Making Matters Worse
In the last Newsletter I dealt with how you can take effective, personal action when dealing with children, and others for that matter in times of crisis. Unfortunately, in these critical times, when emotions are high mistakes are too easily made. For kids with a history of abuse/neglect their fragile sense of self and their hypervigilance for threats in their environment means any mistake you make really will have a substantial impact on your relationship, damaging your most valued asset.
We will examine potential mistakes, by the teacher, then the students’ attempts to manipulate the teacher and finally blunders during communication between both parties.
Mistakes by the Teacher
Many of these described mistakes are the opposite of what was outlined in the previous Newsletter but they are worth discussing in this format. These are:
- Ignoring Conflict – It is not unusual to read advice on behaviour management to ignore the behaviour. And, I agree there are times to do this but only when the ‘mistakes’ are a function of the student’s development, it may be inappropriate but not expected by students of that age. However, it would be rare for ignoring conflict in your classroom. Too often, teachers are so tired, unprepared or so overwhelmed they choose to ignore the behaviour for some ‘short term’ peace. This of course, never happens.
- React Before Thinking – Making decisions, on the run is a dangerous practice. You have to accept that in these times emotions will be running high and we know there is an inverse relationship between emotional elevation and rational thinking. Have a plan before you get into conflict resolution.
- Making Stupid Threats – Never threaten a consequence you can’t deliver. I remember listening to an excellent teacher dealing with an aggressive, conduct disordered child who was dangling his leg out the classroom window. What I heard was ‘if you put your leg out the window one more time I will break it!’ Now, the bone in the leg is very difficult to break without using extreme force so that was not likely to be a consequence the teacher could deliver and, as the principal supervising this teacher I could only imagine the paper-work that would have followed if he was successful! I use this humorous but real example to illustrate how silly threats can be – you must understand you can’t make anyone do anything. All you can do is provide the consequences and allow them to make the decision and you can’t deliver consequences that are unethical or illegal.
- Pulling Rank – a common mistake is making a statement like you will do that because I’m the teacher, reminding the student who has the most ‘position power’. However, position power is never a match for personal power. All it takes is a child to say something like ‘make me’ and you are in deep trouble. In my career I have been confronted with just such a scenario; even when I pointed out the consequence the child would challenge my ability to deliver the consequence. However, I had a sequential plan that was known to me and delivered in steps to the child in question. The last step was always to call the police which I had to do on many occasions. In fact, because I had always followed through my plan when I got to this stage other students would tell the student in question ‘he will do it’. That endorsement more often than not brought closure to the conflict.
- Talking too Much/Little – You only have a small window to make your point. Say what you need to say stop and listen to the child. The more you talk the less they listen however you need to make sure they know exactly what will happen. It is a time when you can use the well-known conflict resolution technique:
- When you …. Say swear at me
- I feel … really hurt
- Because … I don’t deserve to be talked to that way
However, this approach may be effective dealing with appropriately functioning kids but in times of crisis I would use:
- If you … say throw that chair
- I will … suspend you
This process would need to be repeated with differing scenarios as the conflict moves to a crisis.
- Offering Time-Out from an Unattractive Environment – Time-out (see Newsletter - Time Out 17th July 2017) is only effective if the classroom is attractive to the student. This should not be an issue, children love to belong where they are valued. Unfortunately, too often I have seen students sent out of the classroom to stand next to the door. Before long others have manipulated the teacher to send them out as well and soon there is a ‘party’ going on in the corridor. Time-out is an effective consequence but only if it is well organised and I urge you to visit the Newsletter about this topic.
- Personally Attacking the Student – This is a critical mistake, things like ‘you’re just like your brother’, ‘why did I think someone like you could act appropriately’, you (put any ethnicity in here) are all the same’ the list goes on. Not only do you alienate the student involved the other kids will observe this and lose respect for you. Always, always it is the behaviour we reject, never the child.
- Not Modelling what you Expect – This is a case where the faulty message ‘do as I say not as I do’ is on display. Your integrity is an invaluable asset but is only maintained if you are consistent in acting the way you expect your students to act. If you’re always late for class it would be immoral to punish a child who is late for class.
