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99 APRIL 2007
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Improving relationships

Mary Beth Hewitt

Volatile crisis situations – when managed correctly – can improve relationships between adults and youth. This article describes instances of serious rule violations that were used as opportunities for teaching prosocial skills to youth.

A number of years ago, my mother sent me a series of articles published in a Florida newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, entitled “To Sir – With Blood." The subtitle read, “Are Our Teachers Taking a Beating? Three Who Were Assaulted by Students Share Their Pain" (Hayes, 1993). As I was reading the articles, it occurred to me that in every situation the staff members initially approached the students in an authoritarian manner. Even though the students' behavior escalated when approached in this manner, the staff members continued along their course. Eventually, each situation escalated to the point where the student became physically violent.

I am not suggesting that the students had a right to become physically violent. However, I believe that the violence might not have occurred if the adults had approached the situation differently. None of these students simply walked up to a teacher and started pounding on him or her: The attacks all happened after the staff members and the students had been interacting for some time.

When I think of the source of the reporter’s play on words for the title, I find it ironic. The reason why “Sir" was so effective with his students was that even though he held high standards for his students, he treated them with respect – even when they were behaving inappropriately He modeled the idea that you earn respect by being respectful at all times. All the staff members in the Post article unwittingly contributed to the situation, and they never questioned their own behaviors, believing that the violence was entirely the students' fault. From the title, it appeared that the Post reporters and editors also did not see the role that the staff members played, even though one teacher freely admitted to swearing at the student with whom she was dealing. Her justification was, “The only way the girl would understand was if she was spoken to at her own level."

Three Possible Outcomes
Dr Nicholas Long (1997) stated that there are three possible outcomes of interactions between adults and youth engaged in misbehavior: The relationship can be unchanged, damaged, or improved. Many times during my workshops, participants have lamented that they don’t have the time to be nice to a student who is acting out. My response is that they don’t have the time not to.

Most of us have been taught that when we are faced with misbehavior from a student, we should take a hard, no-nonsense, “nip-it-in-the-bud" stance. This may work with students who are “acting up," by which I mean that the student is in a rational state of mind and is either misbehaving impulsively or momentarily forgot the rules. A stern look, a warning, or a directive can often halt this type of behavior. Many times, because students who are acting up expect adults to come from an authoritarian standpoint, relationships go pretty much unchanged.

A vast majority of our students, even if they are a little emotional at the time they are confronted, have the ability to self-regulate their responses, even when they feel they are being misunderstood or treated unfairly. Although they may say things like, “I knew you wouldn’t understand! – you’re just like everyone else!" or mutter something under their breath, the inappropriate behavior stops. Again, relationships go unchanged because students expect that adults will not understand their point of view. Many school districts have an established list of “consequences" for specific infractions (Long, 1997). Little or no consideration is given, however, to the circumstances surrounding the situation or the student’s perception of the event. For many students, these rote punishments have little effect on changing behavior because they address only the symptoms, not the beliefs and feelings that underlie the behavior. The student does not feel that the staff members are not genuinely concerned about him or her, and the relationship is not changed. As a result, nothing changes, and the likelihood of future problems increases (Long, 1997).

In the previously mentioned articles, each teacher ordered the student to stop doing something. Instead of hailing the behavior, however, this response only escalated the behavior. This is a sure sign of “acting out” behavior rather than acting up behavior. Acting out behavior is driven by emotions. When students are in an emotional frame of mind, they are irrational. In these cases, stern looks, warnings, directives, and threats of consequences only serve to heighten the students' irrationality. Despite the fact that such a hard stance obviously only sewed to escalate the situation, the staff members repeated their commands. In all three instances, the staff members themselves became disrespectful and increasingly confrontational. The resulting physical violence most assuredly damaged the relationships from both the staff members' and students' points of view.

I don’t know why we have such a problem with being respectful to students who behave inappropriately. We tell our children that two wrongs do not make a right yet those adults who treat a misbehaving child with empathy are accused of being soft or permissive. It seems that kindness is automatically equated with condoning or even reinforcing inappropriate behavior. If, in being kind in times of crisis, we improve relationships with children, we increase the probability that they will be more willing to want to learn from us. They will also be more receptive to what we have to say when we address the inappropriateness of their original behavior at a later time. It takes no more time to say the things that will improve a relationship than it does to respond in ways that will damage a relationship.

