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October 1, 2021

Prevention Interviews: Listening with Intention

What if we used the time usually spent punishing a student—often an ineffective strategy—to talk with that student in a way that helps them succeed?
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Classroom Management
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Listening with Intention (thumbnail): A teacher listening to a young student.
Credit: October 2021

Listen & Learn

"We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know."
—Carl Rogers
Schools are not very good institutions of listening. Most of us educators have too much to do every day to completely stop our business and truly listen. We'll pause a lesson to efficiently answer a student's question, with one eye on the clock. When we're rushing down the hallway to our next responsibility, we'll give a student a quick reminder or bit of advice—if they can keep pace with us. Students can do the math: They are one of many in a class, and one of hundreds or even thousands in a school. They each get a fraction of our attention.
And we're less likely to give more attention to the students who have already disrupted our schedule through their poor choices and impulsive actions. Sadly, and we know this in our heads and hearts, those students are often the ones who most need the gift of our time. The good news is that when we sit down and listen—not lecture, remind, or scold, but truly listen—we unleash that "potent force for change" Rogers identified. If you listen that way to a "difficult" student, you may be one of the first school adults who has offered that youth the potent force of being heard.
The history of disciplining children in schools has included physical abuse, neglect, shaming, physical restraints, and shunning. Most of those are now forbidden options for school adults. But their legacy remains in the impulse to punish a child to better behavior; cause a student enough pain, some believe, and that student will choose a different way to deal with their frustrations. Only two years ago, I was in a public high school in which the instructions in the detention room were to be absolutely silent and face away from everyone, or the detention would be repeated. I'm guessing no student ever learned a new skill or improved their relationship with a teacher in that room.

An Amazing, Overlooked Option

It's hard to remember to listen with the legacy of punishment echoing down the hallways of schools. Listening is sometimes derided as coddling or excusing bad behaviors. Despite the staggering number of students who end up in detention repeatedly or drop out (which isn't an event, but a process that unfolds over years of alienation), the impulse remains to punish.
Admittedly, it is hard to remain compassionate when we are frustrated. We can easily forget that some of the very best times in this profession are when we have an unexpectedly meaningful conversation with a student. Even when we know listening can bring change, under pressure, we forget it's an option.
I once worked with an otherwise strong team of middle school teachers who briefly forgot the power of listening. They were making no progress with a new student—let's call him "T"—who was disruptive every time he entered a classroom. The teachers had moved this student's desk, offered rewards, kept him for detention, and called his mother, all with no discernable impact on his behavior. I said to the team,
"This looks a lot like last spring when [another student] was causing problems. You kept guessing what to do, like throwing darts in the dark, hoping to hit the target. One of you then did a prevention interview and got her back on track, remember? No one's done the prevention interview with T?"
There was a big pause. Then they all shook their heads, sheepishly chuckling at how easily they'd forgotten what had worked so well with another student.
"Amazing," one of them finally said. "Discipline still makes us think of everything but listening. We had success listening to a student last spring when punishment was getting us nowhere, yet we never thought to try this with T."
A prevention interview is what it sounds like—we sit one-to-one with a student, asking open-ended questions. We learn about this whole young person to build trust that allows for new solutions for recurring problems. Prevention interviews also work well when done soon after a student has made poor behavior choices, to prevent further incidents and prevent a conflict-filled teacher-learner relationship from forming.
No special procedures or elaborate arrangements are needed, just a teacher willing to ask questions and listen without judgment. In fact, when these middle school teachers remembered this strategy, one of them simply said, "Good news—I'm keeping T with me during lunch because of what happened in class yesterday. I'll do the interview then."

No Magic Necessary

In their seminal book on negotiations, Getting to Yes, Fischer & Ury write that "bedrock concerns motivate all people."1 Among those concerns are a sense of belonging and recognition. What that teacher team realized when they interviewed one student who had behavior problems—and the following year after the teacher in question finished her prevention interview with T—was how much these young people felt recognized, that they belonged to the team, when they had a chance to be heard. They felt worthy.
There's no magic here. Students don't suddenly change—they grow, and listening is a tool that helps children grow. The teachers on that middle school team gathered a lot of previously unknown information, stories, and ideas from their prevention interviews, which led to mutual problem solving. But equally important, the students they interviewed learned more about themselves. As the psychologist Eleanor Duckworth says, "To the extent that one carries on a conversation with a child, as a way of trying to understand a child's understanding, the child's understanding increases."2
Understanding leads to solutions. More than that, the effort to understand, to listen, is another tool to address the institutional and interpersonal impact of racism, a system that has had dire consequences for children of color. Simply put, as a white man in my sixties, there is much I don't know about the lives many of my students of color have lived before entering my school and classroom. "What I don't know" includes their strengths, interests, responsibilities, and the efforts they and their families have had to put forth to be treated as worthy.
I earn the invaluable commodity of trust when I listen to and learn from students—and part of my job is gaining the trust of all my students. The time I've spent on prevention interviews has been among the most meaningful interactions I have had with students who didn't initially see me as their ally. Teachers can best become allies with alienated, marginalized, or noncompliant students through direct interactions. The unique relationship each of us creates with a student cannot be developed by any other adult in the school.

