Silent Rulebook – Recalling social norms
When a student gets sent to my office for some misbehavior in class, I take the opportunity to have them talk to me about what went wrong. In a roundabout way, having them tell me this can reinforce community norms by bringing to the surface what they already know about what’s expected. There are so many norms we take for granted, and these conversations can help kids think about the unwritten/unspoken “rules” and make that understanding concrete.
One strategy for this conversation is to leave a lot unsaid. My facial expressions or body language can pantomime a reaction to a breach of protocol—for example, making a look of shock and horror when they tell me they called the teacher a name under their breath—which compels the student to fill in the missing part of the conversation. If she says, “I know! I know, but…” then I know the kid does know better and wants to talk more about what led up to the rudeness. If she says, “What?” and sits back, then I need to keep trying to tease out whether they know it was wrong but still don’t want to admit it, or if they really don’t see the error. In the above example, I might then screw my face up into an “Oh come on” expression to see if the student will then concede that she crossed a line, even if she’s not yet willing to say she was out of line.
Another strategy is to refer to the norm by naming the assumed rule, while also labeling it as beneath us to discuss. “I don’t have to tell you that you shouldn’t have been talking, so let’s just talk about what happened after that. I mean… right? That’s obvious, right: that you don’t talk during a test? Or, do we need to discuss that?” This is a little coercive, I admit, but 9 times out of 10 the student does agree with me, even though sometimes they argue the simplicity of the case. “I guess I was talking during the test, but not really because my friend was done already!” Now at least we have a foundation of mutual understanding and a jumping-off point to get into the lesson the teacher is trying to teach by disciplining them.
I never offer to discuss something that I won’t actually discuss. Whether a student is being obstinate, just dragging out the conversation, or actually doesn’t get it, I am always prepared for them to say, “No, I don’t know that” and require a direct lecture from me on the principles of the matter. In the above example, I’m fully prepared to say, “Oh, OK. Well, pretty much every teacher will tell you that you’re not supposed to talk during the test. Why do you think that is? What do you think the teacher would be worried about?” I use open-ended questions to help get a handle on the child’s understanding of the issue, and to draw them into sharing their understanding of the rule that was broken. If I simply say, “Well, that’s what the rule is,” then I have missed an opportunity to check in with them. I would still be wondering, do they really not know the rule, or do they sincerely think the circumstances exempted them?
A final strategy is to point out models, including themselves. “I know you know that you’re not supposed to take anything out of the cafeteria without paying for it because you’ve paid for those chips in the past.” Prior behavior belies any claim that they disagree with the norms. It can also help elucidate the source of conflict, both for me and for the student who might not know exactly why they acted out: “You don’t get kicked out of Math class, ever. So, what’s different about English? Why do you end up down here when you’ve got Ms. So-and-so, but you would never talk back to Mr. Whosit like you did in English?” The kid thinks through how they behave in other classes and then thinks about how they acted in this situation, and they will surprise you with how surgically they can isolate the issue in many cases. (It’s important for the students to sincerely trust that it’s safe for them to discuss their thoughts and feelings with you. They might say something rude or insubordinate about the teacher, but you have to let them do that in the “safe space” of your office to help get resolution.)
Another model can be the other students, but you have to be careful how you use that. “I’m sure the teacher went over the rules, because you’re the only kid down here. There’s no way Ms. So-and-so would only send you down and let everyone else get away with it.” This strategy can risk making a student who already feels isolated feel even more alone, so it should be used with some caution, especially with students who are the minority in your school. The goal of effective norm-setting is to welcome everybody into the group, not to make some people feel like they don’t fit in and will stand out. However, it does point out to kids how much their conduct stood out, and as a result can often change their perception.
With these strategies, I can find out a lot about the student and the situation that landed them outside my office. Often, there are antecedents leading up to the final conflict, and the conversations allow me to highlight what the priorities should be.
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