Monday, November 15, 2010

The power of silence

It's taken us awhile but we've finally begun to figure out how best to interact with PJ when he is upset. It hasn't been easy to determine- when PJ is upset he demonstrates all sorts of behaviors that make any teacher cringe with the mere fact that they are expected to somehow handle this. Everything changes, nothing is constant, and as an adult in the situation it's easy to begin to feel powerless.

As teachers when we feel powerless we begin all sorts of rituals to show we're in control.  It's not always clear who we're trying to prove this to- other teachers, the child, or ourselves, sometimes what we do isn't productive.  We yell, we set limits, we give choices, we say routine canned phrases like, "You're making these choices, not me." or (my personal fav I use all the time) "I'm sorry you feel that way." We may speak sweetly, we may speak firmly, we may ignore the behavior.

Yet with PJ we finally realized that what works the best when he is upset is the opposite of any of our instincts. We sit quietly, rub his back, and wait for him to come around.

We don't talk. We are silent.

Do you have any idea how hard that is to accomplish as teachers?  Every part of our body wants to teach him. We want to help him calm down, show him what he did was wrong, help him assess the situation or navigate his way through his emotions. But it doesn't matter what we say. No matter what words come out of our mouths, in whatever tone of voice we use, all PJ hears is Charlie Brown's mother. And not a nice, happy Charlie Brown mother. A pissed off, angry at the world, out to get PJ- version of Charlie Brown's mother. Every word out of our mouths stresses him out more.

I can offer PJ his favorite toy, I can ask him if he wants tons of chocolate, I can ask him if he wants to go to the movies. It doesn't matter- when he's upset all he'll say is "NO". Just hearing my voice, or anyone's voice, when he is upset keeps him cycling. Any adult authority, whether he knows you or not, will continue to trigger his emotions. He'll become more and more agitated and upset and eventually he will truly spiral out of control. 

Ignoring him does not work either. He's scared and unsure of his feelings and the more we ignore him the more upset he becomes. Instead we sit, slowly rubbing his back. No words. Just our presence. And after a bit if we offer our hand he'll take it, stand up, and allow us to re-enter the classroom. 

It's been such a difficult lesson to learn. It goes against every teacher instinct we have, especially if another adult is around. Between the silence and the waiting it just seems wrong. But it works. PJ needs to know we're there for him and our presence says that without words. Sometimes as teachers we have to learn when it's ok to have a few moments here and there where we're not actively teaching.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

I need to take this to heart (we'll see if I manage to do so). I'm talking at my kids way too much. I've thought about how to restructure that but now I'm thinking it would be better if I'd just shut-up!