Acting Assertively When Confronting a Problem
I invite you back to the very first video I offered on the page What We Want. At that time I used it to provoke a personal reflection on the emotional reactions we all have to troubling behavior. You may have noticed the odd fact that I marked on the screen three actions of white shirted boy. These are the mistakes we can’t prevent but might enable him to learn something.
- piling on
- destroying children’s work
I am assuming you are clear in your own mind which of these three actions are non-negotiable and which are negotiable. If that distinction doesn’t pop for you, it might be worth further discussion with others using this video clip. It is important to make that distinction first because that’s the baskets.
Decisions About Responsibility
If you are like me, the first of the three, the one in the still frame above, piling on, is not my responsibility. Remarkably, that was the only one of the three that this adult seemed to notice. What a contrary, confusing space for this very intelligent boy! The more horrible his action — kicking another child at the end of his spine — the more he seemed to laugh. This space for children is operating entirely backwards! He is learning to enjoy being troublesome.
I have seen many adults who behave in habitual ways when dealing with troubling behavior. Like a thoughtless reflex in one’s knee: tap–>kick. It’s as if they never considered what the children were learning, never considered the facts before them. What an unhappy way to get through the day. Adults who act thoughtlessly are the ones most likely to have trouble in their classroom — and, usually, blame the children for it. They did express hostile thoughts about this marvelous boy.
I have mentioned before that we have three choices when something untoward occurs:
- ignore the problem
- somehow facilitate the children taking responsibility for solving the problem
- assertively take responsibility to stop such problems.
Now we address the one in bold. When something happens that is non-negotiable, such as kicking a child in the sacral area of the spine or poking a child in the eye. We take immediate action to ensure that children in our care do not get hurt. Now there are levels of assertion, which start light and move to heavy. In all of them the adult lowers the boom — clear statement of fact, the reprimand, the behavior management protocol.
1. Clear Statement of Fact
“I can’t allow you to…”
I can’t allow you to hurt others in our community.”
This is a true fact. No need for me to go emotionally ballistic. No anger. Firm voice tone.
If I get upset, angry, or bossy, then I am doing what the child is doing: being upset, angry and bossy. I am not helping when I model that same way of being; my job is to show a better way to be.
I found that the better way has two components. First, one has to change one’s demeanor. When something happens that is a mistake where I have responsibility, I can’t be the same smiling, affable, person. I adopt a more staunch tone, body posture, and facial expression. I am serious but not mean. I make that shift very apparent. I am normal; then I am firm. It doesn’t have to be over the top, but it has to be noticeable.
Second, I have to follow the guides of Enterprise Talk, whose handrail is at hand, and talk about me. If I am to speak in the immediacy of a mistake (where I might very well be angry), the best place to start is Subjective Talk — talk about myself as the subject. Thus the formulation: “I can’t allow you to…”
“I can’t allow you to hurt others in our community.”
“I can’t allow anyone to hurt others here.”
“I am stepping in to prevent anyone from getting hurt.”
This is, in fact, true. I like saying things that are true. This is my responsibility to be sure in my role as a leader of the community or family. I make sure that hurting will not continue.
What was surprising to me was how subjective talk changed my attitude at that very moment of confrontation. I don’t know if I can articulate fully why it made such a difference. The natural reaction for me used to be anger. I heard myself use these new words. When I tell myself to say, “I can’t allow you to…” I hear myself define my action not as someone who is emotional but as someone who is doing something about it.
This simple change of wording also helped me be more aware of my privilege as an adult. I have more power; I am bigger, therefore I am the one who has to be careful to remember that the child and I are both human beings on the same planet trying to live in accord with our being. This is who the child is being now because she is human. If I establish a practice of starting with “I…” then I can become more in tune with me and recognize the child as powerful and competent, too.
2. The Reprimand
This may be one of the most significant things I ever have learned from a book, in this case The One Minute Manager, where Blanchard and Johnson describe three leadership actions for an organization; take one minute to make sure the goals are clear; take one minute to make sure positives are delivered specifically to the actors and the reasons why; take one minute to administer needed reprimands to highlight the mistakes without making personally destructive judgments. The last one I had never encountered before, so I thought I would give it a try.
It has always been hard for me to confront other’s mistakes in a calm assertive manner, probably because I never was treated that way by others. When I made mistakes I was punished with either something hurtful or nonverbal glances, criticism or withdrawal. Like other human beings I am likely to treat others as I was treated. That habit continues on unless I work hard at changing it.
Then I became aware of the Reprimand as a six step sequence, #2 having three parts.
1. Describe the mistake
Get close, touch if appropriate, and tell him or her exactly what the action was that was a mistake.
2. Describe the consequences for that mistake
(a) consequences for others around the child,
(b) consequences for the child, and
(c) consequences for you yourself.
