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 https://www.flickr.com/photos/nattu/ 

“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

Homework is Yours and Yours Alone

When did “parental homework support” become an essential element of a child’s education? From an empathetic standpoint, I can think of endless scenarios wherein expecting home support would be completely unreasonable. From illiterate parents, to those who work 12 hour days just to put a roof over their heads and food in the fridge, expecting parents to have the skills and time required to help their child with their school work can be a totally unfair expectation and can actually set a child up for failure.


It is not uncommon to hear exasperated parents expressing their frustrations. “When I was a kid, I did my homework by myself. Nowadays we’re expected to sit with our child every night. Half the time I don’t even know how to help! It’s so different from when we were in school.”


On the flip side, I doubt if I could find a single teacher who has never lived through the frustration of giving an assignment, only to wind up chasing after the student to get it done, or worse, realizing that it was done by the parent. When something is broken we either fix it or we throw it out. Some schools have been doing away with homework in light of all the problems it can create. That solution is deeply flawed. It is paramount to throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to change how and what we do by holding on to the essential and trimming away the superfluous. Less is more.


Am I saying therefore that we need to stop expecting parents to help their kids with their homework, you ask? Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. Stop expecting it. Set your students up for success by only giving them work that they ought to be able to complete on their own at home. Essentially, this means that homework should be about practicing skills that have already been appropriately taught in school or studying material that has already been properly introduced. Resources must be provided that supply support and explicit explanations. (Ideally, these would be web-based, but a hard copy must be provided to all students who do not have Internet access.) If students unwittingly go home practicing the wrong thing, there is more damage than good being done. And teachers, please realize that if the majority of your students need a tutor in order to understand their homework, there is definitely a problem, and it isn’t the students. You can give work that requires support if you know a child has the support available to her, but otherwise, you need to be the one offering alternative resources. Again, if most of the kids need help, then it probably shouldn’t be homework.

Teachers, we must focus and insist on quality over quantity. We do not serve our students when we send them home feeling stressed about the work they need to get done for school the next day. And please do not tell me that your hands are tied because of curriculum demands. It’s time that policy makers start seeing real test results, not the results of what we have managed to jam down the throats of our students. Let’s get back to being teachers. The power of our unity will speak volumes when together we start putting the child first. Positive social change begins with us, the real people on the front lines. I can guarantee you this: kids who have time to consolidate their knowledge come back to school the next day ready to give it their all.


Does this mean parents should just throw in the towel on assisting their kids, even if they are struggling? Not at all. Parents have every right to set their own expectations for their children. They get to establish after-school routines that suit their family, and by all means, they can be as involved in the homework process as they would like to be. (Teachers, if you do not want parents doing your students’ projects, than don’t send projects home. Have them done in class. If there is no time to complete them in class, maybe they are not an essential element of the curriculum to begin with, or maybe something else needs to be done away with.)


Ideally, every parent would check in with their kids regularly to see how they are doing and if they can offer any assistance to their child. It may sound like I am contradicting myself, but I assure you, I am not. Listen carefully: parents ought to be free to set their own expectations for their children (this may even include additional homework of their choosing); as a teacher, I cannot, and should not, be trying to control what goes on outside of my classroom. I am happy to make suggestions and provide support, but it is not up to me to to be trying to monitor what goes on in each student’s home. That is an unfair expectation, and ultimately can result in stress and frustration for the students, parents and teachers alike.


Here’s the thing. The phrase “lack of at home support” is actually a form of pity and therefore it serves no one. It tells a child, “Maybe if your parents did a better job at caring for you, you wouldn’t be having such a hard time.” That kind of message, no matter how hidden it may be, does not go unheard, and it can only cause damage.


My approach to homework acknowledges the various realities with which children are faced (which is what empathy truly looks like), and empowers them. They learn from me that, “Your homework is yours and yours alone. You are responsible for it. How much time you spend studying and practicing your skills will be obvious in how you perform in class. You do not get to blame your parents if you did not take time for your homework. You know how to think for yourself. Nobody knows better than you exactly what you need to get done, and you are old enough to choose to do your work.”


By the way, none of the homework I give is ever graded, not directly anyways. Of course, I collect stencils, do spot-checks, and verify the websites that I use with them which track each student’s progress (guaranteeing that they are only ever reinforcing the right behaviors). No two kids need to study or practice anything the exact same way for the exact same period of time. I know whether or not my students are working hard enough at home based on their contributions to class discussions, and their performance on quizzes and tests. That is more than enough to hold them accountable.


Independence and responsibility are two things that seem to be lacking in children today. Well, who’s fault is that? If we keep robbing children of opportunities to develop these skills, how can we fault them when they fail to meet to our expectations? We need to recognize the role we have been playing and make the necessary adjustments.


Here’s the bottom line: Teachers, stop worrying about home support and stop expecting it. Instead, let’s focus on fostering a sense of pride and independence within each student. Children are so much more resilient than we give them credit for. As researcher Brené Brown said, “We are wired for struggle”. Those who (seem to) lack support at home do not need our pity, they need to be shown their own strength. Only part of their journey has been chosen for them by the parents to whom they were born, the rest is up to them.


No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from. Fill your lives with love and bravery. And you shall lead a life uncommon.  – Jewel


postscript: Many schools have introduced the flipped classroom approach which is pure brilliance if all your students have access to the Internet either at home in an after-school program. Essentially, their homework is to view a video of the next day’s lesson. The video is either prerecorded by the teacher or provided by various excellent websites who have committed themselves to this endeavor. There are numerous benefits to this approach such as: students can pause, rewind, and view the video as often as necessary, children have the opportunity to discuss the material with their peers before bringing their questions to the teacher, the teacher no longer needs to ‘lecture’ and can focus his attention on supporting his students’ comprehension, and the work is done in class where the teacher is present to offer support. It’s genius. Understandably, there are socioeconomic factors which can prevent schools from going this route for now, but the future holds infinite possibilities for finding solutions to this aspect of the dilemma.