Breaking the script after conflict

After something tough happens between ourselves and our students, breaking or testing the positive relationship we’ve built, it’s essential to be intentional in our next steps. This is especially important when the hard situation feels personal, for instance when a student calls me a name, breaks something I own, or otherwise targets me. In these moments when I am feeling overwhelmed or personally attacked, it would be easy to act from a place of reactivity and blame. However, these are the moments where it’s most important that I take the opportunity to “break the script” with my student and work through conflict in a different way.

The script my students expect:

Student: *does a “bad” thing*

Teacher: *reprimands student for doing bad thing*

Student: *feels shame and either gets defensive and reactive or shuts down*

What can I do instead of reprimand or drop negative consequences down on my student? After we’ve taken a moment to cool down and re-regulate our emotions, here are a few ways I try to break the script with a student who has somehow damaged our relationship.

    1. Time in instead of time out. Just when I want to avoid my student or take a break from them might be the right time to spend even more time together. This shows my student that I care about them enough to sit with the discomfort and work through it together. Maybe we spend a lunch period together or work together on a school beautification project after class. Especially for children with insecure attachment styles, time in reinforces my role as a caring adult who won’t give up. 
    2. “I bet that did NOT feel good. Are you okay?” Kids do well if they can, and so most of the time when a student has made choices that negatively impact others, I wonder what is getting in their way of doing well. When in doubt, start with empathy. When I remember to start with my genuine care for my student, we can often skip past the minutiae of the conflict and get instead to the heart of the matter. 
    3. “Oh wow, what could I have done differently to support you before we got to that point?” Whenever I ask this question, I’m surprised by the insight and thoughtfulness of my students’ responses. I almost always learn something new about the way I was structuring a class, phrasing a request, or explaining a task, and how my choices did or did not support my student. Additionally, it really breaks the script for me to ask what I could have done differently instead of jumping to what my student could have done differently.

These are just three ways to break the script and move toward collaboration instead of blame and shame. This is opening for a restorative approach to conflict, and an invitation to work through instead of stay stuck.

The most challenging part in all of this is letting go of my own feelings of hurt or defensiveness. When I struggle to do so, I try to remember the richness of the work when we let down our walls, set aside our emotionally-laden roles of “teacher” and “student,”  and open ourselves to the beauty that lives in messy, true human connection.

The Way Through

When people ask me what subject I teach, I never know how to respond. My teaching license is in English Language Arts. My master’s degree is in educational technology. In the past five years I’ve taught science, social studies, art, physical education, and more at our small school, where every teacher flexes to meet our students’ needs.

What I think I really teach, though, is how to get through. Conflict, adversity, anxiety – whatever the “it” is, I teach students to tolerate, regulate, and eventually move forward. Getting through is so much harder than going around, more complex, and ultimately a more necessary skill in life.

In the traditional public school, the response to conflict is “get out,” not get through. Leave the classroom if you’re disruptive. Take a suspension for a major breach. Thankfully, more schools are moving toward restorative approaches. Turning to inclusion instead of exclusion teaches students that it’s more important to work through as a community than to jettison the uncomfortable.

Working through truly is uncomfortable. Over and over, when my students get into conflict – with each other, with me, with their teachers – I hear “it’s whatever, I’ll just ignore it. I’m just done with this.” As most of us who have spoken similar sentences know, ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. So I fall back on some tried and true approaches to helping students build confidence that working through is possible.

 

First, here’s what I say to my students as we start the process:

 

  • “I care about you.” Unconditional positive regard from teachers and staff is the foundation. When teachers approach conflictual situations with “I still care about you; let’s try this again,” students begin to build confidence in the resiliency of true and caring relationships.
  • “You don’t have to be friends.” I almost never ask students to apologize to one another; I never ask them to mend a friendship. Instead, I focus on the true bottom line: we are a learning community, and when we’re here we respect the right of everyone to access their education. While rebuilding a friendship can be a huge, insurmountable task, reestablishing roles as classmates can feel more attainable.
  • “You’re allowed to be mad. Let’s find some different ways to express that.” One surefire way to lose the trust of a student is to invalidate their feelings. When we try too hard to get back to neutral, we miss the opportunity to work through what it feels like to be mad, anxious, or sad. This is the feeling of “meta-okay” and it’s something I try to foster during the working through. Working with the actual emotion helps students find a way to safely express it without harming the community.