Manipulation by the Student
The following are some examples of how students try to deflect their responsibility for their behaviour. These include:
- Plead and Deal – This is where the student tries to get the teacher to ‘let them off’. They make promises like, ‘I’ll never do this again’, ‘If you let me off this time I’ll clean-up the room’ or dangerously ‘If you suspend me my father will bash me’. This last one is very difficult and how you respond is very age-dependent. It may well be the truth that the child will be hit if they are suspended and this does place the teacher in a difficult position. I suspect very young children would not say this unless it was true and then the teacher has a moral and legal responsibility to report this to the authorities. Older children can use this plead to avoid responsibility even if it’s not true you will have the same responsibilities. I would take the following steps:
- I would ask if this has happened before – if yes then I report the abuse if no I tell them that their parent is not allowed to hit them and if they do they must tell me – then I would report
- I would also contact the parent and inform them of what their child has said, explaining that I think they are just trying to get out of trouble but reminding them of the law and my responsibilities
- I understand this is very precarious situation so I would also inform my superior officer to get my approach approved and recorded
- This is a difficult situation.
- Deflecting – This is when the child brings up past events saying why you didn’t punish someone else in the past for what they consider the same behaviour ‘Why didn’t you send Jane out when she did this’, you always pick on me’, ‘It’s because I’m black, a Muslim’, ‘You don’t do this to girls’, the list is only limited by their imagination. And be aware these students are really good at finding those things you care about and using them against you; ‘you never pick on the kids in the choir’.
This is not the time to defend yourself, that’s what they want. Once you engage in a discussion arguing your impartiality you have lost, if you start they won’t finish until you concede; this is when you use the ‘broken record’ approach. For the younger readers when old records were scratched the needle would often become stuck on one groove and so the contents of that groove would be repeated over and over again until someone turned it off. Use this ‘broken record’ approach by dealing with each deflection with something like ‘I’m not interested in that now – you have to leave the room’. Eventually they should stop and, if you think it is worthwhile you may explain to them why you acted that way at a later time but not when you are delivering the consequence.
- Use the Crowd – Some students are very popular in the classroom or have a powerful group of peers and they can join in pressuring the teacher. This can be very confronting especially to inexperienced or timid teachers. This can be as simple as their ‘friends’ arguing on their behalf or creating other levels of disturbance that you have to stop dealing with this issue to address what they are doing. You must keep all the students safe and you may have to pay close attention to what is happening but immediately that issue is resolved you return to the original matter.
Problems created by both parties
These last ‘mistakes can be made by either the teacher or the student. They are:
- Poor Timing – this is when there is a dispute but the aggressive contender starts an argument when the other is distracted. Not only will they catch the other ‘off-guard’ the ‘other’ will be focused on something else and might dismiss the issue. The result is there is no conclusion to the dispute.
- Sand Bagging – this is very similar to deflecting but it is not really referring to how the teacher dealt with other students it is bringing up other problems not relevant to current situation. This is another time the ‘broken record’ approach can be used but it is unlikely the student will have that skill.
- Blaming – saying ‘you’re the one who is wrong. I didn’t do it’ best sums up this approach. It is hard to argue with this because it is so unreasonable and you find yourself defending your actions and not dealing with the issue at hand.
- Leaving – this is when one of the contenders just ups and leaves the discussion. This way they avoid any confrontation and therefore there is no conclusion. This approach does not resolve the situation and it must be dealt with eventually. Teachers who do this can be guaranteed the issue will happen again so it is best to deal with it at the time. If the student ‘walks away’ then the teacher should not ‘resume normal duties’ until the issue is resolved.
- Loss of Temper – when you lose your temper you lose self-control and become disempowered. If the teacher does this they lose more than control of the current situation they lose the respect of the other students. If it is the student then don’t continue until they have regained some self-control.
- Avoiding Responsibility – I saw Bart Simpson use this in an episode of the Simpsons and I refer to it as the Bart technique, ‘You didn’t see me, you can’t prove it, I didn’t do it.’ Just remember it is not a court of law so the teacher can provide a consequence when they are confident they are in the right. It is very much more difficult for the student but in a good school each student should have a teacher who can advocate for them.
- Playing the Martyr – mostly, like all these are most often used by students but this is more common with teachers. They become ‘hopeless’ claiming they can’t do what is required. In some cases, particularly with students they will threaten suicide (this threat should never be dismissed but is the subject of a future Newsletter). Teachers will rarely use this technique with students but it is not unusual to do this when dealing with a supervising staff member. Instead of dealing with the situation they want the other to take responsibility.
This is an exhaustive list of common mistakes. It doesn’t take much insight to see that each one is exclusive and both teachers and students will form numerous versions of each identified scam. All of these can be avoided by using the script outlined in in the Newsletter Teaching Practical Boundaries (31st July 2017) and this is:
- ‘What is really happening’? This is often not the obvious event
- ‘Who is responsible’?
- If ‘me’ then I must take responsibility, take-action to address the cause of the stress
- If not ‘me’ then I ask a further two questions:
- ‘What is causing the attack’?
- What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?
Never, when possible leave a dispute unresolved; having some unresolved problem will destroy any attempts to create a working relationship in your classroom.