The Complexities of Relationship-Building

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!

 

Fun

There is a great video that’s been around for a few years from TheFunTheory.com that shows how making something ‘fun’ can get people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t want to do.  The video is called Piano Stairs and it’s worth a second look, even if you’ve seen it before.  I’ve used this video over the years during staff professional development, as well as at parent meetings, to start a conversation about the importance of ‘fun’, and how ‘fun’ can/should be incorporated into our schools.

I would guess that when most people traditionally think about incorporating fun into school, it’s in the context of a reading, math, social studies or science lesson.  As in, “Wow, that was a really fun science lesson today!”  But I have challenged myself, and my staff, to think about ‘fun’ in a more targeted manner as we reset our PBIS behavior expectations this month.  In general, I think it’s been harder to consider the idea of ‘fun’ when we are teaching replacement behaviors or behavior expectations to students.  After all, until PBIS hit the scene a few decades ago, schools would predominantly focus on changing behaviors through a deficit-mindset or through punishment-to-change-behavior.

I think it’s easy to forget that to students, letting go of old behaviors and relearning new replacement behaviors is not only uncomfortable and confusing, it’s simply not fun.  During our PBIS reset this past month I’ve spent a significant amount of time listening and learning from our students as to what type of ‘fun’ motivates them.  Previously at our school we’ve provided the relatively common ideas such as extra recess, pajama day, crazy hat day, etc., as motivators, but you can only get so much mileage from that sort of fun.  Sometimes with the more challenging behaviors there needs to be some serious thought – out of the box, unique thought – as to what type of ‘fun’ is needed to encourage the necessary productive struggle that leads children to a change in behavior.

It’s not as easy as it seems to define exactly what is fun for students.  That process can quickly turn into a generation-gap issue.  As much as I love old Atari games, Electronic Football, Electronic Battleship, and other 80’s retro-cool fun, many of the students in our classrooms today want Ozobots or iPADs…which means I have to do my research and learn how to use these items (which isn’t always comfortable for me!).  But I recognize it’s crucial to step outside myself to accurately define what fun looks like for students in 2018.  So I’m always keeping my eyes open for the latest educational tools/tech that I can bring into the school and use creatively with PBIS.  Tools/tech that can be used in large groups, as well as ones that can be used with individual students.

It’s been reassuring to discover that some old-school fun has stood the test of time when it comes to changing behaviors.  For instance, the simplicity of a Nerf basketball hoop.  I had one in my classroom when I began my career as a 1st Grade teacher in 1998, and still have one in my office as a Principal.  I have had hundreds of conversations with students about behavior while shooting hoops in my classroom or office.  As educators, we all know the science behind physical activity and it’s positive relationship to working through thoughts/feelings, but the hoop adds a ‘fun’ component.  “Let’s shoot hoops and you can tell me how your day is going.”  “Let’s shoot hoops and we can talk about what happened in the classroom earlier today.”

Sometimes it’s just that little bit of fun that moves a child into an emotional space to embrace the productive struggle needed to change behavior.

This type of thinking has been a part of me as an educator since the first day I stepped into a classroom many years ago.

This generation of students is expecting us to provide more fun for them in school.  They are expecting that productive struggle and fun will be paired to make their very complicated work a bit easier for them to handle.  And that includes the way in which we teach/reinforce behaviors and behavior expectations.  I’m sure the thought of an educator utilizing a Nerf hoop can be described as a bit unorthodox, and in many ways I recognize that it is.  But given all the conversations and all the behaviors that I’ve seen change because of those items, it’s worth it to find the fun.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!

 

Finding the ‘Bright Spots’

DSox-8GVQAAOZVA In a conversation a few weeks ago with Bellevue School District Superintendent Dr. Duran, he suggested that I check out a book called Switch.  It’s an excellent book by authors Chip and Dan Heath about ways to navigate change, but I also noticed the book provided many other strategies that related to our Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) behavior expectation reboot we started January 2nd.  As I’ve been synthesizing some of the information from the book into my daily routines, I’ve found this particular part of the book very helpful.

Finding new, positive, and innovative strategies to address behavior challenges in a school can be a complicated process.  In general, one of a school’s main goals is to provide effective and sustainable replacement behaviors for students.  The process of finding new behavior strategies traditionally involves looking at the child who is struggling with behavior, reviewing what they’ve done in the past (or the negative experiences they’ve had in the past), and creating new behavior strategies based on that information.  It’s what Dan and Chip Heath call in their book an “archaeology dig”.  It’s the process of digging in a child’s past (recent past or further back in their childhood) to “excavate the sources” of behavior.  In these situations, according to the authors, we tend to focus on what is going wrong, or has previously gone wrong, in a child’s life, and subsequently create systems/strategies of support based on that analysis.  But Dan and Chip Heath offer an alternative path to take in these situations.

What if our search for behavior strategies began with focusing on the bright spots, i.e. the times when a child feels love and a sense of belonging.  That thought process is a bit counter-intuitive to how we’ve historically addressed behavior challenges, but follow the thought process that Dan and Chip Heath propose.  In a scenario where a child is struggling with a certain behavior, we can often make our search for effective behavior strategies more fruitful by investigating what is going right for a child, rather than what is going wrong.  The authors suggest using a specific line of questioning that ensure children understand they are empowered to solve their own problems, and adults focus on the potential of a child rather than their history of behavior when developing behavior support strategies.

This philosophy will play a key role in our current PBIS behavior reboot…and beyond.  Creating positive behavior supports within a school is not just about positive-expectation-setting and reinforcement systems.  It’s also about changing our thinking so we focus on the bright spots, which I believe will make us more efficient at developing truly effective behavior strategies that support all children.

Breaking away from traditional ways in which we conduct discipline and purposefully focusing on the bright spots when looking at behavior challenges can at times take us out of our comfort zone as adults. However, in my opinion, the potential for student-empowerment and a more positive culture far out weigh the discomfort.

Your thoughts on this blog are welcomed and appreciated!