Why you shouldn’t ask why when things go wrong

Why you shouldn’t ask why when things go wrong

I can’t remember where I first read the advice to not ask students why they did something after observing negative behavior. I also don’t remember the rationale behind it. But the advice has stuck with me, and I do believe it’s sound. Asking “why” usually ramps up a confrontation; it’s rarely seen as genuine and rarely yields useful information.

And yet, the irony is that understanding why the behavior is occurring is just about the most important thing we need to do. In fact, it’s almost impossible to move forward if we don’t understand the why.

So what gives?

Here’s Ross Greene on “good” and “bad” W questions from Lost and Found:

Drilling Strategy 2–Ask “W questions” (who, what, or where/when)

These questions are a good way to demonstrate that you’re really listening and need additional information. Examples: “Who’s been giving you a hard time on the school bus?” “What’s making it hard for you to complete your science homework?” “Where/when is Kyle teasing you?” Remember, drilling is about gathering information, and “W questions” are a straightforward way to do so. Notice that there’s another W question–Why?–that your should not be asking very often; that question often elicits the kid’s theory, and quite possible one that the child inherited from an adult.

Greene advocates using the construction “I noticed ________. What’s up?” This construction is far more likely to deescalate a confrontation than a demanding “Why?” But isn’t this kind of a cosmetic or semantical difference?

Maybe not. Using “I noticed ____. What’s up?” removes the expectation that a student be able to immediately explain their maladaptive behavior (they often or usually can’t) and implies that the behavior may be part of a larger context of events. It avoids the implication that the behavior was a conscious choice to do something bad. It’s an invitation to problem solving.

It’s strange, though: historically, when we demand to know why, we are usually more interested in a show of contrition and perhaps even a bit of shaming/retribution. And yet, it’s actually more directly related to the information we’re looking for than just asking “what’s up?”

So, not asking why makes it more likely that we’ll understand why. (If you’re interested in more about how minor changes in language can make a huge difference in adult-student interactions, definitely check out Faber’s How to Talk So Kids Can Learn and Johnston’s Choice Words.)


Replacing frustration with curiosity in school discipline

Replacing frustration with curiosity in school discipline

Chronic frustration from dealing with negative or unsuccessful interactions around school discipline is a leading cause of teacher burnout, resulting in the flight of teachers both from the most challenging schools and from the profession altogether.

The emotional toll on educators from high-stakes confrontations and power struggles with students is massive.

If we were to design an ideal “emotional makeup” for a prospective teacher who we think might be successful with school discipline, what would that look like?

Would we want someone who is comfortable with conflict? It would certainly seem so. Successful classroom managers typically need to be able to confidently confront student behavioral problems without fear or anxiety before the confrontation and without rumination and dwelling after the confrontation. You need to be able to confront quickly and confidently and bounce back easily.

But maybe a tendency toward conflict aversion would help teachers avoid unnecessary conflicts, or to be more measured and considerate about what requires confrontation. We have all probably known teachers whose lack of conflict aversion gets them embroiled in far more conflicts with students than necessary.

What about frustration tolerance? Teaching can be extremely frustrating, and the first few years especially can feel like a never-ending cascade of problems. You need to be resilient to come back with a clean slate every day. And yet, you could see how being too tolerant of frustration could cause one to become complacent or let problems linger without solving them.

But what if we were able to replace frustration altogether? From Ross Greene’s Lost and Found:

[Quoting a superintendent implementing Greene’s CPS strategies]

I think that it really all comes down to one thing–curiosity. Don’t get frustrated about the kid’s behavior, get curious about the problem causing the behavior. A lot of adults want the problem to be fixed and better immediately, and I think a lot of adults are used to a model of communication where they lead, and the student does what they say, and then they get results.

What a remarkable thing it would be if were able to re-program ourselves such that our first reaction to any maladaptive behavior is neither surprise nor anger nor disappointment but curiosity. This is easier said than done, of course. Our reactions to misbehavior often feel primal and instinctive; we are “set off” and sometimes even lose our cool. What would it take for us to become less frustrated, less offended, and more curious? How do we get there?

