Mary Fowler

Observe to Stop “Beliefing”

Read the first, second, and third posts in this series.

"The basis of all good human behavior is kindness." —Eleanor Roosevelt

It's a curiously human trait to cling to beliefs based on assumptions and preconceived notions. What we tell ourselves about what's going on with a student's behavior matters greatly and sometimes gravely. Negative beliefs and attributions are known drama enhancers. Not sure you believe this statement? Recall a recent unpleasant interpersonal experience—perhaps with a partner, close friend, your teenager, or a toddler. What do you notice in your body? Tension or ease? More or less anger? Did the argument solve the problem? I mean, really solve it?

My zero-tolerance war on Section 8C felt powerfully good while I planned it. It provided some momentary satisfaction as one by one my students crossed the line and reaped the fruits of my reaction. For a brief moment, I even thought their behavior proved the point that they were "deliberately disrespectful" and had caused my reaction. Of course, the joke was on me. In the end, I still had the behavior, one less coercive trick up my sleeve, and needy 8th grade students who had to take the test.

Perhaps as an educator, you feel trapped in this "Test, No Time" (TNT) story that's triggering so much stress in schools. This belief drives these statements: "We don't have time to deal with social-emotional issues. We're here to teach and get our students ready for the test. Besides, the parents should be responsible for how their kid behaves in school." Sadly, I can say that this belief becomes a point of major angst and discussion in every regional training, school in-service workshop, or in-class behavioral coaching support session I give.

The concern is valid. The test is in play. Yet, the belief that there is no time to address social and emotional issues is a guaranteed lose-lose outcome. As I came to discover with Section 8C, their issues had to be the primary focus. Otherwise, most instructional time would continue to be eroded by behavior.

There was one additional major correction I needed to make. Too often I would jump to a conclusion about the motive behind a given behavior. "He's doing that for attention!" "She's trying to be difficult to fit in with her peers!" I was following countless footsteps to nowhere.

In all of these beliefs, we may be right. We may be wrong. How will we know? And if we are right, what changes? If we want things to change, we must change what we do.

Try this practice:

  • Observe the behavior. What do you notice? Don't "belief" it. Don't judge it. Don't assign motive.
  • Empathize with the student. Share what you've noticed. Ask and assure: What do you need? How can I help? Hang in there. We'll figure this out.
  • Explore the story the student tells. What are his beliefs about the behavior? Chances are the student or the class may still be stuck in the old story that pokes the sore spot. Your compassion helps the student change the plot. (Section 8C, by the way, was the homogeneous group of poor performers with an eight-year track record to prove the point that they could barely succeed.)
  • Partner with the student to explore possibilities that will solve the problem and meet the needs. Lose any expectation for immediate change. All learning comes with trial and error. Mistakes are opportunities to observe, empathize, explore, and try again.

When we move from judgment and expectations into observation and problem solving, we are preparing the soil for a personal and classwide culture that cultivates resilience. We improve the learning climate when we take conscious, deliberate action to assure a safe, stable, and nurturing environment in which taking a risk doesn't feel like risking a life.

In the next and final post in this series, I'll share ways to consciously dial down reaction.

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.

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