The most important point to remember when dealing with children is that they are, like all of us, human beings. They have their own wants and goals, they have created their own unique ways of perceiving the world, they plan and structure their ways of living so that their lives are the ways they want them to be, and they have their own specific priorities.
Thus, dealing with children demands respect for their worlds, and, more importantly, understanding how best to help them work through the various difficulties and problems that they have. Since their problems are internal to them, the best way you can help them deal with their conflicts is by getting them to look within themselves and decide for themselves how they want things to be.
You do this by asking them questions. Lecturing them or telling them what you think will only frustrate their desire to work things out within themselves, which is how they are designed to operate.
If used properly, the RTP questioning process gives parents and teachers a powerful teaching tool for children who are willing. By asking the right questions, you can teach children, in a highly effective way, how to reflect within themselves and to think in ways that will help them satisfy their own internal goals, while at the same time you are teaching them to do this in the most effective way possible.
Lecturing children, telling them what they should be doing, making judgments about what you think is wrong with them—all these strategies have been tried for years and have never worked. They just make things worse! Any time you try to force children into a specific way of thinking or push on them in any way, you cannot guarantee how they will deal with you. And if they perceive what you do as criticism or abuse, you’re in for a lot of pushing back.
The key in working with children is to ignore excuses, not encourage them. Most counseling time with children is spent arguing over the validity of excuses. A question that should be avoided is “Why did you do it?” When you ask why, you are encouraging children to avoid taking responsibility.
Regardless of the why, the key to helping children take responsibility is to stick with the critical elements: what they did, the rules, where they want to be, and what will happen the next time they disrupt. The only time why questions might be used is when you are trying to help them think of better ways to resolve their conflicts.
Asking why questions can lead to what they wanted; then you could ask if there is a better way of getting what they wanted that doesn’t violate the rules or the rights of others. If you ask “Why did you do it?” prior to the time that students are ready to make plans, especially if they are in the middle of their conflicts, the question will lead the children away from considering whether they want to follow the rules.
“Why did you do it?” often leads them to try to justify their actions. Then, all kinds of reasons and excuses will pour out as they attempt to avoid responsibility. The focus must remain on the violations of rules or of others’ rights. That is where responsibility begins!
Also, when working with children, try not to be judgmental, which they perceive as an attempt to control them. This works at breaking down the mutual respect you are trying to build. Rather, focus in on the key questions and stay focused. Excuses are an attempt to focus you away from the issue, which is breaking the rules.
The RTP questioning process, if followed to the letter, will get you safely past their excuses. Remember, for children to succeed, they must believe you care about them, that you have confidence in their ability to solve problems, and they must experience respect. The stronger the relationship before the problems arise (see Chapter 6), the more likely they will accept the process, thus the easier it becomes to resolve the differences.
If the questions are asked in a respectful environment, the Responsible Thinking Process can also help build that relationship, because when you ask them what they think, listen non-judgmentally to their answers, and accept their decisions, this process creates that necessary mutual respect. Remember to ask the questions in a calm, respectful, curious voice.
Never yell, lecture, or tell; always ask. Stay focused, and stay with the sequence outlined below until you get familiar enough with the process.
Wherever humans are, there are also rules, standards, and procedures. Their purpose is simple: they provide guides for how we should act to accomplish our goals without in any way interfering with others who are trying to achieve their goals. This is how all of us can live in harmony with each other.
If I respect the rules of wherever we are, I shouldn’t in any way violate your rights while trying to exercise my own. Whether it is on a football field, in a public forum, at a school board meeting, at a restaurant, while driving, or in a school, the purpose of rules remains the same. If they are followed, we will have both the freedom and opportunities to achieve our goals while respecting the rights of others who want to do the same thing. And that is what this process teaches children.
The questioning process is designed to help children look within themselves and compare the way they are dealing with others with the rules of wherever they are, and to decide whether their ways of handling themselves are violating the rights of others within that environment. The RTP Flow Chart on page 71 provides an overview of the entire process.
1. “What are you doing?”
Most always, this question should be asked first. Any time children break the rules or don’t conform to criteria or guidelines, the first focus of concern should always be the way they handle themselves, to become aware of their actions, and, more importantly, how their actions might affect others.
If they are going to respect the rights of others and follow the rules, they must first look within themselves and see what it is about themselves that is interfering with others’ rights. Talking about rules is meaningless unless they look at what it is about themselves that relates to the rules. But they must do the looking. It must come from within the children themselves.
