Star Jar, Peer-driven Reward System by Patey Yeh

Guest writer, Patey Yeh, has not only discovered a brilliant way to address the flaw in typical reward systems, she also has the generosity of spirit to share it with us! No matter how satisfied you are with the system you may already be using, I urge you to give this a read. It completely embodies the philosophy of teaching kindness first. All the best to everyone for a beautiful start to the new school year!


Ever since I was a little girl, I made these little origami stars. Several years ago, I can’t remember why, but I made one while in school, and one of my students at the time saw, and begged me for one. I let her have one and of course, as teachers, we all know that when we give one student something neat, 7 other students come within the hour, asking for the same thing. At that point, I decided to just encourage the class to behave, and if they did, I would give them each one. It was simple because it takes me about 20 seconds to make a star, and I used recycled paper so it never cost anything. It was perfect. The kids were on board for the reward system; they asked for it! Everyone brought a jar from home and each student made their own label, decorated it and put their name and “Star Jar” on it. It was lovely seeing the array of different jars lined up with their individual labels. Every day at the end of the day, we would take 15 minutes and hand out stars. I’d write their names on the stars and they’d put them in the jars daily.  They never got to take home their stars until the last day of school. It was special and fun for them, and I did this for several years…

The last year I did this reward system, I had a very strong willed student. Very type A, very controlling and very over-achieving. Quite manipulative of her peers, and after one incident where I threatened to have her lose her star for her behaviour, she had a massive melt-down. It shocked me. I think her need to control, or the fact that she wasn’t going to have what she believed was perfection was unacceptable for her. I went home reflecting upon what this reward system really represented. It was very clear to me that the message being sent with this reward system held the same faults that any other bribery based system held. It fundamentally does not work for more than a quick rectification of behaviour. It is not sustainable, nor is it truly what I want my students to learn from me, and the world. Yes, of course the world is run on fundamentals of bribery, but the most authentic motivators aren’t. What messages do I want to send in how I behave towards my students?

I took the summer to think about it. All I knew is that I needed to think of another way to do it. I was Ms. Yeh, and I was known for my stars. My students would tell their younger siblings about it. I didn’t want to get rid of my stars, but I needed something new. I think I dreamed this up this idea overnight (or in one of those thought driven nights where you work out issues you have been thinking of for a long time), and these were the basic guidelines:

-Students do not receive stars from the teacher.

-Stars can only be obtained from a peer who recognizes an exceptional behaviour in another.

That was basically it!

The 15 minutes before dismissal at the end of the day was a time for my 2nd graders to sit in a circle and reflect positively on the day. It was interesting at the beginning. Nominations came slow, and the kids weren’t used to noticing the positive behaviours of others. The negative they were programmed to point out…

Examples of nominations sounded like this:

“I nominate X, because he helped me up when I fell on the playground”

“I want to nominate X because she brought my lunch box back to class for me when I forgot”.

The deeper ones sounded like this:

“I know X has been working on X, and I saw that they did it during recess or class today!”

I would write their name on one side and try to squish in what they did on the other side of the star. Once in the jar, they could look back and think, OH, I got this one because of X… ☺

I have to say that doing this at the first day of school is FABULOUS, because you really set the tone about what kind of teacher you are. You recognize that the negative exists, but you send the message that the positive it what I’m looking out for. I’m dealing with the negative, but how do we change it to be positive? How do we show gratitude at the end of the day? The kids caught on very quickly as the days passed.

What you can suspect happened. There were the usual suspects of SUPER kind or popular kids who got nominated often, for simple things…”He picked up my ruler when it fell” etc. What soon happened was a clear disparity between those who had more stars that others. What I observed within the first week was that all students tried their best to behave in a kind way towards their peers. It was really lovely to watch and it was ultra positive in the class, right from the beginning. The kids left the class GRATEFUL. It’s a good feeling to leave school with.

My favorite thing came up several weeks later, with a student who was struggling with maturity. He didn’t bother to learn names of peers, didn’t work well with others. Very self-focused. He didn’t have any siblings and that unfortunately never gave him to a lot of opportunity or need to share. The students in the class did not really like him, and he was the one that I got complains about and who had conflicts with many others in the class. Of course, he came to me in tears.

I took the opportunity to have a class discussion. It was great. He wasn’t the only one that was being nominated less. I drew attention, NOT towards those not nominating (no blame here), but everyone towards themselves and WHAT they could each do to help those who were struggling. How do we rectify this injustice? I told them that we were like a family. Sometimes we don’t always like each other, but we are together and we want to make it work. NOTE, this links directly to my policy on tattling: It does not exist in my class. If, for example, my brother happened to get himself into trouble, the first thing I would do would NOT be to run to my parents or to the police to get him arrested. If I care about him, which I do, I would do everything I could to help him directly. THIS is what I remind my students of in the class. We ARE a community. We might not like everyone, but we do what we can to build each other up.

SO we discussed with this little boy, his behaviour. We gently discussed with him what we saw, but also what we would like to see. I helped the class encourage just ONE change in him every week (eg: sharing the soccer ball this week). I also strongly encouraged the class to open their eyes to the possibility that he could do something good, because we could all see he wanted to. EVERY SINGLE student had a job to look out for. It was the responsibility of our community to help him.

The weeks following was a beautiful blossoming to mutual nominations and happy children who reflected on how their behaviour affected others. I loved when this little boy, grateful for his first nomination, nominated his nominator right back the second he got it. I let him give it, even though it doesn’t usually qualify for a star. He was just so happy, I couldn’t deny him his gratitude. Every week, we made a new social goal for this boy, until he didn’t need us to anymore. He blossomed and made friends. I have to say it was my best teaching year…classroom management was a pleasure, and it was so positive in the class.

As the year progressed, I encouraged nominations at deeper levels. “She picked up my ruler for me” didn’t cut it anymore. I was looking for deeper stuff. I was looking for individual growth. I saw a lot of competition and I hated seeing a student compare reading levels, for example, when I had a class full of ELL students. One thing might be huge growth for one student, but easy for another. They could handle more, and most importantly, kids can UNDERSTAND more. I explained to them the injustice of comparing grades or levels. They understood because it involved their daily lives. They took it on. I am still so proud of them.

