Building Empathy…Changing Behavior…More Questions than Answers

Man it feels good to watch these letters and words appear on the screen. It has been way to long since I have been able to share my thoughts and learn from you. In all honesty, I have many thoughts or potential posts in the “que” but I have either not taken the time nor found the time to articulate my thoughts well enough to post them. I am reflecting. I am making notes. I will share. I promise, I will…

So, why this one? With so many thoughts just waiting to be shared, why did I decide to share this one? I suppose that answer is an easy one. Complete transparency…I am sharing and writing about this because I do not have the answers. In fact, I have more questions than I do answers and I am turning to you, my readers, my PLN, to help bring clarity to my thinking.

If you have spent any amount of time in education, you realize you spend 90% of your time dealing with 10% of your students when it comes to addressing unwanted behaviors. In fact, it may get to the point where you feel all you are doing is addressing “the behavior”. While it may feel that way, the reality is, the majority of students are meeting…or in many cases exceeding expectations and we simply are not paying enough attention. How do we fix that? How do we spend more time focused on the positive, moving away from focusing on the unwanted?

I realize the unwanted behavior, if unaddressed can quickly interrupt the learning experience of the student exhibiting the unwanted behavior, but as we know, the unwanted behavior also interrupts the learning experiences of other students who are simply bystanders, trying to do their best to maximize the opportunity in front of them. Keeping in mind, the relentless pursuit many teachers embark upon in attempting to do their very best to instruct all students, balance behaviors, implement accommodations, work to strengthen relationships & keep parents informed of progress (or lack there of) well knowing the behaviors of the few can negatively impact the instruction/success of the majority. So, how do we address the unwanted behavior in an attempt to change it?

Traditional practices would suggest the unwanted or undesirable behavior be stopped or redirected. Got it. Easy enough. A teacher can redirect behavior, change a seating placement, provide engaging activities and even activities that empower students, but what if the behavior does not change? A parent conference can be scheduled. Teachers can collaborate with other teachers and brainstorm ideas to implement within the classroom. Plans can be put into place. The plans can be positive (which I prefer), the plans can have input from the student (prefer this as well), the plans can be catered to meet the student’s specific needs. Mentors can be assigned. Counselors can be utilized. The list can go on and on. What if all of this does not work? At some point the positive behavior supports wane and consequences turn from positive to negative and words like suspension begin to enter the conversation. In-school, out of school…alternate school setting. Yep. All forms of suspension. Does it work? I suppose it depends upon the individual student and their needs. Does it work for all students? I know that answer. No, it does not work for all students. So, what do we do?

At some point over the last nine to ten weeks, I had an epiphany. We keep running our students through all of this well intended “stuff” to address behavior, but we are not addressing the root cause of why our students are doing what they are doing. They are serving their time or doing what we ask and then we are sending them back to class as if they should “have it figured out”  or we think things will change. What we are forgetting as the adults is “for things to change, I must change.” I wonder, “Is the cause of the student’s misbehavior linked to something they may not completely understand?”

Do students understand empathy? Have we provided them with the supports to do so?

How do we grow and develop a student’s ability to be empathetic? How do we get students to feel? How do we get students to feel how someone else is feeling? Do students realize their undesirable behaviors make other students feel a certain way? If they did, would they continue to act in that way?

I told you I have a lot of questions. I am seeking some answers. I am not one to sit around and just wait for the answers to come to me. I am actively seeking out answers on my own and I hope you will contribute to my thinking. Familiar with restorative practices? You may be, but what I am finding is that most educators are not. There is a lot of research out there behind the effectiveness of restorative justice or restorative discipline in schools and guess what key word is positioned at the center of this research? You got it. Empathy.

As I have learned more about restorative practices and met with colleagues within my district and within my PLN who are also interested in learning more about how we can develop empathy within our students, I am beginning to see how this may change the narrative on school discipline. Less referrals. Less suspensions. Maybe, no suspensions at all. The sky is the limit with restorative discipline.

