NUMBER 1178 • 1 JUNE • OUTCOMES
A number of years ago, my mother sent me a series of articles published in a Florida newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, entitled “To Sir — With Blood.” The subtitle read, “Are Our Teachers Taking a Beating? Three Who Were Assaulted by Students Share Their Pain” (Hayes, 1993). As I was reading the articles, it occurred to me that in every situation the staff members initially approached the students in an authoritarian manner. Even though the students’ behavior escalated when approached in this manner, the staff members continued along their course. Eventually, each situation escalated to the point where the student became physically violent ...
Three Possible Outcomes
Dr. Nicholas Long (1997) stated that there are three possible outcomes of interactions between adults and youth engaged in misbehavior: The relationship can be unchanged, damaged, or improved. Many times during my workshops, participants have lamented that they don’t have the time to be nice to a student who is acting out. My response is that they don’t have the time not to.
Most of us have been taught that when we are faced with misbehavior from a student, we should take a hard, no nonsense, “nip-it-in-the-bud” stance. This may work with students who are “acting up,” by which I mean that the student is in a rational state of mind and is either misbehaving impulsively or momentarily forgot the rules. A stern look, a warning, or a directive can often halt this type of behavior. Many times, because students who are acting up expect adults to come from an authoritarian standpoint, relationships go pretty much unchanged.
A vast majority of our students, even if they are a little emotional at the time they are confronted, have the ability to self-regulate their responses, even when they feel they are being misunderstood or treated unfairly. Although they may say things like, “I knew you wouldn’t understand!” “You’re just like everyone else!” or mutter something under their breath, the inappropriate behavior stops. Again, relationships go unchanged because students expect that adults will not understand their point of view. Many school districts have an established list of “consequences” for specific infractions (Long, 1997). Little or no consideration is given, however, to the circumstances surrounding the situation or the student’s perception of the event. For many students, these rote punishments have little effect on changing behavior because they address only the symptoms, not the beliefs and feelings that underlie the behavior. The student does not feel that the staff members are genuinely concerned about him or her, and the relationship is not changed. As a result, nothing changes, and the likelihood of future problems increases. (Long, 1997).
In the previously mentioned articles, each teacher ordered the student to stop doing something. Instead of halting the behavior, however, this response only escalated the behavior. This is a sure sign of “acting out” behavior rather than acting up behavior. Acting out behavior is driven by emotions. When students are in an emotional frame of mind, they are irrational. In these cases, stern looks, warnings, directives, and threats of consequences only serve to heighten the students’ irrationality. Despite the fact that such a hard stance obviously only served to escalate the situation, the staff members repeated their commands. In all three instances, the staff members themselves became disrespectful and increasingly confrontational. The resulting physical violence most assuredly damaged the relationships from both the staff members’ and students’ points of view.
I don’t know why we have such a problem with being respectful to students who behave inappropriately. We tell our children that two wrongs do not make a right, yet those adults who treat a misbehaving child with empathy are accused of being soft or permissive. It seems that kindness is automatically equated with condoning or even reinforcing inappropriate behavior. If, in being kind in times of crisis, we improve relationships with children, we increase the probability that they will be more willing to want to learn from us. They will also be more receptive to what we have to say when we address the inappropriateness of their original behavior at a later time. It takes no more time to say the things that will improve a relationship than it does to respond in ways that will damage a relationship.
MARY BETH HEWITT
Hewitt, M.B. (2000) Improving turbulent relationships. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 9(2), pp. 99-102