Take CHARGE Day 30: Restore the relationship
(To read Day 29, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)
Take CHARGE of the Moment
A compassionate climate is more than just a feel-good notion; it's an academic necessity. As this blog series started talking about the importance of connectedness (Day 2), its only fitting that the final entry also focuses on relationships. The environment that you have in your classroom is the foundation of everything you do. It's warmth or toxicity, sense of forgiveness or punishment, will color every fact or skill you are trying to teach your students. To put it simply, without a positive classroom atmosphere, you're doomed.
While the entire blog series has been dedicated to minimizing behavioral distractions in the classroom, yesterday's and today's posts focus more on the aftermath. As much as you might try to eliminate it, students will misbehave. They'll say something inappropriate, yell at a friend, or call someone something so rude that fists begin to fly even before you've processed what you've heard.
How you handle the aftermath of behavior can be as important as how you defuse the situation itself. After a conflict it is important to repair the relationship. Now that the situation has calmed down and learning has resumed, you, as the adult, have two choices as to how to treat the offending student. You can either exclude or embrace the child. Be careful how you choose, however. By choosing to exclude, the consequences to your classroom atmosphere can be devastating.
Teachers who link affection with approval consequently withhold affection from children when they make mistakes or behave hurtfully. The underlying idea is, "I'll like and accept you when you act correctly. I won't when your behavior is less than perfect." This expectation, probably thought to encourage students to act appropriately, actually instills an atmosphere of fear and anxiety (Day 29). Students are afraid to mess up because they know that they'll lose their teacher's affection if they err. This type of tension is not conducive to learning and actually can impede natural brain development.
Living in bitterness, anxiety, fear, and anger inhibits change and learning, causing real damage to the body and brain. As negative emotions become involved, the brain releases cortisol, meant to be a quick fix to help us fight or flee. It's not meant to be triggered for periods of prolonged stress. Excess cortisol kills brain cells, damages the hippocampus in the brain, reduces the capacity to store information, and may be responsible for many degenerative diseases. While many teachers might be familiar with the term toxic stress and believe it to be related to abusive or degenerative home situations, they might not realize that their exclusion after behavioral interactions can cause or trigger the same symptoms.
There is a better way. Healthy relationships release oxytocin in the brain to calm the amygdala (Day 7). Oxytocin helps with bonding, affects generosity, increases empathy, and develops trust between people. In short, oxytocin is good; cortisol is bad. We don't want to send a message to students that we'll be in a relationship with them when they are good and happy, but we'll withhold our love and affection when they're not. Instead, like parents, we should rise above the situation. Our affection for our students should not be dependent on their actions. It should be unconditional.
A study conducted in the dorms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found an incredible truth about proximity. Trying to learn more about social networks and connectedness, the dorm residents were surveyed about their connections and those of other residents. What the study found was that interconnectedness, closely related to popularity, had nothing to do with personality or character traits. Instead, the most connected people in the dorms were those whose rooms were in the middle of the hall. The most disconnected people were those that lived at the ends of each hall.
Physical isolation breeds emotional disconnection. The students who lived at the ends of each dorm hallway were relative outcasts.
I point this out because oftentimes teachers punish students through isolation. They put them in the hallway. They move their desk to the corner. Students who cannot behave are separated from the group. I'm not saying that these techniques are completely inappropriate. If little Henry is stabbing others with scissors, he doesn't need to sit near others. Isolating him is a good idea both for him and his classmates.
But for how long?
The problem with moving kids to islands in the classroom is we tend to maroon them there. After emotions have calmed down, walk over and talk with the child. Discuss the situation, set your expectations, and embrace him. Bring him back into the family. Reconnect him with his tablemates and help him reintegrate into the classroom community. If he's instead left on his island, blacklisted and ignored, the situation will only get worse.
Students are always watching what the teacher does.
Multiple research studies by Jan Hughes and colleagues at Texas A&M University show that students watch teacher interactions with other students. Classmates witness how the teacher interacts with a child and begin to subconsciously assign the student an academic reputation, either positive or negative. By seeing what the teacher says to a student and what tone of voice is used, they relate that to how smart that student is.
Classmates take into account the character of teacher interactions with the student and integrate that into their view of the child’s likability. If the teacher speaks positively with their classmate, they view that student as likable. Conversely, if the teacher seems angry at a student or overly uses sarcasm, the students notice that as well. Teacher-student interactions are absorbed by classmates into what the researchers call a peer academic reputation.
These factors then transmit to the student. Most students are aware of how they are viewed by their peers, picking up on small social cues and conversational tidbits. If their classmates see them as unintelligent, students can begin to incorporate those views into their own self-assessment. External beliefs become internal truths and students rise or fall to the level of social expectations. All of this can stem from how students watch teacher interactions.
The interactions that teachers have with students can assign them not only their academic reputation but their behavioral one as well. When teachers always expect the worst from little Henry, his classmates will also. If he's suspected to be the culprit behind every act of sabotage and vandalism in the classroom, his peers will begin to distance themselves from him. To stay in the teacher's good graces, they sense that they must not associate with Henry. Thus a teacher's negative attitude can poison any chance little Henry might have of healthy peer relationships in the classroom.
Be the bigger person. Be the adult. Welcome the child back into the classroom family after a behavioral episode. How many times you ask? Once? Twice? Thrice? Peter asked Jesus the same thing, thinking that he was pious by suggesting forgiving his brother seven times. Jesus' response in Matthew 18:22 was, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times."
By ending each emotional outburst with an embrace and forgiveness, you set the tone in your classroom. Students begin to feel safe because they know that if they make a mistake they will not be isolated. That sense of safety and protection releases oxytocin, giving them the ability to better trust and bond with each other. It also increases empathy, an essential skill that students need to bond with others and see them as people they don't want to emotionally hurt.
Finally, holding onto anger is simply exhausting. It's hard to keep up with who you're mad at and who you should be ignoring. Excluding students because they misbehave is as detrimental to the teacher as it is to the student. Instead, welcome them back. Embrace them and help them restore relationships with those they've hurt. In the long run, this will do more to reduce misbehavior than isolation ever will.
Action: Think about your most troublesome student. Consider if your actions tend to isolate or reintegrate him back into the classroom culture after behavioral episodes. If the former, consider how you can change the trajectory to embrace him in the future.
Reflection questions: Has isolation worked in the past? Did physically removing a student cause the behavior to stop altogether or did it simply delay it? How long should a student be removed temporarily, if needed, and how quickly should he be reintegrated?
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.
Brafman, O., & Brafman, R. (2010). Click: the magic of instant connections. New York: Broadway Books.
Hughes, J. N., & Chen, Q. (2011). Reciprocal effects of student-teacher and student-peer relatedness: Effects on academic self-efficacy. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 32(5), 278-287.
Hughes, J. N., & Zhang, D. (2007). Effects of the structure of classmates' perceptions of peers' academic abilities on children's perceived cognitive competence, peer acceptance, and engagement. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 32(3), 400-419.
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.