The technique that works so well we don’t care why

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of acknowledging feelings at the beginning of any behavior intervention. I purposely picked an example (a student cutting the line to get lunch) that would seem to be least apt for acknowledgment of feelings to highlight why this approach should always be used even when it doesn’t come natural.

One objection I sometimes hear about acknowledging feelings is that it will come off as mocking or patronizing. And it can, depending on tone of voice and body language used. Consider:

  • “you really wanted that slice of pizza” delivered flatly
  • “oh, you really wanted that slice of pizza, huh?”

The second is likely to provoke an indignant response and may even escalate the conflict further.

Acknowledging feelings is just as effective at heading off confrontations and interventions before they even begin. At times, acknowledging feelings can change behaviors without the teacher or administrator even mentioning which behavior needs to change.

Consider these two very real examples:

  • Student A isn’t working on an independent task. As the teacher approaches, he says, “I’m so tired.” The following ensues:
    • Student A: “I’m so tired.”
    • Teacher: “You’re feeling really tired.”
    • Student A: “Yeah!” (somewhat indignantly)
    • Teacher: “You want to go to sleep.”
    • Student A: “Yes.”
    • Teacher: “How long would you sleep for if you could?”
    • Student A: “Five hours.” (Smiling)
    • Teacher: “Mmm.”
    • Student begins working and teacher walks away.
  • Student B continues to read independently after teacher instructs students to close books and move on to a new task.
    • Teacher (approaching, in a low voice): “Wow, you really like that book.” (sincerely)
    • Student: “Yeah, it’s really good.”
    • Student puts book away and moves on to next task.

Each of these could have been a protracted struggle, the kind that when repeated over time stresses out teachers and wears down the teacher-student relationship. Why did acknowledging feelings result in a change of behavior without the student even being informed about the desired behavior change?

Clearly, the student already knew what the desired behavior change was. Truthfully, I have no idea why this works so well. Perhaps having one’s feelings acknowledged, rare as it is in this world, results in a desire to please the acknowledger that causes the student to enact the unspoken requested change. Perhaps the student, so used to being hassled over minor “infractions” like reading too long or not getting started on work right away, feels indebted to the non-hassler (the acknowledger) and returns the favor.

Whatever the mechanism is, there’s no doubt that it works. It won’t always be that easy, of course; usually, acknowledging feelings is only the first step. But if you believe, as I do, that each of us has a finite capacity for stressful adult-student interactions on any given day, avoiding the smaller dust-ups can help us store up energy for the more challenging interventions.


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