Telling them doesn’t teach them to self-reflect either now or in the future. This is something they must learn through experience by successfully dealing with their issues. “What are you doing?” begins the process by which you learn if they are ready to accept responsibility.
It should be noted that all staff members, both certified and classified, should use the process. To quote my friend, Jack Foster, RTP Trainer and superintendent of Kashunamiut School District, Chevak, Alaska, “Every adult takes responsibility for asking the questions.”
2. “What are the rules?”
To maintain mutual respect, you have to tie whatever they are doing to the rules and standards of wherever they find themselves. You are teaching them to compare what they are doing to the standards of their environment rather than what you want them to do. Then, you are more likely to be perceived as a respectful, interested party, and not as someone who is trying to control them. When you say such things as “do what I say” and “my rules are,” students will see themselves as dealing with you, not the rules. It should be clear that they are dealing with the rules, not you.
Once they are committed to following the rules, you should be willing to help them create a workable plan to achieve their goals. That’s what maintains mutual respect. When you yell, tell, argue, lecture, or insist on having your own way, they’ll perceive you as controlling, and conflict will rear its ugly head. And, what is more important, they’ll never learn to look within themselves and decide how they want to be.
The rules of any environment are designed to allow us to accomplish what we want without interfering with the rights of others. Rules have nothing to do with individual preferences, but everything to do with our ability to live freely when we are with others.
3. “What happens when you break the rules?”
Here, you are simply getting them to reflect on the consequences of breaking the rules. If there are no consequences, or if they are inconsistently applied, this will work against their learning the purpose of rules and the responsible way of living. They must believe something will happen every time they break the rules or a growing respect for others will never develop.
4. “Is this what you want to happen?”
Now you are asking them to look within themselves and decide how they want to be as persons. You are really asking them if this is the way they see themselves and how they want to live their lives. You are asking what do you want to happen to you for the rest of your life, do you enjoy these kinds of consequences, do you want to keep running from the law or from others, do you enjoy the way you want to live your life? This question follows logically, and it carries within it the seeds for powerful changes in life style if the children reflect upon and deal with the issues it suggests.
Most children look to consequences as something that will happen to them. This question brings home the fact that, indeed, this will happen to them—but it is within their power to make changes.
Once they decide to make changes in how they want to be as persons (which might take a short time or months on end), questions three, four, and five will no longer be needed. This will be apparent from the reaction you will get after asking “What are you doing?” They’ll throw up their hands or roll their eyes and say “Yeah, OK, I know.” They’ve worked through how they want to be, and now they’re learning to deal with being that way on a continuing basis.
5. “Where do you want to be?” or “What do you want to do now?”
This step can be used interchangeably with the prior one. I’ve introduced a variety of questions to suit various people and situations. The point here is to get closure as to what they really want with regard to the conflicting ways they’ve been living. Once they’ve agreed that they want to be where they are and are willing to follow the rules to be there, then they have to learn how to stay wherever they want to be when various problems arise. (See Chapter 12.)
6. “What will happen if you disrupt again?”
This question, along with the first, should always be asked, even with those children who have already reflected and decided to change how they want to be. It asks, in a different way, the same thing as question four. Do you want to deal, within yourself, with how you treat others, and really be a different person? Reflecting on the future consequences of the way they are presently dealing with their lives is a critical part of the process. Students should also reflect on the unintended consequences of how their ways of reaching their own goals are affecting others. Students who disrupt could be keeping other children from learning, and might injure or humiliate them. They certainly can make it difficult for teachers who want to teach and keep their students on task.
If necessary, ask them what they are doing compared to other things they want. This isn’t always necessary. The purpose of this comparison is to help the child perceive that although she might be getting some of what she wants when she shoves someone else to the ground, there are other wants that she is being kept from getting, such as being the kind of person she wants to be or being with her friends and playing outside in the playground.
These questions should never be understood as a warning to the student. They aren’t. Warnings imply possible punishment. What this process is doing is asking students to think about what they are doing in relation to the rules of wherever they are. This would include losing their right to remain where they are if they continue to violate the rights of others.
