The Equation

E + R = O

Event + Response = Outcome

This simple but powerful equation has been the framework for some of the most meaningful conversations I’ve had in my professional life, both with my students and with the teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. We all need to be reminded that events—even those out of our control—do not dictate where we end up. How we respond, adapt, and improvise; these things are the primary factor in our outcome. Intentions aside, struggles aside, delays aside, it’s our actions that drive our end result.

Take the main character in Breaking Bad, for example. Walter had no control over his cancer diagnosis—this was an event that happened to him, without his consent. Yet in the end (spoiler warning!) it was not the cancer that ultimately killed him. He lost his home, his family, and his life not to the uncontrollable event, but to his choice to make and sell methamphetamine, and the other terrible things he did along the way. And, beyond that, he had done all of the terrible things (at least in the beginning) with the unreproachable intention of taking care of his family.

Maybe come up with a different example for the kids.

Let’s look at Goldilocks. She was lost, tired, and hungry—her event, which she had little control over. But it was how she responded to this event (breaking and entering, destruction of property, theft) that caused the real problem in the end.

Things we do, whether with good or bad intentions, control our outcomes.

I always start off with some road maps. Let’s take the event of being told you have to get off of the computer to transition to other work. Then have the kids come up with varying responses. What outcomes do the different choices yield? Are more choices involved? What if you yell at the teacher? Will you get the same outcome if you break the laptop? What about if you log off and move on? The kids never fail to be amazed at how varied the outcomes are.

Then take it to something harder. A friend says they don’t want to be friends with you anymore. Someone starts a rumor about you. You can’t understand the work you’re supposed to be doing on your own.

Once they have this basic analysis, you can reverse it. This is the event. What outcome do you want? How do you need to respond in order to get that outcome? You’ll often find that even your toughest kids are seeking a positive outcome. Sure, some of what they express is basic (computer time, extra recess, etc.) But I’ve had middle school boys break down crying.

“I just want people to like me.”

“I just don’t want my mom to get called.”

“I just want to have a good day.”

From here, we can help them figure out how to get there.

Use it as an intervention during a behavior. “What’s your outcome here? What do you need to do to get there?”

Use it to debrief after an inappropriate behavior. “What was the outcome you wanted? Did you get it? Now that we know this response wasn’t effective, what can you do differently next time?”

Use it to set up the day. “What do you want to accomplish today? What events might get in the way? How are you going to respond?”

Use it to set long-term goals. “What outcome do you want for your year/semester? What events will come up? How do you want to respond?”

Use it to talk about life. “Your outcome is to play professional basketball, but you hate school. What if your response is to work really hard, a scout sees you playing in high school, and you get recruited and picked up? Now, what if your response is to give up and fail in school? What if you don’t even get to play in high school?”

This simple equation, this basic concept, can be so huge for our students. It gives them the power and control that often gets taken away from them. It teaches them to consider the effects of their actions beyond the current moment. Most importantly, it reminds them that they are not helpless victims of their circumstances.

Now, teachers, I’m going to close with this. We also need to have a good understanding of this equation. We must be mindful, even with the best of intentions, how our response is affecting our outcomes. If we are not getting the outcome that we want, our response is the variable. We have to change our actions, our approach, or our words in order to get a different result.

We cannot control the events in our students’ lives. But our response can powerfully affect their outcome.

Do you have experience teaching your students about response and choices? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!

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