The bedrock principle of behavior intervention is . . .

I have come to believe there is a single inviolable principle in conflict deescalation and behavior intervention, one that if not followed significantly decreases, if not outright erases, the odds of success: the process must begin with an acknowledgment of feelings.

When students violate our discipline code, the last thing we probably want to do is acknowledge the feeling behind the behavior. In fact, we often unwittingly do the opposite–we deliberately minimize the student’s feelings. Consider the student who cuts in line in a cafeteria. What response might this student typically get upon being apprehended? “You have to wait in line. I don’t care how hungry you are.” 

Consider the opposite, an intervention that begins with an acknowledgment of feelings: “You really wanted that bag of chips” or “You really want that slice of pizza and you don’t want to wait. The problem is that we need to have a fair and orderly system for giving out food and that only works if everyone follows the rules. ” 

Consider the difference between the first and second responses. The first implicitly tells the student that an adult will proscribe his behavior through force (physical or psychological). The sense of obligation is therefore off of the student and onto the adult; the student is now free to think “An adult will always tell me when I have transgressed. I will do what I want until that happens.” The second response informs the student that he must become the countervailing force against his own immediate gratification; this response tells the student implicitly that our desires often are in conflict with the greater good, and that to serve the greater good we must often act contrary to our desires.

This is, of course, a long-term process; simply acknowledging the transgressing student’s feelings  does not mean he will not transgress again. Yet, a school whose behavior interventions are informed by this strategy will, I believe, see fewer infractions and over time inculcate in students the feeling that (A) their needs are taken seriously (B) their needs sometimes conflict with the rules (C) they alone should be able to monitor when this conflict occurs, acknowledge it, and act appropriately to the best of their ability.


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