principal, they'd want me to do something about it.
I would talk to the teacher and, lo and behold, an alternate reality quickly presented itself. The teacher liked the student and thought she was one of the brightest in her class. The teacher couldn't think of any reason why the student would feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it was something the teacher said two days ago but everyone knew she was only joking. And on and on.
What I quickly came to accept is that, when dealing with human interactions, there is no one reality. Instead, everyone perceives events through their own filters that creates their reality for them. I might make an offhand comment that you believe is completely racist. That was not my intent at all but, if you become offended by my comment, I now have to deal with the fallout from your reality. That's simply how things work (in my reality, at least).
But why not take this truth and use it for our advantage when dealing with student misbehavior? If it is your perception of an experience that creates your feelings about it, not the event itself, why not change how you perceive it? We see the world not as it is, but through the lens of these judgments about what should be or what is desirable. This lens alters everything. Once we become aware of the lens we use, we can alter it or change it completely.
Good and bad behavior
One lens that teachers use a lot is the dichotomy of good and bad behavior. If we see behavior through the lens of good and bad, we create two categories of people and two value systems for their treatment. Students judged to be good deserve to be treated with respect, deserve to be part of the group, deserve to feel worthy, and are often seen as innocent victims of circumstances when they misbehave. They have good intentions, try their hardest, and are the kind of students we would want our own children to be friends with.
Students judged to be bad, however, deserve whatever it takes to put them in line. They should be excluded from the group for the benefit of the majority. Their bad behavior means they should feel unworthy and are seen as flawed when they misbehave. No matter how hard these students try, they always seem to have an ulterior motive. Even when they are behaving, we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bad kids only act good to lull us into complacency before striking again.
Most teachers don't start the year aiming to categorize their students as good or bad. It simply happens. To see how this lens dichotomy might be affecting you, imagine your most well-behaved student. You walk into the classroom during your conference period and the student is in the corner, unsupervised. When you walk in, this student stands up quickly and looks at you with a surprised and alarmed look. Your internal monologue at this point might be, "Hmmm. That's strange. I wonder what she's doing in here. Maybe she forget something in third period."
Now imagine the exact same scenario but with your worst behaved student. The one you pray is absent every morning, the one that curses you out in class and goes to see the assistant principal at least once a week. You walk into your room and see the student in the corner. I'm willing to bet that your internal monologue is a little bit different. "Aha! I've got you now. What were you doing, you little hooligan? You won't be able to wriggle your way out of this one!" That's the power of perception. Two students, identical scenarios, with interpretations that are completely different.
Safe and unsafe behavior
Judgments are natural to both of us. We tend to view the behavior of others in black and white (even though our actions contain an awful lot of grey). Yet this good/bad dichotomy puts us in a place of moral superiority that inhibits our ability to discipline with the right frame of mind. Tagging actions as good or bad inevitably transfers those labels onto students. Students, once tagged, have all their subsequent actions colored by those labels. Instead of fighting the labels, which is a natural process for us, I suggest simply changing their descriptions. Instead of looking at behavior as good or bad, teachers can use the lens of safe or unsafe.
Perceiving behavior as safe or unsafe sets us up to see misbehavior as a call for help rather than disrespect. As a teacher, your job is to keep students safe and put them in a position that will maximize their ability to learn. A part of that job, then, is actively monitoring the environment and student behaviors, searching for and eliminating any unsafe behaviors that threaten the stability of the learning environment. While this seems like an inconsequential shift, it has huge ramifications.
The safe/unsafe labels never need to be transferred to the students. While we still might tend to view students as good or bad, safe and unsafe are strictly kept on the worth of the actions. Thus, teachers are asked to judge and minimize actions, something they do naturally. Those labels, however, will stay on the actions instead of the students, freeing them up to perceive all of their students as good students who sometimes behave unsafely.
The more we can keep judgments off of students' characters, the more open we will be to help them in times of crisis rather than seeking punishment. The moment a student gets labeled as bad by our subconscious, even his most innocent mistakes will begin to be viewed with malevolence. Often, this leads to teachers making mountains out of molehills as they see conspiracies and rebellions in every poor choice.
One way to verbalize this shift in perspective would be to ask a new questions internally when faced with misbehavior. Instead of asking, "How can I get ___ to stop ___?", try asking, "How can I help ____ successfully ____?" This shift from negative to positive allows you to enter the situation with intentions that radiate helpfulness rather than hurtfulness (Day 17).
When we enter discipline situations with the intention to punish, it's actually often counterproductive, not only in terms of building brains, but even when it comes to getting kids to cooperate. The way we interact with our students when they're upset significantly affects how their brains develop, and therefore what kind of people they are, both today and for years to come. Rather than just thinking of the short-term (i.e., stopping misbehavior), we must have a larger time frame in mind.
Every time our students misbehave, they give us an opportunity to understand them better, and to get a better sense of what they need help learning. Viewing these as opportunities rather than problems allows us to forgo much of the tension that comes from trying to keep all the balls in the air at once. Students will sometimes misbehave, just like they'll sometimes act wonderfully. More than just teaching them content, we as teachers also have the privilege of teaching them how to succeed in life as well.
Action: Think about a recent situation in which something you said or did was misrepresented by someone else. Create narratives to describe the event from both perspectives. Then imagine shifting the narrative of misbehavior situations from, "How can I get ____ to stop ____?" to, "How can I help ____ successfully ____?"
Reflection questions: How do you enter situations when students are behaving poorly? Do you normally enter them with the goal of helping them or simply wanting them to stop? How would shifting to a helping mentality change how their misbehavior affects you?
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 19, click here.