Each year, teachers spend more time than they would like responding to a multitude of students’ off-task behaviors. These may include the extremes of mild inattention/cognitive drift to sleeping in class or talking with peers to oppositional/hostile verbalizations directed at teachers. Students’ behaviors are frequently viewed as an affirmation of their lack of motivation, unwillingness to learn, or uncooperativeness, inducing in teachers an irritation that engenders, in turn, negative feelings toward these students. However, what if this “reading” of students’ actions misses an important emotional communication inherent in these seemingly annoying behaviors? What if students are indicating that the academic demands make them feel incompetent/frustrated/hopeless/unsafe and in order to survive they must separate themselves from the task at hand? What if personal preoccupations (i.e. home problems; peer issues) make it impossible to attend to the daily lesson? When these conditions exist, there is a mismatch between teachers’ need to teach and students’ needs to do something other than learn at that moment in time.
Students’ behaviors, when deciphered correctly, reveal a communicative and survival function that can be translated by teachers into an accurate, responsive approach to instruction. This approach begins with the thesis that students need to feel safe and comfortable in order to learn. Emotional safety at school is achieved by providing the kind of atmospheric conditions that are akin to those “good enough” parents provide for children as they are growing up. A holding environment is created by responsive adults that allow students to feel safe and competent because they feel understood. Feeling understood, in turn, offers students the emotional comfort of feeling connected. When teachers take the time to decipher students’ behaviors from the students’ point of view, accurate and responsive instruction can ensue. This is because acknowledging students’ emotional states allow teachers to join with students, affording students the feeling that they are with someone like them. Being with someone like you translates into feeling liked by that person and liking that person in return. Understanding generates instructional practices that are accurately responsive to students’ needs. Simply put, students may not be ready for a spelling lesson simply because the teacher is teaching it. It is my contention that accurate emotional attunement is part and parcel of a comprehensive teaching plan that highlights differentiation of instruction.
There are, of course, significant obstacles to becoming emotionally attuned to students, starting with the institutional demands to press forward with an often challenging curriculum whether students are ready for it or not. Teachers may feel they do not have the luxury of time to do the required “reading” of students. However, students whose behaviors signal anxiety, discomfort, frustration, or a general need to escape demands that are making them experience intolerable emotions will continue to pose challenges to teachers until someone can accurately decipher those signals.
How this is accomplished is beyond the scope of this paper, but it can be said that the approach involves a very active plan to consult with students at every point of the way. Consulting immediately generates in students the feeling that teachers are genuinely interested in them and value what they say (even if they do not agree). More specific ideas about how to go about this kind of consulting will follow.