Only other guidelines I’d say I used were:

I didn’t want to see the same people nominating their best friends. It had to be real. I would take the liberty of veto-ing nominations that were meaningless.

Special nominations were given by me, ONLY if I saw some special things that the students did, that no one else noticed. Stuff I felt important to acknowledge. It didn’t happen often, but at times I really wanted the class to recognize with me. I sometimes would encourage a student to nominate for me, but sometimes you just need to give one particular kid something special.

The only other rule I had was that a student could only be nominated once for something they did.

I definitely saw shifts in behaviour, in self-reflection and in an understanding that the classroom is a community, much like a family. We are in this together and we look out for one another. With that said, I encourage you all to use whatever you feel you want to, and tweak it in a way that will best suit you and your class.


It fills my heart with joy to have seen how many teachers have been interested in this. I’ve never felt so popular! I believe it’s time for something different than the same old reward systems, and I’m so glad that some of you might think about doing this for this new coming year. I hope the consequences of this positivity reverberates exponentially beyond me taking this time to write these words. This is truly what I love most about teaching.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, and enjoy it! If you do use this method, please send me feedback! I’d love to hear from you! I send you all my love and positive wishes.

Much gratitude for the opportunity, and feel free to share this with others!


I’m stupid.

If you’ve ever heard a child call himself “stupid” or you’ve witnessed a child burst into tears because the work is too hard, then you have caught a glimpse of the illness that exists in our society and school system. How is it possible for a child of only eight or nine years of age to have such a negative view of himself? Why, instead of approaching a  new challenge with confidence would a child feel anxiety? What are we doing wrong?


Some children are naturally more confident or more anxious than others, that’s true. But I firmly believe that when parents and teachers empathize with the child, by trying to understand where the frustration or lack of confidence is coming from, we can build that child up and significantly reduce anxiety levels.

Teachers, the time has come for us to readjust our expectations, not only of ourselves, but of our students and their parents. We need to step back and reevaluate our beliefs and practices. No matter what we dream or imagine for a child, it is not for us to impose our beliefs on them. While parents and teachers ought to expose children to the endless possibilities this amazing world has to offer, children must feel free to dream their own dreams and explore their curiosities.

The standards I set in my classroom are high. Yet, no two students share the exact same set of expectations. Not exactly anyways. Every single one of them is expected to give her best. This best will vary from one day to the next. It will vary from one subject area to another. It will even vary throughout the day depending on fatigue, hunger, motivation, engagement, distraction…

Let go of control.  Give children the chance to lead the way in their understanding as much as possible. The act of accepting what is is liberating.

For example, if a student tells me, “I hate writing!”

My response is simply, “That’s okay, you’re allowed to not enjoy writing.”

While I do ask them to rid their vocabulary of the word hate in relation to writing (or anything else for that matter), I do not require them to see themselves as writers.

“You do not see yourself as a writer?”, I say, “That’s okay. Tell me, how do you see yourself? What do you love to do? Do you have dream for your future?”, I implore.

I have yet to meet a student who tells me of a dream for which I cannot find at least one example of how knowing how to write won’t help him to live his dream to the fullest. I find a way to give them a purpose for knowing how to communicate effectively in the written form. I do not insist that they become writers.

The school system is designed to make kids think they have to excel in math, and reading, and writing, and science…This structure does not take into account multiple intelligences. This system does not encourage children to celebrate their uniqueness. We talk about these things, but at the end of the day, we all have to write the same test if we plan to get ahead and be the top of our class…What does it matter to me if the renovators who just updated my kitchen enjoy reading science-fiction or writing poetry? I sure hope they know how to read a ruler and use a drill though!  When will we all realize that mastering the basics is essential and the rest can be guided through curiosity, passion, interest and ability? Shouldn’t each child be treated and taught as the unique human being that she is?

The most amazing things happen when we let go of telling children to “try harder” and instead tell them, “It’s okay if you don’t get it right now. It’s also okay if you don’t enjoy this. You don’t need to. Together we’ll try to find ways to help you succeed enough that we both know you will have the skills necessary to achieve your dreams. That’s the big picture. That’s what matters most.”
What I’ve discovered is that when we talk to kids about their dreams, they light up. When we take the pressure off of them to perform to our expectations, they start setting their own goals, in relationship to their own dreams. (This of course, secretly, is our expectation, but they don’t need to know that!) When children know that we only wish to see progress, not perfection, they proudly tell us about their achievements and often, if not always, excel beyond our greatest expectations.

Photo credit goes to Anthony J. D’Angelo at

Original photo credit: Katie Phillips

The Return.

The Christmas Break has drawn to an end and it’s back to the juggling act of the school and work routine. Teachers, parents and children alike may be less than enthusiastic about getting the “machine” running again. In light of this reality, might I suggest the most basic of resolutions for the New Year?


What if we were to focus on being grateful? Our beliefs shape our reality and likewise, what we choose to put our attention upon feeds our spirit, for better or for worse.  By focusing on being grateful,  your return to the work and school routine will surely get off to a smooth start. This includes the self-talk that goes through our mind as we assess our situation. It takes a mere couple of seconds to send a kind message to our ourselves but the impact of these messages can have a lasting positive effect on our day, and by default, our positive sense of well-being can uplift those around us. Sounds good in theory right, but what would that look like?


  • When you’re bemoaning the fact that it’s back to packing lunches for yourself (and the kids), be grateful that you have food with which to fuel your body and feed your family.


  • When you force yourself (and the kids) to go to bed earlier, be grateful for the extra time you have had together as a family, for having a bed in which to lie down and a pillow to rest your head upon.


  • When the alarm goes off in the morning, be grateful for having a warm home in which to awake.


  • Whatever lovely winter weather greets you as you step outside, be grateful that you have clothes to protect you from the seasonal elements.


