The Surprising Benefit of Bright Red Lines

notpassA teacher we worked with asked: “What do I do when a student is out of his chair, and does not respond to my respectful redirections? Should I start threatening with punishments, since the student is being so disobedient?”

This is an important question to consider, given the importance of maintaining a high balance in our “relational bank account“. The question can be recast as “When is it worth it for me to do damage to my positive relationship with a student?” The answer depends on the type of situation we are encountering: Is it routine or an emergency?

Routine and Emergency Situations Have Different Goals

In routine situations, the primary goal is to strengthen our relationship with the other person (i.e., to increase our balance in the relational bank account). We want to use positive relational techniques: Noticing and praising desirable behavior (and thereby increasing its frequency), redirecting undesirable behavior by making a respectful request, and ignoring bad behavior (thereby reducing its frequency, especially by praising and reinforcing desirable behavior that effectively blocks the undesirable behavior).  When we do this consistently, we can also achieve a remarkable level of peaceful, even cheerful cooperation from the other person (some people call this discipline, but the word sounds a little harsh to me; when things work well, I think about it as goodwill).

In emergency situations, the primary goal is to resolve the emergency and return to routine. Resolving a behavioral emergency often means shutting down the undesirable behavior (but remember: Just because a behavior is undesirable doesn’t mean it’s an emergency). It’s best if we can resolve the emergency without making a withdrawal from the relational bank account, but often resolving emergencies requires making a relational withdrawal. Of course, it’s still good to try and make the smallest withdrawal possible (for example, by speaking respectfully).

Defining Emergencies In a Classroom Setting

In a classroom setting, I would define an”emergency” as any of the following:

1) A student is in danger of physical or emotional harm (this may be the student who is exhibiting the undesirable behavior, or another student who may be impacted by this behavior)

2) It is impossible (or very difficult) to teach.

You (or your school) may have a different definition for emergencies. I encourage you to spend some time thinking about what constitutes an emergency for you in your classroom, or in your family, or with your peers. Coming up with a clear definition will help you give shape to your new best friend: The Bright Red Line.

The Bright Red Line Distinguishes Between Routine and Emergency Situations

Using the criteria I use for defining a classroom emergency, it’s easy to see the bright red line: As soon as anyone is in danger of physical or emotional harm, or if it becomes very hard or impossible to teach, we have crossed a bright red line. Having this level of clarity makes life a lot simpler when we are trying to determine whether we should continue using positive relational technique, or if we should resort to non-collaborative interventions (which may solve the immediate situation but will damage the relationship, reduce goodwill, and may make future interactions difficult and non-cooperative).

Is This an Emergency?

So when a student is out of his chair and walking around the classroom during a lesson, is this an emergency? We still need a little more information to decide this. Using the definition I proposed, we can ask:

1) Is the student endangering himself or anyone else?

2) Is the student making it impossible (or very difficult) to teach?

If a student is traveling constantly between his desk and the trash can, it may be annoying to us, but is probably neither dangerous nor highly disruptive. In this case, we would attempt a respectful redirect (“Danny, please return to your seat, this is important material for you to know”), praise the student if he complies and ignore the student if he does not comply. Slowly, step by step, the student will be guided through the praise back to his desk and to work in a focused manner. We do not attend the student when he is far from the desk, because attention is very rewarding for students and we do not want to reward the behavior of being away from the desk.

However, if the same student is talking with other students on the way to the trash can, or if the student is throwing things at other students, or if the student is singing loudly, then the situation probably qualifies as an emergency. In this case we would act quickly to shut down the undesirable behavior, while attempting to hurt the relationship as little as possible. We may approach the student quickly (remember, it’s always better to manage disagreements from a close range, rather than make a public show of it) and say in a matter-of-fact way (because getting a teacher angry can also be very rewarding, so we don’t provide that particular reward) something like: “Danny, please sit down immediately or I will send you to the principal’s office / call security / ask you to leave the classroom / [whatever your school policy dictates].” It is crucial that you say the truth – this is not an empty threat or an attempt to intimidate – it’s a warning, an extremely clear and explicit if/then statement. If the student does not comply, you immediately make good on your warning. By speaking respectfully to the student and by following up on your warning you minimize the withdrawal from the relational bank account, and may even be making a deposit (you are being consistent, predictable, and respectful).

Try This

Next time somebody else is behaving in a way that you find less than perfectly desirable, try deciding if they crossed a bright red line – if the situation became an emergency. If not, continue working on with strengthening the relationship (which could mean, at that moment, ignoring the undesirable behavior and waiting for desirable behavior to praise). If it is an emergency, give a warning (if there’s time) and, if the warning didn’t result in desirable behavior, do what is necessary to resolve the emergency – but try to hurt the relationship as little as possible, especially by being respectful, cool-headed, and consistent.

Perhaps most importantly, define your own bright red lines, so you can commit to a different course of action before and after they are crossed. There is great relief to be found in deciding, in advance, when you should behave in different ways. By taking the guesswork (and the second-guesswork) out of potentially stressful situations, you leave yourself with much more room to be thoughtful and deliberate in your actions, and a much better chance of building, strengthening, and preserving strong relationships.

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