How to fight emotional contagion in the classroom

How to fight emotional contagion in the classroom

Have you ever sat down at the end of a long and trying school day and thought, knew today was going to be crazy” or “I had a feeling they were going to be off the wall today”? Odds are the answer is yes. At times, we seem to be able to sense a bad behavioral day coming; our own emotional sensors kick in, presaging a day full of raised voices and “bad choices.”

Are teachers psychics? Do we have  a special “spider sense” for those behaviorally challenging days?

I don’t think so. In fact, I think the explanation is almost the complete opposite.

Think back to that time when you “knew” it was going to be challenging behavioral day. Most likely, you felt some combination of anxiety, exhaustion, anger, stress, or resentment that you interpreted as a sense of foreboding for the day to come. Maybe it was a Tuesday, and you hate Tuesdays because you teach four classes in a row in the afternoon plus after-school extra help. Maybe you were dreading the day to come because you knew an assembly was going to rejigger your entire schedule and you hate those kinds of disruptions.

But what if, by interpreting those internal emotional signals as harbingers of a chaotic day to come, you actually willed into existence the very behavior you were dreading?

“Emotional contagion” is the concept wherein certain emotions can silently “spread” from one person to another, or from one person to a group.

It’s something psychologists call emotional contagion, the idea that we really can and do “catch” emotions from the people around us. A 2008 study, for example, showed that happiness spreads throughout a social network sort of like an infection; when a nearby friend of yours becomes happy, it increases your own chance of happiness by 25 percent, foundJames H. Fowler and Nicholas A. Christakis. Mostly, the research has focused on the cheerier, pro-social consequences of emotional contagion, because feeling what the people around us feel seems to increase empathyand understanding, thereby improving communication, according to work by the University of Hawaii’s Elaine Hatfield, considered one of the leaders in this field.

But the contagion effect isn’t always a positive thing, particularly when the emotions you’re catching are negative. Some research has touched on this, too, suggesting that college students whose roommates are depressed are more likely to become depressed themselves, for instance. (New York magazine, April 2015)

Emotional contagion in the workplace has been covered heavily, but rarely has the effect been studied in schools. That’s unfortunate, because the teacher of a class is, for better or worse, more likely than anyone to be able to spread emotional contagion. A teacher commands near constant visual and physical attention, unlike a co-worker or supervisor who may only intermittently be in direct contact with an office worker.

When our students arrive and find us anxious, agitated, angry, stressed, or even depressed, those emotions silently spread. Now, many if not most teachers I know are a little anxious all the time; it seems to come with the territory. I think our low-level anxieties may translate to low-level anxiety for our students, and that’s not good, but it also won’t sabotage your class entirely.

But what about those days when your own negative emotions are firing fast and furious? Because the intensity of the contagion is equal to the intensity of the source, your students may then mirror your frustration, anger, and anxiety. These “big” and powerful emotions are processed by the right side of the brain, and when the right side of the brain is having an “all hands on deck” moment, the left side (tasked with logic and reasoning) is essentially out of commission. In short, students’ ability to self-regulate goes out the window, and that’s when we start to see the maladaptive behaviors we so dreaded on the way in to school that morning.

Now, let’s be real–emotional contagion is not responsible for all transgressive behaviors. Student behavior is a complex cocktail. But the more attuned we become to our own emotions, the more able we’ll become to take a step back and recognize when our own negative thoughts and feelings are driving the negativity in the classroom.

Understanding the concept is a crucial first step, and will take you a long way. Catching yourself before you respond angrily to a student and recognizing the need to calm and redirect your own emotions can help you avoid a messy blowup.

But how do you actually combat this? Teaching is an incredibly stressful, anxiety-inducing, emotionally draining, and unpredictable endeavor. We’d all love to be 20 percent happier at work, especially if we knew that those positive emotions could be “contagious” to our class, resulting in better behavior.

I’m not a psychologist, but I do have some suggestions for reducing our own anxiety in the hopes that our own more positive state can “spread” and lift student behavior. More on that in my next post.

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One person who’s honest about what’s not working with restorative discipline

Chalkbeat posted a surprisingly candid interview with an assistant principal of a school that is implementing restorative discipline practices with uneven results. The honesty is a much-needed corrective to the usual silver-bullet style success stories we hear about a school’s new approach.

