Change the Behavior


I suppose it makes sense that if I’m going to write every week that I will circle back from time to time to some familiar themes in my own journey.  Unfortunately overthinking things is one of those themes.  I reread several of my old blogs this week as I was awake in the middle of the night thinking about things that were small in the light of day.

There has been something in my DNA from almost the beginning that makes for sleepless nights sometimes.  I wake up, turn over, and my mind starts to wander.  Sometimes those are the moments of my greatest ideas.  For some people, ah-ha moments come in the shower.  For me, those moments are more likely to come at 3:00 AM.

It’s also true though that 3:00 AM may find me ruminating over something that happened the day before, an unanswered email sitting in my in-box, or a difficult conversation I have to have the next day.  I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that when I get up in the morning, the issue will seem small. But in the middle of the night, it can seem almost insurmountable.

I was complaining about my lack of sleep this week when a friend gave me some simple advice.  He said, “change the behavior.”  Wise words.

Eckhart Tolle says, “When you complain, you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation, or accept it.  All else is madness.”  Truth right there.

So I set about to design something tangible I could do to change this habit I have of overthinking things in the middle of the night.  In my experience, not once has this worrying helped me find a viable solution. So I need to change the behavior.  Complaining about it is clearly not working.

Later in the week, instead of laying there fixated on some current issue, I got up and started to think about all of the things I’d worried about over the summer.  None of them, not one, is still something lingering out there as a concern.  With time, almost all issues seem better.

Many of us have truly difficult moments in our lives, those with real consequences, significant loss, or extreme pain.  There is suffering that cannot be easily healed.  But most of the things that consume our worry are not those things.  So I am trying something new.

Every day I try to reflect on three things for which I am grateful.  I’ve done that for many years.  Jon Gordon’s idea of a gratitude walk is life-changing.  You cannot be stressed and thankful at the same time.  But this year, once a week, I am going to write down what I am most worried about.  For me, as a writer, sometimes just putting pen to paper eases the concern.

When I do that, I will look back on the things I wrote about the week before.  If any are still an issue, I make those a priority for my life or my work.  Likely, most will no longer be a concern, and I can let them go.

And the next time I am awake in the middle of the night, I can look at that list and be reminded that whatever is turning over in my mind will likely not be a concern in a matter of days.  And it certainly does not deserve to steal my serenity.

Don’t Pick Up the Rope


“I need you to put your phone away and participate in the lesson.”

“I’m texting my mom.  You can’t make me stop talking to my mom”

“Give me the phone.”

“No, you can’t take my phone.  My mom needs to tell me something.”

“I can take your phone.  Hand it to me right now.”



“My mom said I don’t have to give anyone at school my phone.”

“Your mom’s not here.  Our rules are clear.  Give me the phone.”

One thing I know from experience is that a middle schooler can play this game all day.  In fact, sometimes they want nothing more than to engage in this kind of debate with a teacher.  A colleague of mine has great advice for staff members in this situation.  Don’t pick up the rope.

An exchange like this can quickly become a tug-of-war, a fight for power and control.  But it is impossible to play tug-of-war if you do not pick up the rope.

I am not advocating allowing defiant and insubordinate behavior in your classroom.  I am simply suggesting that engaging in an extended debate with a frustrated student generally just results in a frustrated adult.  The more frustrated we become, the less likely we are to resolve the issue well.

Time is an underestimated tool in the behavior management toolbox.  Walking away and not engaging a student is a short-term way to disengage and allow for the possibility that the student will respond appropriately.  If they do respond appropriately, you can decide later what follow-up is needed.  It may be as simple as a conversation, or it may be a classroom or office consequence.

If the student does not choose to respond after redirection, again, don’t pick up the rope.  Each behavior issue is unique.  Some can be ignored until a later time and then addressed.  Others are more severe and require an immediate response.  In those cases, remove the student from the room, or if necessary, remove the other students from the room.

I am not saying this is easy.  I am not saying I have been able to walk this talk every time I have found myself working with a student.  As a teacher, there were plenty of times I picked up the rope.  As an administrator in charge of discipline, I picked up the rope as well.  And almost every time, I made the situation worse.  Cooler heads really do prevail.  When I was able to ask a student to sit or read or work for a while in a supervised location away from other students, and away from me, we were usually able to come back later and talk more calmly.  Sometimes they needed the time to cool off.  Sometimes I did.

The end of the school year can be tough for classroom management.  Students are getting excited for summer.  So are the adults!  When tensions rise, my advice is to not pick up the rope.

The Great Behavior Divide


Third hour was long.  The students were particularly rowdy.  ‘Must be a full moon.’  Only half of the students handed in homework, and several forgot their books.  But the tide turned when the lesson got going.  It was engaging and relevant, and the students responded.  Things were going well when Bobby threw his pencil across the room and hit another student.  This was absolutely the last straw.  He had been pulling things like this for days.  Done.  I sent him to the office.  In my thirteen years of teaching, I can count on one hand the number of students I sent to the office.  You can bet I wanted him punished.

Cut to three years later.  Another Bobby was sent to the office.  I honestly can’t remember what he did.  But this time I was the assistant principal in charge of discipline, and I was smack in the middle of the great behavior divide.

Anyone teaching or working in school administration will know the divide to which I refer.  A student makes a bad choice.  The teacher sends her to the office.  The teacher, understandably so, feels frustrated and wants punishment.  The administrator, understandably so, wants to teach and build or maintain a relationship with the student.

So the administrator has the student sit quietly for a bit, maybe reflect on or process what happened in the classroom.  Then there is a conversation.  “What happened?”  “Why?”  Ideally several things happen:

1.  Any unmet needs are resolved.  Is the student hungry?  Tired?  Worried about something happening at home?

2.  Any medical or chemical issues are addressed.  Is the student sick?  Under the influence?  Off prescribed medications?

3.  Does the student have an honest understanding of what happened? Is there more to the story from his perspective?  Do you need to talk to other students?

After an investigation, the administrator assigns a consequence in line with the Code of Conduct.  The hope is that the consequence teaches behavior.  The hope is that the investigation and the conversation about the consequence work to establish a trusting relationship with the student…and the student’s parents.  The hope is that with each interaction, the administrator builds rapport and influence with the student.  When that happens, there is a much greater likelihood that in the future the student might make different choices.

Unfortunately this whole process can sometimes frustrate the teacher who sent the student to the office.  Believe me, I understand.  Like I said, when I sent Bobby to the office, I wanted him punished.  I didn’t want him to have a relationship-building conversation.  I didn’t want him getting a pop-tart because he was hungry.  I wanted him punished.

Discipline in schools should not be about punishment.  As difficult it can be in the moment, discipline in schools should be about teaching.

As school leaders, some of the most important professional development we need to provide is to talk about behavior and discipline.  I do think it is possible to avoid the great behavior divide.  It takes time and transparent conversations.  It takes an understanding of the shared vision for the school and the community.   It is important for teachers and administrators to be on the same page.

Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together.