Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Quick Diagnosis

We've been in school for nine days, and I am quickly diagnosing behaviors. Why is Danie giggling uncontrollably and loudly during Afternoon Circle? Why is Sonny yelling at kids angrily every five minutes (it seems)? Why does Kyle suddenly need the bathroom or the nurse or a drink of water every day when it's time for math? Why is it that any time Howard is faced with any kind of frustration, no matter how small, he begins to whine or shout loudly and insistently, and will not stop?

These questions exhaust and try the patience of even the most experienced teachers. They are also par for the course at the beginning of the year. As I coast down the hills on my bike ride home, I go over the events of the day and try to figure out the motivations behind the behaviors that sometimes make me wonder if I've chosen the right profession.

According to Cooperative Discipline, there are four reasons for misbehavior: attention, power, revenge, or avoidance of failure. I think I was taught this years ago, but I didn't really remember it until someone reminded me recently. Whether you know these four reasons from instinct or instruction, you respond to each kind of misbehavior differently, addressing the underlying need rather than the superficial behavior.

I have a bunch of attention-seekers in my classroom. So, I've turned on the anti-attention machines full-blast. I think I said this phrase about 12 times today: "I will give you some attention when you're doing the right thing." This is followed by very purposeful, very intensive ignoring, and lots and lots of loving, positive attention for the kids around the room who are doing the right thing. As soon as the student making loud noises, thrashing around in his seat, or just being silly stops, I turn the same force of warmth and attention on her, noticing what she's doing right, and creating lots of positive energy around her academics.

This positive energy is really the meat of the thing. Building relationships, building relationships, building relationships. Creating intense, powerful connections, whether because we both like kittens, or baseball, or math. Getting excited together over something we're learning, or some progress he made, however minuscule it seems. I think I've heard the Queen Mother say this about 700 times in the years I've worked with her: "Some children crave intense relationships no matter what. It doesn't matter if the intensity is based in negative responses to behavior or positive ones. They will do whatever gets an intense reaction." The answer? Respond matter-of-factly to misbehavior, and intensely to the right behaviors.

The other thing I've been working on honing this year is my ability to preface nearly any redirection or suggestion with an honest compliment. "Abe, you are sitting flat on your bottom. Now all you need to do is make your mouth quiet and you'll be ready." Today we were working on writing beautiful, perfect letters for a name tag project. Before I let myself tell anyone what they needed to do better in their letter, I always looked for something that was already good. Sometimes it seemed hard to find, but there was always something. "That line of your A is very straight." "Your L goes all the way to the bottom line of the handwriting paper." "I noticed you used light, careful lines to make the letter." Once I started that way, enthusiastically, I would give one piece of feedback for their next draft of the letter. "On your next one, do you think you can make the line as straight as you just did, and at the same time see if you can make the A bigger?" The kids were overflowing with enthusiasm, and eager to do another draft. They could feel the progress.

It feels a little unrelenting, this process of diagnosis and treatment. But the sooner I nip them in the bud, the sooner things will get easier.


  1. This. Sounds. Exhausting. But damn, are you a good teacher! As usual, I am amazed at your patience and wise ways.

  2. Excellent insight. Your students are lucky to have you!

    I often use the same technique when art directing designers at work. I start with a positive comment about an aspect of his/her project and then follow up with a suggestion for improvement. Works with adults, too. :o)