By: Joe Newman
A third-grade teacher was teaching a lesson with the children sitting on the floor in front of her when Josh raised his hand. When she called on him he asked a question that was entirely off topic and she told him, “That’s not what we’re talking about so I’m not going to answer that.” A few minutes later Josh raised his hand again, and with a smirk, again asked an entirely off-topic question and the teacher told him the same thing. After a few more minutes Josh did the same thing again. This time the teacher had had enough and she told Josh, “You know, I think it’s very disrespectful for you to keep interrupting this discussion with questions you know have nothing to do with what we’re doing and I don’t appreciate it.” A few of the other students could be heard giggling quietly. Josh looked a little embarrassed but still seemed amused by it all.
I asked the teacher, “Do you think Josh understood that his question was off topic the first time he asked it?” She said, “Yes, I think he did know. And he definitely knew the second time. Socially, he’s very astute.”
Then I asked her, “Do you think he knew it was disrespectful to keep interrupting you with these questions?” And she said, “Yes I think he knew it was disrespectful. But I think he did it because he thought it was fun.”
There is a myth that children aren’t behaving appropriately because they don’t know how to behave appropriately. As a result, when children misbehave, adults explain things that children already know. But explaining something to a child that he already knows, or speaking in a manner that implies as much, will communicate a low expectation, develop a dysfunctional dynamic, and breed manipulation.
If you listen to what’s said in a classroom or at home, you can divide the inappropriate behaviors into three types, and the responses to those behaviors into five types. The three types of behavior are:
Benign behavior – behavior that occurs because the child doesn’t understand the behavior is not acceptable (positive intention)
Malignant behavior – behavior that the child understands, or could reasonably figure out, is not acceptable (negative intention).
Impulsive behavior –a reaction to something without any time to think. The child understands the behavior is unacceptable but acts before thinking (no intention)
There are five common responses to problem behaviors:
Information response –a response that gives information –“There’s no hitting allowed” or “You need to ask the teacher before you leave the room”
Action response –a response that requires an immediate action or delivers an immediate consequence –“Take a one-minute break” or “You need to turn off the TV now”
Ignore/Accommodate response –non-disruptive or minor behaviors that should be ignored / behaviors that can be accommodated so they don’t become disruptive (like squirming around in your seat or needing to stand or pace)
Question response – asking the student to make a choice – “Do you need to move to another seat?”
Inappropriate response – yelling, insulting, being sarcastic, threatening, rhetorical questioning –all of these build a pattern of disrespect and should never be used.
Each of the three behaviors above has responses that build healthy communication with children and responses that undermine them.
The biggest problem I see in homes and in classrooms is an overuse of information responses. The only time an information response is necessary is with benign behavior, because this is the only inappropriate behavior that stems from lack of information. Having said that, I would estimate that perhaps 1% of the inappropriate behavior I see in classrooms is benign. In other words, 99% of the problem behaviors are behaviors that children know, or can easily figure out, are inappropriate.
Just imagine that you could stop the action the moment after a problem behavior began and you said to the child, “I’ll give you $100 if you can tell me what you just did that I have a problem with.” In my experience, 99% of the time, with a little motivation, children know, or can easily figure out, what behaviors are inappropriate.
In order to develop children who are the protagonists in their own learning, children who don’t wait to be told something, but take the initiative to learn it, we must restrain ourselves from telling them those things that they can figure out by themselves. We must also learn to give small action responses to behaviors our children already know, or can easily figure out, are not acceptable.
What I suggested to that third-grade teacher was this:
Instead of repeatedly telling Josh what he was doing wrong, then finally lecturing him about his disrespect (information responses), give him a consequence that takes all the motivation and fun out of doing it (action response). The second time he interrupts you (or the first time, if he’s made a habit of it) tell him, “Stand up, please. Have a seat on the carpet behind the rest of the group and sit quietly.” After a few minutes, ask him, “Are you ready to rejoin the group?”(question response). And if he says “yes”, allow him to rejoin the class without mentioning the behavior.
It’s condescending to lecture Josh about behavior he already knows is disrespectful. Additionally, he finds both the negative attention from his teacher and the positive attention from his peers entertaining. When you move him away from the group and don’t talk about the behavior, you’ve taken away the reinforcement for, and the judgment of, that behavior and treated him with the respect that communicates your high expectation of his abilities to understand and correct it.
Joe Newman is the author of Raising Lions.