We all know those students: the ones who raise their hands twice an hour and address you in that whiny tone. “Teacher, Johnny stole my pencil!” or “Mary keeps kicking my chair!” This child faces the same problems as every other child in the class. But she expects you to solve all of them.
Then, there’s the opposite end of the spectrum. The child who skulks into class, sits slumped in his chair, barely looks at you and says nothing. You know he is plagued by issues, but he won’t tell you what they are.
As teachers, we interact with children who face a host of problems. Rather than trying to solve those issues ourselves, which can be short-lived and ineffective at best, our challenge is to help these children work out their own solutions.
Bestselling author and psychologist Dr Thomas Gordon says that this starts by creating an environment of acceptance. “Acceptance of the other, as he is, is an important factor in fostering a relationship in which the other person can grow, develop, make constructive changes [and] learn to solve problems,” he says. His book, Parent Effectiveness Training, is just as applicable to teachers as significant caregivers in the lives of those they teach. When we quote Gordon in this text, we’ll replace the word ‘parent’ with the word ‘teacher’, and you’ll quickly see its relevance.
Our challenge is recognise when we inadvertently communicate unacceptance to a child, and replace it with language that communicates acceptance instead – thereby creating a ground fertile for self-help. Here are a three pointers to help us do that.
1) Don’t own problems that aren’t yours. The starting point is to identify which problems we encounter are ours, and which problems are the child’s. When the problem is yours, then you will need to figure out a way to solve it by persuading the child to act differently. But when the problem is the child’s, he or she should be allowed to solve it him- or herself.
“So many teachers fall into the trap of assuming responsibility for solving problems that their children own, rather than encouraging them to solve their problems themselves,” says Gordon. Ultimately, that stunts a child’s development. How do we determine which problem is ours and which is the child’s? By identifying who is most affected.
a) The teacher owns the problem when it interferes with the teacher’s right or prevents her getting her needs met. For example, if Sonny is repeatedly disruptive in class and makes it difficult for you to get through the lesson material.
b) The child owns the problem when they experience it in their own life, independent and outside of yours. For example, if Sally is rejected by her friends at school. Or, Mark doesn’t like the amount of homework you’ve assigned. In these scenarios, resist the urge to step in and solve the child’s problems. Instead, listen in a way that allows him to solve his own.
2) Don’t make value judgments of any kind. Gordon argues that attaching a value judgment to a child – either good or bad – is potentially destructive. When you label a child as “good boy” or “naughty girl” you are communicating an environment of conditional acceptance. This can lead to the child becoming defensive, feeling inadequate, frustrated or guilty. Ultimately, it hinders the child solving his or her own problems.
So, when Lilo opens up to you by saying “I hate my parents”, don’t respond by saying “We should never say we hate anybody”. Rather use the language outlined below.
3) Use door-openers. “One of the most effective and constructive ways of responding to children’s feeling-messages or problem-messages is the ‘door-opener’ or ‘invitation to say more,’” says Gordon.
“These are responses that do not communicate any of the listener’s own ideas or judgments or feelings, yet they invite the child to share his own. Examples of this are non-committal responses such as “I see” or “Is that so?” You could also use more explicit statements, such as “Tell me about it” or “Go ahead, I’m listening”.
Professional therapy has proven that creating an environment that communicates acceptance to a child will better foster their ability to solve their own problems. As we use these tools to truly listen non-judgmentally to children, they become surprisingly capable of steering themselves towards a productive solution.