Let Kids Know You Are On Their Side

You know the sort of kid who's got the "My way or the highway" attitude?

Ever find yourself silently AGREEING with that kid?

As the adult/mediator in the room, you can't just let that kid wreck the self esteem of everyone he encounters, and walk all over everyone.  Yet time and time again, you see that actually, he was right.  He let the other kid know in an unacceptably cruel way, but he was right.  What do you do?

Well, when I realized this impulsive student is actually very bright, and often has a very good point about why he got so indignant in several social situations, I made time to talk with him.  He finished his test early (of course) so I pulled him to the back of the room, along with the kid he hit in line yesterday.  I listen to both of their side of the story without allowing interruption (from me or the other boy) as I always do, before asking questions, and finally I'm ready to pass my judgement.

"Like I said, Billy,* for now I'm going to have to insist that both of you stay sitting when I line everyone else up, and wait until the end when I can call you by name."

"But I didn't do anything!"

"As long as you THINK that, I can't allow you to line up normally, because it's not safe.  Once you realize you DID do something, and "hitting him accidentally" is never going to be acceptable, then I can let you line up with everyone else."

"But it was my place in line, behind bus 3 and in front of the kids who get picked up!"

And that's when I realized I needed to take a new approach.

This kid was right, knew he was right, and feels like the world is against him.  The only thing that was going to change his negative attitude was to feel like he had an ally.  Who's a more powerful ally than the teacher?  The only thing that was going to make sense for me to do here was to TAKE HIS SIDE.

"You're absolutely right."

I paused and let that sink in.

"You're right.  You're a smart kid, Billy.  And I bet you're right a lot, because you're so smart.  It must be very frustrating for you to be right, when other kids don't see it."

The look on his face was priceless.  It was like he felt I looked down into his soul and he finally felt understood.

"The thing is, how you ACT when you're right, and other people are wrong, that is what we have to work on.  So when you line up, I'm going to make sure you're letting the kids know what they should be doing in a polite way, and if they try to argue with you I'm going to be right there to tell them, 'Billy's right.'  Okay?"

All the fight just melted away.

When I have a challenge come up in class, my mantra is "I'm here for you."  When a kid is talking when I'm talking, interrupts, or breaks some other rule, although I have to discipline, I tell myself silently, "I'm here for YOU."  In the first few years of teaching, before I had a reputation that speaks for itself, I felt like every broken rule felt like an act of disrespect aimed at me, and it made me look bad.  But now, I know I don't have to take it personally.  And I've also realized that when it comes to school, these kids don't work for me.  I work for them.  I am literally paid to work for them.  That doesn't mean I let them walk all over me, because that's not what's best for them.  It doesn't mean that I let them be completely dependent on me to wait on them, because teaching them how to be independent is important for their development.  But I try to approach every problem that arises with the attitude of, "How can I fix this FOR YOU."  Not for me. 

I kept my promise when they lined up, making sure he spoke politely before stepping into his place in line, and we were a lot more orderly than we had been the last few days. 

*Names are changed to protect the guilty.

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  1. You are brilliant! This is exactly what EVERY.SINGLE.TEACHER. needs to read before they are allowed to sign a contract to teach at ANY school! I'm sharing this on my facebook page! Dr. Lynne Kenney and I just wrote a book, "Bloom: Helping Children Blossom" aimed at parents and educators. She and I have spent many hours discussing dynamics, behaviors and attitudes of ADULTS...and how those thngs are FELT by kids...and how we MUST clearly demonstrate to every child that we are squarely in his or her corner! I like your style!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

    1. That is so kind of you to say, thank you. :)

      I took a look and I think your Facebook page is a great resource for parents and those teachers who know that teaching isn't JUST about getting through academic curriculum; it's more about helping young people reach their potential.

