Positive Interactions: Communication

In the previous post, we discussed some poor practices and underlying causes of behavior. The best way to be preventative and proactive about most behavior is to establish an environment of positive interaction. That, of course, all begins with how we treat and interact with our students.

Kids with behavioral disorders, anxiety, or trauma tend to have very poor self-image. This can stem from experiences at home, or from repeated instances of failure or lack of success. This can cause many self-fulfilling prophecies (I’m stupid, I can’t do this, I’m a bad kid). Students need to feel good about themselves, in as many areas and situations as possible.

As teachers, we tend to heavily focus on academics. There is nothing inherently wrong with this—academics are important. However, some of our neediest students are not often successful in that area. We have to intentionally seek out opportunities to provide success and praise, even if it means looking in other places. Find things to compliment. Our opinion of them means a lot. Consider this.

Several years ago a scientist performed an experiment. He took a bunch of rats of the same breed, size, relative age, etc. and put them in separate cages. On these cages he put tags that indicated either that the rats inside were extremely intelligent, or that the rats were of substandard intelligence (neither of which was true). He then had other experimenters come in and train the rats to run through an identical maze.

The results weren’t even close. The rats perceived to be smarter outperformed the alleged “dumb” rats by huge margins. Even though all the mice were exactly the same. Why? Because the bias of the experimenters changed how they spoke to the rats, how they handled them, and how they rewarded them—it was all based on their perception of the rats, instead of the rats’ actions.

You can view a video about this experiment here.

This experiment was then taken to schools. Students whose teachers believed that they were gifted and intelligent (whether or not there was evidence of any giftedness) outperformed students whose teachers believed that they had a class full of students with disabilities and deficiencies (even though none of the students really had any identified disability).

What does this mean? First, it indicates that it is important for our students’ self-esteem to be tied to who they are, rather than what they are doing (more on this in a later post.) It also means that our students pick up on our perception of them, subconsciously or otherwise, even if we aren’t aware of it ourselves.

Only 7% of our communication is verbal. The other 93% is comprised of body language (movements, facial expressions, posture, etc.) and vocalization (tone, volume, pauses, etc.). We can be intimidating or distant, without saying anything, and often without intending to be. Rolling our eyes, avoiding interaction, making a face when a student walks in late—all of these communicate an aggressive and confrontational attitude. You would probably not like it if your boss was hovering over you at your desk, arms folded and too close; your students do not like it, either.

As for phrasing, we tend to be very reactive in conversations with our students. We can completely reform a negative conversation if we are more intentional when we speak. Positive interaction begins with positive phrasing. Speak to the kids with respect; don’t automatically assume wrong-doing. The less directive and harsh we are with our words, the less reason a student has to react defensively, save face, or power struggle.

Tone is also important. We have some students who are very sensitive to tone; they can tell if you’re having a rough day just by how you say, “good morning.” They easily pick up on when you are frustrated or upset, particularly with them. Other students struggle differentiating between subtleties of tone. I had a student in my class one year who thought that every time my volume increased I was upset about something, even if I was only raising my voice because the room was larger or there was movement going on. For these students, too much variation can be confusing or distressing.

I’m definitely not telling you to sound like the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off all the time; and I know that we all have occasion to raise our voices. But it should not be the norm. Keeping an even and consistent tone as often as possible helps keep students feeling safe, calm, and focused; it also lends more impact to the moments when a change in tone is called for.

How we handle confrontation is another important aspect of our interaction. We need to consider what and how we energize in a situation (more on that in a later post). But something that applies to all of us is E + R = O (event + response = outcome). No matter what the situation, how we respond impacts the outcome; and, as the adult in these confrontations, we need to be very mindful of the impact we are having.

There are three main concepts that I hope you can take with you, as far as positive interaction goes.

1: Teach deficit skills. Build self-esteem and provide opportunities for success; encourage communication; be aware of the underlying factors of behavior.

2: Be kind. Make sure your students know that you like them, and energize positivity. Go out of your way for the students who push your buttons- because if you don’t, they’ll be able to read it all over you.

3: The only behavior you can control is your own. Model desirable communication and relationship skills. And remember—for growth to occur, someone’s behavior has to change. It needs to be yours, first.

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