Language and Mindset for Effective Redirection

There's more to discipline than just discipline! Ten proven "deflectors"

For Middle Level

In our alternative education setting, we have seen students benefit from effective redirecting teacher language. Students enter our alternative program almost always in the habit of feeding on conflict. Often, they have been removed from a traditional classroom due largely to this tendency. Many have come to believe their only power lies in resistance, and some use verbal attacks of any kind in an attempt to seize power. Our goal is to deflect students who appear to be headed in the wrong direction and teach them the skills of self-management so they can get themselves back in the groove of learning.

Keeping them in charge
Good kids—our kids—can make bad decisions. Over time, we've compiled quick verbal techniques to deflect conflict before a struggling student gets everyone off track. Keeping them in charge of their behavior is the key to our approach. Our population comes and goes, so we need to revisit topics like this with some regularity.

By deflecting, we reinforce the notion that a student's mistake is fixable by that student. It's the student's problem, and he needs to learn to deal with mistakes in an appropriate way. We teach students how to fix; we don't fix for them. That said, we're constantly analyzing how we conduct classes, and we do all we can to keep students in positive frames of mind: there's more to discipline than just discipline!

Our top 10 deflectors
1. "Let it go, and let's move on."
We use this deflector whenever we see a conflict brewing. It is very important, and its implications are many: we need and value the student; we're in this together; we are responsible for our learning and our behavior; in order to move on we have to not get stuck in a minor conflict. This message is quite different from something like, "Whether you're with us or not, we're moving on," which implies that we would tolerate a poor decision and would leave someone behind. We hold mini-sessions with our group about how to let things go. For example, one of us might model how to physically shake it off, take a deep breath, and dig back into our books rather than get caught in a downward spiral of arguing.

2. "Use I (intelligence) over E (emotions)"
Unless we get this important idea across to our students, anger remains impenetrable. These words remind them of the power of thinking and the danger of relying entirely on emotions. This deflector also needs to be taught and re-taught from time to time when everyone is in good shape, as students won't be able to heed its message when things get heated.

3. "Now that you said what you said, what has changed?"
We use this deflector when a student makes a harsh or defiant comment. In our class, angry talk changes neither what is acceptable nor the teacher's commitment to the student. When we use this deflector, we're saying, "You're still here, your problem behavior hasn't been fixed by the outburst, and I'm still here and haven't lost my faith in you." We've noticed it works for us without pre-teaching, but we try to have discussions about its meaning during cool times.

4. Who is being hurt by your not getting your work done?"
We use this deflector when a student appears to be trying to sabotage himself by shutting down. We've found if we say this and walk away, it really makes students think. Often, after a few moments they let it go and move on. No pre-teaching is necessary for this deflector.

5. "We're not mad, but we refuse to accept that behavior."
We use this deflector when students protest teacher redirection. If we engage them in a discussion after we've attempted a redirection, a power struggle is almost sure to ensue. So instead we employ this statement or something of similar sentiment. No pre-teaching is necessary for this deflector.

6. "Fix that."
We use this deflector to hold students accountable by having them repair the damage they have done. We often use it after saying, "Now that you've said what you've said, what has changed?" to remind students that an outburst doesn't remove their responsibility for repairing damage and getting back on track. No pre-teaching is required, but we talk a lot about this one, usually in relation to how to think rationally about potential fixes, how to select the best one, and how to carry out the plan.

7. "Are you getting what you wanted?"
We use this deflector to invite a student to reflect on his behavior: did he misbehave to meet a need? Is he now pushing back, for example, because he wants attention? These deflector words show we care and want students to meet their needs in appropriate ways. We won't, for example, get sucked into a power struggle and thereby help a student meet his need for power in the wrong way.

8. "Do you think you are in trouble? You're not in trouble. But your behavior needs to change."
We use this deflector when a student appears to take a redirect personally, and whenever we think a student has reverted to a crime-and-punishment mentality. In addition to reframing the intervention, this deflector reminds students that a redirect need not automatically trigger a defensive response. No pre-teaching required for this one.

9. "This isn't a discussion about what you did. Just fix it."
We use this deflector to remind students that our redirects are non-negotiable. No pre-teaching required.

10. "You have 27 (or another small number) seconds to fix what you just did."
We use this deflector to allow a defiant student to save face. Sometimes
a small amount of "think time" helps. We say something like this and walk away. Then, if the student doesn't fix it, we don't give up. We might try saying something like, "No big deal, you still have four seconds left. I've seen you make the right decision before. Get back on track." If this still doesn't work, we don't let it go. We may need to have a quick talk away from the action, or send that student to a cool-off spot, or use another consequence. But if we let it go, they gain the wrong kind of power.

10 key points for teachers
1. Know your role. You have been granted tremendous power: the power to teach. This includes the power to change, to assist, to set limits, to influence; in short, to be a positive force in your students' lives. You want them to learn so they have the power to manage themselves in a strong, positive manner. (Growth and Action mindsets)

2. Maintain self-control, verbally and physically. Keep your tone neutral and calm, but positive. Body language should suggest confidence and assertiveness but not aggression. Look at the student, but don't demand eye contact in return. (Objective mindset)

3. Remember, it is not about you, nor is it about them; it is about the expected behavior. Don't take offense at what a student says or does. (Objective mindset)

4. Much of our approach is based on being in relationship with the students. Without this, results will be far less positive. Regular community-building activities, acknowledgments, and celebrating successes are important. (Action mindset)

5. Be consistent. Stay true to the expectations you've established. (Action mindset)

6. "Sweat the small stuff" in order to develop a community. Don't decide instead to "choose your battles." Left unchecked, little things turn into big things. (Growth and Action mindsets)

7. Make sure students know they are not in trouble. A redirection is a teaching opportunity for the student receiving it and for the community as a whole. This takes time and persistence: initially, many students automatically perceive any redirect as a threat and/or a punishment. (Growth mindset)

8. Avoiding power struggles is essential to effective behavior management. We deflect student anger and walk away, staying firm about the expectation but avoiding the conflict. Getting angry is the way our students have learned to deal with issues. It's their way of holding onto or gaining power. (Objective mindset)

9. Show faith in the rule breaker. Making mistakes is expected; with guidance, they'll make better choices. (Growth mindset)

10. Process what occurred afterwards, when the student is calm. Restoring a relationship while problem-solving is the immediate goal. This can be very quick, or can take several minutes. (Growth mindset)

Results
Through using the deflectors and the key points mentioned above, we have again and again seen out-of-control behavior improve quickly. Two years ago, the adult staff was physically restraining students on a daily basis. This year, we've had to resort to restraint only once. And we're working with half the number of adult staff in our room compared to before! This tells us it's not the number of adults in the room that matters; it's the approach you use with the students.

More students than ever are successfully completing our alternative education program and then returning to their mainstream schools. What's more, most are remaining there. Some have even complained to us, upon returning for a visit after "graduating" back to regular classes, about how lacking in self-control some classmates are!

And finally, we teachers have noticed a welcome change in our expectation: we now know there will not be fights in our classes, and we come to school expecting to have a good day with our students and with each other.

Keith Edmonds is Student Development Coordinator for the Harrisburg City School District. Bernie Blosky teaches social studies at John Harris High School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Published January 2011