 

Once the student is in a place to start the work, we do a process we call “repair.” Not apology, not punishment, definitely not discipline. The idea is to help the student work through mending some of the rifts in relationship and community. What this process looks like varies greatly depending on the nature of the rift, the developmental stage of the student, and the strength of the peer group to help facilitate the process.

 

Some ways this has looked include these, used alone or in combination:

  • The student using social thinking strategies to reflect on the conflict (social scripting, filling in thought bubbles in a cartoon, etc)
  • Writing a letter to the individual or group harmed, and either delivering it or reading it aloud
  • Drawing a timeline of the events in a conflict and identifying points where different choices would have made the situation smaller, rather than bigger
  • Education pieces about bullying, conflict, communication styles, and so on
  • Creating or repairing something for the community (fixing a squeaky door, baking cookies to put out at lunch) as a way to put something positive back into the group
  • Bringing the family and school team together to look at any bigger picture supports needed
  • Prepping for a facilitated conversation between two students or a student and a teacher
  • Mapping out emotions during a conflict and where self-care or regulation strategies could have had a positive impact

 

The possibilities are endless – we just strive to create an authentic experience of reflection and repair that helps the student work through the conflict rather than just go around it.

 

So what are the outcomes?

 

Sometimes, I’ve seen this process fail completely. The student wasn’t ready to take ownership, needed more of a break after a conflict, or didn’t have enough trust in staff that it was safe to work through. In these cases, we go back to core strategies of building relationship and awareness and try again.

 

More often, I’ve seen students struggle through the beginning stages of this process and then land somewhere solid at the end. Students use the structure and tools we give them to take ownership and make an action plan. I’ve seen students make themselves vulnerable to teachers and say “I didn’t realize I had hurt you like that.” I’ve seen students say to one another, “It wasn’t okay how you treated me, but I’m willing to try again.”

 

Most amazingly, I’ve seen students get into conflicts over, and over, and over again. I’ve seen them using the tools I’ve given them to work through, and then start to not need the tools anymore. I’ve seen them adopt the language: “repair,” “make a plan,” “respect your right to learn.” Through the repetition of the process, I’ve seen students internalize the process and come to truly believe that it’s possible to work through.

 

When we finally believe that working through is truly an option, we are more able to express our thoughts without fear of losing our place in community. We can be vulnerable and trust that the process will carry us through. We can tolerate pain, anger, and anxiety knowing that there are steps to move us forward.

 

We build hope.

 

And that’s what I teach.

Meta-Okay

Heading into this school year, a bunch of factors are creating an atmosphere of super-stress for my teachers, beyond the regular stresses of the job (and teaching is not a low-stress job). Beyond our giant and ever-present to-do lists, there are also elements of uncertainty – how will this work out? – and confidence – can I do this? Will we make it? 

Our students arrived at school today with many of the same feelings. Can I succeed this school year? How will things go? Will I make it through what feels impossible? 

In the midst of all of that, I’m tempted to say to teachers and students: “Don’t worry, it will all be okay.” “Everything will work out fine.” “Just you wait, it will get better.” 

It’s not a bad thing to be reassuring – but I wonder if instead I can try to foster the feeling of “meta-okay.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this phrase and I can’t take credit for it – but “meta-okay” to me means “It’s not okay, but that’s okay.” Meta-okay means accepting that things are actually not fine – accepting being the key word. 

I might more formally describe this as a type of frustration tolerance. It’s the ability to sit with things being unresolved, undefined, and still feeling alright in the midst of that. This skill takes lots of practice, and I don’t know if it ever stops feeling icky. Think of how you feel in the midst of a conflict with a friend or family member, while waiting for a phone call you know holds bad news, while grappling with a choice you wish you could undo. It takes self-regulation, mindfulness, and patience to tolerate “it’s not okay.” The more we practice, the more readily we reach for those skills when things are hard. 

I like the idea of meta-okay because it acknowledges that life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When I say to a student or teacher, “don’t worry,” I dismiss their right to feel however they feel. I minimize that life is enormously difficult. I gloss over the fact that some problems are unsolvable and some questions unanswerable. 

I want to hold hope for my students, my staff and myself, and I do. Fostering the art of meta-okay is a way to strengthen this paradoxical hope: even in the tough times, we can use skills to be okay with the not okay. We can exist in the spaces between certainty and uncertainty. And in striving to live even just a little more comfortably in that space, we can begin to see a way through. 

This quotation from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has been one of my touchstones for a long time, and I leave it here as a reminder of how I’d like to foster the meta-okay as we travel into this school year together. 