  • When you are sitting in traffic just trying to get yourself to work, be grateful that you have a form of transportation that allows you to arrive safely to your destination. If that’s not enough, place your attention on something that brings you joy. For instance, the longer you’re stuck in traffic, the more Adele and Ed Sheeran songs you get to sing (now you know what I’m doing as I line up to cross the Mercier Bridge.)


This next part is specifically for teachers:


  • When you greet your students, keep in mind that they may not have had two full weeks of rest. Not everyone necessarily had “Happy Holidays”. There may have been lots of running around visiting relatives and friends, and may have been more stressful than joyful. Think about the family drama that you witnessed during the holidays and consider the fact that your students may have lived through the same kind of events, if not worse. Take time to be grateful for one another and be sure to celebrate your reunion as a group.


Back to parents:


  • When your kids come home tired, remember that they need to have a safe place to release their fatigue. Be grateful for being together again and for having a home in which to rest and be ourselves. Moreover, be grateful for the opportunity to set up the conditions within which you can allow your children and yourself time and space to let off some steam. That might look like alone time in their bedrooms, or a nice, big hug to release endorphins in the body, bringing about a sense of calm.


  • When you’re rushing to get dinner on the table, be grateful for the meal you are about to share with each other.


  • When it’s time to take showers and brush your teeth and get into pajamas, be grateful for…yup…you guessed it…hot water, personal hygiene products, warm clothing, etc.


Have you got the hang of this yet? The moment you find yourself ready to complain or feel sorry for yourself, find something for which you are grateful. There are billions of people in this world who have less than you. The situation we are all well aware of with the Syrian Refugees ought to be enough to sober us up and allow us to find dozens, if not hundreds, of things for which we can be grateful in our daily lives. Happy New Year, Happy Thoughts.


If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished? – Rumi

Photo credit goes to BK from Flickr

Original Photo Credit goes to


Dear Teachers: First Day Impressions Matter

There is something magical and exciting about starting fresh each fall with a new group of students. The first day of class is always exciting and nerve-wracking. I have yet to sleep soundly the night before I meet my new students. First impressions matter. I am not talking about the impressions that they will make on me. I am an adult, so I know better than to take any of their potentially challenging behaviors to heart. I realize that by the time they arrive in my care, they already have dozens of preconceived ideas, feelings, emotions and behaviors in relation to school. For all the anxiety I feel, I can only imagine what some of them are going through.

For all of these reasons and more, I greet my students with an open-hearted smile and make eye contact with each and every one of them as they choose a seat. Once they are seated and I have their attention, I begin my introductory speech, “Welcome to grade three! I can only imagine how each of you is feeling. Many of you are excited; others are nervous. Some of you love school and are thrilled to be back, others may not be very happy about being here. I can understand that. My ultimate mission is to make each and every one of you feel excited about school. Absolutely everybody has a special gift or talent to share with the world.

“Now, there may be someone here thinking, ‘She doesn’t mean me, though.’ Yes, I do! Everyone, especially you! You may not have discovered your gift yet, but I promise you, you have one, if not several. This year, each day will be filled with new opportunities to discover our strengths and our talents. School is not always easy, but the challenges can be fun if we choose to look at them that way. You must always feel safe to ask your questions. You are in a space that tolerates nothing less than 100% respect, kindness, and open-mindedness. It is by being a risk-taker that each of you will grow in your learning.

“I’m sure you know of teachers who believe in being very serious with their students. They don’t smile or tell jokes for at least the first month or two of the school year. I suppose they believe this is the best way to show the students who is in charge. Maybe that works for them but I do not see things that way. To me, every day is a gift for which we ought to be grateful. We will be spending five days a week together, morning until afternoon. As far as I’m concerned that makes us a family, and when I’m with my family, I like to feel happy, joyful and relaxed. I will greet you every day with a smile. I will exercise patience and I will use humor to help guide you in your learning. I wish I could say I never lose my patience. I wish I could say I never raise my voice. The fact is, I’m human and I have emotions, too, just like you. No matter what though, I promise you to always be my best, even if my best is not always the same from one day to the next, and I ask the same of you. When I make a mistake, I will apologize for it. Pobody’s nerfect, right? (pause) Get it? PO-body’s NER-fect?”

I always give them a moment for the play on words to sink in. Eventually, as comprehension dawns on a handful of children, they spontaneously volunteer their understanding to the rest of the group. “Ooooooh, Nobody’s perfect! Hahaha!” I love this moment so much. The joke may not be that funny, but the intention is understood. As laughter and smiles spread throughout the room, the positive energy that is connecting us to one another is palpable. This talk sets a precedence and a standard for the year. My message is clear: I care about being a caring teacher, and I care about them feeling comfortable in this space. Moreover, they see that laughter is not only welcome in our class, it’s a must.

To wrap everything up before moving on to our next activity, I tell them, “I am so looking forward to getting to know each and every one of you. I sincerely believe that each of you has been brought into my life for a reason. In fact, we are all in each other’s lives for a reason. We will all have things to learn from one another this year, of that I am certain. I see it as a privilege to be given the chance to be your teacher and I promise I will teach you to the best of my ability. All I ask in return is that you promise to be your best as learners, which means showing up to class with an open mind. I am really excited about this year!”

In case you haven’t noticed, I am really proud of this speech and I think I have good reason to be. For one, it has taken me years to refine the balance between being caring and having a loving approach, and being firm and setting high expectations for both myself and the students. I am 100% convinced that this is the healthiest route to take with children. We should not be waiting for children to show us respect before they gain it from us. We ought to offer and demonstrate respect to them so that they have a proper example of what it looks like. We need to stop assuming that children should know better. Maybe they don’t. Certainly, we are all able to conjure up images of adults being rude and even mean to children. If the majority of the adults in a child’s life have been better at preaching than teaching (i.e. do as I say, not as I do), then be grateful that you have the opportunity to be the best role model yet for this child. What an amazing privilege. Consider the place you will hold in that child’s heart knowing that you may have been the first adult to truly connect with him in a kind, loving, and respectful way.

