“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 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 are rushing down the hallway to our next responsibility, we will 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 in a school. They each get a fraction of our attention.
And we are 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 our 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 or remind or scold, but truly listen–we unleash that potent force of change that Carl Rogers has identified. In fact, you may be one of the first adults in school who have offered those students the potent force of listening, of being heard.
The history of disciplining children has included physical abuse, neglect, shaming, physical restraints, shunning, and chemical restraints. Most of those options for adults are now forbidden, but their legacy remains in the impulse to punish a child to better behavior; cause them enough pain, so some say, and the children will choose a different way of dealing with their dilemmas. Only last year 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 am guessing that no student has ever learned a new skill, or improved their relationship with a teacher, in that room.
It is hard to remember to listen with the legacy of punishment echoing down the hallways of schools. Listening is derided as coddling, akin to excusing bad behaviors, a liberal fantasy of a compassionate world. Despite the staggering number of students who end up repeatedly in detention, or drop out–and dropping out is not 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 great conversation with a student.
I worked with a great team of middle school teachers who briefly forgot the power of listening. They were making no progress with a new student–let’s name the student X–who was disruptive every time he entered a classroom. The teachers had moved his desk, changed his partners, offered rewards, kept him for detention, called his mother, all with no discernable impact on X’s behavior.
I said to the team, “This is a lot like last spring when student Y 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 the prevention interview and got her started back on track, remember? No one’s done the prevention interview with X?”
There was a big pause of silence–and then they all shook their heads, sheepishly chuckling at how easily they had forgotten what had worked so well for student Y. “Amazing,” one of them finally said. “Discipline still makes us think of everything but listening. We had success listening with Y when punishment was getting us nowhere. Amazing that we never thought to do the prevention interview with X.”
Another teacher on the team excitedly got everyone’s attention: “I’ve got good news, now that we’ve been reminded to listen. I have to keep X with me during lunch because of what happened in class yesterday. I’ll do the interview then.”
In the seminal book on negotiations, Getting to Yes (Fischer and Ury, 1981) the authors write that “bedrock concerns motivate all people,” among which are a sense of belonging and recognition. What that team of middle school teachers experienced with student Y the previous year, and again with student X when the prevention interview was completed, was how much these young people felt recognized and belonging to the team when they had a chance to be heard. These students felt worthy.
There is no magic here. Students don’t suddenly change–they grow (Benson, 2012). 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, both of which led to mutual problem solving; of equal importance, their students learned about themselves: “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” (Duckworth, 1987).
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 of power that had had dire consequences for children of color. Simply put, I am a white man in my 60’s and there is much I don’t know about the lives many of my students of color have lived before entering my school and my classroom–and I mean their strengths, their interests, their responsibilities, and the efforts they and their families have had to put forth to be treated as worthy. Part of my job is gaining the trust of all my students; the time I have spent on prevention interviews has been among the most meaningful interactions I have had with students who did not initially see me as their ally.
We become an ally to alienated, neglected or non-compliant students through direct interactions; our relationships with students cannot be developed by any other adult in the school. The prevention interview, as explained below, is one tool to connect with the students who challenge us most, often with the students who struggle on their own to bridge the gap between their needs and our authority.
I am often asked, “When can I find time to do an interview?”
Most often the interview happens when we otherwise were going to be talking to the student in a strictly disciplinary mode, such as during lunch, recess, and before or after school. Allocating time for punishment is already part of the school tradition–but punishment doesn’t teach new behaviors or build new bonds. Turn the paradigm on its head–use the time to talk and listen!–and both you and the student will gain much from what is most often an exercise in watching the clock.
If you are on a teaching team, ask a teammate to cover your class for 5-10 minutes. You can also ask a school administrator to cover class for a few minutes, especially when everyone begins to recognize the benefits of the time spent in a prevention interview (feel free to pass this article along to the administrator ahead of time!).
You can pose the interview questions in any order—with practice you will find your own path to wisdom about the students you work with, and what they most need in order to feel safe with you. Let the student’s responses guide the conversation. The goal is connection, by making a space for the student to share, more than any single detail you will come away with. If you have limited time, choose the questions that you are most curious about. If you have a half hour, you will likely get through most of the questions that you find worthwhile with this student.
Do not lecture or criticize the student’s past choices and actions—this is not the time for moralizing.
But do respond honestly; e.g. “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 of the mantras of restorative discipline is to focus more on helping the student recognize and repair the harm that has been done–which is so often to their relationship with you–than to focus on the rule that was broken. Your honest, non-judgmental reactions and interest is medicine for a damaged relationship.
A few times below I suggest saying, “Tell me more”—the three best words to let people know you are really interested in what they have to say about their world. Say those words anytime you find yourself curious, and in a place where digging in deeper seems worth the effort.
To start the interview, adapt this script to fit your style and current relationship with the student: “I realized that I should know a little more about you so maybe we can avoid this situation again. I hope when we are done talking we can be better together at helping you do your best.”
- 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(s)? Tell me more.
- Is there any subject that has always been hard for you? Was it hard all the way back to first grade? Is there any part of that subject 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 or genre or author?
- [If the student is not an independent reader]: Have you ever actually finished reading a book—tell me about that. Ever like a book assigned in school, even if you didn’t finish it? Did you fake that you read just to get by? Read comics? If reading is hard, how long can you read before the words stop making sense: a page or two? Five minutes?
- What’s writing like for you? Tell me more. For instance, is it better by hand or keyboard? Do you know how to make an outline or other ways to prepare to write? Have you ever written something that you really liked? Tell me more.
- What do you like to do for fun outside of school? [If the student says video games, be as curious as you would be if they said they played cello in an orchestra] : Which are favorites games? What do you like about those games? How did you learn to play it? Are you any good at it? Do you think I would like it?
- Do you have a job after school, or take care of brothers and sisters, or other responsibilities most days?
- When you are getting upset in school, what are some strategies you can use to avoid getting in trouble? Can we brainstorm a few ways I can help you use those strategies?
- Do you have any advice for me to be a good teacher for you? Is there a best place for you to sit to be a good student? 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, or does it depend on the task?
- [in cases when you are meeting with a student after a critical incident]: Do you have any ideas how can fix things up now? Let’s brainstorm some ideas together.
- Last question: Is there anything else on your mind about being a student that you think I should know?
- [Summarizing the interview]: “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?”
Many teachers have told me they wished they had time to do a prevention interview with all their students. I wish they had the time as well. While these interviews would be good for all students, they are invariably necessary for a small handful, the ones who are now staying with you at lunch, during recess, and before and after school.
In the schools I wish we had, these interviews would happen before any incidents. In the real world of infinite needs and finite resources, we can use the precious resource of time, now spent on often meaningless and harmful punishments, to let the interview prevent the next incident from happening.