Positive Interactions: A Foundation

Studies have shown that there are two dominant factors that indicate future academic and behavioral success for all students.

  • “I like my teacher.”
  • “My teacher likes me.”

I have heard many teachers say, “Well, I can’t control whether a kid likes me or not.” Or “I don’t know why they think I don’t like them.” These statements are usually accompanied by some kind of shrug or eyeroll.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of dismissing this so easily. For most of our students, perception is reality. If they feel that you don’t like them, they are going to act like kids whose teacher doesn’t like them. Since the only thing we can really control is ourselves, it’s on us to change this perception.

We will begin to do this by addressing problems of practice, some bases of behavior, and next week looking at our communication and strategies.

Poor Practice

1: I’m the boss!

This approach focuses on the traditional mentality of “because I said so.” Adults are in charge because they are in charge. Students earn respect, but it should automatically (and without question) be afforded to adults.

This can falter on several levels; being an adult could be enough for some kids, but for others—especially our most difficult 5-10%–this mentality simply does not work. It could be that they are lacking the necessary skill training or authority figure at home. It could be feeding into a power play. Most often, it’s that we fail to model the level of respect that we expect to see. Many teachers will complain about the body language or tone used by a student, while the student is just mirroring what they are experiencing from that same teacher.

2: Let’s make a deal.

This is perhaps the most common misguided practice when it comes to behavior. It revolves around negotiation, particularly giving a student something she wants in exchange for changing a negative behavior. It is often even confused with PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports).[i]

This has the potential to be the most damaging practice for the classroom teacher. Cutting “deals” all the time may work in the moment, but in the long run we are teaching kids that their negative behavior is leverage they can use to extort what they want from adults. Think of the difference between these two statements:

“John, you have been focused and respectful this whole station time! I’m going to add a point to your score card.”

“John, we can make a visit to the treasure box if you stop rolling around on the floor!”

Positive interventions work. They are meant to reward and enable the choice of an appropriate behavior. They are NOT a bribe in order to stop an inappropriate behavior.

3: The Golden Rule

We all know this rule. “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” This sounds great, right?

This is completely backward! It focuses on self, rather than others. It also leads to a very blanketed approach, that doesn’t address individual variation and need. We should be treating others the way they want to be treated.

We find that a self-centered approach like this can hinder horizontal peer-to-peer relationships as well as vertical teacher-student relationships. Even with something as simple as personal space, there are many factors and variants between people, or even with the same person in different situations or settings. Think of your personal space “bubble” when you are around children. Would that space be the same around someone much larger and more intimidating than yourself? Or if you were walking on a dark street alone around strangers?

We need to make sure we are treating our students the way that they want to be treated; we cannot assume that just because we are comfortable with something, like something, or even prefer something, that the children around us feel the same way.

Bases of Behavior

In order to begin correcting how we deal with behavior, we have to first address our own misconceptions, and then gain a better understanding of what causes behavior. Although this is an oversimplification, for our purposes we can say that most behavior usually falls into two categories: avoidance and desire.

Avoidance is the overwhelming urge to escape (or avoid) anything that makes us experience an unpleasant feeling. The focus of avoidance could be a task, a person, or an event. Think about the student who melts down every time you give him a writing assignment. Chances are he associates an unpleasant feeling (like failure or shame) with the writing task, and has learned that having a tantrum will successfully allow him to avoid the task, at least for a period of time.

Desire is the felt need to obtain something (or access to something) that causes us to experience a pleasant feeling. This can also be focused on a person or event, as well as an object. Think of the student who misbehaves for everyone except one particular teacher. Chances are that they associate that adult with positive experiences, causing them to constantly want that person’s presence. They may have learned that acting out will grant them access to this person faster than other avenues.

Most behavior needs to be addressed directly, but addressing it without an understanding of the motivation is often pointless. Determining the motivation, however, can take time. The easiest way to handle most minor behaviors—and reduce or prevent major ones—is to foster an environment of positive interaction. Next week we will take a look at how communication facilitates our interactions, and some strategies for the classroom.

What kind of experiences do you have with positive interaction and its effects on the classroom? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!


[i] http://www.pbis.org

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