They aren’t being threatened by the use of these questions. Rather, the students are being asked to look at the possibility of losing their rights and privileges by violating the rules
Dealing with Children Who Evade Responsibility
Not all children are compliant. When asked “What are you doing?” some say nothing, some say “It’s not my fault” or “He was talking first,” and some defend their actions by explaining what they were trying to do. The key is this: when they avoid answering a question, repeat it. It they persist in not dealing with you, then ask “Do you want to work on this or not?” If they continue to avoid dealing with you, then say “You need to go to the RTC.” Once you have said this, never back down. If you back down, you are, in effect, establishing an additional time for disrupting.
The process allows for two disruptions before students go to the RTC. An additional disruption increases by 50% the number of disruptions per child prior to having to deal responsibly with their problems.
When they want to return and obey the rules, they must be taught how to create a detailed, specific plan. (See Chapter 12.) It is this plan which they use when negotiating with the person in charge of wherever they were disrupting and from where they came.
Dealing with Those Who Disrupt after Settling Down
If children answer the questions and settle down but later begin to disrupt again, then ask “What are you doing?” and then “What did you say would happen the next time you disrupted?” This question gets them to look within themselves and reflect on where they themselves admitted they had to go. Thus, you are not sending them to the RTC; nor with the first set of questions were you warning them. They are actually acknowledging that earlier they admitted they knew where they would have to go if they continued to disrupt.
You are not the “bad guy” but are simply asking them to reflect on how the system works. If they become angry, it is likely that they are mad at themselves for having created this situation. But it is important here to note that, as mentioned earlier, you must ask the questions in a calm, curious, and respectful way. When they answer that they have to go to the RTC, then the final question from you should be “So where do you need to go now?”
The RTC is where students go who need help in creating a plan that is designed to help them work through the problems they are having with following the rules and respecting others’ rights. Once they’ve arrived at the RTC, they should not be pressured into making a plan. That decision should come from them. Some might sit for a while, angry at themselves, but that’s acceptable.
They are struggling within themselves, and that’s a healthy sign. Once they ask for a plan, they’ve accepted responsibility for dealing differently with the way they tried to achieve their goals, and especially for how they treated others. Then, ask them if they are willing to set a goal to work at solving their problems in that area. If they say yes, that is the first step toward their success in dealing with others. You are trying to determine if they are really committed to changing the way they want to be, and how hard they are willing to work to make that happen.
Once strongly committed to changing how they structure their life and deal with others, including resolving their problems, children are ready to learn how to work on a plan to satisfy what they want, using goals and charts (see Chapter 12).
Note: The Responsible Thinking Classroom (RTC) is an important part of this process and should be used in all schools. However, some schools do not have the room available or the cost of adding such a room with a teacher or paraprofessional is out of the question financially.
For those schools, it is recommended that “pairing” teachers buddy up, and each teacher’s classroom becomes the RTC for the other teacher. This is not ideal, but many schools have used it with much success. Other schools have not needed a dedicated RTC, because they have few disruptive children.
Frank Hoefling, principal of Eagle Elementary School in Eagle, Nebraska, uses his office and acts as the RTC teacher. He told me he saw only nine or 10 disrupting students during an entire fall term. Some RTC teachers see that many students in an hour. When asked why he used the process when so few of his students disrupted, Frank replied “I want what’s best for children.”
Once the plan has been created, with the help and final approval of the RTC teacher, the student is ready to negotiate with the person in charge of wherever the student disrupted, seeking to be readmitted to class (or the library, playground, or wherever).
Negotiating Plans Is Important to the Process
When children approach a teacher or parent to negotiate back to where they were disrupting, they should be given time to explain how they are going to deal with problems the next time they occur.
This process shouldn’t take more than three to five minutes. If the teacher or supervisor has any questions concerning a student’s plan, this is the time to ask questions and get clarification from the student. If part of the plan is unacceptable, the student should be asked for alternatives.
The teacher should offer alternatives if the student does not. If the alternatives are acceptable to the student, then the student must alter the written plan to reflect the negotiated changes.
A plan should never be ignored or refused. It should always be treated as a sincere commitment. Negotiating is critical to building student-teacher relationships. Always use questions—they help to teach responsible thinking.
After Negotiating, the Student Is Readmitted to Class
Not all children think of their plans as ongoing restructurings of how they deal with their difficulties. Some see plan making as a way of “playing the game to get people off their backs.” Others, such as preschoolers and special ed students, might forget easily or have short attention spans. Erin Powell, RTP special ed trainer, found it very effective when working with disabled children to review their plans three or four times a day, asking the children if they were succeeding with their plans or how the plans were going.
