Ask any teacher how they feel about the last week or two of school before the holidays. Chances are the teacher will either give you a weary look or burst into hysterical laughter (tears may not be far behind.) There really are no words to describe the mayhem, the untamed energy. My childhood memories of the last few days of school before the holiday break may be vague, but the feeling that has stayed with me is that the rules seemed to fly out the window. There was this collective, unwritten agreement among the students that during the time leading up to the holidays, following the rules and listening to the teachers, would be optional. I did not understand it back then and I understand it even less now…but for one exception.
Perhaps the biggest myth of the Christmas holidays is that we buy into the idea that all children are looking forward to being home for two weeks. If we believe this to be true for all of our students, than we are doing them a huge disservice. I’ll never forget the first time a child had the courage to whisper to me that she in fact was not excited for the last day of school. She confided in me that her parents had been arguing a lot lately and she much preferred being at school with her friends. I had noticed she had been quieter and more withdrawn as of late, but I had attributed it to fatigue and figured that the break would give her a chance to rest. That little girl turned a light on for me. How had it never occurred to me that kids could have mixed feelings about the holidays? No longer would I assume that all of my students were anxiously awaiting the holiday break. Just because a handful of them talk incessantly about how excited they are does not mean they speak for everyone. We have a habit of projecting our own reality onto others. It’s part of the human condition perhaps. Since that day however, I have strived to view my students’ behaviors in a new light.
The greater the joy for one, the deeper the sadness for another. The law of opposites becomes abundantly clear during the holidays. One child may gleefully share with the class that his family has a tradition of eating pancakes on Christmas morning; meanwhile another child is listening enviously to the story, wondering what will happen to the traditions that once were, now that her parents have separated. This is a very real reality that teachers are dealing with in the classroom. Sadly, it seem these days that many families are either unhappy or falling apart. Worse, it becomes that much more apparent during what we would hope to be a joyous and peaceful time of year. I wish I could offer a solution for this bigger problem. If only it were that easy. Instead, I will offer some insights on how teachers can alleviate the stress that many of their students are feeling and make the last week or two more enjoyable for everyone.
I have come to discover that even the kids who claim that school is boring, or who seem disinterested or disengaged, do not necessarily look forward to the break. It would be logical to assume that the child who is often a behavioral challenge in class would be happier to stay home…yet often the opposite is true. All behaviors are symptoms. They are often the substitution for the words by which children express their needs. It is us humans who categorize behaviors as good or bad. If we were to perceive behaviors as “speech in action”, we may react differently. For instance, let’s consider the student who is fooling around during the music rehearsal for the Christmas concert. It may be tempting to assume he is being disrespectful on purpose and we could threaten to keep him in for recess to coerce him into behaving, but we would miss out on figuring out the real reason for his lack of engagement. Modeling the spirit of Christmas, here is how you may want to intervene.
Using a gentle, compassionate voice, call his attention to his behavior. “Thomas, are you really being your best right now?” This is much more effective than telling him what he’s doing wrong. It invites him to see himself through his own eyes and empowers him to take responsibility for it.
He may choose the route of defiance at first. Shrugging his shoulders and diverting his gaze, he may respond, “Whatever…this is boring.”
As teachers, we may be tempted to convince him otherwise. I suggest taking a different route. “I had a feeling you found this boring. So singing is not your thing? You don’t like to perform?” Acknowledging his feelings disarms him and shows him you respect his opinion. It is not reasonable, nor is it fair, to expect all students to enjoy every activity we prepare for them.
Sheepishly, Thomas replies, “Not really.” Already, a shift in Thomas’ energy is discernible. Someone has validated his feelings. Think about it. How much do you appreciate being told how you should feel about something? Yet, that is exactly what we do to students when we demand they show enthusiasm for something that does not interest them.
So where do we go from here? How do we motivate Thomas to stop being disruptive? Using empathy, we guide him to switch his perspective. By appealing to Thomas’ intelligence and good heart, we get him on board with us. (Remember, we are using kindness as a discipline tool, therefore we resist the urge to lecture.)
“I think you’re a great kid, Thomas. I also happen to know you’re a great soccer player…I’ve seen you playing in the school yard at recess. Imagine how it would feel if every time you went to play soccer, there were a couple of players who kept ruining the game by grabbing the ball off the ground and running away with it. How much fun would that be?”
“I’d get really upset, that’s for sure!”
“Well, can you see that that’s what you’re doing to the singers in this room? Many of these kids really enjoy singing and they are looking forward to performing for their parents next week.”
And suddenly, because you have chosen to engage in a real conversation with Thomas, you get to the heart of the matter. “My parents probably won’t even be there,” he confides in you.
“You seem disappointed by that,” you reply empathetically. “Can you think of someone you care about who will be in the audience?”
“Trevor’s dad is going to be there. I play at his house a lot.”
“Would you like him to see what a great performance you’re capable of? I am positive that if you take just some of the focus you use in soccer and apply it to being your best for the concert rehearsal and performance, not only will you do great, but you will feel really good about yourself. You’re an awesome kid, Thomas. I believe you can do it.”
There are so many possibilities for peaceful, proactive and positive outcomes once you start to think about it. Finding a parallel example in the child’s life makes it concrete for him. All humans are naturally capable of empathizing, we just sometimes need a realistic comparison to make it tangible. Will you need to invest more time and energy in that moment than you usually would? Absolutely. But those extra fifteen minutes are an investment in that relationship from which you will reap the benefits ten-fold in the months to follow. The next time that child challenges you, you have a reference point in the history of your relationship as proof that you truly care. That bond and trust that you have created will serve you and that child in unimaginable ways. By attending to that one child’s need, the entire group receives a message as well that you care about them. You won’t allow one child to disrupt the peace of the group nor will you simply abandon a child when he goes astray. You build trust. And trust, is everything. What better gift could you offer your students?