*As featured in a past edition of one of our magazines*
New Descriptions, New Results
The way you talk about a child's problem can go a long way toward solving it.
Nine-year-old Peter Cavanaugh often cried in school. Concerned about him, his teacher requested a conference with his mother. The teacher explained that Peter was depressed, easily distracted, and sometimes defiant. She'd never seen crying spells like Peter's, and she gently suggested that Peter might be emotionally disturbed. Mrs. Cavanaugh took her son to a psychiatrist and started him on medication, but many of the problems persisted.
There was no doubt that both Peter's teacher and his mother were deeply concerned about him. While Peter's actions certainly were a problem, there's another factor to consider in this situation: the adults' perceptions of Peter. What if they'd done the following?
- Instead of categorizing Peter as depressed, what if they'd looked at him as a child who was sad sometimes?
- Instead of saying he was easily distracted, what if they'd said he needed structure?
- Instead of calling him defiant, what if they'd looked at him as a child who had his own opinions and who hadn't yet learned to handle change?
A new view
By thinking differently about Peter's problems, his teacher and his mother could have helped him go a long way toward solving them. This is called redescription. Redescription isn't the same as sugarcoating a problem. Consider the following:
- Changing the way you describe a child's behavior doesn't minimize or ignore the symptoms. Instead, it offers the possibility for you to see your students differently—relieving stressful, negative, and unproductive thoughts for both the students and yourself.
- The language used in redescription suggests that the problem behavior is a temporary situation that you and the child will solve together. The child doesn't get the mistaken impression that there's something seriously wrong with him or her.
- Redescription takes into account the amount of experience your students have in dealing with the world around them. As an adult, you've dealt with certain situations many times, and you know what to do about them. But a child has had only a fraction of that experience. Redescription provides kids with some leeway for the learning curve.
What to do
The guidelines that follow will give you some new and different ways to look at problems like Peter's as they come up in your classroom. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that problems aren't always as bad as they seem.
- Instead of noticing only problems, look for the "exceptions," or the times when the problem isn't occurring. Have you ever said, "That child is always hyperactive," or, "I have a student who's constantly angry"? While that may be how the situation appears to you at the time, logically you know that a child must be calm or happy at least some of the time. Ask yourself (or the student) questions like these:
- When does the child not feel as _____________ (angry, sad, energetic, depressed)?
- When was the child successful with a similar problem?
- Don't try to figure out why a problem is happening. Understanding the reason behind a problem will provide answers, but it won't provide solutions—and that's what you're really seeking. Plus, too much searching for why something happens can cause the child to feel that the problem is bigger than it really is.
- Allow children to figure out their own solutions to problems. Remember that children have much less life experience than adults do. They sometimes need help in figuring out the best way to deal with a situation. Try asking the child questions like these:
Encourage the child to come up with multiple strategies for working on the problem. Then remind the child to try at least one of those strategies every day.
- That sounds really difficult. How will you know when things are better for you?
- When was the last time you were able to get the situation to work out differently?
- If I followed you around with a video camera when you were on top of this problem, what would I see you doing when I played the tape back? How would that be different from when the problem was in charge of you?
- Remember that complex problems don't always call for complex solutions. The key is to figure out what's happening during the absence of the problem. You'll have to train yourself to notice when problems are absent instead of only noticing when problems are present. Then you can focus on the solution, which may turn out to be rather simple.
- Step into the child's world. Think back to your school days. How concerned were you about becoming a teacher, plumber, or doctor? Chances are that you were more concerned about whether you could go roller-skating on Friday night or why your best friend wasn't talking to you. Sometimes we forget what's really foremost in a child's mind. By stepping into the child's world, you can do a better job of getting in touch with the child's concerns and priorities.
Another thing to remember is that for children to communicate with you effectively, they need to feel at ease with themselves, be motivated, and be ready to take action toward better behavior. That doesn't mean you have to shower them with compliments to artificially pump up their self-esteem. But how many times have you seen a sad-faced child staring at his or her shoelaces when an adult is trying to "discuss" a problem with him or her? That child isn't in the frame of mind to work toward better behavior. Putting yourself in the child's shoes will remind you how to talk to children to help them solve their own problems.
- Focus on the possible and changeable—on specific behaviors, not emotions. Have you ever said something like this to a student? "Lindsey, you need to learn to be more responsible. You're failing three subjects!" Of course you're concerned about Lindsey's grades. But you haven't said what Lindsey needs to do, so she may not know how to improve. To change your statement from an imprecise, emotion-driven one to a specific, goal-oriented one, ask yourself the following question before talking with Lindsey: What will I see Lindsey doing specifically when things get better?
For Lindsey, you might know she's becoming responsible when she does her homework three times a week without reminders from you or her parents. Think about what will help her reach this goal. In the past, has she responded to rewards and consequences, such as being appointed to deliver messages to other classrooms or missing part of recess? If so, try using these again.
- Watch how changing the time and place can change the situation. How many times have you wished for an extra ten minutes to relax and clear your mind when you come home? Sometimes kids need this time too. When a child has a problem, ask yourself the following: Where can we go, what can we do, and when can we do this next time so there won't be a problem?
The answer could be as simple as taking the child out of the room, adding more structure to an activity, or switching the time of day for certain activities.
- Continue doing what works; stop doing what doesn't. We all get stuck in ruts and continue doing things that we know aren't effective. It's hard to step back and look at a situation, discover the approaches that have been effective, and focus on those. But that's exactly what you have to do to be proactive and make changes to help a child succeed.
Go for a spin
During the next week or so, choose one child in your class who's having a problem—it doesn't have to be as dramatic as Peter's crying or Lindsey's failing grades. Try redescribing the problem and following the strategies above. Share these strategies with parents too so they can try them at home. With any luck, Peter will soon be tear-free, Lindsey will have improved grades, and you'll be ready to focus on the next child in need of help.
©1998 The Education Center, Inc. ⋅ The Mailbox® Teacher