The plans then became ongoing parts of how they dealt with themselves and others within the classroom.
Many teachers have found that when students disrupt again after negotiating plans, the following questions are especially helpful:
“What are you doing?”
“Are you following your plan?” “Is your plan working?”
“Do you want to change your plan?”
Asking such questions provides opportunities for students to reflect on their plans and to relate them to any present difficulties they might be having in the classroom or elsewhere.
Learning the Process
In order to learn these techniques properly, the process must be practiced before dealing with children. The best way to learn the process is by asking some friends to help you rehearse the sequence until you have it well in mind.
The most efficient way is to role-play a totally and completely compliant child: a child who answers all of your questions truthfully and without any arguments. This is by far the best and quickest way to learn this process. If you role-play a difficult child or one who offers even the slightest resistance, you will take a much longer time to learn the process. You might not learn it at all. However, once the process is learned with a compliant child, then you’ll be able to handle difficult or resistant children more easily.
If there are three of you, one should play the child; one should play the teacher, parent, counselor, or administrator; and the third should be the monitor. The job of the monitor is to make sure that the person working with the child follows the process, and also to make sure that the person playing the child is being compliant. I recommend that you make copies of the Responsible Thinking Process card shown in Appendix 1.
The monitor should make sure that the teacher/parent doesn’t make any statements, but rather uses only questions while dealing with the child. When you question children, they have to deal with their world, and they are more likely to think responsibly; when you tell children what you think, they stop thinking and rarely follow your directions.
Going through this process might seem too simplistic. However, if each person in the group takes turns doing each part of the task several times, the process will have become quite natural to the participants. They should be able to use the questions without having to refer to the cards. At that point, playing a child with a little resistance should be tried. Each step becomes a reference point, which you go back to and stay with if the child becomes resistant.
I’ve watched people become proficient at this process in a short time after they first experienced role-playing with a person playing a highly compliant child. It is especially important to look for a strong commitment. A weak commitment assures that whatever plan is made, children will be unlikely to fulfill their commitment.
I’ve had a mother remark to me after I gave an evening lecture to a parent-teacher meeting at an elementary school that she was headed home to what she thought might be a stormy evening. The next day, I met the same woman in the hall of the school, and I asked her how things went. She said she arrived home and found seven teenagers in her 15-year-old son’s bedroom. He made a flippant remark about how all of his friends were staying the night.
She told me that instead of the usual yelling and screaming, she tried what I had suggested.
She asked her son what the rule was concerning children staying overnight, and he replied “You’re only allowed one person to spend the night.”
She then asked “What’s the rule about how late your friends can stay?” He replied “They’re supposed to be out of the house by 9:30.”
She said nothing more and went to the living room to read. About 9:20, she heard some noise in the hallway and asked what was going on. Her son replied “I’m walking my friends home and Christian is staying the night.”
She told me “I couldn’t believe it worked. No arguing, no fighting, it was great!”
To help those who want to give this process a try, the following is a typical dialogue between a very compliant child and the RTC teacher.
“Breen, what are you doing in here during recess?”
“The playground supervisor sent me in.”
“What were you doing?”
“I pushed Ruth and she fell down.”
“What’s the rule about pushing children in the playground?”
“You’re not allowed to push anyone, and you’re supposed to keep your hands to yourself.”
“What happens to you when you push children to the ground?”
“You get sent to the Responsible Thinking Classroom, and you’re not allowed to play outside during recess.”
“Is that what you want to happen, to stay in during recess?”
“No, I don’t like being in here.”
“What would you rather be doing?”
“I want to be with my friends outside playing.”
“Is pushing and shoving children on the playground going to make it possible for you to play outside during recess?”
“No, I’ll have to stay inside.”
“Is pushing and shoving children against the rules?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Do you want to work at solving your problem so you can play outside during recess?”
“Yes, I really do.”
“Are you sure you want to work at this?”
“Yes, I really do, I don’t like being here in the RTC.”
This is a very simple role-play. In order to learn to deal with more difficult children, you must internalize the process, and this requires dealing at first with very compliant children. Remember, you don’t learn to drive on the freeways, you practice on the safer roads first. The same is true with learning this process.