One of the most effective ways to nip problems in the bud is to not really expect any in the first place. Instead, we must focus our energy on letting the children know what kind of behavior is expected. The beauty lies in the fact that whatever we expect of them is exactly what they can expect of us. As we set limits for ourselves, we simultaneously set them for all the other people involved in this ten month journey.

I will leave you with this parting thought:

The more we resist the child who stands before us, the more likely we will struggle indefinitely with her, whereas the better we become at accepting a child as he is, the more likely we will be able to effect positive change in his life.

School’s Almost Out!

One of my recent posts  had to do with questioning the assumptions that give us a dramatic emotional response. So it seems appropriate that we talk about the end of the school year.

It’s a time of year when although we feel like we should get to chill and slow things down, the pace actually picks up as we race against the clock. Simultaneously, challenging behaviors tend to worsen.

A few years ago, in the month of June, a child whispered in my ear, “I’m really sad school is ending…”

I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I was truly caught off guard by this confession. How had it never occurred to me that for some kids, summer is not a time of fun in the sun?

I asked this young girl to tell me why she felt that way. She explained that her parents would be working all summer. They were not able to get any vacation time. Plus, she was not looking forward to going back to the same day camp where she had been the previous summer. Her camp leader had been really strict, border-line mean.

This little girl had been sulky in my class for nearly a week. I had tried to reach out to her, but she would just shrug her shoulders and tell me she was tired.

I wonder now if the reason she had held back from admitting the truth was because I had been trying to set a tone of celebration in the class. She was not able to identify with that and I was therefore inadvertently alienating her. I had assumed that all of the kids were looking forward to the summer. Let’s be clear, I’m pretty sure all kids WANT to look forward to the summer, it’s just that sadly, that’s not the case.

The message I wish to deliver to teachers is this: As unfavorable behaviors escalate in the classroom, question your assumptions about why this is the case. If you have a tendency to sound like you’re looking forward to the end, try to remember that some kids may be hurting. They may need to hear you say how much you are going to miss them, ALL of them. Take the ones who have challenged you the most aside and let them know that you would like nothing more than to create happy memories of these last few weeks of school. Acknowledge that you have had your ups and downs together, but tell them how these challenges have only made you love them more. Let them know that you see their goodness, and that you believe in them. Ironic though it may seem, some of our most challenging students really look forward to school. Many kids will be saying goodbye to their friends for the entire summer. Do not underestimate how attached the children have become to you as their teacher, either.

My message for parents is this: you may not be in a position where vacation is an option, but perhaps a heart-to-heart with your child on why that’s the case could really help them to see how fortunate they are nonetheless. We have a tendency to compare ourselves to those who have it “better” than us, but we neglect to see the billions of people in the world who have it much tougher than us. Teach your child to count her blessings. Then, sit down as a family, pull out the calendar and pencil in things like: go for a walk in the forest, play tennis or basketball at the local courts, go for ice cream, hang out in the backyard or at the park, go for a bike ride through the neighborhood, visit our cousins, have a friend sleep-over… You get the idea. What kids want more than anything is to know that they will have time to kick back with their family and friends.

One more thing: if your child complains that her camp leader is mean, please listen and react. So long as the camp organizers do not get feedback, they have no reason to intervene. Do not be aggressive in your intervention (I have a post on my blog entitled “Kindness is…” that’s worth checking out), but do intervene.

That little girl taught me to ask the kids questions about their summer activities and I was shocked and saddened at how many of them had negative feelings about their camp counsellors. That just seems crazy to me! It does not have to be this way.


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A Healthier Version of Normal

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Isaac Asimov


Since none of us can truthfully claim that we never make assumptions, it’s time to replace this inaccurate ideology with a more appropriate one. I propose the following:


“Always question assumptions that give you a dramatic emotional response.”


It is when our assumptions create noise in our heads that we need to pay attention. When a situation brings about a strong emotion, than empathy and kindness need to be called upon for assistance before we can trust our interpretation. Too often, we can feel so sure of our judgement of a situation and act on our beliefs without fully entertaining other possibilities. We may think that we are helping by coming to someone’s defense, but if we have not properly questioning the other side of the story, we may be doing more than harm than good.


Consider the following common scenario. A child, let’s call him Trenton, comes running up to you. “William said I’m mean!” he cries. He is clearly agitated and hurt by the unkind words spoken about him. I cannot begin to count the number of times I have dealt with this type of accusation. A typical, familiar response might be, “You go tell William he hurt your feelings,” or “William, that’s not nice! You need to apologize.” While these types of responses are well-intentioned, they do very little in terms of helping Trenton to understand what’s actually going on inside of him. To truly help Trenton and to turn this into a learning experience, we need him to question his reaction by speaking to his heart as well as his mind. We must help him to see that he has just made an assumption and that in order for William’s accusation to be so upsetting, a part of Trenton had to actually agree with William.


Let’s back up to when Trenton comes running over upset about William calling him mean. Here is an example of how I might respond.


“Why would William say that about you, Trenton?” I’ll ask him in a neutral voice.


“He says I pushed him to the ground, but I didn’t! I was running and I bumped into him.”


“So William assumed you knocked him over on purpose, but you want him to understand that it was an accident?”


“Ya, but now he thinks I’m mean!”


“Is he right?”


“No. It’s not fair that he said that, it’s not true.”


“How did you react, Trenton? Were you calm and did you kindly apologize right away? Or did you get angry and defensive when he accused you of being mean?”


“…I got angry, but only because it wasn’t true!”


“Do you want me to let you in on a little secret, Trenton? The only person who ever really needs to know the truth, is you. When you know the truth, you do not need to get upset at all. Since you know what really happened, you can stay calm and apologize wholeheartedly. I know it doesn’t feel fair that he accused you, but by you getting angry in return, it makes it seem like you have something to hide and that you aren’t telling the truth. Accidents are going to happen. When people see you staying calm and sincerely apologizing, then it is easier for them to see the truth.”