A teacher’s response to the city’s ban on suspensions in K-2

A teacher’s response to the city’s ban on suspensions in K-2

Chalkbeat published a teacher’s response to the city’s changes to its discipline guidelines. Emmy Bouvier, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, wrote a First Person lauding the DOE’s decision to ban suspensions for K-2.

Critically, Bouvier tackles head-on the most common defense of suspensions:

In several schools where I have worked, I’ve often heard the following rationalization for suspending students who present challenging behavior: “Should the needs of one or two students take precedence over the needs of the whole group?” Why instead aren’t we asking ourselves, “Whose needs are constantly being compromised for the needs of the majority?”

That’s an interesting proposed alternative question. I’m not sure that’s the angle I would take; after all, in any group dynamic the needs of the individual are always in some ways compromised for the needs of the majority. The better question is, Since we know that there are other ways to reduce maladaptive behaviors that don’t involve exclusion, why aren’t we using them?

Ross Greene in Lost and Found says we should always use the “least toxic response” to a challenging behavior (a corollary to the “least restrictive environment”). Out of school suspensions rarely fit this criteria.

In a second grade class I once taught, five of my students were black boys. The only suspensions given to students in their grade that year were for three of these boys, two of whom were suspended multiple times by the administration for behavior like having a tantrum. Did suspensions change the behavior of these students? No. Did suspensions further alienate these students and their families from the school? Yes. Even in second grade, students realize when they aren’t wanted in a space, and it can become difficult for them to distinguish the adults’ responses to unwanted behavior from a feeling of exclusion, that they aren’t wanted in general.

This is textbook restorative discipline, and one can only hope Ms. Bouvier’s view becomes more common. This is also a brave article to write considering that the author’s school–Achievement First–has boasted suspension rates of up to 22 percent in years past. Despite urging from many corners, it doesn’t appear that the large charter networks have done much if anything to move toward restorative practices.

One thing I’m still confused about with the city’s new guidelines is whether in-school suspensions will also be banned. In Meyer and Evans’s School Leader’s Guide to Restorative Discipline, in-school suspension is laid out as an important part of a schoolwide restorative system (as long as it is accompanied by opportunities to teach reflect). Yet, one could make the case that even an in-school suspension does exclude and send the message that students are not wanted (or at least it can if not framed correctly).



The problem with FBAs

The problem with FBAs

When I first learned about Functional Behavioral Assessment, I thought it was great.

FBAs help adults to better understand children with challenging behavior by objectively observing students, noting antecedents to challenging behaviors, and naming the “function” that the challenging behavior serves. Sources vary on the “true number” of possible functions, but it’s generally between 2 and 4. From the North Shore Pediatric Therapy site:

The four main functions that maintain behaviors are:

  • Escape/Avoidance: The individual behaves in order to get out of doing something he/she does not want to do.
  • Attention Seeking: The individual behaves to get focused attention from parents, teachers, siblings, peers, or other people that are around them.
  • Seeking Access to Materials: The individual behaves in order to get a preferred item or participate in an enjoyable activity.
  • Sensory Stimulation: The individual behaves in a specific way because it feels good to them.

Once you have identified what function or functions are maintaining the behavior, you can start to implement an intervention that will help decrease the problem behavior and increase more appropriate behaviors.

But what if FBAs that seek to name the function of a child’s behavior, while well-meaning, are actually asking the wrong question?

From Ross Greene’s Lost and Found:

Key Theme 2: Doing Well Is Preferable

Doing well is preferable makes it clear that we’ll be moving well beyond the traditional belief that the primary function of challenging behavior is getting, escaping, and avoiding. The true function of challenging behavior is that it communicates that a student is lacking the skills to handle certain demands and expectations.

Question: Does the alternative definition of function mean that we should stop doing functional behavior assessments (FBAs)?

