The most stressful misbehavior in a classroom is not the big disruption -- the altercation that earns a trip to the office -- but the little disruption. Big disruptions happen only occasionally. Little disruptions happen constantly.
Our research shows that 80 percent of disruptions in the classroom involve "talking to neighbors," and 15 percent involve being "out of seat." Little disruptions are the eternal enemies of time-on-task. They cause us to sound like this:
"Class, it is altogether too noisy in here! You all have work to do, and I cannot be everywhere at once! If you have any questions"
"Robert, would you take your seat! I am sick and tired of looking up and seeing you wandering around the room."
"Jennifer, I want you to turn around in your seat and do your own work! Every time I look up I see the two of you talking."
Little disruptions will keep you "on your toes." Being on your toes all day long will leave you exhausted.
When you see a disruption, you experience a reflex that you studied in your first high school biology class. It is called the fight-flight reflex.
To understand fight-flight is to understand stress. The first part of the reflex is muscular tension all over your body. That can produce tension headaches, sore neck and shoulders, acid stomach and difficulty sleeping. The second part of the reflex is the secretion of adrenaline in your bloodstream. Adrenaline increases your metabolism producing "nervous energy;" it takes 27 minutes for adrenaline to leave the bloodstream. Translated into everyday terms, two "squirrelly" student behaviors per class period will keep you "wired" all day.
Most teachers think being on your toes just goes with the territory. Running on adrenaline all day, however, builds up an energy debt, just as athletes build up an energy debt when they compete. You will feel that energy debt about 27 minutes after the students go home; it's the letdown that has you muttering, "Boy, what a day!" You'll take that exhaustion home to your family. You'll feel like sitting rather than being active. You'll have little tolerance for more stress, and normal family demands will make you want to scream, "Give me a break!" Regardless of your pay scale, you are paying too high a price for earning a living.
That kind of stress cannot be managed after you get home. It's too late. You have already paid. Exercise and yoga only help with damage control. If you want to manage stress successfully, you must prevent it. You must learn to respond minute-by-minute to the little disruptions that occur on the job, without wearing yourself out.
Meaning business is the art of dealing efficiently with the normal misbehavior of students. Meaning business means working smart instead of working hard. Meaning business is self-preservation.
CALM IS STRENGTH, UPSET IS WEAKNESS
Can your students tell whether you are calm, upset, tired, or impatient? They read you like a book! They know even without you speaking, because they read your body language.
Do your students know how to push your buttons? Do they like to be in control? Do they want their own way?
How can kids tell when they are in control? Consider the following questions:
When you are calm, who is controlling your mind and body?
When you are upset, who is controlling your mind and body?
When you are calm, you can think. You can use all your intelligence and experience and all your social skills to deal with a situation. When you are upset, you react. Instead of thinking, you have a fight-flight reflex.
Have you ever "flown off the handle," "lost it," "gone ballistic?" How long did it take? A half-second? Reflexes are quick! Have you ever said something in the heat of the moment that you wish you could take back? Thinking comes later. When you are calm -- when you have time to think -- you can manage a situation.
Classroom management requires calm. You never will be able to manage another person's behavior until you can manage your own.
LEARNING TO RELAX
Calm is the opposite of fight-flight; it is the antidote. To reduce stress, we must train ourselves to relax in response to the cues that normally trigger fight-flight. Calm in response to provocation can be learned. Your grandmother, who always said, "Count to ten before you open your mouth," had developed a method of sorts. She might not have been completely calm, but at least she did not "fly off the handle."
To save wear and tear on your body, it would be nice to actually relax, rather than just to stifle upset. Because upset happens quickly, however, we will have to learn to relax immediately and automatically when confronted. That takes practice.
The first practice exercise for learning to relax involves breathing -- learning to breathe in a relaxed fashion. A relaxing breath is slow and shallow; it is that rhythmic breathing you experience as you begin to doze off. You might have practiced it in a prepared childbirth or yoga class. Relaxed breathing calms the body and lowers blood pressure.
Next, relax the body as a conscious act. After you get the feel of it, practice relaxing in response to a provocation. If you are alone, you can imagine the provocation, but if you have a friend or a colleague to practice with, they can provide more realism. When you see a person relax in this fashion, it appears as though the provocation just caused everything to come to a halt. Rather than speeding up, you slow down. Rather than opening your mouth, you become quiet. Rather than reacting, you clear your mind. Upset is fast, and calm is slow.
Then, turn slowly. Point your toes in the direction of the provocation to fully commit your body. That tells the other person that they have your full attention. Take another relaxing breath. Simply observe and give yourself a moment to think. When you see a person turn slowly and commit their attention in this fashion, it looks as though their entire body says, "I beg your pardon." The ball is now in the other person's court.
Take another relaxing breath.
The above is just a brief overview of relaxation techniques. If you truly want to master relaxation and other related skills, use the practice exercises described in the free Tools for Teaching Study Group Activity Guide available at fredjones.com.
PLAY YOUR HAND ONE CARD AT A TIME
If your fight-flight reflex had a voice, it would be screaming in your ear, "You have to do something! Now!" That voice, however, calls you to your doom.
Time, in fact, now is on your side. You have stopped what you were doing, you have relaxed, and you have committed yourself to dealing with the situation. The real question now is, what will the other person do? You don't know what the other person will do until they do it. By staying calm, however, you give yourself time to think and to act intelligently. In class, a student either will get back to work -- or not. At home, your child either will do what you just asked -- or not. By controlling yourself, however, you are controlling the situation.
Often a child simply will give up when he or she sees that you've become an "immoveable object." Sometimes, the child will exclaim, in exasperation, "Oh, all right!" Try not to smile.
If a child feels like gambling, however, he or she might raise the stakes by engaging in backtalk. Whining, wheedling, denying and blaming -- you know them all by heart. Beware! Backtalk triggers backtalk -- by you! After all, the most predictable way to get another person to talk to you is by talking to them. Does the child actually want you to talk? Could there be a method to the madness?
In our next segment, we will focus on backtalk. In so doing, we will move beyond relaxation techniques to "games children play." We will move beyond simple relaxation skills to more complex skills of meaning business.
*Note: In previous segments we have focused on the prevention of typical classroom disruptions. Room arrangement, working the crowd, Praise, Prompt, and Leave, Visual Instruction Plans and Say, See, Do Teaching all work together to replace talking to neighbors with time-on-task. When all the elements are in place, typical classroom disruptions can be reduced by 80 to 95 percent. Managing the disruptions that remain, however, constitutes an inescapable part of your job description -- one that is critical to both student learning and your physical well-being. Teachers typically refer to it as "meaning business."