Energy Transfer

The problem with “no”

It may sound silly, but when I began working with residential, juvenile psychiatric patients, one of the first things I was taught was to avoid saying the word “no.” A UCLA study done a few years ago reported that kids hear the word “no” more than 400 times a day. It can cause students anxiety, it can seem like a challenge; defensiveness and even power struggle are often automatic reactions from students to being told no. One of the easiest ways to avoid all of this is by rephrasing.

“In a little while.”

“When we’re done with this.”

“It’s not time for that yet.”

“Good idea! Let’s check on that in a little bit.”

What about things that aren’t even an option? Chances are the kids know that. They know the boundaries, they just want to test them; remind them that they are responsible for their choices. I have said, quite frequently, “I think you know the answer to that question already,” and the kids usually just smile sneakily and move on.

 When we do have to say “no,” it should be accompanied by an explanation. Make sure to tell them why it’s not an option. The more open we are with them, the more understanding we give them the opportunity to be. If you grant them the chance to be reasonable and accepting, often they’ll take it. It also reduces the chances that they’ll ask the same thing another time, or from another person. The key is to reduce the risk of escalation before it even happens. It’s all about the energy we put into any given situation.

What we energize

We have all known that kid. You can see him. Sitting in the middle of the classroom, banging his fist on the desk. Over… and over. Yes, it’s annoying. Yes, it’s disruptive. But what is the cost of giving it our energy? Consider this.

Studies have shown that many disruptive students demonstrate this learned behavior because it is guaranteed to get them a response. They can count on a response that is

  • Instant
  • Clear
  • Stimulating

For some students this may be desirable because of the amount of attention it provides them. Others may be seeking to distract you from a task or their performance on the task. Still others may have difficulty interpreting more subtle forms of feedback, and need the reassurance that you “see” them.

Are these behaviors going to be a disruption in your classroom? Probably for a little while. But handling them differently will save you time and headache in the long run. If we can shift our energy away from the negative and over-energize the positive, we can gradually teach them to obtain the stimulation they’re seeking in positive ways, and even to more easily interpret positive feedback.

The key to this is making your responses to positive situations as instant, clear, and stimulating as they are expecting your responses to the negative to be. Be loud and boisterous if you feel that’s what your students are needing. Over-energize the positive—all the positive. Find things to give big, specific praise. You will look ridiculous for a while. Your coworkers may look at you like you’re crazy. But what you do when you clearly narrate and reinforce the positive is teach your students to recognize success in themselves. It also lets them know that if they want big reactions, they’ll only get them in positive ways.

The flip-side to this is extracting energy from the negative. Here are some ideas to do that.

  • Planned ignoring. If you (and the other students) ignore a minor behavior, chances are the student in question will get bored.
  • Post-its. If the student can read, walk by and stick a small note in front of them on their desk. “Let’s focus.” “Could you stop doing that, please?” “It’s almost time for recess.” Then keep moving. Don’t give them a chance to respond.
  • Single-sentence prompts. “I hope your math gets done before game time.” “If you need help, let me know.” “Stay focused.” Again, keep moving. Don’t linger and encourage a conversation.
  • Visual prompts. Come up with a signal that he can recognize to let him know that he needs to take a break, use a strategy, etc. Involve him in the process to encourage ownership. “I know that you don’t like it when I have to correct or redirect you in front of people. Let’s come up with something…”
  • Praise positive behavior around him. “Seth, thank you for working so hard!” “Gina, your planner is looking great!” “Thank you so much for ignoring the distractions going on right now.” Give whatever rewards or reinforcements you may use in your class on a regular basis. This lets him know that when he makes negative choices, he is choosing to miss out on positive things.

It may get worse before it gets better. It takes time to break years of bad habits. But stick with it and I promise you will see improvement!

Do you have some experience with energizing positive or negative situations? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!

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