3. Pause for 5 seconds, without anger, but with sincerity
4. Communicate how much he or she is valued, respected, and loved.
I wrote the steps in the back of my calendar that I carried with me all the time. Then two days later (in the laboratory school, which I have referred to before), I encountered a student in the back room scrummaging around, opening cupboard doors and file cabinets. Oops. She evidently was looking for something to use for her small group time; she was unprepared. The children, our clients, were left alone. They were kind enough to stay seated, but there was nothing for them to do. I found a way to secretly review the Reprimand steps, and approached her. I looked her straight in the eye and said,
“You are poking about in the teachers room. The children are out there waiting. (Step 1)
“They expect a new experience to happen for them that would be engaging and challenging. (Step 2a)
“You lost a chance to try something that you thought about and try it in your own way. You missed a challenge that could have benefited you. (Step 2b)
“I lost a chance to watch you and give you feedback about what you chose and how you presented the activity.” (Step 2c)
The next step was to wait and look directly at her for a time, 5 to 10 seconds — thankfully. I needed a break because I was trying to think of #4. What could I say that was affirming? In truth, I had no idea.
When nothing came to mind, I lamely used the words of the guide. I said, “I value you and you are highly respected.”
It wasn’t perfect, but she never came unprepared again.
Since that first time, I have had lots of practice; I have used it lots. But that first time was like learning to drive a car, rather incapable of shifting and steering at the same time. I was anxious and cognitively consumed. It wasn’t too long before driving became a thoughtless nothing. The Reprimand took about as much practice, for me, as learning to drive a car. Those three parts of the consequences are challenging to create on the spot.
If you want to learn this skill, expect a rough beginning, but it will smooth out depending on how frequently you have opportunities to use it. As with any new skill, you have to keep working at it until you can do it well before you can decide if it is good to do or not. I invite you post cheat sheets where you need them, and give it a shot.
My Reprimand for Mark
Mark hit Alex on the head with a unit block — a big quad unit block. It did’t knock Alex unconscious or give him a swollen bump, but it obviously hurt. Alex looked to me and cried.
[Later, I would learn that looking immediately to me was not a good indicator of classroom health. Instead of dealing directly with Mark, Alex looked for an adult to solve the problem. Not the best. I learned that when a caring community is built in the classroom, the children see their classmate’s hurt and attend directly to him or her. In the best schools young children move in to listen and offer care right away, not needing an adult, who may have missed what actually happened, rescuing anyone.]
I knew that this block bonk was my responsibility, so I used a reprimand:
“I can’t allow you to hurt others.
“You knocked Alex on the head with that block.
“He cried because it hurt. It makes it hard for people to play when they think that something bad may happen at any moment. Others may think you could be dangerous.
“I will have to explain to Alex’s mom what happened today.”
“I love you, Mark. You are an amazing person and important to our class.”
Well, that is what it was like when I got the hang of this. The love part was hard for me to say at first. Do I actually love this child? Yes, I do. I began to see how often I found myself loving the most behaviorally outrageous children. When I learned to pay attention to how I was feeling in the moment about Mark, when it was no longer about me as a controller or manager of Mark, when I could be present to Alex and be honest with Mark, I became a professional educator. When I relaxed, my love surfaced. How cool is that?
It took me about a year of practice before that time, in which I often said to children how much I valued them, how much they contributed to our community, how much I missed them when they were absent, and what strength they brought to all of us by being here. Those were true, too. As long as what I said was true, I felt like I was doing better than before.
Reprimand Card Game
I have found that #2c, the consequences for myself, seems the hardest for people to phrase. The mistake I hear is stating the consequence as one’s own emotional trauma, e.g., “I get sad when I see people hurt.” This implies that the children have a responsibility to not upset you. That’s a guilt trip. You are responsible for your emotions and your handling of your emotions, so deal. It might not be authentic either, and children see that immediately.
I like what the cable car driver in San Francisco said, “Everybody’s arms and legs inside at all times. I don’t like filling out accident reports.” Truth. So, one can try something like that — the trouble it makes for your reporting requirements, your talking to the victim’s parents or the child’s parents, your having to spend time in meetings, your having to stop some activity, your having to watch for the next transgression instead of having fun.
3. Behavior Management Protocol
Although the Reprimand has reduced about 75% of the problems I have faced, it may not always work. Some children will keep on making the same mistake — keep on hitting others on the head with a unit block or keep on kicking. If you find yourself having to give the same reprimand more than twice, I recommend never using a reprimand again for that mistake. You can be confident that you have communicated clearly and respectfully, and you have proof that it doesn’t work.
The logical conclusion is that something else is going on. I simply assume that further Reprimands add attention to the instance and may likely be supporting the behavior I don’t want to support. I stop trying straight communication and go to the Behavior Management Protocol. This is the big deal for difficult problems that don’t go away. This protocol (a systematic convention for proceeding) provides a means for investigating, inventing options, and deciding as a community what to try. This will take some time to fully mark out, so twenty pages of information open from the management protocol link in the menu.
Meanwhile, there is more to learn to do. Let’s return to the topic of authentic communication: offering information, active listening, and negotiation.