Take CHARGE Day 30: Restore the relationship
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.