Dear Teachers, Inconsistency Breeds Bad Behavior

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Open letter to teachers imageI want to start by saying that I love and admire the teachers I work with everyday. Each of them has superhuman strength in their own way. I know they have one of the hardest jobs in the world and they do it with a smile. I also know they absolutely love their students and often call them their “kids” because they truly are for the year they spend together. 

But, there’s a big difference between a loving teacher and an effective teacher.

The following is an open letter to teachers who love their students and try their best everyday, and who struggle with creating a classroom environment conducive to respect, responsibility, and order. We all know them and we probably all have a few in our schools. From a School Counselor’s point of view, these teachers are the hardest to work with because they mean well but when things inevitably fall apart, we are called upon to fix the mess. 


 

Dear Teachers,

Thank you. For your warm smiles, gentle hugs, and creativity you share everyday with your students. You are amazing.

I know teaching is hard. You have more demands placed on you than ever before, and more challenging behaviors popping up in your classrooms every year. I also know you wish that your efforts would produce more peace in your classrooms. I know you’re frustrated.

Perhaps my observations and advice might be helpful.

The kids in your classrooms haven’t changed, but the world they were created in has. More and more of your kids are coming to school from homes that often feel unsafe or unhealthy. Many of your kids have been exposed to trauma, some repeatedly. They are coming into your classrooms unprepared, anxious, and scared, although they may not outwardly show you this.

The kids in your classrooms have a desperate need to feel safe, cared for, and like they belong. They need a classroom that is organized and predictable.

The classroom rules you create together the first week of school, they need to be followed. Everyday. They need to be displayed in the room and reviewed regularly. Your kids need to know that these rules matter. If they don’t, many of your kids will begin to feel a need to control the environment because the adult is not. They might start acting up and getting others to join them. While these behaviors might seem “out of character” and bizarre to you, they are a scream for you to hear what the child needs. Please listen.

The behavior management chart that’s hanging on the wall, the one in which students move their names or flip their colors, it needs to be explained explicitly and used consistently. If you’ve taught your kids about respectful and responsible behavior, as well as what warrants a move/flip on the chart, they need to know you’re going to hold them accountable. Use your chart. If you don’t, your kids might view the chart as meaningless and their behavior isn’t likely to change. If you only use the chart when you’re really frustrated, your kids will be confused and might feel unsafe in your classroom. You might even see an increase in problem behaviors as a result.

The individualized behavior charts you’ve created (or had help creating) to assist a few of you’re “heavy hitters,” they need to be worked on with each child and used consistently (there’s that word again!). If used as a threat for not earning rewards, your kids might turn more toward their “heavy hitting” behaviors because those might be more rewarding or predictable than the chart. If used inconsistently, your kids are likely to feel even more like a failure than before the need for a chart was prompted in the first place. This will inevitably breed more problem behaviors.

The consequences you decide upon when your kids misbehave, they need to be followed through on no matter what. When your kids show tears, tantrums, and emotional outbursts upon earning a consequence, please know they are working through their behavioral choice. They have earned the consequence; you didn’t give it to them. If you attempt to appease their feelings and make it better with a bribe (stickers, toys, one-on-one time with you), you are taking away their right to self-soothe. They will work through the difficult feelings in time, after which you can process with them if needed, but not a moment before. The consequences should be determined before behaviors occur, so you are not left to dish them out in the heat of the moment, and so the link between behaviors and consequences is clear and consistent.

The older siblings, parents, or aunts and uncles of the kids in your classrooms who you’ve had before, are not the same. The kids you have now deserve a clean slate and expectations that match their individual abilities. If you know your kids are going to be trouble because their brother/sister/mother/father was, then you can expect trouble.

If you call upon the services of your School Counselor to help with the “heavy hitters,” please know that there’s only so much I can do in a 20 minute meeting with a child exhibiting problem behaviors. When I send him/her back to the environment in which they feel unsafe or out of control, you can bet all that we talked about or practiced will have disappeared along their walk back to your classroom. This is not the child’s fault. They are simply trying to survive in the best ways they can manage. If acting disrespectfully or silly or angry is meeting their need to feel in control or heard, you can bet they will do just that if there’s no better way.

Your students’ oppositional behaviors are not about you; they’re about the environment in which you have created. Their defiance is not a personal attack on you. Their defiance is a coping mechanism to feel safe. If the environment in your classroom is unpredictable, you’re sending a clear message to your kids that you cannot be trusted.

The positive feedback in your classrooms should far outweigh the negative. Try a 5:1 ratio. When your kids feel safe in a controlled and consistent environment, positivity will radiate from your room and from your kids. Your classroom will be the peaceful, learning-focused place you’ve always wanted it to be.