There is a pause as Trenton digests this information, and then he asks, “But what do I do now? He already thinks I’m mean.”


“Is it true?”




“So prove it. Your actions speak louder than words, Trenton. Say sorry to him like you really mean it. That ought to be enough for him to see that you were not trying to be mean. Haven’t you ever wrongly accused someone before? This is a chance for you to think twice about your own reaction the next time something like this happens to you. It’s also a chance for you to question if what other people say is true, especially when it’s unkind. We can’t control how someone else is going to treat us or react to us. We can only control how we respond to them. You have to admit that it is fair to expect someone could be upset when they suddenly get knocked to the ground.”


“Ya, I guess that’s true.”


“Okay, let’s go see William together to clear this up.”


As we approach William, it is clear he has been expecting us. As I address him, my goal is to disarm him. “Hey, William, are you alright?” I ask in a mildly concerned voice.


At this point, William has had time to realize that he overreacted and that it really was just an accident. Otherwise, Trenton would not have wasted his time going to get a teacher involved. “I’m fine,” William responds.


My next step is to model the generosity of spirit that I wish to inspire in both of them when future misunderstandings occur. “It seems Trenton really surprised you when he accidentally knocked you to the ground. Are you still angry about that or is it okay now?” Phrasing it this way gives William the opportunity to no longer be angry. The power of choice is huge and can be used to resolve countless conflicts. Otherwise, children may not even realize that they have the option to let go.


“It’s okay,” William replies.


“Did you know that Trenton feels really bad over what happened? He wants you to know he really wasn’t trying to be mean. Did he apologize to you?”


“Sort of.”


“Did you maybe get a little too upset with him?”




“Thank you for your honesty, William. Neither one of you meant for this to happen. You were both surprised and didn’t react in the best way. It happens. How about you both clearly and calmly say sorry to each other and we can put this behind us.”


I love watching the transformation on children’s faces as they realize the truth. The ability to empathize exists in all of us. We need only call attention to it and it will appear to serve us. The more we cultivate it, the more harmonious our daily interactions with others will be. We cannot help the fact that our ego is typically on the front lines, ready to defend us. It is the ego’s job after all to keep us safe. There comes a point however when we can catch our ego before it takes over and learn to be more generous and empathetic in any given situation.


Now, some of you may be thinking that I put an awful lot of thought and effort into something rather trivial. I beg to differ. Neglecting to take the time to give these boys tools to resolve a conflict in an empathetic and peaceful manner would be a missed opportunity. Conflict resolution courses are great, but nothing serves anyone better than real life experiences. It is when we are in the moment that we can bridge the gap between theory and reality.

Accusations are so easy to make and children are often quick to jump to conclusions. Could this be partly because they are mimicking the adults in their environment? If more adults could learn to address these types of situations in this spirit, I sincerely believe we would witness a dramatic decrease in bully type behaviors. We would create a new, healthier version of “normal” for our children.


If you know yourself, then you’ll not be harmed by what is said about you.

– Arabian Proverb

***Featured image of this article generously provided by 

“What if Screaming is all I Know?”

I had several potential titles, a couple of which were: Why Are so Many Kids Growing up in Angry Homes? and Stressed out Adults=Stressed out Kids. This post is based on the idea that Our Classroom Ought to Feel Like an Extended Family, and though I still hold this belief close to my heart, I have needed to re-frame my philosophy in light of certain discoveries… which brings us full-circle to the reason for the chosen title.


Each new school year, on the very first day of class, I pitch my philosophy to my students. “Since we will be together nearly six hours a day, five days a week, for ten months, that makes us a family,” I begin, “Therefore, I expect us to treat one another as such.”


The first year I implemented this philosophy, it took me until March to realize why I was having trouble making it take hold the way I had hoped and imagined it would. In my mind, reminding the students that we should treat one another as a family ought to have motivated them to be kinder to one another.


Anytime I would overhear unkind words or witness mean actions amongst my students, I would say, “We are a family. We should be kind to each other. Try again. Make it right.” While many of my students reacted positively to this philosophy by either changing their tone of voice or by demonstrating greater respect towards their peers, with certain students, not only did their behavior not improve, but I even sensed a heightened level of agitation.


I finally understood the underlying problem when one afternoon, seven months into the school year, ten-year old Fred blurted out, “Miss Kathleen, what if screaming and yelling in a family is all you know?” His words hit me like a ton of bricks. Our eyes locked, and in that moment he knew he had just taught me an important lesson. The whole class fell silent, and Fred continued, “I have never heard my parents work out a problem without screaming at each other…I hate it!” His last words caught in his throat as he choked back his tears. His passionate confession echoed throughout the classroom.


“It’s the same thing in my home…” called out one of his peers.


“I feel you man,” offered another.


Suddenly, whatever issue it was that had prompted Fred’s outburst no longer seemed to matter. We had delved into a much deeper level of conversation, one that had to be handled delicately and compassionately. It is not for me to judge such a statement. Every family has their own story, their own baggage, their own set of values. Each family is on its own journey. Fred’s statement may have been true, but it was not my place to probe. Was the family under enormous stress? Had someone lost a job? Was the marriage suffering? The answers to any of these questions were none of my business. (Fred would perhaps decide to confide in me, but if so, it would need to be his own initiative. I’ll elaborate on why I feel this is important in a subsequent chapter). Ideally, my response needed to be phrased in such a way that acknowledged his statement as his truth and supported him on his journey without talking against his parents in any way since I could not pretend to know or understand the whole situation. I needed to resist making assumptions.


I allowed for a few moments to gather my thoughts in order to respond to Fred with the utmost respect and empathy possible. If we were to break it down into steps, the process would look something like this:


Empathetic thoughts:


I needed to acknowledge his feelings without speaking against his parents. “Fred,” I said, “Clearly the arguing you hear in your home is very upsetting to you. I am sorry that’s your reality. For me, growing up, my parents never argued in front of me. I should have realized that when I’ve been saying ‘We must treat each other as a family,’ that experience is very different for each of us.”