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Phrases I Can’t Live Without

I hear a lot of conversations in educator spheres about “the power of relationship.” We all know relationship is important; we agree that caring about our students is essential if they are going to trust that they can learn safely in our classes. I’d love to see the conversation turn now to the how of powerful relationship with students. I’m lucky to work in a school where I have the luxury of time and a small ratio to get to know my students well, but I think anyone in any setting can build powerful relationship if they develop the skills to do so.

One small thing anyone can do is pay attention to her speech. How do your words line up with your stance toward students? Are students hearing in your everyday conversations how much you care about them? Here are some of my go-to phrases for aligning my walk with my talk.

 

  • Tell me more. I can spend all day trying to analyze, interpret and theorize what’s going on with my students, but I find that if I listen well enough, the student will tell me exactly what’s going on and what they need. Same with coworkers and staff.
  • I don’t know. Being in authentic relationship means being vulnerable. Whether it’s an answer to a math question – I really don’t know! – or an acknowledgement that I don’t know how it feels to be in foster care, in a fight with my step-dad, struggling with hunger – saying I don’t know allows me to be honest and allows my student to trust that I’m not just going to fake my way through our relationship. “I don’t know” is best followed up with but let’s figure it out together. 
  • In response to a variety of questions, from “Can I take a break?” to “Can’t I just drop out of school?” to “Can I study medical marijuana?”: Yes – now let’s think about what that will mean – for you and for those around you. Starting with “yes” validates that what my student wants is valid, important, and ultimately, up to him, not me. Exploring choices is the meat of our work together.
  • I care about you. Not going to lie, it felt kind of weird the first few times I said the phrase “I care about you” that directly to students. But I think pretty much everyone deserves to hear loudly and often how much others care about them, and when I care about my students, I’m going to let them know and I’m not going to let them forget it.
  • I care about you but here’s how I was impacted by the choice you just made. There’s no such thing as a “good kid” or “bad kid,” just a kid with context who makes choices. I try to remember this in every moment I feel frustrated by a situation with a student, and then I try to say very clearly that I’m not dismissing the student herself, but hoping we can work through a choice she made. “I’ve seen you be kind to others before – so when you just called me a name, I was confused. Let’s talk about what’s going on.” Feels a lot better than “You can’t talk like that in here, go to the principal’s office,” doesn’t it?
  • You have value. If we are to prevent students from “falling through the cracks,” we need to remind them all day, every day that they have value and are valued by the community. Whether it’s recognizing a kind comment, strong academic work, increased effort, or even just showing up to school on a day they didn’t want to – these little recognitions add up to the message that you, yes you, have value here.

 

What are your go-to phrases, or best alternatives to “traditional teacher talk” that you use to help your students learn and grow, and to build positive relationship?

3 Reasons to Check Out EdCamp Centerpoint

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  1. Make a connection. Instead of “sit and get” professional development, EdCamp requires that you move around, actively participate, and talk to new people. I went to a tech conference in the area last spring and went almost the entire day without having more than a small-talk conversation with anyone – and I’m a pretty social person. It’s pretty impossible to get away with that at an EdCamp – I promise. We’re expecting participants with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, so take advantage of the cross-pollination and make a connection with someone new.
  2. Centerpoint isn’t like any other school you’ve seen before. Take a tour through our building, where rooms have names instead of numbers, students cook lunch for the school every day, and staff are encouraged to turn student-centered ideas into action (for example: this week we’re launching a therapeutic in-car driver’s ed program – I think it’s the first program of its kind). We do everything we do for the benefit of our students, and you can see that when you walk in the door. Come be part of our community for a day.
  3. Nurture yourself. Why come to an EdCamp during a school vacation? I think you’ll find it to be a way to “fill your tank,” rather than increase your burnout. We’ll have a ton of food and coffee to get your brain ready for learning (thanks to Physician’s Computer Company, Cabot Cheese, City Market, Healthy Living, and more of our amazing sponsors). The content of EdCamp is whatever participants bring to the table – so talk about the issues about which you are passionate, with other passionate education stakeholders from across Vermont. Put some energy and enthusiasm in your bank, and start fresh after the break with new ideas about how to support learning for all learners.

 

I really hope you’ll consider joining us at EdCamp Centerpoint on April 23. Preregister so we can be ready to host you, and tell your friends, too! Click: https://www.smore.com/7kru-edcamp-centerpoint