Have you ever participated in a restorative circle? Whoa. Powerful. Talk about getting to know your students. Restorative circles immediately take me back to my college psychology class and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As a campus we are ensuring the physiological needs are met, we ensure students are safe and create environments that allow them to feel safe. A restorative circle can reinforce learning in a safe environment. Students feel loved and cared for when they are listened to and a restorative circle provides an opportunity for students to be heard. Earlier I asked, How do we grow and develop empathy? The next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy is “esteem”. Using the visual to the left, the respect of others is a key ingredient of empathy. How do we make students aware of the respect they are showing others? We have to take action. We have to do something different.

Are you ready for your first circle?

Sit your class or small group of students down in a circle and use a talking stick to provide one participant the opportunity to speak, while reminding the others they need to listen. Then provide an open ended question about how students are feeling…

How did you feel when you walked into the building this morning after the weekend?
How do you feel about not being in school over the weekend?
How do you feel…

If you are looking for questions and need something more concrete, try these if you are experiencing challenging behavior within your classroom:

To Respond to Challenging Behavior
What happened?
What were you thinking of at the time?
What have you thought about since?
Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
What do you think you need to do to make things right?

To Help Those Harmed By Other’s Actions
What did you think when you realized what had happened?
What impact has this incident had on you and others?
What has been the hardest thing for you?
What do you think needs to happen to make things right?

See how these questions shifts the focus from a me versus you to a focus of empathy? These questions also remove the accusatory tone used when discussing behavior with students and give a voice to those who may have been impacted by other’s actions.

While circles can be used to discuss a specific incident, circles can also be used to develop community, address a concern or to just check-in with your class. While I still consider myself a “rookie” in this practice there are a couple of takeaways I can share after completing just a few restorative circles.

Shifting the conversation from “Why did you do that?” to “How were you feeling when…?” is a game changer for students. Ask a student “Why did you do that?” and nine times out of ten you receive an “I don’t know.” Of course they do not know. If they knew why they did it, they would probably not do it. Ask a student “How were you feeling when…” and the response is completely different. Through my brief experiences, students have shared a plethora of feelings, often times sharing feelings completely unrelated to the direct event, as something made them feel a certain way and this “thing” was a result of unresolved emotions. Insightful. It not only allows me as the educator to learn more about the student but students are learning about one another. Guess what? Empathy is increasing. Mine included. If we do not think empathy in educators needs to be checked, we have another think coming. The first thing to go when a student acts out in “my class” is empathy.

We think “How dare he do that?”
We think “Does he know whose class this is?”
We think “I am the teacher. I will show him?”

How often do we think, “I wonder how that student is feeling?”

Empathy.

You know what it takes to build empathy?

Time.

You know the one thing we never feel we have enough of?

Time.

Now compound that by working in a high needs, Title I building where each minute we are not working with students is a minute lost. Who has time to lose when we are trying to support students in scaling a mountain? After all, they have a test to pass at the end of the school year. Who has time to spend on developing empathy? (These questions are smeared with sarcasm…but we know there are educators who are asking these questions.) 

How do we shift the mindset?

While I do not have the answers to many of these questions, I do know this. We better find the time to develop our students’ empathy. Our students, our future depends on it. We must be raising a generation of students who have empathy for one another. We must raise students who understand their actions not only impact themselves, but they also impact others and not always in a positive way. I believe we find time for what we value. The key will be leading people to understand the importance of valuing empathy.

Where do we go from here?

I am going to keep refining my restorative practices. I will continue to facilitate restorative circles with students and yes, I will have some teachers participate in them as well. We will start small…subtle changes here and there. Is there a silver bullet? I believe there is. It is the time we spent developing empathy. Easy? Not a chance. Necessary? Absolutely.  I have a million questions and I have yet to find the million dollar answer. Maybe one of my readers has it, but I will not hold my breathe. We will continue to put one foot in the other, knowing that continuing to do what we have always done, will give us what we have always got.

I am ready to approach behavior in a new, transformative way.  I am ready to bring restoration to our students, teachers, classrooms and community.

