Clean slate

How many times have you messed up? Forgotten something at home? Been a couple minutes late to a meeting? Have you ever paid a bill late? Or have you ever done something that hurt a close friend? If you’re anything like me, you can probably identify some examples of times that you have messed up, both professionally and personally. Now pause and think – as an adult, what has been the reaction of other adults? I find that more often than not, the adults we are around are quick to accept our apologies and move on (although we might have to pay a late fee on that bill!)

I know that there are times that as a classroom teacher, there were students who would manage to make my life difficult. Maybe they came to class unprepared. Maybe they spent too much time chatting with their neighbors. Other times the behavior was a lot more serious – acting out in major ways, knocking over a chair, throwing a desk, etc. I know that I sometimes took that behavior personally.

As teachers, sometimes it is hard for us to show the same level of grace to our student’s tough behaviors that we might show to an adult who makes mistakes (I know, the behaviors are different, but the emotional and cognitive coping skills of an adult are way different than a kid in our classroom).

Here’s the reality that I think we can all agree on – teaching is an emotional gig! You get invested in your students. You hope for the best from them. You pour your time and energy into them. You celebrate the smallest of victories. And yet, at times, the response we get just doesn’t quite live up to our expectations. Sometimes we feel disappointed, upset, or even hurt by how kids act in our classroom.

So, when a student become dysregulated, it can be frustrating for us as the adult in the room. Real quickly, in case dysregulation is a new term for you, let me define it for you:

Dysregulation: An emotional response that does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive responses. These emotions can be internalized by our students, which causes them to appear withdrawn, shut down, or non-engaged. For other students dysregulation will manifest as externalized behaviors such as acting out, being emotional, and trouble calming down. Some students may show a combination of internalized and externalized behaviors.

A couple years ago, I wrote a post on adult responses to dysregulation. You can see that post here. In this post, there is a link to a document that can serve as a really solid reminder of how to respond when students are dysregulated.

It can be so tempting at times to take a student’s dysregulation personally. But we have to remember the acronym Q-TIP – Quit Taking It Personally! When our students are flipping their lid, we might wonder “Why are they doing this to me?” The fact is, most of the time, this behavior has nothing to do with us. It could be that they are hungry, or tired, or thirsty. Maybe they had an argument with mom right before getting on the bus. Maybe someone hurt them.

I believe that part of working with kids is being able to give a kid a clean slate every day. Each morning, you and that student need to start refreshed and ready for the day. And here’s the thing, kids can sense it in your para-verbal and non-verbal cues. The tone of your voice during your first interaction, the body language when the student enters the room, both can impact how the day is going to go with that student. And as a former colleague of mine pointed out to me earlier this week, sometimes that reset to a clean slate might need to be more often than just the beginning of the day. Sometimes the clean slate comes into play after returning from lunch for the second half of the day. Sometimes it might even be after every transition!

Students who have been through trauma are often the ones that are most likely to carry out those difficult behaviors. They are also the ones who are most sensitive to what the adult who’s “in charge” is doing, because that’s how they have learned to keep themselves safe. It’s their survival mode. The single most important way to help our students who have been in trauma? The love and support of a caring and trusted adult.

Think about the students in your class? Who are the ones that most need that clean slate? Once you have those students in mind, challenge yourself to become that caring and trusted adult for them. Be that person they know they can turn to and confide in. Be that person who will be there even when they act like they don’t want you to. That’s what our kids with challenging behaviors need most!

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