The AP, Nick Lawrence, highlights a few major issues hampering the implementation:

  1. Lack of agreement on an exact definition of restorative justice. Asked to identify exactly what restorative justice means, Lawrence says, “We’re still trying to figure out what that means for our school community and that’s where the problem starts in trying to figure out how to implement it. A lot of it is taking a step back and stopping yourself and examining how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that.” I can see why a school leader might think it necessary to establish a shared definition of a nebulous term like restorative discipline; if it were me, I might even spend some time working on that as a staff. I wonder, though, if it’s realistic to expect that the definition you establish at the outset of the initiative will even be accurate as implementation goes along. As the details of any initiative are context-dependent, it’s fair to expect that each school will eventually establish its own new definition. Leaders will emerge who put their own “spin” on things, influencing others; effective practices may bubble up to the surface and become dominant because they are uniquely effective in that particular context. Perhaps what’s important, then, is building a shared understanding that the definition you establish at the beginning of the initiative will continue to grow and change–and that’s okay. It’s also critical to empower teachers to experiment (within the general framework, of course) with new techniques; when a practice is visibly effective, you can bet it will spread pretty fast.
  2. Lack of authentic student belief in the process. When asked “How do you know when it’s not working?” Lawrence responds, “When students didn’t believe in it–when they were just like, ‘We’re going to have a conversation so that you stop talking to me and then we’re going to fight it out on the block anyway.” I could critique this by offering suggestions to build student buy-in, but the truth is in a large school you will probably never get 100% student buy-in; the question to ask when trying to gauge the effectiveness of restorative practices, then, is not “Do all of our students believe in this?” but “Does a significantly greater number of students believe in this than believed in retributive practices?” Since few students believe in the value of retributive practices (beyond teaching them to try harder not to get caught), the answer will likely be yes.
  3. Finding and funding high-quality training. Lawrence states that about 30-35 staff members out of 90 have received training in restorative practices. I don’t know enough to say whether this number is high or low; it seems on the low side but then again we don’t know the extent to which those 35 have trained or shared with other staff. I imagine one of the hardest aspects is that you can’t just drop everything else and focus on restorative discipline; I’m sure this is one of many initiatives going on at the school. Throw in a handful of mandates coming from different directions and it’s easy to let any initiative become back-burnered. While it’s not realistic to say you should only focus on one initiative at a time, I do think it’s best to clear the deck of other non-urgent initiatives when attempting something as big as a full-scale shift in discipline practices.

Lawrence’s interview is a must-read for anyone interested in restorative practices; I wish more school leaders would be willing to talk about the difficulties in shifting disciplinary practices. I think it would help a lot of school leaders out there who might be suffering in silence.

What if behavioral choices aren’t choices at all?

What if behavioral choices aren’t choices at all?

Traditional models of school discipline advocate for students to be punished as a result of challenging behavior based on the idea that students need to learn that there are consequences for making bad choices (or some such variant of this statement).

In fact, the idea of challenging behavior as a “choice” seems to be so deeply ingrained in the way our society thinks about discipline that it is rarely if ever questioned. To even imply that a student might not be consciously “choosing” to exhibit challenging behavior opens one up for criticism for being “soft,” “permissive,” or “easily manipulated.”

And yet, when we take the time to get to know kids who exhibit challenging behavior, we come to understand that the situation is significantly more complicated. Although we are not yet willing to say that the way in which a student behaves is completely out of his control, we also simply cannot accept that a student would rationally consider a range of adaptive and maladaptive behaviors and then rationally choose the latter. Ross Greene in Lost at School explains this with his maxim that “Kids do well when they can rather than when they want” (I wrote more about this here). In his latest book Helping Children Succeed, Paul Tough tackles the issue from a neurobiological standpoint:

Our usual intuition when children and adolescents misbehave is to assume that they’re doing so because they have rationally considered the consequences of their actions and calculated that the benefits of misbehavior outweigh the costs. And so our response is usually to try and increase the cost of misbehavior by ratcheting up the punishment they receive. But this only makes sense if a child’s poor behavior is the product of a rational cost-benefit analysis. And, in fact, one of the chief insights that the neurobiological research provides is that the behavior of young people, especially young people who have experienced significant adversity, is often under the sway of emotional and psychological and hormonal forces within them that are far from rational.

This doesn’t mean of course that teachers should excuse or ignore bad behavior in the classroom. But it does explain why harsh punishments so often prove ineffective over the long term in motivating troubled young people to succeed. And it suggests that the school-discipline programs might be more effective if they were to focus less on imposing punishment and more on creating a classroom environment in which students who lack self-regulatory capacities can find the tools and context they need to develop them.

Tough’s argument against harsh punishments like out-of-school suspensions is a variant on the idea that harsh punishments are not an effective deterrent to maladaptive behaviors because the period of “active consideration” of possible consequences that we imagine students to be entering into prior to misbehavior simply doesn’t exist.

Tough doesn’t discuss neural pathways, but to me, the presence or absence of established neural pathways seems to explain this situation well. When we engage in a certain behavior or thought pattern, we create and then expand the neural pathways associated with that. For example, a student might have trouble in kindergarten learning to raise his hand, wait to be called on, offer a response, and engage in respectful discourse. But through repeated practice and feedback, the “hand-raising” pathway becomes well-worn and easily traversed. Hand-raising becomes seemingly instinctual, and no thought or consideration is given to the act. Conversely, the idea of calling out is almost unfathomable simply because it hasn’t been done in so long. The stimulus behind calling out would have to be so strong as to effectively “blast” a new pathway (think of what it would take to divert a flowing river). Not likely to happen, although if it did begin to happen, it would become more likely the more it happened.