  2. Anonymous11:01 PM EDT

    You are so right! I try to follow this philosophy all the time and I find it takes the "fight" out of kids more often than not. Thanks for sharing :)


    1. I'm going to miss this particular student who I wrote this post about. He's come a long way since I first "dealt with him" 2 years ago at recess. He hasn't always been easy this year, but I can honestly say he's been very manageable, made great contributions to the group, and just been one of those kids who make their teacher feel so proud and honored to share in their growth.

  3. Anonymous6:05 PM EDT

    I love this, but I think the line "How can I fix this FOR YOU" would put me in the wrong frame of mind. I think "how can I help you to fix this?" would work better for me.

    1. Fair point!

      You're absolutely right, depending on the age of the kids and the size of their problem, often the solution is to teach them how to problem solve and help them fix problems instead of solving problems for them.

      As I said, the way to help students is not to wait on them or let them walk all over me. I suppose when I wrote "how can I fix this for you" I was thinking that encompassed the fact that sometimes they need an adult to help them and other times they need to be taught a skill in order to become more independent. Either way it is my role to do something for their benefit, not my own. Sounds obvious I guess, but teachers are human too, and I get frustrated with the best of them. So that little mantra helps me remember in times of frustration and uncertainty, "It's not about me, it's about them."

  4. Thank you, I could not have worded this better at all. I am a veteran teacher and sometimes feel like aides and itinerant staff have their own agenda. I will be sharing this with my team.

    1. Thank you for your kind words!

      I think it's hard; sometimes teachers are so focused on keeping the peace that we forget that simply condemning the bad behavior is not the end of the interaction. Reteaching the correct behavior and encouragement that you believe in the child and you're rooting for them to do better next time are also important.

      It's not easy though; it takes more time and skill to do these two things than the first.

  5. This is brilliant. I will pin pin pin!
    Counselors often send their tricky kids to me--usually tough boys. My magic formula has been to come up with an insightful and funny comment at the point of confrontation. Throwing a frustrated student for a loop changes the attention of their focus and makes them realize they are seen as a person-- not a job. You are SO right. Really do love this! It's all about feeling respected-- on both sides.

    1. Thanks Lessia!

      Humor is always a great tension reducer. :) Just yesterday I diffused a situation in which I just knew my Aspie student was about to get defensive:

      They were chatting in the morning and a child said about something or other, "It was just sarcasm." My Aspie student asked, "What's sarcasm?" Another child said with a bit of an edge, "You don't know what sarcasm is!?" So just as the distress was starting to register on his face I said, "Maybe he DOES know what sarcasm is and he was just asking sarcastically." Suddenly there were grins all around (including his). :)

  6. Anonymous7:50 PM EST

    I love that this focuses on respect for students which in return comes back to teachers. By addressing and hearing students, it can make such a difference not only to their day but to our teaching day.

  7. Anonymous12:23 AM EDT

    I would like to ask why is the picture of a difficult child always a child of color? Whenever I search for this, it's the same story. There are many other races of children who have issues. IJS

    1. Anonymous4:18 PM EDT

      I agree. Great ideas, however as educators we must be careful when making posts and stay as neutral as possible. Students from various backgrounds pose challenges.

    2. I've thought for a long time about how to reply to this comment because I have always tried to be culturally sensitive. I went back and forth; do I change the picture? Do I apologize for not considering that my picture adds to negative stereotypes? For now, my reply is this. I used this picture because it was free clip art that looked the most like the student who I wrote the post about. It's a true story. I learned from the experience, and when I think back on this milestone, I just like to have the picture in my mind of the kid I was teaching, and express it in its truest form on my blog. And I think I'd rather have my reason here than to change the picture and pretend this discussion never happened, because this discussion is also important.

      So I thank you for asking the question. It really did make me think about my biases and reasoning. When I make products I try to represent a variety of cultures in a variety of contexts. But it was a good reminder for me not to assume I'm doing a perfect job 100% of the time. It's something that all white educators need to be cognizant of and working to improve throughout our careers.


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