In summary, your kids need a teacher who creates an organized, consistent, predictable classroom. One in which they not only feel loved by their teacher, but also respected, challenged, listened to, and most importantly, safe.

Respectfully,

Kayla, an Elementary School Counselor

But first, let me thank you for telling me

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Sometimes I wonder if my students truly feel listened to, if their voices truly feel heard. In the bustling hallways, noisy lunchrooms, and busy classrooms, it can be challenging to listen to each student who wants my undivided attention. Because let’s face it, as school counselors, our attention is usually divided 100 different ways!

As necessary as multitasking is to our job, listening to our students (our customers, basically) is even more necessary. It’s the thing that sets us apart from teachers who have 20+ kids grappling for their attention, or parents who are juggling multiple children and their own work demands. It’s the thing that makes our position in our school so special.

ListenEach and every child deserves to be listened to. I firmly believe it is a basic human need to feel like your voice is heard, like you matter to someone who’s giving you the gift of their time and attention. The quote on the right sums it up perfectly.

There are days when I don’t feel like the best listener, but then come the days when I’ll get my validation. I can recall a meeting with a handful of 4th graders, in which one 4th grade girl was struggling to tell me something very personal that the rest of the kids around my table already knew. Well, one of the boys looks at her and says, “Come on, you can tell Ms. Marston anything! She listens.” As if that wasn’t awesome enough, he adds, “You can talk about anything with her and she won’t tell anybody.” My insides grew warm, my lips smiled, and I thought, Wow, I must be doing something right!

I try to make a point to thank my students for telling me things, even if it’s not what I hoped to hear (and I tell parents to do this too). Even if a student is reporting something to me that I know is going to create a lot of work – talking with other students involved, talking to my principal, calling parents, documenting, etc. – or my mind is already reeling with how to help or what to do, I remind myself to stop and thank the student.

Why? Because my students could have talked to any other adult in the building, but they chose me. And that’s HUGE. They are trusting me with their story, their problem, their feelings. In return, they deserve to be validated with my time and attention to show they matter and that I value them and what they have to say. And even if I don’t have the perfect solution to their problems or perfect words to lighten their load, I can let them know that I’m very glad they told me.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times when I want to run away or hide under my desk because I just don’t feel like I have it in me to listen to another problem or another Lego story. When I get like this, I know I need to take a break because I don’t want to be a semi-listener. My students deserve more than that. And if I only half listen to a student, even once, they may not come to me again. I know that if I don’t make time to hear about the little stuff, my students may not come to me with the big stuff, and that’s a big problem!

Here are some things I say and do to validate my students and let them feel heard:

1 “I’m really glad you told me.”

2 “Thank you for telling me.”

3 “How do you feel after sharing that with me?”

4 “I really want to hear about that. I am busy right now, can I check in with you later?”

5 “How can I help you with this?”

6 When a student is reporting an incident that will require some investigating, I sometimes jot down notes while they tell me, not only to remember the details, but to let my students know I am taking their concerns seriously.

7 Paraphrase what they’ve said. This lets them know I am listening and it helps me make sure I got the correct information.

8 Do not interrupt. This can be tricky, especially when it takes some students foreverrrr to finish a story. But they are doing their best and they are saying all of it (every little detail) for a reason, so listen up. No one likes to be interrupted.

9 Model the kind of listener I’d like them to be. That means eye contact, open body language, undivided attention.

10 If a meeting with a student is interrupted (phone call, knock on the door), apologize: “I’m sorry about that. You were saying…”

To aid in my students feeling important and heard by me, I plan to create something like this for my office wall next year:

I found this on PinteMessage to studentsrest and I love the simplicity of it!

As much as possible, I want my students to feel safe and important when they’re in my room. While many students are fortunate enough to feel this way at home, some are not. These students need a safe place and someone to listen more than ever.

As I finish out my summer, my ears are resting up for when school is full of sunburned little faces with summer stories to tell!

I can’t wait! 🙂

 

 

When the target is the teacher

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Dart and Dartboard

Anybody who works in a school setting probably knows that the word “bullying” is a buzz word as of late. Bullying is a hot topic and it gets a lot of attention. For me, bullying sometimes feels like a dark cloud looming over my head, as I wait for the next time it will come pouring down on me. The cloud opens up every time students use the word to describe a friendship conflict in which their feelings were hurt, or every time a parent uses the word to defend their child’s actions. Sometimes, I get so sick of the word that I don’t even want to teach it to my students, because I know it will result in the inevitable and annoying overuse. Of course I do teach about it, because it IS an important topic.

But I digress.

At my school, the excessive use of the word bullying hits overdrive as spring gets sprung. Friendships are breaking and mending naturally and repeatedly, and with this comes some mean behaviors. I spend a lot of time each spring helping students use the problem solving skills they already possess (and just need to be reminded they have).

