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.


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.

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.



One reason why teaching noncognitive skills like cognitive skills doesn’t work

One reason why teaching noncognitive skills like cognitive skills doesn’t work

Paul Tough’s new book is a lot shorter than the previous two, and if the first chapter is any indication, he seems to have been chastened by some of the stinging criticisms that followed his most recent work. (The book was extremely well-reviewed by the public, but a  few high-profile criticisms, as well as general backlash to the “grit movement,” seem to have taken a bit of the air out of it.)

In the first chapter, he writes:

First, let me acknowledge a technique that journalists who write about social issues, as I do, often employ. We describe a particular intervention–a school or pedagogy or an after-school program or a community organization–and try to use that program, either explicitly or implicitly, as model for others to emulate. Philanthropists and foundations that have as their mission improving the lives of the poor often do something similar: They look for programs that work and try to replicate them, scale them up to reach as broad an audience as possible.

But there are limitations to this kind of journalism … Scaling up doesn’t work as well in social service and education as it does in the tech world. The social-science literature is rife with examples of small, high-quality programs that seem to become much less effective when they expand and replicate.

Tough’s last book was the introduction for many to the “grit movement,” the push to put a certain brand of character education on equal footing with traditional academics. But as with anything silver-bullet-ish in education, there was backlash and pushback, not least because some of the schools who rushed to embrace it aren’t seeing the results.

But Tough has some thoughts about this that he lays out up front:

Because non cognitive qualities like grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism and conscientiousness are often described, with some accuracy, as skills, educators eager to develop these qualities in their students naturally tend to treat them like the skills we already know how to teach: reading, calculating, analyzing, and so on. And as the value of non cognitive skills has become more widely acknowledged, demand has grown for a curriculum or a textbook or a teaching strategy to guide us in helping students develop these skills. If we can all agree on the most effective way to teach the Pythagorean theorem, can’t we also agree on the best way to teach grit?

Well, we certainly don’t all agree on the best way to teach the Pythagorean theorem, but let’s leave that aside for a second …

In practice though, it hasn’t been so simple. Some schools have developed comprehensive approaches to teaching character strengths …

But I noticed a strange paradox: Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender non cognitive abilities in their students never said a word about those skills in their classroom.

Maybe you can’t teach character the way you teach math. It seems axiomatic that you can’t teach the quadratic equation without actually talking about the quadratic equation, and yet it was clear from my reporting that you could make students more self-controlled without ever talking to them about the virtue of self-control. It was also clear that certain pedagogical techniques that work in history are ineffective when it comes to character strengths. No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere.

What if non cognitive capacities are categorically different than cognitive skills? What if they are primarily the result of training and practice? And what if the process of developing them doesn’t look anything like the process of learning stuff like reading and writing and math?

While I admire Tough’s ability to question and re-examine the implications of his own work, I think he is asking the wrong questions here. Let me explain what I mean.

People like Ross Greene have been arguing for a long time that students’ difficulties in school stem not from a lack of will but from a lack of skill: student behavioral problems that many educators often attribute to a lack of motivation can actually be attributed to a lack of skill in confronting and overcoming challenging situations. Once we identify these triggers (which Greene calls unsolved problems) and the corresponding lagging skills, we can help kids devise solutions and work with them to implement these solutions, resulting in fewer maladaptive behaviors.

So Greene and Tough agree that problems in school stem from deficits in non cognitive skills. But Tough goes to observe schools that are implementing “grit programs,” sees that those “curiosity worksheets” (he mentions this flippantly, but I have no doubt these exist) aren’t working, and concludes that it may be the method of teaching that isn’t working.

But I don’t think it is. I think the reason traditional approaches to teaching cognitive skills don’t work for teaching non cognitive skills is that non cognitive skills are context-dependent. 

Here’s what I mean: Tough’s problem is that he conceives of “self-control” as one skill; but what if “self-control” is actually an umbrella under which we have placed all behaviors that look like self-control? And what if the behaviors that fall under this umbrella don’t actually have much to do with one another?

The situations in which Student A suffers from a lack of self-regulation are completely different from those of Student B and Student C. Student A may struggle with self-regulation while engaged in group work in math class, but be perfectly fine during physical activity in PE. Student B may struggle with persistence on exams but practice piano for hours and hours on end.

A “self-control and persistence” curriculum that fails to acknowledge the different contexts in which students present lagging non cognitive skills would fail for the same reason that an ICT reading lesson that does not take into account how students’ varied disabilities create barriers that are different for each student. In other words, it isn’t differentiated.

Greene’s model is more of a 1:1 coaching model; students only receive “instruction” in non cognitive skills when their behavior demonstrates that they lack a certain skill in a specific area when confronted with a specific situation (or trigger).

For this reason, it’s much more time- and resource-intensive than a full-class “non cognitive curriculum.” But of course, that’s also the reason why it works.