Improving Relationships “Real-Life Experiences
The following are real-life experiences that workshop participants have shared with me. They involve some pretty serious rule violations: spitting, vandalism, inappropriate language, refusal to work, and public nuisance behavior My hope is that these stories will demonstrate how little time it actually does take to diffuse a potential crisis and the long-term benefits that result from improving relationships.

“This Project Sucks”
One of the things we discuss in my workshops is that children frequently do not say what they really mean. “This is dumb, stupid, and boring” translates to “I don’t understand” or “I don’t think I can do well with this assignment.” The following narrative relates how Kristen Ford at McKenney Middle School in Canton, New York, used this knowledge to diffuse one of her students and improve a relationship.

The incident that caused me to begin the first Life Space Crisis Intervention with this particular student was on the third day of school. It was third period in a full class of 28 students. The assigned activity was to draw one high-density object and one low-density object. Jason (a pseudonym) was sitting at a table off to the side of the classroom with three other students, all his friends.

The class had begun to do their drawings when I walked over to Jason's table to see how they were progressing. The three students sitting with Jason were doing a fine job with their drawings. Jason, however, was not. His drawing of low density represented a small, dense object. As I bent down next to Jason to offer help, he glared at me and said, “This project sucks and I’m not going to do it!” He then looked straight ahead and refused to make eye contact with me. Instead of replying to that statement with frustration, I chose to take sides with the student. I said, “I think that this is a difficult assignment. If I were a student, I would probably have a hard time thinking of something to draw, making sure it fell into the proper density category, and then drawing it. I am not an artist, and I hate having to draw pictures for class.” Jason's reply was, “Yup, I can’t draw either” The best part of his reply was that he turned to look at me when he spoke.

This relatively small incident took place within the first 15 minutes of class. Once I realized that his frustration was with his inability to draw, we began to talk about his day. I asked if he had had a rough morning. “Kind of,” he replied. I asked what started his day off wrong, and he began to talk about how he had not completed his English assignment. This bothered him because he had wanted to start the year off on the right foot. Now his English teacher “hated him.” We spoke about ways he could handle the English assignment problem – talking to his teacher, handing it in late, doing work on time next time, and so forth. This conversation progressed quickly, and I was able to give him better direction on the assignment he was working on for me. His face lit up when I gave him the go-ahead for the two objects that he thought of.

The most important outcome of this entire situation was the relationship that the student and I established. Jason felt as though he threw away his chance to have a good year when he missed his English assignment. Once he thought that opportunity was gone, he acted out in my class. I did not react as he had planned, and I think that he respects me for it. Although Jason's perfect year has not been as perfect as he had originally planned, he has been the picture of success in my classroom. He puts a good effort into all assignments, and they are in on time and complete. His behavior has been one of the best in the class. I am amazed at what happened.

Another thing I teach is that you have two choices when a child engages in a behavior that is blatantly inappropriate and seems to occur without reason. One is to become authoritarian; the other is to ask, “Whats wrong?” or say, “looks like you’re having a bad day.” This middle school teacher demonstrated that although she originally approached the situation in an authoritarian manner, she quickly recognized that it wasn’t working and switched to a kinder, more empathetic response.

It was the first week of school and I was working in my classroom. The building was relatively quiet because the students were just beginning to arrive. Suddenly, I heard someone spit in the hall. You know whoever it was had to be loud to hear something like that. I flew to my door and, with my hands on my hips and in my best “typical adult” voice, I shouted, “Who did that?”

There were two boys in the hallway, and one of them stepped forward and defiantly said, “I did.” I knew that I was going to get into the Conflict Cycle if I continued in the manner I had started, so I remembered what you said – sometimes kids do inappropriate things when they are upset. Instead of continuing to yell, I gently asked, “Is something wrong? Looks like you’re having a bad day.” The boy seemed to melt, and his eyes welled with tears. “Yes, my cat died this morning and I didn’t want to come to school.” Immediately, I went from being outraged to feeling sorry for him. I took a few minutes to talk about his pet. We talked about how he had had this pet for a long time and how difficult it is when you lose an animal – how hard it is to feel like doing anything when you are so upset. He shared that he was just so angry that he felt like hitting something. Finally he said, “I guess that’s why I spit. I’m sorry. He then asked if I had anything with which he could clean up the mess he had made and proceeded to do so.

