Combating emotional contagion, part two

Combating emotional contagion, part two

In my last post I wrote about the way in which our own anxieties can will into being the very behaviors we most dread in our students, through the process of emotional contagion.

In their book How to Talk So Little Kids Can Listen, Joanna Faber and Julie King write, “The point is that we can’t behave right when we don’t feel right. And kids can’t behave right when they don’t feel right. If we don’t take care of their feelings first, we have little chance of engaging their cooperation. All we’ll have left going for us is our ability to use greater force.”

The authors are talking about addressing kids’ feelings first before addressing their behavior. But once we understand the concept of emotional contagion, we also understand that addressing our own emotions and anxieties is equally important.

How do we do that?

There is no one universal fix, unfortunately. Each of us has our own “triggers” in the classroom, the situations that bring our anxieties to the surface. But in thinking about my own experiences and the experiences of teachers I’ve known and worked with, here are a couple of tips:

  1. Overplan. Novice teachers often have an understandably tenuous grip on classroom management. With a solid, engaging lesson, they can make it through, but the idea of unstructured time can set their hearts racing. By building extensions and challenges into the end of a lesson, you can eliminate the possibility of finishing a lesson too early. But make sure that if you’re adding, you’re adding on to the end, not the beginning or middle; fear of not finishing a lesson can be just as anxiety-provoking, and when students sense you’re rushing, they may become tense and agitated.
  2. Plan for struggles. little bit of frustration in a well-designed task can be productive; a task that asks for more than students can currently handle without the proper supports can lead to chaos in the classroom. Teachers feel like they are putting out fires as they address the same difficulty over and over with different students. Instead, think about any area where a student might struggle and create a pre-made resource that addresses it. When a student raises their hand and says, “I don’t get ____,” you can say, “Grab one of the blue slips from the center of the table.” Explain beforehand what resources are available for struggling students. You will now be able to relax knowing you have your bases covered and be more present for students who might genuinely need to work with you one on one.
  3. Have a system, stick to the system. Write down the top three (or five, or ten…) things that frustrate or annoy you (e.g., how students enter the room, students who call out, bathroom requests during a mini-lesson, etc.). Create a system or policy for each, and over time teach and stick to the system. Students will learn the systems and when they forget, you can use a simple cue to the remind them. Note: when creating your systems, choose the option that gives the students the most autonomy possible while still remaining appropriate or acceptable to you. Contrary to what you might think, students will not feel they are being “micro-managed”; in fact, they will prefer organized and clear expectations, as long as the systems are not overly restrictive and are age-appropriate.

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.

The three needs that must be met if you want to reduce behavioral problems

Smith, Fisher, and Frey, writing in Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management, explore Deci and Ryan’s (1985) three fundamental psychological needs:

  1. Relatedness: they want to interact with, be connected to, and experience caring about others
  2. Competence: they seek to control outcomes and to experience mastery
  3. Autonomy: they are compelled to be causal agents of their own lives

There are many competing theories about why students transgress behavioral norms or “act out”; while I tend to favor the idea of the knowledge gap (“if they knew better, they’d do better”), experience and observation tell me that that when these three basic needs aren’t met, the chances for maladaptive behaviors increases significantly.

How can teachers ensure that students’ basic psychological needs are consistently met in the classroom? How can school leaders ensure that these needs are met schoolwide?

Relatedness: While teachers can’t necessarily “force” relatedness on students, they can create the conditions for it to blossom. This means modeling, teaching, celebrating, and providing copious opportunities for prosocial behavior; using lesson structures and learning activities that foster collaboration and healthy interdependence; intervening to proscribe unproductive social behaviors; and identifying students in need of additional social support.

Competence: A couple of years ago I read Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You and completely flipped my view on skills and passion. Most of us grow up believing that you need to be passionate about something to become good at it. Newport thinks this is a myth; he believes that in order to become passionate about something you need to start getting good at it. Students who’ve always struggled at writing tend to exhibit more maladaptive behaviors in writing classes or during writing tasks (some would label this an “avoidance” tactic). If teachers can start to get students to authentically see themselves as budding successful writers, that new feeling of competence can create a virtuous circle in which the student begins to focus more on writing, further reinforcing that feeling of competence. (Of course, it has to be real–simply telling a struggling writer he’s actually “doing great” will most certainly backfire and erode credibility.)

