Before reading this column, you might want to read or review Dr. Jones's previous columns Meaning Business, Part 1: Calm is Strength, Upset is Weakness, Meaning Business, Part 2: The Body Language of Commitment, Meaning Business, Part 3: Follow Through and Pseudo-Compliance, and Meaning Business, Part 4: Dealing with Backtalk.What do you do when the body language of Meaning Business produces the opposite of what you expect?
In the previous four segments, we examined Meaning Business. We learned that Meaning Business involves your total being:
Sometimes, however, the body language of Meaning Business produces the opposite of what we expect. To fully understand Meaning Business, we must understand these exceptions to the rule.
It was the first week of school, and the first grade teacher was just getting to know her students. She was working the crowd, as students did an art project at their desks. One little boy, who seemed quite immature, was fooling around at his desk, off in his own little world. The teacher stood at the child's desk for a moment waiting to be noticed.
When the child failed to look up, the teacher bent down and rested one hand on the desktop in order to give him a prompt. When the student looked up and saw the teacher's arm in front of him, he wrapped his arms around her forearm and rubbed his face against her sleeve. He continued to do this for more than five seconds.
Sometimes in body language you get the opposite of what you expect. This teacher certainly did not get the response she expected from "moving in."
If you only know the basics of body language, you might think, "It's not working." But body language is always "working." Sometimes, however, it does not say what you expect.
Israel Goldiamond, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, used to have a saying concerning the symptomatology of clinical disorders. He would say, "A symptom is a neon sign pointing to its own cure." To our group of young psychologists, he explained, "If a person is acting in a bizarre fashion, it is for a reason. What do they get for this behavior? Whatever it is, they must want it very badly. Find out what it is, and make sure that they can only get it by acting appropriately."
Dr. Goldiamond's analysis proved unerringly true. You would do well to take it to heart. When a child in your classroom acts in a bizarre or atypical fashion, the child is telling you a great deal about his or her life. If you can decode the message, you can understand what would otherwise seem inexplicable. And you will have the beginning of a treatment program.NEEDY STUDENTS
When the child described above wrapped his arms around the teacher's forearm and rubbed his face on her sleeve, the image that came to my mind was of baby monkeys and their terry cloth mothers. This image is embossed in the memory of any student who has ever taken Psychology 101. Baby monkeys who were deprived of their mothers' presence made surrogate mothers out of the softest object in their cages. That object was a terry cloth towel. They would curl up on it and rub against it in an effort to derive the touch that they were being denied.
Like the baby monkeys, children who are socially deprived often act in ways that we might consider bizarre. For one thing, they read body language differently than normal children do. To understand the behavior of the needy first-grader in our example, think of him as being "starved for attention."
Starvation provides us with the perfect analogy. Imagine yourself going to a new restaurant. Have you ever read through the entire menu two or three times before finally making your selection? This is the behavior of a well-fed person. You are highly discriminating. Imagine, in contrast, that you had not eaten in ten days. Someone offers you some food -- the only food available -- a turkey sandwich. Can you imagine yourself saying, "No, thank you. I prefer roast beef."? To the contrary, you would probably "wolf it down," caring only that it was food. Under conditions of severe deprivation, we become indiscriminate consumers.
When children suffer from severe neglect, they become indiscriminate consumers of adult proximity and attention. They fail to read the nuances of body language that would signal approval versus disapproval -- something that normal children do automatically. Rather, they "wolf it down," caring only that an adult is close enough to provide touch.
Getting the opposite of what you expect is part of life in the classroom, although when things go completely awry, it makes even the most experienced teachers feel as though they have somehow done something wrong. These situations are laden with information, however, that can give us a more effective way of responding to the situation the next time.
Our little boy's strange body language tells us much that is sad about his life. His extreme neediness has neglect written all over it. As Dr. Goldiamond said, "People are bizarre for a reason." Understand the reason, and you will have the beginning of a treatment program. Unfortunately, the treatment program is not always pleasant for us.
When we perceive the extreme neediness of deprived children, we instinctively want to heal them. We want somehow to give them the attention and love they have been denied in order to make them whole. That is magical thinking on our part, and it is not how the game is played.
Because these children are so needy of human interaction, literally any interaction that you have with them will be reinforcing. It will reinforce whatever was happening at the time of the interaction. If, for example, you interact with the child because they are hitting other children, you inadvertently reinforce hitting. The intent of your interaction is irrelevant, because these children are indiscriminate consumers of your proximity and attention.
Consequently, rather than giving your attention to these children unconditionally, you must be very guarded -- especially in situations that involve dangerous or aggressive behavior. Not being able to discriminate disapproval, the child might act inappropriately more often in the future in order to get the proximity that comes with your Limit Setting.