So How Do We Do This?

Here are answers to three questions teachers often ask about incorporating prevention interviews into their work:

When Can I Find Time?

Often, the interview happens when we would otherwise be talking to the student in a strictly disciplinary mode, such as during lunch, recess, and before or after school. Allocating time for punishment—which doesn't teach new behaviors or build bonds—is already part of the school tradition. Turn the paradigm on its head; use that time to talk and listen, and you and the student will gain much from what is too often an exercise in "watching the clock."
If your time is limited, ask a colleague to cover your class for 5–10 minutes. Or ask a school administrator to do so. Once everyone recognizes the benefits of the time spent in a prevention interview, school leaders should be willing to help make them happen. (Feel free to pass this article along to any colleague to help convince her or him of the benefits of prevention interviews!)

What Should I Ask?

Adapt this opener to fit your style and relationship with the student: "I realized that I should know a little more about you so we can avoid this situation again. I hope when we are done talking, we'll be better together at helping you do your best."
Then ask open-ended questions like these, in any order:
  • Did you ever have a teacher who really worked well with you? Tell me about that. Do you know what made that relationship work?
  • Do you have a favorite subject? Tell me more.
  • Is there any subject that has always been hard for you? Was it hard all the way back to 1st grade? Any part of it you sort of understand or like?
  • Do you read on your own for fun? If so, where and when do you read? Where do you get your books? Do you have a favorite book, genre, or author?
  • [If the student isn't an independent reader]: Have you ever finished reading a book—tell me about that. Do you read comics? Ever like a book assigned in school, even if you didn't finish it? If reading is hard, how long can you read before the words stop making sense?
  • What's writing like for you? For instance, is it better by hand or keyboard? Do you know how to make an outline or other ways to prepare? Have you ever written something that you really liked? Tell me more.
  • What do you like to do for fun? [If the student says video games, be curious and ask more.] Which are your favorite games? What do you like about them? How did you learn to play ___? Are you good at it? Do you think I would like it?
  • Do you have a job after school, take care of siblings, or have other responsibilities most days?
  • When you are getting upset in school, what are some strategies you can use to avoid things escalating? Can we brainstorm ways I can help you use those strategies?
  • Do you have any advice for me on how to be a good teacher for you? Is there a best place for you to sit to do your work? Do you need a break now and then? Does it help if I write directions on the board? Do you like working with others or would you rather work on your own?
  • [If you're meeting with a student after a critical incident:] Do you have any ideas how we can fix things now? Let's brainstorm some ideas together.
  • [Ask this last:] Is there anything else on your mind that you think I should know?
Let the student's responses guide the conversation. With practice, you'll find your own path to wisdom about the students you work with, and what they most need to feel safe with you. The goal, more than gathering any one detail, is to connect by making a space for the student to share.

How Should I Respond?

Don't lecture or criticize past choices and actions—this isn't the time for moralizing. Do respond honestly ("That sounds like a rough time you had"; "Wow, I'm not sure what I would have done if I were you, or your teacher"; "Thanks for sharing that hard stuff.") One mantra of restorative discipline is to focus more on helping the student recognize and repair the harm that's been done—which is often to their relationship with you—than to focus on the rule that was broken. Honest, nonjudgmental reactions and interest are medicine for a damaged relationship.

The unique relationship each of us creates with a student cannot be developed by any other adult in the school.

Author Image

Jeffrey Benson

Tell me more are the three best words to let people know you're really interested in what they have to say about their world. Say those words any time you find yourself curious, or when digging deeper seems like a good idea.
End with, "Thanks so much for all you told me! Here's what I am taking away from this interview that will help us be better partners in class: ___. Did I get that right?"

A Tool for Connection

Many teachers tell me they wish they had time to do a prevention interview with all students. I wish so, too. While these interviews would be good for all students, they are invariably necessary for a handful, the ones who are now staying with you at lunch, during recess, etc. This tool lets teachers connect with the students who challenge us most, who struggle to bridge the gap between their needs and our authority. In the real world of infinite needs and finite resources, let's use the precious resource of time—now spent on often meaningless and harmful punishments—to do prevention interviews as often as possible. With each one, we might stop a stressful-for-all incident from happening.

Relevant Read

For more on how to positively impact students, see Jeffrey Benson's new ASCD book Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL.

End Notes

1 Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (1981). Getting to yes. New York: Penguin.

2 Duckworth, E. R. (1996). "The having of wonderful ideas" and other essays on teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press

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