Autonomy: Teachers get paid to help kids, so you can’t blame us for thinking it’s our job to solve all of their problems. That’s why it’s hard–but essential–for teachers to let go and give kids a chance to come up with their own solutions. The dual benefit here is that the solutions kids come up with are often better than ours, and putting the onus on them to do so frees us up mentally and physically to focus on other things. A couple of key questions go a long way here: before you come up with any solution, first ask a student, “What do you think we should do?”; when a student approaches with a problem (as long as it’s not an immediate safety issue), you can ask, “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” Both of these questions empower students to figure things out on their own, building autonomy and making problematic behaviors less likely.

Think about this before you set your next goal

The process of goal-setting has become so axiomatic in schools that we rarely take a step back to examine it. Most effective leaders understand that goal-setting is an integral part of initiative implementation, but what must leaders keep in mind when setting goals in order to ensure successful long-term implementation?

First, we have to acknowledge that goal-setting is a psychological activity with little real-world correlation. In other words–and this is going to sound strange, but go with me for a moment–goal-setting is technically meaningless. Whether you set a goal for 100% of students to achieve proficiency in math or 75% of students to achieve proficiency in math has no direct bearing on whether your students learn math better. Students usually won’t even know what your goal is, or if they do (as some schools have tried) it will rarely be salient or meaningful to them. However, there is a clear, though hard to understand, indirect effect.

The goal you set can have a tremendously positive or negative effect on those implementing the initiative, which is why it’s critical to get feedback on the goal from those involved. Some will advocate the setting of “big, hairy, audacious goals”:

Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is a strategic business statement similar to a vision statement which is created to focus an organization on a single medium-long term organization-wide goal which is audacious, likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible. (Wikipedia)

Those who advocate for BHAGs often claim that setting a goal thought to be previously unrealistic may redefine what’s thought to be possible. In a school with persistent behavioral or safety issues, a leader may set a BHAG of reducing suspensions by 50%. If life were a movie, we would see initial shock and hesitation on the part of the staff, but gradually we would see teachers get inspired (probably in a montage) by the leader’s courage in setting the BHAG, and eventually the BHAG becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as everyone rallies together to accomplish it.

But life is not a movie, and despite the tantalizing psychological appeal of the BHAG, it should be set with caution. Remember No Child Left Behind’s audacious goal of having 100% of schools proficient by 2014? How’s that going? Audacious goals may impress outsiders and initially draw attention to a leader’s boldness, but ultimately if they are unrealistic they risk undermining the initiative altogether. (That’s why it’s critical to pay attention to the last part of that Wikipedia definition–“likely to be externally questionable, but not internally regarded as impossible.”)

So we’ve established the danger of setting unrealistic goals–but what about the other side? Is there a drawback to setting goals that aren’t audacious enough? That depends. Let’s look back at the school with persistent behavior and safety issues.

Let’s say School X invoked 150 suspensions in the 2016-17 school year. The school plans to implement a restorative discipline program that includes peer mediation, restorative circles, hiring additional guidance counselors, and an advisory program. School X decides that it will use the number of suspensions as a primary metric (a somewhat questionable metric, as I’ve explored previously, but let’s go with it). What goal should the school set for the number of suspensions? Let’s lay out some scenarios:

  1. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 75%. This would be a wildly unrealistic goal. Few within the organization would see this goal as realistic; many might accuse the leader of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the problem (after all, you don’t get to 150 suspensions unless there are serious underlying issues). The goal is not achieved and the leader’s credibility is severely undermined.
  2. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 50%. Most see this goal as unrealistic; some are willing to try and some truly believe it is possible. Through a series of great leadership moves, the goal is achieved. The leader is a hero and the subject of more than a few articles in Chalkbeat. The leader earns so much leadership capital from the staff that anything seems possible.
  3. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 50%. Most see this goal as unrealistic; some are willing to try and some truly believe it is possible. However, persistent underlying problems prove harder than thought to fix. The goal is not achieved and the leader’s credibility is undermined. What happens next? If the goal was not achieved, there will be demands to change course. But is that the right move? The initiative might have been making significant progress. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and initiatives rarely are fully successful after one year. The right move may be to stay the course and build on small successes. Unfortunately, because not achieving one’s goal is often synonymous with failure (in this case, unfairly so), the leader will be forced to change something.
  4. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 12%. Nearly everyone sees this goal as realistic. Outsiders may clamor that this goal is not bold enough or that the resources expended necessitate a more audacious goal. What the leader does now depends on how much capital she has accrued. If she can weather the initial storm, she can proceed with the 12% goal. At the midyear mark, she may find that the school is well on its way to achieving or surpassing the goal; at that point, she can choose to “up” or maintain the goal. The more modest goal does not inhibit the work of the rockstars on the staff, but may motivate those who are hesitant. At the end of the year, the goal is achieved; the leader has now accrued more capital and flexibility with which to work in year two of the initiative.
  5. School X sets a goal of reducing suspensions by 12%. The goal, while viewed as realistic by all, is not met. This may be catastrophic for the leader because the goal was originally seen as too modest and yet still wasn’t achieved.

Which of these scenarios is the right one to choose? Few would pick the goal of 75%; however, I imagine many might waver on 50% vs. 12%. I could see some claiming that by setting less-than-ultra-audacious goals, we are shortchanging our kids. But I don’t believe this is the case. I understand this is not the heroic, cinematic position to take, but leaders should be more concerned with long-term gains than flashy wins. Setting realistic goals allows you to build on successes and mitigates fear. Teachers’ work is already psychologically perilous and generally full of anxiety; adding worry and anxiety with unrealistic goals simply does not increase effectiveness. We want the reaction of staff to a goal to be generally along the lines of “Okay, I think we can do that” (not, “oh, that’s easy” and not “are you kidding me?”).

Businesses may need to “light a fire” with big, hairy, audacious goals. For most teachers, the fire is already blazing. We should use goals to gauge our progress and support further investment, not as psychological manipulation (teachers don’t need it).


What does school discipline look like in the DeVos era?

Gina Womack, writing in The Hill, expresses strong concern that Betsy Devos will abandon the Obama-era initiative to require schools and states to report on how they discipline students and to disaggregate that data by race.

Womack is concerned that a move away from this requirement would enable schools to return to policies that are disproportionately punitive toward students of color.

The DOE’s current Civil Rights Data Collection national survey, derived from school discipline reports, is a critical resource that alerts us to institutional racism pervading every level of our education system. We need that hard data to force administrators and policymakers in our education system to acknowledge the role they play in school-to-prison pipeline. How can we be sure this reporting and research will continue under DeVos?

Anyone who cares about the fate of black kids in our schools should be concerned when DeVos sidesteps a question about the obligation of schools to report how and who they discipline. Our education system needs a leader who is unafraid to tackle systemic racial prejudice and injustice. Our black kids deserve a secretary of Education who cares about them.

Devos’s clear sidestepping of the question, combined with other verbal evasions on federal vs. state issues, indicate the Department of Education may be stepping away from the more active role it took under Obama.

Whether or not you agree with the policies of the Obama/Duncan/King Department of Education (most educators I know believe those results are mixed at best), this should be a cause for concern among those interested in equitable school discipline policies. The Obama administration’s work was far from done; the administration was effective in bringing the problem of racially disproportionate policies to the foreground. They were only on the edge of the cusp of solving those problems; then again, it’s probably not the role of the feds to prescribe exactly what should happen in schools. In a perfect world, the federal government can use their platform to highlight a problem while still allowing schools flexibility to determine how to solve that problem.

But if the feds don’t see it as a problem, is it likely that schools will take steps to solve it?

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.

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.