Answer: No, FBAs are a wonderful thing, but only when we stop coming to the automatic belief that a student’s behavior is “working,” and that the behavior is effective at helping the student get, escape, and avoid. FBAs are a lot more meaningful and informative when we view challenging behavior as the means by which the student is communicating that he’s lacking the skills to meet certain demands and expectations, and then document which skills the student is lacking and which expectations the student is having difficulty meeting.

Greene’s issue with FBAs is that by designating the function of challenging behavior as either getting, escaping, or avoiding, we are focusing only on what’s “downstream,” i.e., the behavior itself, rather than the cause–the lagging skills and unsolved problems.

Is this a semantical issue? Greene takes issue with the word “working” because of course in a general sense the behavior isn’t really “working”–the behavior is in fact very much “broken.” But I guess the difference is that FBA proponents do actually believe the behavior is working for the student. But this seems to me to give too much agency to the student in this situation. It seems to paint a picture of  world in which kids make complex choices about which behaviors to exhibit in a given situation based on their needs and wants.

Like Greene, I think it’s more likely that behaviorally challenging students are working with extremely limited options (if there is even more than one) in any given situation, and would do better if they could do better. Traditional FBAs hint at more manipulation on the student’s part than I think is possible.

On top of that, by only seeking to implement adult-imposed replacement behaviors rather than truly understand and problem-solve around students’ missing skills, FBAs carry the possibility of missing the opportunity to foster independence in challenging students.

City bans suspensions K-2 . . . is it enough?

City bans suspensions K-2 . . . is it enough?

This was a big week for school discipline nerds in NYC. The city released the second part of its recommendations for changes to city schools’ disciplinary practices.

I will probably write about each of the task force’s recommendations, but the main takeaway is that DOE schools will no longer suspend students in grades K-2. Suspensions in these grades were down from 1,454 to 801, but they’ll apparently go down to 0 now.

Any move away from a policy that excludes and isolates very young children for maladaptive behaviors is a good one. Here are some questions I still have though:

What will school leaders do in lieu of out-of-school suspensions? 

You can just imagine the conversations happening right now in elementary schools with high populations of students with challenging behaviors:

What are we going to do now? The kids will know we can’t punish them no matter what they do. 

How am I supposed to provide a safe environment when kids can’t be removed for any reason?

How are we going to teach kids a lesson when their behavior is unacceptable? 

I don’t blame anyone for these sentiments; if you’ve only worked in an environment in which retributory consequences are the primary means for “correcting” maladaptive behaviors, of course you’re going to be upset when your biggest tool is taken out of your toolbox (even if, when you step back, you probably realize that tool–suspensions–isn’t actually working).

If central administration doesn’t support school leaders in teaching staff members in challenging schools how to engage in proactive, collaborative problem-solving, the promise of this initiative will dry up and trust between schools and central will be further undermined.

Why stop at 2nd grade? 

What possible reason is there to end suspensions only for grades K-2, especially when almost all NYC elementary schools are K-5. Seems to me you are creating a two-tier discipline system within schools, wherein half the teachers understand suspension is not an option and look for other solutions (ideally) and half don’t. How do you lead a school in professional development around discipline issues with a system like that?

How will we know if it’s working?

What system is the city going to use to measure the effectiveness of this change?



Three More Ways to Rethink “Negative” Conversations about Kids With Challenging Behavior

Three More Ways to Rethink “Negative” Conversations about Kids With Challenging Behavior

Earlier this week, I wrote about how to respond to commonly expressed thought patterns about kids with challenging behavior. These thought patterns are pervasive in schools, not because teachers or other adults who work in schools think the worst about kids with challenging behavior, but because—well, that’s probably the subject of another post. Working with kids who don’t meet our behavioral expectations is incredibly difficult and frustrating, and I think in the absence of better solutions, we are apt to repeat what we’ve heard before or simply go with the most logical explanation.

