Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When students act out, don't ask 'why' (the reason may surprise you)

While doing some reading recently, an idea really caught my attention in a practical way for dealing with harmful student behaviors. In the past I've often asked students why they did what they did in a particular situation. Why did you say that to the teacher? Why did you act in a way that was not kind? Why did you cheat? Why were you disrespectful? Whatever the particular situation, one of my first instincts is to ask the student to explain why they did what they did.

And it's no wonder I'm inclined to ask this question. It is our natural line of thinking. We are taught from childhood to use justification and judgment to explain away our bad behavior. Not a good thing. In fact, it's one of the most common ways people avoid personal responsibility.

So when we ask 'why', aren't we really asking for justification of a bad behavior? Does it really matter why we did it? The last thing I want to do is reinforce the belief that if you have a good enough reason it is okay to act in a way that is harmful to others. Unfortunately, this belief is pervasive in our culture, but it is a belief that causes more pain and damages more relationships.

Instead of asking why, try this approach instead. Simply ask the student what happened? And then, instead of asking why, ask what they might have done differently, "What do you think you should have done?" Keep the focus on their behavior and not the underlying motivations. As soon as a person feels judged for their motives, they will feel rejected and look to shift the blame. When we focus on what happened and how it had an impact on others, we encourage full responsibility.

If we truly want our students to grow and learn from their mistakes, we need to keep the focus on the choices they make and how decisions impact self and others.

These ideas are drawn from How to Stop the Pain by James B. Richards. Thanks to @RobbyHoegh for recommending the book. It is a fantastic read with Biblical principles on the harm of judging others, and the harm of giving power to the judgments of others in our lives. It's filled with wisdom for developing healthy mindsets and loving relationships.
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