“May I Have This Dance?”

Happy Monday…or shall I say, happy that Monday is over? Our day at school had its ups and downs – we had the full moon at our backs, we’re wrapping up a 3-day weekend, and this is the week before spring break. Tonight, however, I’m choosing to focus on the joy we experienced today – my 4th graders rocked at the grand left and right in one of our folk songs and some of my students started using my break corner with great success. Plus, my students really enjoyed our shamrock improvisation activities! I’m realizing how important it is to put me as the human, not as the teacher, first and to focus on the positives. 

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Every day, I face students who thrive and students who need that extra boost, as well as students who make every direction and activity difficult, and I find that these kiddos cloud my thoughts in the midst of the joy I am trying to find. For a variety of reasons, students who are oppositional or defiant can turn our lessons upside down and wrench our control away in a heartbeat, and its so frustrating to not know how to help them (or not hand them the exact ammunition to pull you to pieces) and lose face with my students in an attempt to reckon with them. Today, I received an email from our school social worker with this intervention document attached, and I wanted to share it with you, because I spent the next half an hour memorizing it!

“May I Have this Dance? Effective Interventions for Oppositional and Defiant Students”  presented by Sharon Blanchard MS, LPS and Dr. Jeanie Johnson

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I’ve already used several of these tactics with some of my most difficult students, and I have found them to be incredibly effective. This document not only talks about why students are (and got to be) defiant, but it provides ways to navigate issues with students for when they say, “This is stupid,” “You can’t make me,” or try to push all of your buttons. What I also love is that it discusses how you can make things unintentionally worse and how to develop conversation tools to deepen your relationship with the child. This is a treasure trove – I hope it will help you like I think it will help me unlock some of my toughest students. 

Pushing the Reset Button

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Sometimes I’m jealous of my husband’s video games.

Last night we played Resident Evil 4 together, and by together, I mean that I kept dying at the hands of those stalker zombies and I needed some professional intervention. Watching him take the wheel – er, joystick – and navigate expertly without worry made me jealous, because these games always spook me and make my heart pound. What if I messed up just around the corner and set myself up for failure? I’ll probably die and have to do it again, and that’s no fun.

Video games, though, let us do what we can’t always cleanly do in life. If I messed up in the video game and started over, the companion girl I’m trying to lead to the next save point doesn’t carry a grudge about how I messed up or and she can’t decide to skip out because it’s not so fun on the 9th try. I can always push the reset button and get a clean slate.

I wish I could always do that with teaching.

I have more failed lessons than I’d like to admit. What’s frustrating is that it’s not for lack of trying or lack of love. We teachers pour our hearts and souls into our lessons and do everything we can to have a successful day, researching new ideas and trying new experiences to help out that tough class or that challenging kid. We give and give, and yet there are some days when all of those best laid plans not only get shoved aside but are doused with lighter fluid and thrown into a flaming dumpster. And rather than be able to get a clean slate next time, those students will remember that flaming dumpster and your lame attempts to put it out. Last week, I had a flaming dumpster day, and I was searching for the closest thing to a clean reset I could find so we could put our class back on track and back on the path of joy.

Without going into details, the group that helped me send a lesson into a fireball of chaos is a group that has students who suffer from emotional/behavior disorders and alongside typically-developing students who struggle with respect, listening, and anger issues. Tempers can make things volatile and we’ve worked really hard to find a happy balance and make our classroom a musical place of joy as much as we can. But Monday had it out for us.

I left school that day feeling like the worst teacher ever. I wasn’t providing my students with the right steps or plans to set them up for success and they didn’t enjoy the lesson, much less the interactions with one another.

I set out to make their next music class one of joy, success, and where I, not the distractors, was back in control of learning – and it worked.

I made a couple of key decisions for our next class period that helped us find that reset – and it left me dancing a happy jig as my smiling students left the classroom. Now, the next trick is to keep this momentum rolling, of course, but we’re back at the “Start Game” screen, and that’s the first step.

1. We didn’t talk about the last class period.

The first decision I made was to not talk about the last class period. I saw the couple of uneasy glances and sighs as they walked in the door, all leftover from the unhappy memory of the last class period explosion. I answered them with smiles and happy greetings – today was going to be a new day, and it was going to start with my attitude and me believing in my students. There was no point in rehashing what had happened last time – I didn’t want to sour the milk of today’s lesson and have my students reminisce about how they got in trouble or how music class wasn’t a fun place to be.