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Are you transforming the way you approach behavior in your classroom, school or district? I hope you will take a moment to share what you are doing. Share what has worked. Share what you have learned. Share where you have failed along the way. Hopefully, by sharing your failures and successes I, along with others will be able to learn from you and share.

Do you have resources you have learned from? Please share them below.

Here are a few I have collected and am currently using:
Restorative Questions: http://store.iirp.edu/restorative-questions-cards-pack-of-100/
Restorative Practices Handbook: http://store.iirp.edu/the-restorative-practices-handbook/
The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools: https://www.amazon.com/Little-Book-Restorative-Discipline-Schools/dp/1561485063
Better Than Carrots or Sticks: https://www.amazon.com/Better-Than-Carrots-Sticks-Restorative/dp/1416620621

Are there people online I should be learning from?

I learn from:
@RyanBJackson1
@SSchweikhard
@Mr_Braden
@brittainka
@momentous
@edutopia
@RJCouncil
@RestoraCircles
@iirpGradSchool

Who are others?

Take a moment and share your answers in the comments below.

My Moment – Day 35 – When No One is Watching

If you have not gotten a chance to read my blog about my #oneword for 2016, check out Enjoy the Moment.

As I mentioned in my blog, my #oneword is a call to action for me to be mindful of the moments that make up my day. The moments at home, the moments at work and the moments that happen in between.

“Because I won’t get in trouble.” Six words that have stuck with me since 10AM.

Behavior management in an elementary school is like peanut butter & jelly. The two just go together. When educating students between the ages of 5-11 there needs to be a consistent management system in place for students to learn from, teachers to references, parents to follow through with and most importantly, to outline expectations for each of the students. At a minimum, a common language between students and staff. But…at the end of the day, it is never about a program or system. It is about people. In this case, it is about the relationships established between educators and students and what fills the moments in between.

Looking for an example of what I am referencing…check out this blog post written by @Jonharper70bd “His Smile”.  Relationship matter!

I had just wrapped up a meeting with a team of teachers this morning as I walked down the hallway and saw it. I saw the way a student and a teacher were walking back into the grade level as if something had just happened and by the body language I was seeing, it was not a good thing. The student I am referencing just happened to be a topic of conversation with the grade level I had just left. I had let the team of teachers know I would be making an increased effort to connect with this student, multiple times a day…just checking in. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I shared my plan, I would have an opportunity to begin connecting, immediately.

Like most things do, when you are having discussions involving behavior, a small deal becomes a big deal, relatively quick and involves more than just the one or two students you are speaking with. This was the case today. As I worked through the conversations, with both small groups of students and with individuals, I was reminded that our work is not done. Then I heard this statement, “Because I won’t get in trouble.” It was like a punch to the gut.

After talking with a couple of our students and getting to the bottom of what occurred, why it occurred and sharing why it should not occur again, I asked the students what they would do differently if they were in the same position again tomorrow. They answered…it was a great answer. Then I asked them why.

Their response: “Because I won’t get in trouble.”

Wrong answer.

I want students to make the choices they make because it is the right thing to do. Not because they “won’t get in trouble.” I tell our students it is not about the decisions you make when the teacher is around. If you make a poor choice with a teacher around, you get a reminder of the expectations. It is about the decisions you make when no one is watching. It is what defines you. It is your character. It is who you are as a person.

I am not sure why, but we dedicate ourselves (generally) to teaching math, science, reading…all the core content areas, but I wonder…why don’t we specifically teach behavior? Sure, we seize opportunities as teachable moments, but do we consistently teach behavior? Do we just expect students to walk in the door knowing how to add and subtract or multiply fractions? Of course not. We teach that. Why do we expect them to walk in the door knowing how to meet our behavior expectations without teaching them? I can think of all the easy answers, but I cannot think of a good one.

I look forward to the moments this student and I will have over the next several days & weeks, celebrating success and learning from the moments that are not our best.

My goal…the student’s character is built and we make better decisions when no one is watching because it is the right thing to do.