As a teacher or parent establishes the practice of asking the RTP questions, most children soon catch on to what she is doing. When this happens, all that is necessary is to ask “What are you doing?” and the children think through the rest themselves. Often their response is something like “OK, OK, I know,” and they straighten themselves up. All you need to do is ask one of the appropriate questions, such as “What are you doing?” or “What’s the rule?” Children seem to take over the thinking automatically from just one question and quickly begin following the rules or paying attention to whether or not what they are doing is really going to help them get what they want. However, it is very important, as I mentioned earlier, to add question six, “What will happen if you disrupt again?”
The process is simple, yet few understand its unique quality of helping children develop a sense of responsibility within the environments in which they find themselves. And what makes it all so pleasant is that the parent’s or teacher’s questions are rarely met with anger. Rather, you see the child’s own frustration at having to deal with his conflicting goals. When teaching this to parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators, I often say the following: “If you, the parent or teacher, are upset, and your children are relaxed, you’re doing it wrong; but if you are relaxed, and your children are showing some frustration or concern, then you’re getting it right.”
The frustration that children show when they’re trying to reconcile what they want with the rules can sometimes make for greater frustration for parents and teachers. My friend Jim Graves told me the story of how his five-year-old son, Aaron, didn’t want to finish his dinner. The rule was that if and when an after-dinner treat appeared, there would be none for those who didn’t finish their meal. Jim had taken his boy to the park, and instead of stopping by the ice cream parlor as was their usual routine, they walked past. His young son looked up, slightly teary-eyed, pleading with his dad. Jim held firm, although he wanted to give in. As Jim wisely remarked, “It’s better that he experience this struggle at a young age than when he is in his teens. The consequence of rescuing children from the struggle is that they haven’t learned responsible thinking. What they have learned is that there will always be people to bail them out and excuse them from taking the responsibility for their choices.”
Another friend, Mary Kowalski, who is in charge of operations at four residential homes for sexually abused children, explained to me how hard it is to teach a new staff member to hold firm when youngsters who have broken a rule are trying to fight the consequence of being socially restricted until they are willing to make a plan.
“It is so hard to watch children struggle and fight to keep from having to deal responsibly with consequences, but every child has got to go through that struggle before they eventually settle down and find harmony within themselves through dealing responsibly with the other children and staff members.
It’s much harder to teach a staff member to perceive and treat the child as a living control system. They want to manipulate the child, because the staff believes they’re not doing their job if they aren’t controlling the child. Trying to teach staff that it is their job to help the child learn the process of thinking and choosing responsibility is so difficult. Instead, the staff member makes the choice for the child, then tries to convince the child that it’s the right choice. But the child only learns to be manipulated, not to think for herself.”
This process of teaching responsible thinking is so simple and effective that some children are being taught how to do it, with quite interesting results. George Venetis, former principal at Solano Elementary School in the Osborn School District in Phoenix, had worked with Mimi Norton, a sixth grade teacher. She put her children into small groups and then selected a manager to monitor the other students’ academic and discipline plans.
Throughout the year, each student had the opportunity to take turns being a manager in a group. The idea was to help students help each other succeed. The managers from each group had weekly meetings with their teacher. They’d go out to lunch and talk with Mimi about which student plans were working and which weren’t. Mimi asked George to attend the lunches (a local restaurant picked up the tab for the students). However, there was a problem.
The student managers felt uncomfortable being “bosses” over other students. George began to teach them responsible thinking techniques which solved the problem: no longer were they telling their friends, but they were asking instead. This relieved them of the feeling of controlling their friends and put the responsibility back on their friends.
They became much more comfortable as managers, and, more importantly, their peers began to focus more on their individual plans rather than on seeing the managers as the source of the problems. All of the children are learning to think responsibly and have stopped blaming each other. As they think more responsibly, they act more responsibly.
I remember doing a Saturday training session at Clarendon School with about 60 school personnel and parents in attendance. I had put the participants through a morning training session. After lunch, a middle-aged man announced that “this thing really works.” I asked him what happened. He said “I went home over the lunch hour and my 15-year-old stepson, with whom I don’t get along very well, was slouched in front of the TV when he should have been cutting the grass.
Usually we get into a big argument. This time I asked him what he was doing, just like you’ve been teaching us. He said he was watching TV. Restraining my anger, I then asked him what he was supposed to be doing.
He then got off his butt, turned off the TV, and went out and started cutting the grass. I call that a miracle!” Once these techniques are learned, you’ll find it hard to return to your old style. As one parent remarked to me after two weeks of trying these ideas: “No more yelling and screaming at my kids. I’m so relaxed. How great this is!