The Blank Slate

Those of us who work with kids absolutely, 100%, always have to be a blank slate. Every day. Every class period. Sometimes every few minutes.

What does that mean? What does in involve?

Treat every day like a new day. After all, that is how time works.

One of the most toxic things we can do—and not just revolving around kids—is hold on to what happened yesterday. Yesterday is done, it’s over, and it’s time to move on; our kids need to see us practicing this belief. They are always watching to see if their last “incident” will be the straw that broke the camel’s back; if we stopped loving them; if we’re going to hold it against them. And too often we fail to let it go and allow them the opportunity to do better.

I worked with a teacher who had a little boy in her class who struggled. One day was particularly bad; items were thrown, pulled down off the walls, the class had to be evacuated, all right at the end of the day. She got everything cleaned up that afternoon. The next morning, he came in with his head low, and approached where she was standing, putting planner notes on the board. “Are you still mad at me for yesterday?”

She blinked at him slowly. “Why? Did something happen yesterday?”

There were several seconds of silence. “Yes,” he finally answered, shifting uncomfortably.

“Oh.” She paused for a moment. “Well, my memory is terrible. It must not have been anything that couldn’t be fixed. Is it going to happen again today?”

He thought for a second. “No.”

“Okay. Then I guess we don’t need to worry about it. We get to start a new day today.”

He gave her one of the longest hugs I’ve ever seen, then went to his seat. He had no incidents that day.

Now, I’m not saying he never had an incident again. I’m not even saying that this is going to be the response you get 100% of the time. But a few key things happened here.

1:  She didn’t even bring it up.

If you can get one thing from my blog, please, for the love of whatever is holy, let it be this one thing.

*deep breath*

Stop asking rhetorical questions!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this. A kids gets off the bus. He’s smiling (a minor miracle, especially for kids who don’t want to be at school). He gets to the doorway. “Good morning!”

The adult at the door smiles. “Good morning! We’re going to have a better day today, right?”

The kid’s whole demeanor falls.

The adult genuinely thinks she is being pleasant and encouraging. But in reality, all she did was remind him of his failure yesterday, and let him know that she hadn’t forgotten it, either. This is not encouraging. This does nothing for the student. And how is he even supposed to respond to that?

What if you got to work, and the first thing out of your boss’ mouth was, “You’re going to do a better job today, right?”

Don’t do that. Even with the best intentions, it’s condescending and does nothing to encourage success. We don’t need to peddle failure.

A good rule to stick to is never to ask a yes or no question, unless no is an acceptable answer.

2: She did not make a big deal about it.

I’ve had people tell me that I trivialize bad behavior. How can I just let go and not address negative actions? Don’t they need to be held accountable for their choices? Doesn’t every instance of undesirable activity need to be addressed?

Maybe.

But what good would a monologue have done in this situation? He obviously already knew that what he had done was wrong, and he felt bad about it. Hammering it home that he had failed serves no purpose for him, except for strengthening his association between school and failure.

Too often teachers launch into these “discussions” for their own satisfaction. Some even turn everything into a crisis. Your 10-minute lecture about respect (which no one is listening to, by the way) is far more disruptive to your class than the few seconds of student chatter. This is the number one rule when considering whether to directly address an issue:

If it’s not going to benefit the kids, or make their day better, keep it to yourself.

That does not mean that behavior should not be talked about. But do it privately. Do it when they’re calm. Even consider doing it in an incidental way. Often, during a planned lesson about respect or conflict, a student will make the connection herself. “Yeah, like when I yelled at Emma the other day. I shouldn’t have done that.” And we know that the connections they make themselves are the strongest, and far more likely to be retained.

3: A lesson was delivered briefly, incidentally, and effectively.

This student now knew, for sure, that his teacher was not going to hold anything against him. She was not going to stop caring; she was not going to give up on him. He had not broken their relationship.

And what does that do? It allows him to relax in the relationship.

People often talk about kids testing boundaries, but often fail to understand why. Kids typically test relationships because of negative past experiences. Someone has let them down, and they’d rather see your relationship fail because of something they did intentionally (something they saw coming, on their terms) rather than unexpectedly, or at a vulnerable moment. Or, conversely, if they’re not actively trying to sabotage, they may live in so much anxiety just waiting for the other shoe to drop, that it affects their behavior anyway. This happens a lot in the re-wired brains of our students who have experienced significant trauma.

Her response let him know that he was safe. It alleviated his anxiety, and he had a better day as a result. He could feel that the relationship was solid, and that motivated him to keep it going.

Every child deserves a blank slate. Yes, children need discipline. Yes, every action has a consequence. Holding yesterday over their heads, bringing up past mistakes, reminding them of failures; none of these are natural consequences. Give them some grace—we all need it.

What strategies have you seen for allowing every day to be a new day? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!

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