By: Joe Newman
One afternoon I was at the recreation field of a large middle school (3,000 students) visiting one of the behaviorists I was training, when I saw a student bullying other students. He walked into the middle of a group playing basketball, followed by his two friends, and grabbed the ball and kicked it away. When someone said something, he pushed his chest out and got in the face of the kid who’d spoken up. Then he gave the kid a threatening push and walked on to another group where he smacked an unsuspecting kid in the back of the head. When the kid turned around he challenged him to a fight, at which point the kid threw up his hands and walked away. As he continued his rounds in this way I asked the behaviorist if he knew this kid. He told me the boy’s name was Gavin and explained that all the kids were afraid of him and he was constantly bullying them.
So I walked up to Gavin and said, “You need to have a seat over there for five minutes.” He looked at me dismissively and said, “S**t, I don’t know you.” And he started to walk away.
I said to him, “Right now you’ve only got a five-minute problem. But if you don’t have a seat you’re going to have a much bigger problem.”
He turned and started walking slowly toward the bench I’d indicated and said, “What did I do! Man! At least tell me what I did.”
So I told him, “OK, I’ll tell you what you did, but it’ll cost you another fifteen minutes because I don’t like wasting my time. So I can tell you what you did and you can sit for twenty minutes or you can sit for five minutes then you tell me what you did.”
He said, “Fine, I’ll sit for five minutes,” and walked over and sat on the bench.
“I’ll come let you know when you can get up.” I told him.
Five minutes later I went up to him and said, “So tell me why I asked you to sit down.”
He looked at me and said, “Because I hit that kid in the back of the head.”
“What else?” I asked.
He thought for a moment and said, “I kicked that basketball.”
“What else?” I said.
“Um… I don’t know… I can’t think of anything else.”
“I guess that’s enough. You can go.”
When he got up, Gavin and his friends went to the opposite side of the recreation fields.
The point of the five-minute time out was not punitive but rather a deterrent. I wasn’t interested in punishing him for what he did. I was interested in him not doing it again. If I’d seen it happen again I would have had him sit for considerably longer. If the behavior had not stopped completely I would have continued to increase the consequence until it was sufficient to stop his behavior. If Gavin hadn’t sat down or had walked away from me I would have gone to the dean and arranged a one-hour detention. That way, the next time I asked him to sit for five minutes he’d do it.
A boy like Gavin is an expert at manipulating the adults around him. Typically adults would react to him with either too much communication or with consequences that were paired with a lot of anger and judgment. Those who tried reasoning with him and explaining to him the reasons it’s not okay to do what he’s doing are ultimately condescending and permissive. Gavin would meet this approach with excuses and bargaining. When adults confronted him with anger and judgment or a long lecture Gavin could become the victim and feel justified in his anger and isolation. In the first approach he effectively negates the adult in the second he feels negated. In both cases the adults are condescending in that they assume he lacks understanding or virtue.
Ironically, the anger that drives Gavin to bully others is in part the result of the isolation he feels at not having his will firmly met by the will of another. He needed someone who would set a reasonable boundary, firmly, and without any condescending or insulting interaction.
I like to set up a dynamic where children have to be on their toes. Where they understand that they’re expected to figure out what the rules are. If sometimes this frustrates them, it’s an opportunity for me to calmly and kindly coach them through difficulty, to let them know I have faith in them and it’s okay to struggle and to fail. In a world where children are constantly condescended to, students quickly adjust and find my interactions with them mature and respectful.