On the first day of school James, an 11th grader, comes in to my class, grabs a chair in the back corner leans back and says, "English sucks."
After years of working with kids who hate school I've learned that the best way to begin my response is to find my feet and take one deep breath. Next, I seek to make a simple connection with him by affirming his experience. "You must really hate English to start the first day with that announcement!" I smile and move towards him just a little bit, finding something to fix on the bulletin board near him. I've learned it's important not to come right up and "have a conversation." It helps to be doing something near the challenging student and only look at him or her briefly. As a connection grows, you can lengthen the eye contact.
"A lot of people in the world aren't a fan of English. Tell me about your experiences in English. I really want to know so I might have a chance of making this class bearable for you." I laugh. He doesn't give me much. "I don't know. I just hate it—all the writing and reading stupid stuff that makes no sense." I try to imagine how long he has "hated" English and what kind of "bad" classes he might have experienced. I work to attune to his experience and what's behind the tough words.
"Are there any classes you do like?" I ask. He can't help himself but light up a little "Yeah! I love my natural resources tech program. I love the maple sugaring unit." Bingo! I have an in. I have something that engages him. This information is like gold and I feel fortunate he offered it up so easily. As kids finish filing into class I say one more thing to James, "Given how much you hate English, I am impressed that you have made it this far and got to class on time. Thank you. I have a deal I'd like to make with you: you come up with some ways to make this class less painful for you and I will also work hard to do the same. But you've got to be a bit more kind in your feedback. No more, 'English sucks" ok? That's really hard for me to hear and makes it hard to teach well."
The next day, when he comes in and doesn't say "English sucks" I thank him and ask him, "So I know there was some moment in some English class that wasn't terrible. Tell me about that"
This is restorative communication.
"English sucks" signaled to me that James has experienced some "harm" in his education. My first thought as I pause is, "What is he trying to gain here?" My guess is that he's doing what he thinks he needs to do so that I won't ever call on him, so that I might kick him out of class some days, so that I leave him alone.
Next question that enters my awareness is "why?" Why would a student on the first day of class choose to say something that will most likely end up in a conflict with a teacher? Probably for some very good reasons. While his behavior is offensive to me, it has worked for him in some way during his life or he wouldn't do it. This is called an adaptive behavior. We all have them—sarcasm, shutting down, avoidance, worry, perfectionism, etc.
Unfortunately for James, he developed an adaptive behavior that is not acceptable in school. My job is to support him to someday realize he no longer needs this adaptive behavior to get by. I begin this process by connecting with and affirming his experience, showing curiosity and compassion, and finally collaborating. Eventually we will celebrate small gains. I will even thank him the next day when he comes and sits down without saying "English sucks."
From learning we no longer need to suck our thumb to finally giving up our blankie, we humans struggle to give up behaviors that have became ingrained habits. Even saying "F--ck You!" is, for some kids, an adaptive behavior that has become habitual. Our job as parents is to help our child give up the blankie. It is our job as teachers to support our students in giving up adaptive behavior habits that no longer serve them.
I call this approach to addressing a student who presents a challenging behavior "Two feet. One breath. 5 Cs" — Connection. Curiosity. Compassion. Collaboration. Celebration. And here is a PDF that outlines the approach.
Please contact me if you have any questions or leave a comment below. I'd love to know how this works for you!