The problem is that a lot of these typical or traditional explanations of what causes or what’s “behind” challenging behavior are not only inaccurate, but perhaps more importantly unhelpful in working to change or replace students’ maladaptive behaviors.

Here are three more, again adapted from Meyer and Evans’s School Leader’s Guide to Restorative School Discipline:


  • She just doesn’t care about learning. She just doesn’t care about school.


  • Would she have any good reason to care—is school a positive place for her?
  • Is she having any success at all in learning, or is school mostly punishing for her?

This is a tough one to swallow when you’re a teacher with 1000 other things on your plate. You might imagine yourself saying, So now it’s my fault that the kid doesn’t’ care? I’m supposed to make the kid care? No, it’s not the teacher’s fault that the kid doesn’t care (at least not usually). But if we believe that kids do well when they can, then we should also assume that if she could do better, she would do better. Therefore, our responsibility is to help kids build the skills to the point that they do feel they can do better. A lack of caring is often a mask for a lack of ability (or a self-perception of a lack of ability).


  • She comes from a bad home/bad family.


  • Why is this relevant to her relationships and behavior in school?
  • What do we really know about her home anyway?
  • Even if the home is dysfunctional, why can’t school be a positive experience for her?

This has become almost taboo to bring up in schools, lest it be perceived that a teacher is writing a student off based on their home life. It’s pretty rare to hear a teacher say this these days (at least in my small personal sample size). Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be verboten to talk about a student’s home life. Learning more about what’s going on about a student outside of school can offer powerful insight into understanding possible antecedents/triggers and unsolved problems.


  • He makes bad choices


  • Is it possible that the bad choice he makes ends up getting him what he wants?
  • Would an alternative good choice lead to a positive outcome for him?
  • Does he have the skills to make other choices?

I suppose it’s possible that he makes “bad” choices, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t have a whole lot of other “choices”—at least not choices he’s skilled enough or confident enough to successfully make. If we believe that kids do well when they can (rather than kids do well when they want), then it’s safe to assume whatever “choices” the student had were all unproductive choices. It’s perhaps even more likely that the “choice” the student “made” was the one with the most heavily traversed neural pathway—a behavior that the student has engaged in for so long that it truly does feel like there is no other option.



What would your school discipline system do with Melania Trump?

What would your school discipline system do with Melania Trump?

Even on vacation, it’s been impossible to avoid hearing about Melania Trump’s (or probably more accurately, one of Donald Trump’s staffers’) faux pas last night at the Republican National Convention. Mrs. Trump apparently lifted some lines directly from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, amounting to what most would call plagiarism.

I hopped on Facebook this morning to see that a colleague of mine had made a joke about how Mrs. Trump would have been disciplined harshly for this at our school. When I facetiously added that I would allow for a rewrite first, I was shouted down by colleagues who said they would, in essence, throw the book at Mrs. Trump if she had been one of their students. Reasons given included that with over 100 students, “Nobody has time for that” and “In my department we don’t ‘play.'”

If you read my blog you know that I don’t write about my own personal experiences for confidentiality reasons but rather use this space as a way to examine ideas, trends, and issues in school discipline. But I will use this online parley as a way to bring up some bigger ideas about school discipline as relates to plagiarism.

First, let’s talk about why plagiarism is “bad” in the first place, something we always assume but perhaps don’t talk about. Here are some reasons I came up with:

  1. By not doing the work themselves, the student lost out on a important learning opportunity
  2. By passing off someone else’s work as their own, the student showed that they don’t understand how to credit others’ work legitimately
  3. By passing off someone else’s work as their own, the student engaged in dishonest behavior
  4. By passing off someone else’s work as their own, the student showed that they don’t understand that “in the real world” you can’t get away with that

I get the feeling, and I could be wrong, that those who would “throw the book” at a student are more concerned with 3 and 4 than with 1 and 2. But if you believe, as I do, that every aspect of schooling should be “educative,” that even when disciplining students we must be oriented toward teaching them, than it’s fair to question whether by leveling harsh punishments at plagiarizers we are actually effecting any new learning at all.

