The First Step to Reduce Challenging Behaviors

“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Epictetus, First Century Greek Philosopher

Causes and Contributions

Student behavior is not my fault, but it is my responsibility.

Challenging behavior stems from a multitude of causes within and around a student’s life. While I, as the teacher, do not cause their actions, I can contribute to the situation for better or worse. Like a stack of dominoes, my response in the moments after a student’s challenging behavior can determine the course of the interaction. Thus, the first step to reduce challenging behavior has nothing to do with the student.

It starts with me.

As the adult in my classroom, I have a responsibility to examine myself when I interact with children. I have the maturity (hopefully!), the experience, and the perspective that little people do not yet have.

Clare Cherry, a remarkable educator, author, and innovator wrote,

“You have the responsibility to model appropriate listening behavior so that the children can learn from you.”

Cherry (1981), p. 22

The quickest way to escalate misbehavior is to react without thinking. On the other hand, the best way to begin the deescalation process is to take time to stop and assess.

Look Inward

Everyone, students and staff alike, arrives at school with baggage. We have lives outside of school, and as humans we cannot help but bring experiences from outside of school into the classroom. Conflicts with loved ones, heartaches over missing relations, financial worries, medical troubles, on and on and on.

When we Look Inward, we unpack our own baggage to discover what we contribute to our classroom climate.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow, 1943

To look inward, my favorite technique I’ve learned is HALT. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Deficiencies in these four basic needs will make it difficult to respond to life appropriately. Case in point, think of a poor decision you made when you were “Hangry.”

The great psychologist Abraham Maslow identified five levels of needs common in all humans. Lower-level take precedence over higher-level needs. For example, it is difficult to feel accomplished when you are sleep-deprived. So, pause briefly, halt, and check your basic needs for food, water, rest, shelter, and safety, as well as your psychological needs for support and competence. Did you skip a meal or miss your morning coffee? Have you had enough sleep? Do you feel supported or alone? Do you feel competent or powerless? Is something in your life giving you fear, grief, or anger?

I had a HALT moment in my fourth grade concert rehearsal. Ten days from our show, solo lines were forgotten and singing was lack-luster. The students were Just. Not. Having. It. As the hour dragged on, I vaguely felt my stomach gnaw and my anxiety rise. Right at dismissal time, I let the students know just how disappointed I was. I would call it a calm lecture to motivate their practice efforts. They would call it yelling. After the room cleared out, as I sought the culprit behind my dismal drill, two realizations dawned on me. First, I had skipped breakfast. Second, my ‘lecture’ was not a result of my students’ poor practice but my own fear of presenting a less-than-perfect performance. Years of memories came flooding back – failed shows, bad rehearsals, poor reviews, and dissatisfied administrators. What if this concert shone the spotlight on all of my faults as a music teacher?

My personal baggage, coupled with my failure to pause and self-assess, had set the climate and the rhythm of the room.

Change your Energy

Image by skeeze on Pixabay

Some people exude calm and reassurance wherever they go. In contrast, other people leave a trail of nervous energy with their own hyperactivity. You might have found yourself speaking more quiet with the shy kid in your class. Or perhaps, more likely, you have found yourself getting more and more agitated with the student with ADHD as you tell him for the hundredth time to stop bouncing, and get his pencil, and be quiet, and please sit down and focus on math!

The unconscious tendency to sync with the rhythmic frequencies of others is called entrainment.

Entrainment is a fascinating phenomenon in which an organism synchronizes with the rhythm of a more dominant organism. In other words, living things, humans included, will sync their body rhythms with the stronger rhythms of another living being in order to maintain universal order and connection. This can refer to circadian cycles of sleep and rest, eating and mating patterns, or simply the rhythms of breath and heart rate.

Image by AdinaVoicu on Pixabay

What does this mean for your classroom? When your heart rate is racing and you emit high energy, your students will inevitably fall into sync with that high energy. Similarly, pausing for a deep breath and brief self-examination can send calming vibes throughout the room. Students will entrain to your dominant bodily rhythms – your heart rate, speech, and movements.

Unless, of course, you are not the dominant rhythm in the room.

I had a student who, at age 9, had already been recruited into gang life. As a consequence, he had a very strong and commanding presence. He was attractive, charismatic, and a natural leader. I struggled with him until I noticed that his energy dictated the energy of the entire room, including myself. There was a palpable, but unidentifiable, switch when he entered the room. The students, unconsciously, transferred their entrainment antennae from me to him. It was so quick and so subtle I could do nothing to prevent it. Instead, I worked with it. I worked hard on my relationship with him until he wanted to do what I wanted him to do. This technique was effective for 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time, when he just wanted to do his own thing, I focused all my own entrainment energy on the rest of the students. I clearly communicated my support and appreciation for resisting the energy pull of our gang leader.

After looking inward, turn your attention outward to the room. Scan the room for the dominant rhythm. It might be you, but it might not. What can you do with your own heart rate, breath, speech, and actions to entrain the students to your frequency?

No Silver Bullets

There are no silver bullets. There is no “one-and-done” solution. The process of checking yourself before you respond to a student will take time. It will not stop all challenging behavior, and you may not even see the benefits right away. But, with time and patience, the self-assess process will become automatic. You will create an environment in which challenging behavior is met with appropriate responses for deescalation and a quick return to learning. Students will keep their dignity and respect; you will keep your sanity and classroom culture. Now that I follow this process automatically, and have built a classroom culture on calm appropriate responses to behavior, the rest of my students barely blink an eye when someone acts up. With the rest of my students in that mindset, I have the space and opportunity to assess and respond to the student needing help. Students know problems will be handled, their needs will be met, and we’ll get back to the fun of learning music.

Just as light dispels darkness and love dispels hate, calm cures chaos and acceptance releases the need for control.

References and Further Reading

Cherry, C. (1981). Think of Something Quiet. David S. Lake Publishers. Belmont: CA.

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