What’s most remarkable is that this boy, who isn’t even one of my students, stops in every morning to see me. Whenever I see him in the hall, he makes a point of waving and saying hello. It amazes me that such a small incident could form such a strong bond.

The Mob
Another thing I emphasize is the importance of looking for the “silver lining” in students” behavior. There is an old saying that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Here is an account of how one high school English teacher found a creative way to connect with a group of students who congregated outside her door every day.

Everyday, several students stood right in front of my door between classes. They were like a mob. They never made an effort to move, even when it was obvious that I had my hands full of materials. They acted like it was a big inconvenience for them to move even a little to let me pass. Then they’d stand there talking even after the bell rang, and I had to tell them to get to class. Eventually they’d go, but not before they glared at me. After your workshop, I decided that what I was trying wasn’t working, so I decided that rather than trying harder to do what I had been doing, I’d try something different. I thought about what you had said about “looking for the silver lining.” It took me a while to think of what was good about it, but I started to chuckle as I finally came up with how these kids make great security guards. If I have difficulty getting into my room, then they also keep other people from getting into my room when I’m not there.

The next time I approached them, I put down my things and smiled at them. I said, “You know, you guys make great guards. I always feel so safe going into my room because I know that no one can get past you.” A couple of the kids stood straighter and puffed out their chests, and one of them asked, “You need a hand with those things?” He picked up my supplies and carried it into the room while another student held the door. Since that day, I have not had any problems. They greet me and help me with my things. You know, they are really nice kids once you get on their “good” side.

Seat Slasher
One of the techniques I talk about when a situation involves an object is to “fall in love with the object.” This strategy is typically used when a student is playing with an object instead of doing his or her work and you want him or her to put it away. One of the school bus drivers who had attended a workshop related how he employed this technique with a student who was vandalizing a bus seat. This is one of the most incredible applications of how this technique can work.

I was waiting for students on the basketball team to board the bus after an away game. One student came out ahead of the rest. He clumped up the bus steps, didn’t say a word, walked quickly to the middle of the bus, and plunked down hard in the seat. I opted to leave him alone, as it did not seem that he was in a good mood. A few minutes later, I heard loud scratching and ripping sounds coming from the student’s direction. Getting up to investigate, I observed the boy digging into the bus seat in front of him with a pen. He knew I was watching him, but he kept right on doing it.

Because he didn’t stop when I appeared, I was pretty sure that if I just yelled at him, it wouldn’t make any difference. I noticed that it was an unusual looking pen – the type with braided ribbons around it. I remember what you said about “falling in love with the object," so I thought I’d give that a try. “That’s a nice pen. Where did you get it?" The boy, just about to plunge the pen into the seat, stopped mid-air and looked at the pen. “I don’t know. I think my Mom got them at Ames." “You don’t want to break that one. Good pens are hard to find. You want to put it away so it doesn’t get broken, or do you want me to hang on to it for you?" The boy immediately handed the pen to me. I don’t know who was more surprised, the kid or me! I said to him, “It’s not like you to hurt property. Having a bad day?" “The worst!" the boy replied and put his head in his hands. “I made a basket for the other team and they won!"

Recognizing how embarrassing it must be for a teenager to have made such a mistake, I spent a few minutes talking to him about how he must be feeling. He was worried about what his teammates were going to say and how badly he felt. After a bit, I did broach the subject of the damage to the bus seat. To my surprise, he said that he knew he was in trouble and that he’d have to pay for it and would face a consequence. I wonder how many times I’ve yelled at a kid and made his day worse. It felt so good to be nice to the kid and make a bad day a little better.

What Outcome Do You Want?
It takes no more time to improve a relationship than it does to leave it unchanged or damaged. The long-term benefits of improving relationships, however, are priceless. I think these staff members' positive accounts prove that treating students with respect, kindness, and empathy not only improves the relationship from the child's perspective – it feels good to us!


Hayes, R. (1993, October17). To Sir – With blood: Are our teachers taking a beating? Three who were assaulted by students share their pain. The Palm Beach Post Sunday, p. lB.

Long, N. (1997). Managing troubled and troubling students in crisis; The skills of connecting and reclaiming troubled children and youth involved in self-defeating patterns of behavior. Hagerstown, MD: LSCI Institute.

This feature: Hewitt, Mary, Beth (2000) Improving Turbulent Relationships. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol.9 no.2 pp.99-102

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