Reacting VS Responding

Yell and sit…sit and yell, get a little louder, be a little firmer…they’ll eventually listen-right?

Wrong.

I walked into a room recently where an educator was sitting on a bench demanding that the kids stop! She kept saying “I said stop, stop!…(a little louder) Stop it NOW!…(even louder) I said STOP STOP STOP!” Her face was turning bright red and she was clearly frustrated. Teaching isn’t easy, we all get frustrated, patience is hard, so, so hard. We are all human. We all have emotions. But, I want to encourage you think about this question: how does yelling help?

Children are in tune with adults more than we like to admit. They read our body language, notice our facial expressions, and feel our emotions, sometimes as if they are their own. Children’s frontal lobes are still developing, this is the part of the brain that helps us control our emotions. It’s our job to help nourish that development, help it grow. That’s what we do as teachers-right?

Just as you might spend extra time with students working on letter sounds or multiplication facts, we MUST spend time developing social-emotional skills. With this, it’s also important to constantly remind ourselves that their brains are growing (yes even in the teenage years). We also must remember that students need varying levels of support recognizing, managing, and expressing emotions. (I know, this is a lot, you already have so many other things you must teach and fit into your day, that curriculum map is just haunting you at night!) However, research shows that learning can’t happen without self-regulation, trust, feelings of safety –from both peers and adults—all of which are part of social-emotional development. So how can we do this?

It starts with modeling.

The teacher I described above was trying to get her students to lower their voices. They didn’t hear her, they were engaged in a game, and instead of complying to her demands, they just matched her volume and continued the activity. She was frustrated and angry. I get it.

But to be honest, I don’t know that they even knew she was talking to them, or understood what it was that she wanted them to “STOP!”  Instead, they matched or modeled her tone, her yelling.

Wait. Sometimes kids only respond to yelling…right?

Wrong. It might seem like it to us, as adults. Perhaps, because once our faces have reached a certain level of red or we’ve stomped and made enough noise we get their attention, or scared them, they comply?

Let’s be honest though. Yelling isn’t fun for anyone, including the yeller. Besides the obvious—sore throat, exhaustion, anger— it also causes an increased amount of adrenaline and stress hormones for ALL parties involved. When is the last time you screamed at your students and said— alright good, that felt great, time to get back to learning those multiplication facts?

I want to challenge you to consider the difference between a reaction and a response.

The dictionary definition of reaction is: an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event.

But wait, the word response is in that definition, so what’s the difference? To make things even more confusing…

The dictionary definition of the word response is: a reaction to something.

Despite the concise dictionary definitions, there is a difference and it matters!

ReACTion has the word ACT in it. When we react to something it’s typically a more immediate action that comes from an event or situation that occurred. When reacting we often don’t take time to think or process the situation, instead we jump into flight or fright mode and act.

For example, a child just knocks over the entire tub of papers (after you have asked them to stop running in the room multiple times). You’re frustrated, you yell, you demand they pick it up, or lose recess for not listening, you REACT.

Next, let’s look at RESPONSE. If you just look at the dictionary definition you could argue that the above example is a response as well. I won’t disregard this point, but I want to encourage you to think about a response with a different mindset.

Response = thoughtful and intentional action.

Where you take a quick moment, that deep breath, you try to remind yourself that your student is still learning. You are the teacher.  You find empathy. Remember, mistakes are okay, they help us all learn.

So that child knocks over that paper and instead of yelling, you take a deep breath, quietly walk over to the child, make a plan for how to pick it up, help them re-focus, teach them how to self-regulate, model that response. With calm. With words. You respond with understanding and through a teaching lens, not with anger. Not with yelling.

I know this is hard. You won’t be perfect. We all slip, we are all human and sometimes even our own emotions get the best of us in front of students.  But every moment that you can remind yourself to RESPOND instead of react is another moment that you are modeling self-regulation, communication, and helping your students develop the social-emotional skills that are key to successful learning.

What strategies do you use to self-regulate when you feel yourself reacting emotionally?  Stay tuned for some suggested strategies and more on teachingisintellectual.com

Mira Cole Williams, PhD is an assistant professor in inclusive early childhood education and exceptional education. That means I prepare future educators to go out into this world and doing AMAZING things…I always tell my students…small actions can ignite large change, it starts with YOU today!

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