What’s in a Name?
In a recent article, Stop Labeling People who Commit Crimes ‘Criminals’, Kimberly Brownlee from the University of Warwick in Coventry examines the impact labeling has on criminals. Her thesis, describing the person involved with the same terms as the act they committed has ramifications for our work particularly with those difficult students we refer to as ‘dysfunctional,' ‘disobedient,' ‘naughty,' etc. So how do we ‘describe’ the perpetrators of misbehaviour?
As you will have gathered by now, I am a great believer in consequences for actions, and when we commit a crime, there must be some form of sanction for the person involved. Understandably but unfortunately the tendency is to personalize the action; that is, the thoughtless act has been committed by a thoughtless person! How often do you hear someone describe a kid as stupid when they really have done a stupid action. The label defines the child; a child who has been told they are stupid will believe they are stupid! The impact of this labeling has significance for dealing with tough kids.
As far as the student goes there are at least two issues here. The first is that as I've said, they will believe they are that label. In a recent Newsletter (3rd July 2017) I discussed toxic shame, the belief that you have not made a mistake, you are a mistake. These are children who come from a history of abuse or neglect, those who have a shattered sense of self-worth. Whenever these children hear a teacher call them stupid, it is a confirmation of their belief system.
This toxic shame is such a debilitating condition because in their heart of hearts they believe they are always condemned to fail and never see themselves as having a chance to be anything other than ‘stupid' or ‘dysfunctional,' etc.
So how do we deal with this problem? As pointed out above a major part of dealing with dysfunctional students is to teach them that actions do have consequences. Far too many consequences are either not delivered, or the treatment they receive is in no way related to their behaviour. This absence of structure is particularly true for children who suffer abuse. These kids have no sense of personal control; life does things to them rather than they interact with life. So teaching them about actions and consequences is a form of empowerment.
I often hear well-meaning teachers advocating punishment for children who misbehave. I have a few issues with punishment, teachers who like to ‘punish' are ‘committed the assumption of ‘authority'; they arbitrate and distribute the punishment. The problem is this is an expression of power over the child. They believe they can ‘make them behave.' And more often than not the behaviour that must be addressed is at least annoying and as much as the teacher tries to conceal feelings of frustration and anger, the expression of hostility towards that child will damage their relationship.
Another problem with punishment is that the responsibility of the behaviour rests with that authority figure. The child is excluded, in a sense excused from responsibility and will never ‘learn’ about their accountability. There is no developed connection between the act and responsibility. The child acted irresponsibly because they are irresponsible and can’t do anything about that.
This process reinforces the idea of the student becoming the behaviour!
It is in the delivery of the consequences that holds the key to helping address the burden of toxic shame.
Effective consequences are based on the logical outcome of the behaviour. For example, if a student litters the playground then an effective consequences is for them to clean up the playground. Of course, this is not as simple as it sounds, what is a student hits another student? It may be ‘logical' to hit them but not ethical or even effective. In these cases, the consequence is a chosen response to the behaviour, and it is important that the child knows in advance what will happen if they behave in anti-social ways.
If the student understands the connection is just between the action and the consequence, then they can come to understand that the responsibility for the consequence rests with them and if they change their actions the consequences will change. This is a time when the teacher can suggest other ways to behave and strengthen their relationship.
Everyone makes mistakes, and as teachers, when we make mistakes one of the best gifts you can give your class is to identify that you made a mistake. There have been times when I have blurted out something like ‘you stupid thing, ' but eventually, I understood and quickly followed up with something like ‘now I have made a stupid mistake – we both know you are far from stupid but what you just did was not smart.' Surprisingly this always seemed to work, but it’s better to prevent it happening in the first place.
The most important message a teacher can deliver to all students and especially those who suffer from toxic shame is that they are not their behaviour. They really are precious, special and unique!