Now consider the opposite–a student who has created a deep and wide “calling out” pathway in his brain. Consider how hard the student would have to work to create a new pathway for the hand-raising-and-respectful-discourse habit. It’s extremely difficult–but certainly not impossible. Is this student “choosing” to call out?

In a sense, yes. But the odds aren’t even–the presence of the neural pathway for “calling out” is so well-traversed that the cognitive energy required to go against it is many times what it would take to go with it. (In some cases, the adaptive behavior has never been done or attempted, so there is literally no pathway for it rather than just a weak one.)

We don’t get upset when we encounter a river whose water is flowing through a certain course; we understand that if we wish to divert some or all of this water, we have to work to create a new path.

I realize that this seems to be a particularly behaviorist way of thinking about behavior on a blog that typically eschews behaviorist tactics. That’s something I need to reckon with, because if I’m right about the way I’m describing the relationship between neural pathways and child behavior, then there is simply no moral component to behavior at all; if we’re going to say that bad behavior isn’t a result of rational choices, then surely neither is “good” behavior: the behaviors we “do” are simply those that we’ve learned how to do and done before. I need to think about this some more.

When kids “shut down”

One of the things Ross Greene does best in his books on school discipline is anticipating and responding to potential criticisms of his approach. You get the sense that as someone pushing a system–collaborative problem solving–that for many educators will be a radical departure from their traditional way of “doing discipline,” he has heard it all.

Perhaps the biggest knock on Greene’s system (after “who has the time?”), which focuses on getting kids and adults to come together to solve problems collaboratively, is that kids don’t/won’t talk when adults attempt to involve them in solving discipline problems. This line of thinking goes, “Well, I tried involving him, but he shut down. So I had to impose my own solution.”

I don’t fault administrators and teachers for thinking this. I’ve certainly found myself in the same position. Luckily, Greene provides a list of possible solutions for when kids “shut down” during the collaborative problem-solving process. I found these illuminating:

  1. You’re not really using Plan B; you’re using Plan A.

What Greene means is that although you may seem to be employing a bilateral strategy, something in your language or approach is telling the student that this is really just the old adult-imposed-consequences routine with a slightly different spin. Kids pick up on the fact that although we may seem to be including them, our efforts to involve them are really veiled attempts to get them to what we have already decided is the solution.

2. You’re using Plan B emergently rather than proactively.

Greene’s approach centers on addressing lagging skills and unsolved problems once we have noticed that these problems are causing students to exhibit maladaptive behaviors. He distinguishes between “emergent” (in the moment, rapid response to challenging behavior) and “proactive” (after time has passed, coolly and calmly addressing the situation in a meeting with the student). Greene acknowledges that sometimes “emergency Plan B” is necessary to defuse a bad situation, and can even be quite effective at times, but ultimately the best results will come from using the collaborative approach after the heat of the moment has faded.

3. Your unsolved problems aren’t worded in accordance with the guidelines, so the student doesn’t understand what you’re asking about or is becoming defensive

One of the few drawbacks of Greene’s system is that it does have a very specific set of guidelines for how to engage in collaborative problem solving. This is understandable, since even minor changes to the language we use when “doing discipline” can have major effects. But it does make implementing or training teachers in the model more challenging. Basically what Greene is saying is that the way we presented our view of the problem to the student is causing the student to be unsure of whether they are being invited to collaborate in problem solving or being castigated for challenging behavior. Consider the difference between, “Student A, I noticed you’re having a hard time getting started on this assignment. Whats up?” and “Student A, I noticed you haven’t started yet. I explained everything that needed to be done. What possible reason could you have for not being able to get started right now?”

4. The student doesn’t trust you yet, and is accustomed to having his concerns dismissed. Good that you’re in this for the long haul.

I guess this is kind of a catch-all response. Greene’s answer seems to be “just keep doing it until the student realizes this isn’t Plan A in Plan B clothing.” I’d like a little more here, to be honest.

5. The student needs time to think about his concerns or needs help verbalizing them. Fortunately, we’re not in a hurry.

This is huge. As someone who takes a longer-than-average time to process things before being able to verbalize, I can certainly relate. And I’m an adult who’s had a lifetime of practice! It’s simply unrealistic to ask students to be able to verbalize possible motivations behind their behavior in a moment’s notice. If we have the luxury of time, we may even want to inform a student the day before a conversation takes place just to give them ample time to think.

The “shutdown” is a breaking point for educators who are on the fence about a collaborative approach. Greene’s responses are helpful for getting teachers and administrators to see that a shutdown is not justifiable cause for throwing out the approch altogether.

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.)