I say all of this to say my next point – because spring is here, I’ve been thinking about bullying as a bigger issue than student-to-student relations; I’ve been thinking about it as a school-wide community issue, a climate issue, a global issue. We all know that bullying is not just a childhood problem – adults can bully too. Sadly, the students who struggle with bullying behaviors sometimes have parents or adults in their lives who struggle with it too.

Sometimes, students can even bully the adults in their lives. Sometimes, the target of the bullying is the teacher. I have seen it happen.

Let’s journey back to the year 1998-1999. I was in seventh grade, on a team mixed with eighth graders. The year I started in middle school, a new young teacher began teaching social studies. He was obviously nervous as he found his way around a classroom filled with hormonal adolescents. What most students noticed about him right away was a peculiar speech impediment – he finished most sentences with “mmkay” (kind of like Mr. Mackey, the school counselor on the adult cartoon South Park). During some class lectures, you’d hear “mmkay” a few dozen times. Needless to say, it got old. Really fast.

As you can imagine, the speech impediment became a topic of conversation and jokes for the eighth graders, which the seventh graders overheard and joined in on. Eventually, the jokes happened less behind the teacher’s back and more often to his face. I remember students interrupting his lectures to mimic his words. I never mimicked his “mmkay,” but I laughed along when others did. I was a bystander to the bullying of this new teacher.

Well, the teacher ignored the bullying for a while, until he couldn’t any longer. I was waiting for him to blow up, discipline the students, up and quit. He didn’t. Instead, he did something so special and so brave, that it worked.

I remember the social studies class that day. The teacher wasn’t standing at the board; he was sitting at a desk just as we were. He opened the discussion by telling us that he wanted to share something with us. Then he told us all about this speech impediment – he talked openly about it with us. He said it was something he struggled with for a long time, and that we weren’t the only ones who have noticed it and mimicked it. He said he had tried years of speech therapy to stop, but that it was a habit and it’s hard to stop. He ended his speech by sharing that he wanted to be our teacher and he wanted the classroom to be a cool place to learn cool stuff, and that he needed everyone to feel comfortable being there, including him.

He didn’t tell us to stop or threaten to send us to the office if we didn’t. He just put himself out there, openly and honestly, so that we could see how our actions affected him and others in the classroom. The students started to see him differently – he wasn’t just a teacher; he was a person with feelings, just like us. Seeing him put forth this effort changed the climate in this classroom from then on.

After that day, students stopped mimicking him. A few would make jokes behind his back, but those jokes soon sizzled out because no one found it funny anymore.

Thinking back on this experience, I realize how grand a gesture it was for this new teacher to open up his world to a group of awkward adolescents who needed a lesson in compassion. I commend him for his strength and courage to put his hurt feelings aside and use his struggle to teach us something more important than the curriculum that day. I don’t remember much from seventh grade social studies, but I do remember this lesson in empathy, humanity, and kindness.

As we each go forth and work with students, we may find ourselves mistreated, unappreciated, and maybe even bullied. I hope we can understand that these students need unconditional care regardless of their actions because they may be trying to push people away. I hope we can understand that these students may need a lesson in compassion because they may not get it anywhere else in their lives. I hope we can use their actions for teachable moments.

If we can do this, there will be more allies coming together than targets of bullying coming apart. It is easier said than done. We need to do it anyway. Every day.

Kindness Matters

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You know all those new and exciting plans you make at the start of a new school year? Well, guess what? I put one of my ideas into action! Here it is…

I wanted a way to make kindness more cool and routine at my school among students and staff. I came across various lessons and bulletin boards, so I decided to create my own version.

The Kindness Matters Bulletin Board was created in December. The purpose of it is to encourage all students and staff to look out for kind acts, write them on a colorful post-it, and stick it on the board for everyone to appreciate. It’s a twist to the “see it, say it, share it” mantra.

I introduced the bulletin board idea in all K-5 classrooms by reading Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and then doing a demonstration of dropping stones into a bowl of water to watch the ripple effect. As we dropped each stone (starting small and getting bigger), the students named a kind act that each stone represented, and we discussed how kindness ripples out to others and comes back to you. It was a really neat activity!

Here’s a picture of the bulletin board about a week after we started:

Kindness matter board before

Here’s a picture of the bulletin board about a month after we started:

Kindness matters bulletin board

As you can see, it’s filling up! When it’s completely full, I plan to take down some of the oldest ones to make room for new post-its.

Here are some examples of acts of kindness that students and staff have written and/or drawn for the board:

Post-it1

Post-it2

Post-it3

Post-its

I have a few kindergarten and first grade students who show up to my room almost every day with a new act of kindness they’ve seen to write down. It’s adorable. I also experienced the delight of seeing a group of fifth graders huddled around each other in the hallway – as I approached, I heard one of them say, “Yeah, write that down!” and I could only imagine they were up to no good – lo and behold, they were writing things down for the bulletin board! What a nice surprise!