To get to that point, we should think about why students might plagiarize in the first place. Here are all the possible reasons I could come up with:

  1. I didn’t know how to write the paper or what to write, so I copied and pasted something else because I didn’t want to ask for help
  2. I didn’t know how to write the paper or what to write, so I copied and pasted something else because I didn’t want to get a bad grade
  3. I could have written the paper but I didn’t want to because it was boring/uninteresting, so I copied and pasted something else because I didn’t want to get a zero or a bad grade
  4. I could have written the paper but I didn’t want to because the teacher probably wasn’t going to read it anyway, so I copied and pasted something else
  5. I could have written the paper but I didn’t want to because my teacher is an idiot and won’t even notice anyway, so I copied and pasted something else

In my first year of teaching, I had a major plagiarism case. I still remember the first emotions that came to me: anger at being betrayed, anger at the student for thinking I would not notice, anger about the follow-up work that I would now have to do.

I slapped the source material on the student’s desk (it was easy to find on Google) and said something along the lines of “Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?” I remember feeling very righteous and glad that I was able to see the student’s response face to face.

Well, I am embarrassed now thinking about this, and I should be. There was absolutely nothing I did that made the student

  1. less likely to plagiarize in the future (unless you believe the punishment he received [an F and a mandate to rewrite the paper] ensured that he wouldn’t plagiarize again, and I certainly don’t believe that)
  2. more prepared for future writing assignments
  3. a better writer
  4. able to self-reflect to determine the reasons behind the plagiarism
  5. able to make amends and restore the damage to the student-teacher relationship.

I see now that I immediately jumped to #5 as the reason for the student’s plagiarism, without ever asking the student why he did it or what happened. With my negative emotions enflamed, I wouldn’t have gotten a clear answer at that point anyway. But if I had waited until my own personal hurt was under control, I would have been able to engage in a rational conversation to determine the underlying factors behind the plagiarism.

Based on the student’s responses, we could have come up with a plan to teach the student the skills necessary to accomplish goals A-E. Thinking back, the reason for plagiarism was almost certainly #1. The student didn’t care about grades (yet another reason why the grade-based punishment was ineffective), but had he been able to complete the assignment within a reasonable timeframe I suspect he would have. This student lagged severely in reading and writing ability.

Now, some of you will say, But you aren’t holding the student accountable. I disagree. I would absolutely hold the student accountable for making restitution, both in the form of rewriting the paper (with guidance), and restoring the teacher-student relationship. I would also work with the student on building skills to But what about the student’s grade? Surely you can’t give the student full credit. No, but only because most other teachers in the school would give an automatic failing grade and inconsistency of consequences among teachers is unfair to the community. And also because for the 90% of kids who don’t plagiarize, having the possible penalty in place is enough to keep them from transgressing. (That being said, as a teacher of writing, do you really want fear of consequences to be the reason students don’t plagiarize? What does that say about your hopes for their intrinsic investment in your assignments?)

But, this student needs to be taught a lesson, you say. Absolutely. And the student will be taught multiple lessons, in

  • what to do when you don’t understand how to do an assignment effectively OR what to do when you legitimately don’t have time to do an assignment right
  • how to make amends when your actions harm your relationship with someone else in the community

But no, they won’t learn the lesson you are thinking of: that when you do something wrong, bad things happen to you. And that’s because that “lesson” isn’t a real thing; all of the research I’m familiar with shows that harsh punishments (devoid of teaching) not only do not teach students not to step out of line again, but they actually breed resentment in the punished student and make it more likely the student will seek to exact revenge on the punisher.

(I won’t even get into the fact that when many students plagiarize on a single assignment, that often says more about the assignment than the students.)

So, if you consider yourself “old school” about things like this, then you might think I’m “soft” on punishments for plagiarizers. But I don’t think I am. I’m just trying to make a distinction between punishments that make us feel better because we got retribution on the offending student and consequences that actually address the problem and teach the student.