Teachers, particularly at the primary level, are reporting more and more extremely needy students like the one described above. As those students get older, their attention seeking often acquires a more antisocial flavor. Yet, whether clingy or acting out, extreme attention seeking probably will be present in any classroom in you teach in.EXPLOSIVE STUDENTS
Meaning business could be seen as an invasion of a student's personal space. This invasion is subtle when you lean down to give the student a prompt, but you are operating on the edge of that student's personal space -- an area that verges on being uncomfortable. In body language, you are saying, "If you want to up the ante, I can increase the price of your foolishness by simply moving closer and staying longer."
Some students, however, have an atypically large personal space. They go on "alert" before you even reach their desks. Put any child with a history of physical abuse into this category. If you move close to those students, they might become extremely agitated to the point of "losing it." Your use of physical proximity has now become a liability rather than a useful tool.
Fortunately, you can usually tell when you are dealing with students who have a history of physical abuse because their body language warns you. When you get too close, they exhibit a parry reflex. Parry reflexes have a lot to do with a child's history of physical abuse. To parry a blow is to deflect it so it misses you. A parry reflex is a characteristic human reflex to ward off a blow to the head. Raise your arm suddenly so your forearm shields your head as you duck, and you will have mimicked a parry reflex.
The beginning of the parry reflex usually consists of clenched fists and a flexing of the pectoral and shoulder muscles, particularly on the dominant side. The student's facial expression is typically grim with eyes fixed on you. If you are right-handed, you can mimic that part of the response by bringing your right elbow into your side and raising your right shoulder slightly as you tense the muscles across your chest.
Although you rarely see the student's hands as you move in because they are under the desk, you can usually see tensing in the chest and shoulder area, especially if the student is wearing a T-shirt. That preparation to raise the arm in defense should serve as a warning to you. This student will get highly anxious if you get much closer.REGULATING INTENSITY
You do not need to approach the edge of the student's desk, nor do you need to bend down to give a prompt. Those are choices that you make. You could stand a foot away from the student's desk as you take your relaxing breath. You could prompt from a standing position. You even could turn your body slightly to make the interaction less confrontational. Remember, body language is not a technique that must be repeated in the same way every time. Rather, it is a language -- a form of communication that must be tailored to the needs of the specific situation.
Proximity is simply a tool in body language. Any human interaction is more intense the closer two individuals are to each other. If the interaction needs more intensity, proximity is a good way to produce it. Getting a "typical student" to quit playing games and get to work is a case in point. If, however, the intensity of the interaction is already higher than you want, you can limit the intensity by limiting your proximity. Time is on your side even though less intense interactions take a little longer to get results.CALM IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
Imagine that you lean down to give a young man a prompt only to have him bolt out of his chair and yell, "Get out of my face!" His chair clatters across the floor as he fixes you in his stare. You don't always see it coming. Some students can stifle their emotions up to the last moment. A situation can sometimes blow up in your face without the warning that body language usually provides.
What do you do? Actually, this is a simple question, and, by this point in the book, you can probably give me the answer. Take two relaxing breaths, stand slowly, check your jaw, and wait. Follow the general strategy for dealing with the unexpected: When in doubt, do nothing.
Your emotions are contagious. If you are calm, you will have a calming effect. As you relax and wait, the young man will give himself the extra space he needs. He typically will pace nervously as he settles down. At some point, the student usually begins to feel awkward as he stands in the middle of the room with everyone watching. You might want to reduce the awkwardness by gently motioning toward his seat. Of course, the student could just bolt out of the room. Who can predict?
Do not feel as though you have done something wrong. Bolting and running is simply a primitive coping mechanism. The choice of coping mechanisms reveals the level of the student's social-emotional development. Dr. Goldiamond would smile and say, "You have just received a lot of diagnostic information about that particular student." Initiate the school policy for a student running in the halls, and continue to take your relaxing breaths. You can assess your long-term strategy in a minute.
No amount of experience can prevent some rude surprises over the years. The needy student and the explosive student are two of the more predictable types that require you to make adjustments in the heat of the moment. Making adjustments in the middle of a play is just part of being a seasoned player.WHEN MEANING BUSINESS FAILS
Meaning business as we have described it in the preceding chapters is only one element among many in an effective discipline management program. It is not a cure-all. In spite of our eternal desire to find a panacea for our management problems, successful classroom management always will require a system.
This system must have different procedures that do different jobs. Each element of the system has a primary focus and a range of effectiveness around that focus. Any element of that system, such as Meaning Business, will perform beautifully when asked to do what it is designed to do. However, as you reach the edge of its range of effectiveness, it will begin to fail. Knowing the limitations of a procedure is just as important as knowing its strengths. When you reach the edge of a procedure's range of effectiveness, you will want to transition seamlessly into a new procedure, rather than riding the old one into the ground.