Channeling student behaviors

It’s always interesting to me watching students at the beginning of a school year. We are already approaching the end of the first month of school here in our school district, and while many of our students have settled into the typical routine, some are continuing to struggle. I’m trying to reflect on a couple of my recent learning opportunities as I think about some of the behaviors we’ve been seeing and how we as a school might respond to those behaviors.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to participate in a training called Restorative Leadership: Authority with Grace. Much of this training was spent learning about and then reflecting on how to lead our sphere of control in a restorative way. One basic concept that fits with other thinking recently is that we should separate the deed from the doer by affirming the worth of the individual while disapproving of inappropriate behavior. We must first see our students as people. This allows us to identify their strengths, as well as areas for continued growth. Challenging behaviors are often telling us of some unmet need, and when we look at it that way, it’s easier to separate the child and the behavior.

Then last week I had the privilege to spend a day learning from and with Cornelius Minor. If you aren’t sure who that is, he is an educator who is dedicated to working with teachers, school leaders, and others to support equitable literacy reform across the globe. If I had to distill my thinking about the day into one thought, it was a question he posed at one point. He asked, “How are we making sure that our institutions are more hospitable to kids?” A train of thought that I’m thinking about because of this has to do with the systems that exist within the school culture. Cornelius pointed out that in schools, some of our approaches do not see kids. Kids know that this isn’t ok, which causes them to act out. In turn, we treat kids as if they are broken, and we give them labels. He went on to share that disproportionately, this can happen to our multilingual students, our students with learning disabilities, and our marginalized populations. If we go back to the beginning of the chain and try to fix the fact that kids are not always seen or heard in the school environment, then maybe we break that chain.

Then, today, I happened to be over by the bookshelf in my office and I noticed a book I haven’t picked up in a long time. Early in my career, the members of my fifth-grade team read the book Teaching with Love & Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom by Jim Fay & David Funk. As I reflect on all these pieces of learning from my many years of public education, it keeps bringing me back to the relational side of management, leadership, and most importantly for this post, discipline.

What if we started thinking about how we handled problematic behavior differently? If the goal of equitable work in schools is to create a more hospitable environment for kids, we must go back to another one of the basic beliefs of restorative work: We respond to situations WITH people, not TO them, FOR them, or NOT at all.

As educators, we need to think of ourselves as “child watchers” who are observing our students. What do we notice about them? What makes them happy? When do they get frustrated? What seems to motivate them?

If you’d like an idea of how to keep track of the things that you are learning about your students, there are a couple of options:

  • You could use a page in a notebook for each student.
  • You could create a spreadsheet with a list of all your students and begin filling in things you notice.
  • You could use a paper with several boxes on it and use each box for a different student (this was a method I used – I would have 8 boxes per page, which meant 3-4 pages for a class).

If you notice that there is a student’s page or box that isn’t as full as the others, it’s time to create some opportunities for learning. Seek that student out for 2 minutes a day to talk about anything not related to school. It’s amazing how much you can learn in a few short stints of time.

The more we notice about our kids, the more we can use those things to our benefit. As an adult, if you have a student who talks out in class and causes disruptions, the easy solution is to remove them from their group, seat them on their own, or possibly even have them leave the room. And how does that feel to the student? That we are doing something to them, not with them. And ultimately, we must remember that the word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina which means instruction or knowledge. Discipline isn’t about what we do, it’s about teaching how to do the appropriate thing.

What if instead, we took a moment of our day to have a conversation with a student about the impact that behavior has on the class? What if we turned it into a topic for a community circle where other students can share how talking out or creating disruptions impacts them? Next, you might be able to process with the student during an unstructured time of the day (in the hallway as you’re walking to related arts, during a passing period, or a quick chat during recess) about how their behavior has impacted others. Then, what if you find ways to feed that student’s desire to talk? Could you increase the number of turn and talks during a lesson to help that student who is talking too much? Could you make a portion of the lesson partner or group based? If you let the student know that you see what it is that they need and that you are going to try to create more opportunities for that, it may help shift the behavior. When we think of teaching as art and creation, we must ask ourselves what we can create that will support our students who are struggling.

When we create a classroom environment that provides students with a way to have their needs met, we make the learning environment more hospitable for the student that needs to talk.

Take a moment to reflect on the problem behaviors that you are seeing. See if you can piece together what the behavior is, and when it is happening. Then, ask yourself if there is a way you can take that behavior and channel it towards something more positive. In the Love & Logic mindset, this would be called providing choices within limits. We all know that there must be certain limitations within the classroom, but if we let students know when and where in their day they will be able to make choices, they should be able to uphold your expectations in other parts of the day.

And something that I want to make clear – none of what I’m saying is meant to imply that there should never be consequences for a child’s poor choices. Whether we are working from a restorative mindset, from the mindset of creating a hospitable environment, or from a Love & Logic mindset, consequences certainly can be a part of the learning process. We just need to make sure that the consequence is reasonable, natural, and appropriate. In fact, “Children will learn from their mistakes when: They experience the consequences of their mistake; and Adults in their environment provide empathy.” (Fay & Funk, Teaching with Love & Logic, pg. 37). When adults express sorrow for a student’s poor choice and the resulting consequence, children have a much greater opportunity to grow.

What ideas does this spark for you? Do you want to think about how you might react to problematic behavior? Or does this spark some questions for you? Learning happens when we reflect, so share your reflections in the comments below!