Me: What are you working on?
Student: An inquiry project.
Me: Cool. What's your topic?
Student: Well, I'm wondering...what if the way we understand things is maybe only that way because that's what we were taught but that we actually all see things differently and we just don't know it? Like, what if we all see the sky as different colours but everyone calls it blue because that's what we were told when we were little? But maybe my sky is actually yellow and your's is green, y'know?
Me: (stunned silence).
Conversations like this one are why I love teaching middle school. It's this sweet spot of budding self-awareness that makes them wonder the most interesting things about behaviour, particularly social behaviour, without irony or cynicism. This kid is wondering something so simple yet so incredibly complex that it colours (pun intended) our day to day actions every single day. Most of us go through life as if everyone around us sees the world in the exact same way. We are taught, implicitly for the most part, that our way, our family's way, our culture's way, of seeing the world, of interpreting the actions of others, of understanding those that are not like us, is the right way, the only way. And we fail to notice what my student noticed - that it's entirely possible that we are seeing the same thing completely differently, even as we call it the same name.
In order to help our students grow, we need to be willing to change our perceptions of who they are and why they're acting a certain way. As Stuart Shankar says "...consider whose trajectory needs to change. The starting point for changing a child's trajectory begins with our perception of that child." By allowing ourselves to develop a narrative around a child, without considering that our narrative might be inaccurate, are we helping or hindering that child's trajectory?
How can we change the narrative around a child? How can we change our own perceptions so that we see the child in a positive light instead of a negative one? When your interactions with a child are negative, day in and day out, it can seem impossible. You have to start by breaking the cycle of assumptions that can swirl around some kids, often growing to the point where it obscures the child themselves. We have to be willing to ask "What if I'm wrong about this kid?" and then dig in a bit. Sit for a moment with the idea that what you believe to be true about a student may be coloured by your own perceptions of that student. Allow space for that student's own voice to enter the conversation, as hard as that may be. Know that unless we change the narrative, unless we change our own trajectory, we feed the cycle of misperception and negativity surrounding that child. Move forward with the intent to change your own trajectory, not the student's.
So, what can we do today to build stronger, more positive relationships with our students? Here are 5 perspective-shifting practices you can start any time.
1. Stay positive.
It can be really easy to buy in to negative thinking around a student, particularly if they are very emotionally draining. It is so common, even necessary, to blow off our frustrations with other adults. Often though, blowing off frustrations becomes a bitch session with like-minded individuals, fuelling the fires that say there is one right way to see the world, one right way to be in the world. When you need to blow off steam (and you will), seek out colleagues who listen with empathy but don't add fuel to the fire. Seek out colleagues who will, at the end of the day, help you see the good in even the most frustrating kiddos. Do you have to be super positive every moment of every day? No. Not only is that unrealistic, it's also unhealthy. It's also unhealthy, though, to stay in a negative frame of mind about a kiddo long-term; find at least one positive thing about that kid and repeat it like a mantra to yourself when things get challenging.
2. Stop labelling.
Labelling students - people, really - is an insidious behaviour that happens constantly. It can be so subtle that you don't even notice it happening or it can be right up there in your face, unavoidable and constant. Sometimes labels can be useful - getting us extra support for a student, for example - but often labels serve more to keep people in their place than anything else. Stop using labels - good kid, bad kid, IEP kid - to define who a student is and start using them to inform how you might support that kid.
3. Try the 2x10 strategy
In a meeting the other day, I used the term "attention-seeking" to describe the behaviours of a student. Our counsellor leaned over and quietly whispered "connection-seeking" in my direction. Yes. YES. Yeeeeeessssss. So much yes. Kids who are seeking attention aren't really seeking 1-2-3 eyes on me attention, they're seeking connection. They want somebody to pay attention to them so that they feel like somebody cares about them, that they matter. Instead of reactively giving them negative attention, how about trying a proactive connection strategy instead? Make that kiddo feel like they matter for who they are, not what they do.
The 2x10 strategy is a quick, simple way to connect with kiddos in a positive way. Simply have a 2 minute relationship-building conversation with a student for 10 days in a row. Keep the conversation positive and focused on the student; talk about what music they like, what they did on the weekend, their pets, family members, sports, whatever as long as it stays positive and focused on them.
4. Ask a lot of questions.
Open-ended ones. Ones with no strings attached, no agenda, no preconceived end point. How often do we go in to a conversation with the intention to simply listen and learn? Surprisingly rarely. Your goal here is simple: to gather information, to learn about the child, to flesh out the picture you have of this child. My favourite way in to a conversation like this is Ross Greene's "I've noticed (behaviour). What's up?" followed up with "Tell me more about that" or "Go on". The key here is to listen without judgment; it's not about you and what you think right now, it's about how the child perceives the situation. You're on a mission to find out how things appear through the eyes of the child and to do that you do nothing but listen. Is it possible that they're not telling you the whole truth? Yup. Is it possible that what they're saying seems totally out of whack with how others perceived the situation? Yup. Have you gained valuable information that can help you help this child? Yup. When we are quick to jump to conclusions, when we are quick to dismiss the child's point of view we are missing a very important piece of the problem solving puzzle.
5. Accept their perception as their truth.
Sometimes a child's perception of a situation can seem outlandish or way off base. That's ok. If we accept the underlying principle that everyone perceives things slightly differently, then we also accept that their outlandish view is really and truly how they see the situation. Their perception is quite likely the result of years of learning things differently from you, years that you weren't present for and therefore can't really unpack. At this point, you don't need to unpack them, you don't need to convince the kiddo the sky is blue when they're saying it's purple. All you need to do is accept this piece of information as a gift, a gift that allows you a little more insight in to what is going on for that kiddo. File this piece of information away in two places in your brain - 1) understanding for next time a similar issue arises and 2) a starting point for some learning that needs to happen for this kiddo. If they have spent years learning that the sky is purple, you aren't going to change that view overnight and you certainly aren't going to change it without a plan.
As a society we have a legacy of discounting the feelings and opinions of children. Children were seen and not heard for a very long time. One of my favourite quotes is "I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better." (Maya Angelou). As we know more about kids, we can do better for kids. Take the time to listen to kids. Accept their perception, their reality. Use this information to inform, to problem-solve. Change your trajectory and in doing so you just might change a child's.
Have questions about what you read today? Interested in learning more? I'd love to hear from you! Connect with me using the social media buttons at the top of the page and let's get the conversation started!
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!