As our school has moved forward with the PBIS behavior expectations reset for 2018, I have become more and more aware of the complex nature of building and sustaining relationships with students.
I feel strongly that consistency, warmth, and a true sense of caring are the foundations of building good relationships with students. In fact, my good friend Brendan Fetters recent blog post has some great working examples of how these foundational relationship-building skills show up most effectively in a school. I’m also noticing that after this sturdy foundation is established, it’s highly effective to have a second level of relationship-building occur in order to ensure the relationships are sustained. That second level involves defining ambiguous words that as adults we often use to expedite a conversation, but unfortunately they can be relationship destroyers. They include any words that carry with them a lot of assumption in their meaning. Assumptions that are often based on the situation or the culture of the person making the assumption. That’s why it is crucial to define for the student (in the moment) these types of words because it helps avoid confusion and misconceptions – which can derail relationship-building in an instant.
The word ‘respect’ is an excellent example of an ambiguous word we toss around in schools these days. That word is often one of the pillars within PBIS expectations, and frequently shows up in questions we ask students such as, “Are you showing respect?” and “Are you being respectful?”. As educators, we often talk to students about the word ‘respect’, but rarely, if ever, do we take the time to define for the child exactly what we mean by the word ‘respect’. As in, what is our personal working definition of ‘respect’ in that moment?
Recently I’ve changed my relationship-building practices in a very subtle, yet profound, way to include defining any/all words I sense are ambiguous or carry a lot of assumption. In the example of the word ‘respect’, I actively define for students what I believe ‘respect’ is in any given situation. For instance, if a student is engaged in their classroom by working cooperatively, I might say to them, “Wow, I am really impressed at how you are respecting your classmates views and opinions. And my definition of being respectful to your classmates in this situation means you’re showing great listening skills and an ability to give constructive feedback.” It’s interesting how the extra effort I put into defining respect adds something profound to the word’s meaning in that situation. In my view, it tells the child exactly what I’m thinking. No confusion. It takes the ambiguity out of the comment for the child, as well as any chance there would be a misconception of what I might be referencing as ‘respectful’
When students are emotionally elevated, it can be even more important to clarify ambiguous words. For instance, in challenging situations I may say to a child, “I’d like us to have a more respectful conversation about how you’re upset. And I’m defining ‘respectful’ as showing a calm voice and calm body. If you need time to get to a more centered emotional space, I can allow that time for you.” In that situation, the student knows exactly how I defined ‘respectful’ in an emotionally charged situation so they don’t have to spend energy guessing what it is I need them to do. Instead they focus on the action that needs to be taken to move forward to a resolution.
The word ‘respect’ is just one example of the hundreds of ambiguous words that we, as educators, need to define for students as we use them in conversation. If we choose not to define these words for students, it’s likely they will derail the relationship-building process in some form (or at the very least, make it harder for us to achieve the strong relationships with students that we’re seeking). I’d like to know other ambiguous words that need defining during relationship-building so I welcome your comments!