Motivation to intervene/respond:


I needed to recognize that this claim, while true in Fred’s eyes, could very well have another dimension to it of which I was completely unaware. I needed to focus on reassuring Fred that in our classroom he should not have to deal with screaming and yelling. That that is a professional responsibility I take very seriously. (That is not to say that I never lose my patience or raise my voice. Any parent who has been pushed to the edge by his one child can surely comprehend that a group of 20-30 students can have a way of pushing anyone to the brink. Having said that, I am careful with my words, even as I lose my patience. No form of verbal abuse is ever acceptable.)


“I don’t think I have to tell you how strongly I feel about speaking to one another kindly. I can’t change what goes on at home for you, Fred, or any of you for that matter. The point I’ve been trying to make since August, is that there is always a way to solve our problems using kindness and respect. I should have realized that it can be different for each of you at home and that if you have not had this modeled for you, that it would be that much harder for you to know how to fix your problems peacefully.”



This is a delicate situation. While in my heart I wish that children could be spared from certain stressful realities of home life, I must acknowledge that this is out of my control. My responsibility towards my students is restricted to the relationship we create with one another, within the four walls of our classroom.

“Boys and girls, can I ask you something? When I’ve been saying, ‘We should feel like a family and treat each other as such’, have you understood what I’ve meant?”


“For sure, Miss Kathleen. We know that it has to do with getting along,” offered one student.


“It’s just that sometimes I find we get along better in the classroom than I do with my own family at home,” said another student.


“We’re really glad this is what you teach us, Miss Kathleen!” chimed in a handful of children.


Action & Desired Outcome:


The action I needed to take was abundantly clear. I had to continue insisting on these family values that I hold so dear, as the students were clearly showing their appreciation for this approach. However, there was a need for me to reframe it, so that I could be more sensitive to the variety of realities my students experienced outside of the classroom.


“I guess for some of you, screaming is just normal in your home,” I remarked.


“Oh ya!”, “You bet!”, “No kidding!” several students called out.


“Judging by what you’re telling me though, you would prefer to live with less of that type of behavior and you are glad I insist on speaking to each other kindly in the classroom. My goal has always been to develop our skills of communicating effectively with one another to solve our problems. If ever you find yourself teaching these lessons to your family and inspiring positive change in your home, that would be so wonderful.”


“I doubt it, Miss Kathleen,” interrupted Fred.


“Fair enough, Fred. That’s probably too much responsibility for a ten-year old, isn’t it? Can we at least use our experience in this classroom as proof that it’s possible to live peacefully with others, and that when conflicts arise, we can often solve them without yelling? It can allow you to dream of one day raising your own family in a peaceful environment. Do you like that idea?”


“That works for me,” replied Fred. Several more students spoke up to say they liked that idea as well. While I dare not claim that conversation was some kind of miracle that changed their behavior for the rest of year and that no more arguments or confrontations ever broke out again, it was certainly a significant moment for many of us in the class. My relationship with Fred, for one, took on a whole new dimension. He clearly felt a sense of relief that someone understood him on a whole new level, and while naturally conflicts still arose, it was clear that he desired a positive change in his life.


I no longer take the philosophy of treating one another as a family for granted. These days when I introduce the idea to my students, we discuss what that could mean and how we want it to look. When the children list less desirable aspects of family life, such as yelling, fighting, and rudeness, I ask them if they want it to include these as part of our classroom agreements on how we ought to treat one another. The resounding “No way!” that these eight-year-olds cry out is something to which we all should be paying closer attention.


Nowadays, I still believe that our classroom ought to feel like an extended family, but I emphasize the idea that we must create and/or reinforce the habit of treating each other the way we wish to be treated, anywhere and everywhere we go, because it always feels good to be treated with kindness.I find myself asking my students if they think it is possible to live harmoniously with one another, and we talk about what makes it challenging and how we can deal with those challenges. Fred’s bravery in speaking his mind and in sharing something so personal created a ripple effect that is ongoing to this day.

And the day came, when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud, was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. This is the element of freedom.

– Anais Nin & Alicia Keys

Thoughts on bullying…

First of all, let’s stop over-reacting and jumping to conclusions. Kids are going to have conflicts. They are going to do and say things that they should not. Before we jump all over them for what they have said or done, let’s remind ourselves that they are picking up these behaviors from somewhere. How many adults have figured out how to be kind all of the time to everyone? Yet we expect no less from a ten year old? How could that ever make any sense?


Over the past few years, the use of the word bully has been multiplying. It’s everywhere. “Say no to the bully!” is a message our kids are receiving over and over again. It’s important, but it’s only half the story.


Don’t get me wrong, the fact that children today are aware that they should be treated kindly and fairly is definitely a step in the right direction. The problem is that this new understanding is being built on misconceptions. We spend too much time pointing fingers at the one who did something wrong and not enough time reflecting on how the victim could react differently. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.


Every classroom has at least a few “Peters and Lukes”. Peter and Luke are the type of kids who could not be more different if they tried. These two do not like each other and they are pretty upfront about it. Peter comes from a home that practices and models kindness. Luke on the other hand comes from a home where screaming and name calling is just the way it is. Peter cannot understand why Luke is often loud and rude. Luke cannot understand why Peter gets so upset anytime he calls him a name or yells at him.


Do you see where I’m going with this? They do not understand each other because they are not even remotely living the same reality at home. Our initial understanding of the world and the meaning we create from that understanding comes first and foremost from home. When all of these varying realities are thrown together into one classroom, let alone one school, is it any surprise that we end up with so much conflict?


There is a rather large gray zone between parents who believe in tough love and those who are actually verbally abusive. Far be it for me to overstep my boundaries and attempt to impose parenting styles on people. I can only hope that those who could use some softening of their tough love beliefs will read my book and pull lessons from it, but I cannot assume that all parents are open to hearing or caring about my opinion. Therefore, I offer my perspective to parents only when it is appropriate, and I do so tactfully and humbly.


