Strange question for a school discussion, isn’t it? That’s what I thought during my second day of Responsive Classroom training last summer, but that’s what our instructor put up on his chart paper.

Take a moment to think about it…maybe even ask other adults that are on hand for their reasons…go ahead and see what you come up with before reading on…

Here were some of the many, and I mean many reasons people gave for why we speed:
I’m late.
I like to drive fast.
I get distracted.
Everyone else was doing it.
It’s fun.
It’s hard to tell how fast my car is going.
I was worried.
I didn’t know what the speed limit was.
It’s okay to go a little over.
I was going downhill.
I got into automatic mode.
It feels good.
I was excited.
Sometimes the speed limits are just plain wrong for the circumstances. (Anyone thinking Moorehead Drive?)
It was an emergency.
I forgot.
I was angry.
No one was around.
Drank too much coffee.
It’s hard for my car to go the speed limit.

After this entertaining exercise, my instructor placed this new heading at the top of the list, “Why students misbehave.”

Well that was a good twist. As my eyes revisited the list, my empathy for kids just went a notch deeper. I could hear one of the phrases Elizabeth often uses during our frank discussions about some aspect of my teaching practice I’m struggling with, “It’s all parallel process.” Indeed, it’s remarkable how often we, my students and I, are all working on the same stuff (too much reacting, needing more organization…), and truly for many of the same reasons!

So what kind of voice do I hear when I’m making a mistake, let alone repeating for the umpteenth time a less than productive behavior? What kind of tone do I respond best to?

I remember getting pulled over a few years ago and when asked why I was speeding, I simply said, “I just finished an evening meditation class and guess I lost track of where I was.” I got off with a warning and a slightly bemused look that suggested, ‘This is what I get for working in Boulder.’ But the policeman had started with a question and he seemed genuinely interested in what my answer might be. This brings to mind the questioning strategy I talked about in my last blog…when dealing with misbehavior, try to start by asking, “What happened?” (And be as ready as possible to really listen, which is hard to do!) Rather than ask me the next question (“And why is that a problem?”), the policeman just gave me the answer, “50 in a 35 is a very expensive ticket you know, and besides, lots of deer cross this road at night.” That was good enough for me; I kept his card on my dashboard for the next year and haven’t gone over 39 sine then…they usually give you around five over, right?

So he gave me the needed information in a way I could hear it–straight, specific, and without being condescending, like there was some real concern for my wellbeing, and my bank account.

This brings me back to our Responsive Classroom instructor that day last summer; he went on to talk about the power of our language, especially reinforcing language, which he said was by far the most underutilized resource we have as teachers.

He then outlined some of the qualities of reinforcing language.

–Focus on a positive tone, one that conveys belief in the student (“When everyone is quiet and still for 20 seconds we will go into the classroom.”)

–Use words that point towards the positive behavior desired (“Remember, use a gentle touch while you play with each other.”)

–Strive for clear, direct communication in words, tone, facial expression, and body language—try to project calmness and respect, then power struggles are less likely to occur.

–Name specific, concrete behaviors (Instead of ‘Good job!’ …try, ‘You included so many details in your drawing, that took a lot of focus.’)

–Use a warm, professional tone (Instead of ‘You’re the best includer!’…try, ‘I noticed you invited Jim over when he was standing alone.’)

–Emphasize description over personal approval (Instead of starting with ‘I like’ or ‘It makes me happy when…’ try, ‘You were friendly and safe today, that made the game more enjoyable for everyone.’)

–Find positives in all students… this can be a powerful way to reframe what we tune into—our assembly commendations are a wonderful expression of this attitude

–Name progress (There have been many times that a student has caught herself in mid-blurt and then raised her hand, ‘You are getting better at holding onto your ideas until it’s your turn.’ This recognizes that all learning is a process, and that it’s often quite gradual)

This is just a bit of the wealth that can be found on the Responsive Classroom website and in books such as, “The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn” by Paula Denton.

Thank you for the opportunity to remind myself about all this…and good luck out on the road!

Mark