2. We reviewed the rules.

We started off with our class opener and then, with a smile on my face, I asked for students to help me review what our class rules are. It was important to me to remind everyone what the expectations were when no one was in trouble so that this was a reminder and goal activity, not a pointing-fingers activity that inadvertently shamed the student who just caused the infraction. We took some time to talk to our neighbors about different music scenarios and how to work through them and make a positive choice.

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3. I implemented a break corner.

Self-regulation is a vital skill to learn – those of us who navigate our adult lives successfully don’t understand how wonderfully we really have it. We know what will trigger us to be sad or angry, we know how we will typically react, and we have already worked through and understand the processes of how to suppress the need to lash out or cause harm and to channel our feelings in a more productive way. We also know how to keep those issues from damaging relationships. It’s second nature. But for some of our students, they don’t have that filter or it comes with much more difficulty. In them, we see shutting down, shouting, knocking over chairs, lashing out at friends or us, defiance, and vengeance-seeking.

This issue with self-regulation was one of the downfalls of our failed class beforehand, so I asked my students, “How many of you have ever had a bad day?” All hands went up. “Now, when you’re in a terrible, awful mood and you feel angry or you want to cry, do you usually feel more comfortable with a bunch of people or when you have breathing room and quiet?” They all agreed that they wanted space and quiet. My portable classroom at this building is small, but I do have a back hallway where the restrooms are located and that morning I set up a basic little “resting spot.” This spot was just inside the hallway but visible to me from 90% of the classroom, yet secluded enough that a student taking a break doesn’t feel like they’re still in the middle of the room, or even within arm’s reach.

I purchased a timer and some fidgets (stress balls and a fidget maze – you can push a marble through this little felt maze that helps you focus on something external and tangible) and told my students they could take up to one break per class and for up to 5 minutes. They would be expected to start the timer, use a fidget if they wanted, and put things away and come back when the timer was up. My students seemed very interested in it, and I had a couple of students remove themselves to try out the spot. Now, did all of those students really need a break? Maybe not, but I only allow them one break and after a while it will not be as novel or fun for students and will see less use. However, having it available at all times means it will be there for when a student flies off the handle and needs a moment to cool off so they can rejoin positively.

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4. I gave the students new seating arrangements.

We’d previously been using a circle on the floor to sit, but I decided each student needed clearer boundaries and a new format. I pulled out our chairs and set them up in a C shape and rethought where I had placed some of my students and by whom – I tried new pairings of classmates and made sure to put some of my students who thrived on classmate attention in corners or in the back so it would be harder to gain attention from friends.

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5. I put the students in charge of supporting one another.

We were using our SmartBoard that day, and they love the interactive features in our QuaverMusic curriculum, so I would choose students who were calm and quiet to use the interactive features and “run” class. Everyone wanted the chance to go up and touch the SmartBoard, so I put it to work for me!

At some point, there’s only so much listening students will do with adults. They value what I say and what I do and why, but there is also an element of peer pressure and peer acceptance that influences their actions in ways that I cannot, so I found time in my lesson to step back and let them hold each other accountable.

I would pick a student who was modeling good behavior and ask them to come up to the front of the room to navigate on our interactive resource, for example, but then rather than me choosing another helper I asked the student to choose someone who was listening quietly and following directions to take their place. I love using this, because even my craziest Kindergarten class will sit bolt upright, perfect their criss-cross applesauce posture, and smile silently and expectantly at the helper at the front of the room.

After setting up the exchange of helpers, I took a step back and stood behind the class to observe and turn over the reins to them. The students started searching for people who were following directions, and the interest and drive to be chosen by a classmate, to be labeled as someone who was doing the right thing, transformed how they were working. They were holding each other responsible, motivated by wanting to participate in a fun activity, and I wasn’t involved and having to play the “bad guy”!

Now, we still had a few issues with excess talking, but setting up these five aspects of my lesson helped provide natural supports and set up my students for a successful class that was night and day compared to the previous class period. I left school that day smiling and thrilled that we were back on track – and so relieved that we had found the closest thing we could find to a reset button in teaching.