However, Peter and Luke are in my class, so not only to I get to teach them how to appreciate one another, I believe it is an integral part of my job. Moreover, I believe the skills required to teach empathy and compassion ought to be taught in university and reinforced and developed further through obligatory professional workshops. As far I’m concerned, the following intervention needs to become the new standard if we sincerely wish to see a sharp decline in bullying behaviors.


Each time Peter and Luke approach me with their problems, my first step is to resist focusing on the actual complaint. I’ll address it briefly and then move on to the heart of the matter. The “what” is usually pretty irrelevant. What matters most is the self-talk going on each of their minds. Peter is busy telling himself how unfair it is that Luke was mean to him and Luke is annoyed because he has no idea why this has to be such a big deal.


There are at least two important negative consequences to simply telling the “Lukes’” of the world that their actions were hurtful and they need to “say sorry”. First of all, the Lukes are confused. They usually have parents or siblings who are treating them this way all the time and no one seems to have a problem with it. How are they supposed to react? How does a child go about changing his behavior when the main people in his life act this way towards him on a daily basis? Second, we wind up teaching the “Peters’” of the world that when our feelings are hurt it is the other person’s fault. We put the blame on the victimizer and it makes us feel better.


Before you get up in arms by saying that I am blaming the victim for his problems, please hear me out. If I tell Peter, “Poor you, Luke was mean to you again. Let’s get him to apologize,” than I am contributing to Peter’s view of himself as a victim. If instead I say to Peter, “Why do you think Luke’s words bothered you?” I give him the chance to reflect and look within himself. Peter is likely to tell me that he believes it’s mean to yell and call someone a loser. I can then agree with him. More than anything, all Peter really needs is to have his feelings validated. He is right to say that it’s wrong to call someone a loser. It is not kind or helpful in any way. What Peter does not realize is that Luke is used to being called a loser. This is everyday language for him. For Luke, there is very little shock value to this word or any others like it. So I explain this Peter. I tell him that Luke hears this word among others all the time at home. Peter feels a spark of compassion for Luke. He can’t imagine his brother or his parents ever speaking that way to him. “Do you see that you are the lucky one, Peter? As hurt as you feel by Luke’s words, can you imagine how much he is hurting? He’s so used to this type of language that he can’t even see that it isn’t normal or right.” By giving Peter a better understanding of why Luke acts the way he does, I empower him. I help him to see that Luke really doesn’t know any better, even if we think he should. Keep in mind, confidentiality rules always apply and we must not divulge personal information about our students to others. In this particular case, Luke had already made public statements about how things are for him at home, therefore I am simply helping Peter to connect the dots.




As Peter gets better at not believing the words that are spoken about him, he begins reacting differently to Luke. Instead of feeling hurt by Luke, he feels compassion for him. He sees Luke’s pain and he can better appreciate how lucky he is that he does not go home to a house that tolerates such vocabulary. He wishes Luke could live in a home like his where no one would ever dream of being that mean to each other. This is not pity. Pity breeds feelings of superiority. This is empathy. Peter has imagined himself in Luke’s life and he does not envy him. He realizes that the pain he has felt from Luke is only a glimpse into the pain Luke lives with regularly. I teach Peter to tell Luke, “I won’t talk to you that way, ever. We can be friends and you can trust that I won’t be mean to you.” If this sounds like hogwash to you, you’re wrong. I’ve seen it happen.


As for Luke, the journey is obviously longer and harder, which is another reason why it’s important to teach the Peters of the world that nothing is personal. Meanwhile, Luke gets a different form of guidance all together. I do expect him to apologize, but not in the way you may think. His apology comes in the form of an act of kindness towards Peter. Luke wants to be seen as kind and he doesn’t know how to break the cycle of being seen as the “bully”. There are real bullies out there, but I believe there are far fewer than the statistics claim. Luke is not a bully. Luke is a child who has not been given enough opportunities to do the right thing and have it be noticed.


When I approach Luke about his language, he is quick to pass the buck. “My brother talks to me like that all the time. Big deal,” he says.


“I believe you when you say it’s normal to you, Luke. I don’t believe you though when you say it’s no big deal,” I reply.


“Whatever. Everybody talks like that. Peter is just a baby,” he accuses.


“Actually, Peter is not used to being spoken to like that at all, Luke. That’s why it hurts him so deeply. When he leaves school, he goes home to a relatively peaceful evening. He and his brother get along really well and his parents treat each other respectfully.” I share this information with Luke compassionately. I see the sadness in his eyes as he takes in this information. I have just confirmed for him that he’s right to feel angry and hurt by the way he gets treated at home. It may seem like I am being callous by pointing out to Luke how Peter has it better than him, but quite the opposite is true. I am giving him the opportunity to choose better for himself. By knowing that a happier option is possible and actually exists, he can imagine that future for himself and eventually break the cycle of pain. I continue, “Luke, I get why you’re angry and I get why you lash out at others. I wish I could make your home life more peaceful. Maybe as you get older, you will be able to teach your family some of the lessons that I am teaching you. Until then, what I can do for you is create a classroom that only allows for kindness and compassion. This way, you have a place to go to everyday where you know nobody is going to call you names or yell at you. It means you get to let your guard down and practice treating others the way you wish to be treated and you can trust that they will return the kindness because I will not accept any less from anyone in this room. This is what I have been talking about all year when I say first and foremost we must take care of each other.” (Now imagine what will happen when this expectation is upheld not just by individual teachers, but as a schoolwide and boardwide philosophy…wow.)


I won’t lie to you. As I am writing this story my eyes are welling up with tears as the faces of all the Lukes I have taught appear in my mind’s eye. My heart breaks for these kids. They are on their way to being the bullies of our schools and our workplaces unless the people on the front lines do something about it. They need compassion. I am not talking about giving them permission or excuses for their behavior. I have major “tête-a-tête”s with the Lukes of my life. But all of my words always come from a place of love. I tell them, “I care about you. I believe not only in your ability but also in your desire to do better and to be better. I would not put all of this energy into correcting your behavior and showing you a better way if I did not care about you.” I have said to my most challenging students, “You exhaust me! I am completely drained. And I refuse to give up on you. If you think you can just push me away, you are sorely mistaken. If you think you can be so mean to me that I will just give up, you are wrong. I care too much about you. I care more than you can imagine. I will get you to understand and to trust me when I say there is a better way for you. Do not underestimate my patience and my stubbornness.”


