Mary Fowler

Dial Down Reactive Behavior—Theirs and Ours!

You might have heard the old joke about the guy who goes up to a doctor at a party. "Doc," he says as he pokes his stomach, "Whenever I touch this spot it hurts. What should I do?"

"Stop touching it," the doctor replies. We laugh at the slapstick humor with its obvious simplistic solution for the suffering man's dilemma. Yet, somehow, when it comes to classroom management or working with a challenging student, we know we shouldn't do a lot of the things we do that poke an already delicate situation. Nonetheless, when buttons get pushed, we feel the unpleasant sensation that follows and get triggered into reaction. I know. I had Section 8C. Believe me—there was a whole lot of touchy-feely sensation going on with that class.

Reactions happen to the best of us. Why don't we do better, presuming we know better? What can teachers do to dial down reactive, knee-jerk behavior? How can we help students become less reactive as well? If only the answer were as simple as "STOP."

Why We React—the Legacy of Fear, Inaccurate Appraisal, Attitude, Attribution, Judgment, Belief, and Being Confounded!

The day I declared "zero tolerance" on Section 8C, I'd had enough of their behavior. At the time, I simply didn't know what else to do. Everything that I'd tried in other classes and other schools and with some really difficult learners wasn't working with this group!

After months of deep digging into my bag of tricks, reaching out to colleagues for suggestions, and still coming up short in my attempt to sustain a productive learning environment, I arrived one cold winter morning and laid down the newly revised rules of engagement: "You so much as look like you are not working and..."

By the end of class, a small group of students remained. During my prep period, the vice principal appeared with the pink stack of "write ups" in hand.

"Are you having a bad day?" she asked.

"No," I answered with wide-eyed assurance. "Why do you ask?"

"You don't normally kick students out of class."

True enough. Nor did I typically judge students as "bad" or "incorrigible" or "opportunistic," the polite expression for the worn belief of "give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile." In this case, I did begin to take their behavior personally. After all, I reasoned, I care about these kids. Have their best interests at heart. They're just plain disrespectful.

That word, that label "disrespectful," turned out to be the wolf in this sheep's clothing. It colored my attitude and wrapped my mental energy into what they should be doing. All the you shoulds spawned a power-and-control cycle. After enough battles, I assigned a motive to their disrespect: deliberate.

Now, I was justifiable angry and fed up with the defiance. Occasionally, I suspected that some of these students were out to get me. This was not supposed to happen to me! Sure, I'd known colleagues who'd been put through the mill, but me! Seriously? I had the "outstanding" checks on teacher evaluations.

This "deliberately disrespectful" attribution I attached to their behavior began to play on my last nerve. I'd tricked myself into believing that desperate times called for desperate measures.

In my heart, I knew "zero tolerance" wasn't a solution. "I'm open to suggestions," I said to the vice principal.

For the next few days, the vice principal sat in on the class, the exemplar of "the higher authority." After she made an example of a few key players, the class settled down. We managed to get through almost three weeks of instruction with minor disruption. The problem was far from over.

Reactive "discipline" methods may give us some control in the short haul. The momentary "success" may reinforce the belief that the method works. Still, when the effects turn out to be short-lived, we usually fault the student rather than make a course-of-action correction.

As I came to learn, the problem with 8C had little to do with disrespect, insubordination, a lack of regard for authority, defiance, or the desire for power and control. Their behavior was reactive and needs based. That's why the measures taken by me and subsequently by the vice principal to get Section 8C to behave did not stand a chance of going the distance. Why?

Highly stressed learners who flood easily have poor threat appraisal systems. They do not respond to reactive discipline methods—no matter how good we adults get at applying them.

In the next post in this series, I'll share more about Section 8C and how and why they were reacting to the stress in their lives.

Mary Fowler provides professional development to help teachers improve classroom cultures and create productive learning environments. She specializes in training teachers to work with students who have social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties. Fowler is an author and recognized authority on ADHD and related difficulties.

Comments (1)

Sandy Skolnick

September 16, 2013

As you know, you were my pillar of strength when I had a similar situation two years ago. Your wealth of knowledge and reality have always been gifts for me.
I must thank you again for all your insight and advice. You are terrific at what you do. My present relationships with my supervisors and students are products of what you preach.
Would love to meet up on the boardwalk when you get some free time!

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