Thought For Today

I am so glad that you have found this site and I hope you will find encouragement and joy as you read through my thoughts on God, family and life.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Redirecting Behavior (Conclusion)

When encountering a rift, we "can" choose to build a bridge.

When writing this post on redirecting behavior, my thoughts continually went back to the beginning of my teaching career.  In looking back, from the start, I could see that I felt overwhelmed at times with the complexities of all the dynamics around me.  Fights, swearing, anger, restraining young men, and the like, was my everyday routine.  From the time that I came to school until I left, I was with these very needy children.  After a while, my soul felt very old and my heart found that it was harder to keep smiling, as well as encouraging my students.  No sooner when seeing positive changes in one child, I got another new student in my class.  I found myself starting all over again.  I depended more and more on the grace of God, and I found myself wondering what it would be like to be in a so-called “normal” classroom.  I soon had to dismiss these thoughts, finding that that is not where God had placed me, but at the ranch instead.  In my desperation, I pleaded for God’s guidance.  This was soon to come my way.

In my last post, I ended by saying that negative reinforcements, that is, punishing my students for bad behavior was not working.  One day as I sat monitoring my small group of boys at the dinner table, I noticed a young student of about 12 years of age, taking a cup of coffee from the kitchen counter.  My first thought was one of disbelief, how could a boy this young be wanting to drink coffee?  Then it came to me as I continued to watch further.  I saw him pour half a cup of sugar into his coffee.  To say the least, I was amazed in that he swallowed the whole thing.  Later that day, I was speaking to my friend, the ranch counselor whose name was Henry.  I told him about the young man and what he had done with the coffee.  Henry laughed and then went on to tell me that sweets in any form were forbidden for the boys at the ranch.  Henry said that many of the boys before coming here, lived on junk food with a lot of sugar in the ingredients.  By drinking the coffee with sugar, they could fulfill their cravings for sweets. 

The thought then occurred to me in how I could use sugar as a force for positive change in my students.  I went to the principal with my idea, and he said that I could try it on a provisional basis.  In my classroom, I offered students candy for positive behaviors and good academic

performance.  In one day, I had a whole different environment within my classroom.  My students studied, participated, and there were no fights what so ever.  I wanted to keep the wraps on my plan with the other teachers in the beginning, because I wanted to see if it would work first.  Soon, the other teachers were coming to my room and watching the difference this made for me, and more importantly, for my students.  Very quickly, the other instructors were approved to do the same, and we had a revolution in behaviors with in the ranch school.  After a period of time, the novelty of candy would wear off, and some negative behaviors would resurface.  This though would lead us to work on other positive reinforcers that would be less tangible.  Recognitions for good behavior, among other viable alternatives were used in turning students around.  We found that positive alternatives were having a much greater influence for change than punishments had been at our ranch school. 
Children often find that simple
discovery can be very exciting!
I found that something so simple was eluding us as professional instructors.  No form of punishment was working; it took a simple thing like sugar to turn behaviors around.  God had shown me something I never would have seen, and this was only due to its simplicity. 

How then does this story relate to my future in education?  I later took the position of starting an alternative school in central Minnesota.  Previous attempts had failed to get the program going, but because of God’s insights and direction, it soon became a success.  It went from students having to go to an alternative program, to those students who were desiring to be there.  How did it work?  We had caring staff that really wanted our students to succeed.  From our secretary, who with her gentle loving nature first greeted our new students when arriving, to that of each caring teacher in the classroom. 

One important lesson I had learned at the ranch school, that caring took precedence over education.  If children knew that you really cared for them, then they would want to learn and feel safe with you.  Many of the children when first coming to the Alternative School were angry at the world for their tumultuous existence.  We provided for them a safe place, a shelter from the storms in their lives that took place outside of the school.  They knew that they were loved and cared for when they stepped into our halls.  In this environment, they could see hope and a future for themselves. 

Sometimes certain paths can be very challenging for us adults, while for a child, the way is simple.
I now can now look back and see how God has taught me in how to love myself with all my frailties and weaknesses, and then to love my students.  Without coming to know God’s forgiveness and love, I know that I would not have been much of a teacher.  As God’s word says, “Love each other deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8

Many times over the years I have found that when in a tense situation with a child, instead of yelling back to get their attention and/or giving threats in order to scare them, I have taken a breath, and walked away from the situation.  A little later, I returned and offered that student alternatives that were positive for everyone concerned.  I am always amazed at how my wife Anne works with our children.  I have often watched her when talking to one of our kids who were upset.  She sits them down alone, away from the situation that got them angry, and then really, really listens to what they have to say.  Then, she smiles and offers them positive alternatives to the problem, and how they might do it differently next time, that is, rather than a restriction.  Our child walks away feeling that they have been heard, and loved.  They also know that there is a good outcome to the frustrating dilemma facing them.

Sometimes we only see what is on the surface,
 God though knows the heart.
By watching how Anne’s parents talk to our children, I can see where many of the skills that my wife possesses come from.  They are patient with our kids, and very slow to anger.  Anne’s mother Marji will at times, redirect (in a positive way) one of our children when seeing frustration mounting in them.  First, she lets our child know that she is listening, and that she cares for them as well as understands what it is that they are going through.  She then explores positive outcomes with them.  Marji then allows our child to choose between several alternatives in what they could have done, and what they can do in the future.   Will or Abby, then walks away knowing that they have been heard, cared for, and self-empowered to go another direction. A direction that is much more fulfilling than anger and frustration.  I have been a witness to my staff doing the same at school.  I have found this to be the essence of a good teacher, as well as a wonderful parent and caregiver as well.

As adults, we hold their futures in the balance, those that have been entrusted to us.