When my son was in middle school, he struggled to see how his actions affected others. He was unable to think about how others perceived his actions. He didn’t realize that when he lied in school, teachers would have trouble believing him the next time he spoke the truth. It was challenging for him to step outside of himself and imagine what others saw when he made the choices he did. Of course, what we know about brain development tells us that most middle school boys struggle with this skill as it requires much reasoning and critical thinking, which happens in their undeveloped frontal lobe. Most students in middle school, can’t think about how others might see their actions because their brains just aren’t ready for that level of critical thinking yet. However, as a parent, it’s very frustrating when our children keep making the same type of mistakes over and over again because they know no other way, yet. The good news is, that as they get older, this skill becomes something they can do, and so all hope is not lost. Hang in there, because once boys make it through the difficult middle school years, things get slightly easier, in this department anyway.
As a teacher, I find it difficult to help my students see how their actions impact others. As many of my students don’t yet have the brain capacity to think things through and empathize with others, I often struggle helping them see the error of their ways. How can I help students see that certain things they do are perceived as rude and disrespectful by others? What’s the most effective way to help them learn from their mistakes? I’ve tried role playing and scenarios. I’ve tried having conversations with them about their actions. I’ve tried every trick in my book to help my students learn that their actions can impact others negatively, to very little avail.
Yesterday in my Humanities class, a student was completing an atlas study worksheet with his table partner. He struggled to answer one of the questions and so asked for help. As he had yet to peruse the introductory pages of the atlas like the instructions on the worksheet indicated, he had yet to learn how to locate the title on a map. So, I reminded him that he needs to read and review those first few pages so that he can learn all about the various features of an atlas. He argued with me saying that he had already learned all of this information at his old school and didn’t need to look over the opening pages in the atlas. He simply wanted me to provide him with the answer, which I did not do. When I walked away as I realized he wasn’t processing anything I said, he slammed his fist down onto the table. Rather than confront him right away about this action, I simply pulled his stop light card to yellow as a warning that he needs to be more respectful. I then went onto help other students who seemed more responsive to the feedback with which I provided them. Later in the period, I then went back to this student who seemed confused as to why he had earned a yellow card. I explained to him what he did when I walked away from him and his table partner. He then informed me that in the country he is from, that is how he shows his anger. I told him that at our school and in this classroom, that is not how we show our anger or frustration. “It is completely acceptable and appropriate to be angry and upset, but it’s how you show that anger outwardly to others that makes a difference. Slamming your first onto the table is not okay. You cannot show your anger to others like this. It is aggressive and disrespectful.” He didn’t seem to understand why this action was not okay, no matter what I said. After awhile, I needed to move on to help other students and could spend no more time trying to squeeze water from a fixed mindset rock of a student.
Is there anything else I could have done that would have helped this student see the error in his ways? This certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve seen this type of behavior from this student this year. I’ve tried talking to him later on about the choices he makes and he still seems perplexed as to why what he did was not appropriate. I’ve informed his mother of the pattern of behavior and reactions I’ve seen from him, and she is very receptive. She usually discusses these issues with him to help him understand why what he did was not okay. He will even tell me that is mother explained to him why what he did was unacceptable, yet he continues to repeat the reaction in class. What am I missing? What else could I be doing? I’ve even tried the Plan B approach that Ross Greene writes about in his book Lost at School with this student, and have had no luck. Perhaps there is a cultural barrier at work as he is an ELL from a European country and this is his first experience at a US school. That could very well be, and if so, what do I do then? How do I help remove this barrier for him? How can I help him see that his actions do impact others in sometimes hurtful and negative ways? Perhaps this will be an ongoing struggle for him until his frontal lobe becomes more developed. Maybe this year will be tough for him, but as he grows and matures, if he stays at a school in the US, this skill of empathy and perception will become easier. In the meantime, I’m going to keep trying different approaches to help him see how others perceive his actions so that he will hopefully begin to understand how his actions have consequences.