Hopefully the momentum continues! It is a great morale booster for our whole school community. If I’m ever in need of a smile, I go to the board and fill up on kindness!

Who’s giving whom the apples these days?

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Where are all the apples?

Where have all the apples gone?

How many students do you know who actually give their teacher an apple anymore? Maybe you know of some, or several. But the truth is, our world is changing and so is the environment in our schools. If we are to successfully meet our students’ needs, we must see these changes and rise to the challenge. This post is my way of sharing how I’m doing just that.

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One morning, I was standing in the center hallway, hands free to wave at and high-five students as they made their way into the school building, heading to breakfast, out to morning recess, or to their classroom to begin their day. During a break in student traffic, a colleague approached me and asked, “Do you have to stand here each morning? Is it like, a duty, or something?”

On another day, I was standing in the hallway again, saying hello to students as they passed by for lunch and recess, a different colleague asked me, “Are you the hall monitor today?”

My answer to both colleagues was simple: “No. I am choosing to stand here and I’m choosing to greet each student.”

When it comes to how connected we are to the students we serve, it is a choice. We are all busy, we are all stressed, we all have somewhere to be, but none of those are good enough excuses. Connection to students is that important.

What?
Connection means to seek out a relationship with a student. It means to greet them by name, ask them a question about their t-shirt, compliment their sneakers, listen to their story about building the tallest Lego tower ever, wish them luck in their lacrosse game. Connections are simple.

Who?
You! Every single person in your school has the power within them to make a connection with a student! The secretary, bus driver, lunch lady, custodian, principal, ed tech, teacher, nurse, specialist, counselor. Everyone! School counselors make great role models for how to connect with many students in the course of a day.

When?
All day long. Anytime you’re working with students, you have an opportunity to make a connection. Anytime you’re passing by a student in the hallway, you have a choice to walk by silently or smile and say hello. Greeting students as they come into school each morning is especially important.

Where?
Everywhere. In classrooms, hallways, offices, playgrounds, lunchrooms, gymnasiums, libraries, buses. Anywhere there are students, connections are waiting to be made.

Why?
Because our students deserve it. Because you deserve it. Imagine going to a place each day where there will be at least one person who will light up when they see your face, who knows your name and uses it to say hello, who will ask how you’re doing or wish you a good day, who will listen when you have something to say. Sounds kinda nice, right? That’s because it IS!

Because when students and staff are connected, school becomes exponentially more awesome. And when school becomes more awesome, the people in it feel more safe, more welcome, more appreciated, more happy, and more able to learn and grow.

Because research on connection in schools is growing fast and it all makes a similar point: “increasing connections, enhancing relationships, and building bridges strengthen communities and provides a safety net” (Whole Child Blog, 2013).

This is an important point that I want to make crystal clear: students who are well connected are A LOT less likely to become bullies, drop-outs, drug users, and criminals. When they feel connected, they are less likely to act out for attention because they’re already getting it! When they feel safe, they are less likely to use defensive or aggressive behaviors because there is no need to.

Wow. We have the power to help a student want to be in school or not. That’s where the apples are.

How?
Making connections doesn’t have to be hard or take a ton of time. It’s simple. The biggest hurdle is making the choice to do it! Here are some ideas to connect with your students:

  • Use the 5 H’s when students enter your room (hello, how are you, high-five, handshake, or hug).
  • Get your butt out of your room! Stand in the hallway and greet students.
  • Keep your door open (if appropriate) for students to pop in for a quick hello.
  • Eat lunch with students. Most of them love to eat with adults!
  • Learn their names, as many as possible, and use them when greeting.
  • Come to their level when talking to students. That might mean bending down or sitting, but it’s worth the effort!
  • Remember something special about them, and ask them about it! (How’s your Lego tower coming? How did your game go last night? Are you feeling better today?)
  • Make and keep eye contact! Not only are you modeling, but you’re showing them that they’re important to you.
  • Smile! A genuine smile can go a long way.

    While some of my colleagues may be thinking “Doesn’t she have anything better to do with her time?” when I’m standing in the hallway, I know I’m doing an important job. I’m providing as many students as I can a safe person who cares that they made the effort to come to school today.

    Soon gone are the days of students giving their teachers an apple out of appreciation; upon us are the days when teachers must give their students an apple, and that apple is a warm smile, caring word, and listening ear.

    Please check out this blog for more information about why making connections is so important: The Whole Child Blog
    Watch this 2-minute video about greeting students each school day: Impact of a Positive Greeting