I am not delusional. I know I will not “fix” all of my students’ challenging behaviors. But I will hold my ground and stand up for what’s right. As my dad used to say, “Pick your battles and when you do, make sure you win.”

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others and if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them. – Dalai Lama

Actually, It’s Not “OK”

At some point in our lives, we have surely all taken part in a dialogue similar to the following:


“Brandon, you need to apologize to Jerome for hitting him,” instructs a parent or teacher.


“I’m sorry I hit you, Jerome,” mumbles Brandon.


“It’s okay,” offers Jerome, with a noncommittal shrug.


End of story. (Until it happens again…)


When in the history of humanity did it become socially appropriate to say to our victimizer that what they just did to us was “okay”? I know what you’re thinking: “Kathleen, it’s just a manner of speech.” Perhaps to adult ears we recognize that it is just a way of saying “I forgive you”, but what do the children hear? This is an excellent example of why I believe we need to be more precise with our words. We need to say what we mean and mean what we say, compassionately of course. Here is an example of how I coach my children and students in forgiveness.


“Brandon, you need to apologize to Jerome for hitting him,” I instruct.


“I’m sorry I hit you, Jerome,” mumbles Brandon.


“It’s okay,” offers Jerome, with a noncommittal shrug.


This is where I am compelled to intervene and guide the children in changing their script.

“Are you sure, Jerome? Is it really okay that he hit you?” I ask.


“Well…no,” replies Jerome.


“So let’s not tell Brandon that it’s okay. You need to tell him that, in fact, it’s not okay that he hit you, but you forgive him.” (pause) “Go ahead, Jerome. You can do this,” I prompt.


“It’s not okay that you hit me, Brandon, but I forgive you,” repeats Jerome. It is his first time using this language, but a certain air of confidence and comfort with the words is discernible.


Addressing Brandon, I say, “It’s very kind of Jerome to forgive you, Brandon, don’t you think?”


“I guess,” Brandon replies. His vague answer is to be expected. It is an indication that he is unsure of where this is all headed. My goal is for both boys to walk away from this conflict with a sense of well-being. If there is to be any growth, the boys need to feel safe to express themselves. Therefore, I speak with a firm, confident, yet kind tone of voice, consciously creating a positive energy to ensure an amicable dialogue and a positive outcome.


“Well Brandon,” I continue, “I know that it is kind of him. It’s not easy to look at the person who has just caused us pain and simply forgive him. It takes a certain amount of courage, especially since part of forgiveness is the desire to trust that it won’t happen again. How can you prove to Jerome that you are truly sorry?”


Brandon shrugs his shoulders.


“I believe you owe him an act of kindness. Do both of you agree?” I ask the question, knowing full well that they understand there is not really any choice in the matter. However, the act of questioning the boys is a powerful tool, as it forces their brains to process the information in a more constructive manner. They are left in a position where they need to make a choice, and in so doing, commit themselves to something in a way that is much more empowering than simply being told what to do. The boys exchange a look of understanding, and in that moment, the balance of power shifts to one of equal footing. I am no longer facing a victim and victimizer. Standing before me now are two boys who have been given an opportunity to let go of their pain and to build something positive together.


“Do you have any ideas of what you could do for Jerome to prove to him that you are truly sorry?” I ask Brandon. I always give the child an opportunity to come up with suggestions first. Often he will be too shy to verbalize his thoughts, but that does not matter. What matters is that the child sees that I trust in his ability to do something good. It communicates that I have faith in his innate goodness.


“I don’t know…” responds Brandon. Considering the fact that this is unchartered territory, it is normal that the child might find it challenging to offer ideas. This is perfectly fine.


“I’m sure you could come up with plenty of ideas, Brandon,” I patiently coax. “I’ve seen you do really kind things for others before.” It does not matter if this last statement is true. Words are extremely powerful. As this belief is voiced, Brandon’s mind immediately and naturally goes searching for a time when he did something nice for someone else. He is again registering the fact that his goodness has been seen by others. We must never underestimate a child’s longing to feel loved. The children who display the most anger or frustration tend to be the ones who have yet to be convinced of the fact that they are worthy of their place in this world.


Turning to Jerome, I ask, “Can you think of something that you would like Brandon to do for you?”


“Maybe he could let me stand in front of him in line?” Jerome suggests, with a sparkle in his eye. (It really is the little things in life, isn’t it?)


“There’s one idea for you, Brandon,” I say encouragingly. “You could also bring him his lunchbox or hold the door open for him at recess.” Addressing Jerome, I continue, “So Brandon owes you an act of kindness by the end of the day. Be sure to tell me once he’s done it or if he forgets, okay?” This last instruction is very important as it builds accountability. Brandon knows that Jerome will be reporting back to me as to whether or not he follows through with his act of retribution.


“Okay,” Jerome agrees.


“Brandon, you can come and tell me too, if you like, okay?” I say with a smile. Like this, while Brandon understands he is being held accountable, he also sees that he is being trusted to follow through on his act of kindness.


“Okay,” agrees Brandon.


The technique of using acts of kindness to prove that a child is truly sorry for what he has done is an extremely powerful one. I have been amazed at how ‘the Brandons’ of the world will actually perform several acts of kindness towards ‘the Jeromes’ of the world and eagerly tell me about it. I have even witnessed ‘the Brandons’ performing acts of kindness towards other classmates as well. When questioned as to what motivated them, they will state it was simply because they saw an opportunity to do so, proving that kids will see what we point their attention towards when done so lovingly. The more we tell children that we see their goodness, the more that they are able to see it for themselves.This is what is known as the “mirror effect” and there is no more beautiful way to put it to use than by telling children just how lovely they are.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…Right?

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?