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November 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 3
Reader's Guide

Seeing the Full Picture of Student Behavior

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      In her book Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be (Harper Wave, 2022), clinical psychologist Becky Kennedy introduces the "two things are true" concept. Essentially, she argues, parents "don't have to choose between two supposedly oppositional realities." For instance, parents don't have to feel stuck between being fun and enforcing rules. "We can avoid punishment and see improved behavior, we can parent with a firm set of expectations and still be playful, we can create and enforce boundaries and still show our love, we can take care of ourselves and our children."
      This premise is echoed in Matthew McConaughey's new children's book, Just Because (Viking, 2023). "Have you ever thought that there was more than one right answer to a question?" asks McConaughey. Throughout the book, the actor-turned-author explores different contradictions. For example, the statement "Just because you follow, doesn't mean you're not a leader" is accompanied by an illustration of a young runner handing off a baton to his teammate. You can be a follower and a leader—both can be true simultaneously.
      In an interview on NPR's Morning Edition, McConaughey said, as parents, we're so fixated "on trying to understand absolutes and make things certain in black and white." But "we miss half the picture a lot of times when we do that."
      The basic sentiment expressed by Kennedy and McConaughey is reflected throughout this issue of Educational Leadership. As the articles illustrate, students' post-pandemic behavior—which has many educators confounded and exasperated—has to be met with nuance.
      Traditional school discipline is often predicated on rewards and consequences: Do a or b happens. Do c to earn d. Yet this rigid approach won't help students learn how to do better next time. Neither will "fixing" disruptive behavior by doubling down on punitive measures. Teachers will get caught up in power struggles. Kids will disengage. And dishearteningly, relationships will suffer.
      After spending so much time in lockdown, notes high school principal and restorative justice advocate Dominique Smith in this issue, many students now like to be isolated—they're glued to their phones, and they're participating less in the classroom. They're also much more comfortable questioning adults.
      "We are so accustomed to saying, 'Don't do that' … and to students replying 'OK.' Now, they ask why. 'Why can't I have my cell phone out?' 'Why can't I talk to my partner?' 'Why can't I walk out of class?'"
      In what might feel like the "Wild West" of behavior, a scripted response won't work, explains Smith. "We need to differentiate discipline just like we differentiate academic content."

      There doesn't have to be one right way to respond to concerning behavior.

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      In this issue, you'll find strategies for doing just that: for committing to restorative practice by emphasizing relationship building and accountability; for getting to the root cause of behavior and academic struggles; for teaching perspective-taking skills and helping students understand the impact of their actions; and for neutralizing explosive behavior in-the-moment—de-escalating the "Hulk brain"and keeping yourself calm and regulated.
      There are no hard and fast rules for meeting this challenging moment in schools. But as Kennedy and McConaughey suggest—and as this issue shows—maybe that's OK. There doesn't have to be one right way to respond to concerning behavior. If we take that route, we might "miss half the picture."

      Reflect & Discuss

      "Connection Before Correction" by Lee Ann Jung

      ➛ For teachers: When talking with a student who has been disruptive, have you ever first checked in on how they are feeling and validated their emotions? How did that affect how your talk went?

      ➛ For principals: When called on to deal with a student who's shown problem behavior, what do you usually do first? Do you generally ask about their emotions and how they were feeling when the behavior happened?

      "A Matter of Perspective" by Jessica Minahan

      ➛ How might you model perspective-taking skills when dealing with a student whose behavior is problematic?

      ➛ How might you modify your response to challenging student behavior as a result of reading this article?

      ➛ Did you notice high enthusiasm for restorative practices in your school or among colleagues around 10 years ago? If so, has the enthusiasm stuck, or are educators you know now doubting the approach?

      ➛ What do you think of the "reformist approach" to problems Dugan describes? Have you seen it in action in a school, in terms of improving disciplinary practices or another major area? With what result?

      ➛ Was anything Dugan explained here about the background, intention, or concept of restorative practices new to you? Did anything surprise you?

      "De-escalating the Hulk Brain" by Meredith McNerney

      ➛ How have you been able to calm down a student in distress?

      ➛ Does your school have a prevention plan for warding off crisis behavior?

      ➛ What consequences might help shape a student's behavior rather than punish them for mistakes?

      ➛ Think about those students who consistently show challenging behavior in your class. Are they also struggling academically? Do you see any connection between their academic and behavioral struggles?

      ➛ Have you noticed any difference in students' executive-function-type skills since the pandemic? Do many have more trouble focusing or organizing their work, or remembering what they learned?

      ➛ What is one systems-level approach to supporting teacher regulation and well-being happening at your school?

      ➛ Weisling suggests teachers need both individual and systems-level approaches to regulate their well-being. What are some challenges teachers at your school face in authentically practicing self-care?

      ➛ Emotional contagion can lead to a cascade of stress responses between students and teachers. What strategies have you implemented in your classroom to prevent stress from escalating?

      Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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