A friend was recently telling me about his experience when he was a child in the 5th grade. “I used to get in trouble before the 5th grade. But my 5th grade teacher, she liked me. It was like, she never expected me to do anything bad. So I didn’t.”
I recently saw the excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers and his children’s television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. One of the extraordinary things about Mr. Rogers was his obvious, unconditional love of children. Like millions of others, I watched his program as a young child and I remember him saying, “I like you just the way you are.”
I realized what an unusual idea it is to be “liked” just the way one is. In the documentary, one of the crew members of Mr. Rogers’ show talked about children visiting the set of the show. Some children would be particularly challenging or difficult and frustrate most of the adults on the set. And yet, Mr. Rogers never seemed to dislike a child no matter how difficult the child was being.
The documentary, and my friend’s reflection on his 5th grade teacher, reminded me of a crucial trait for educators: they need to like children.
Next year, my staff and I will be learning Responsibility-Centered Discipline (RCD), a program created by Larry Thompson that develops strong teacher-student relationships and supports educators in handling challenging moments with students in a manner that is highly respectful and teaches students responsibility. One of the things I love most about RCD is that when a child is being difficult, educators communicate support to the child. “Support” reminds the child that he or she has strong qualities, or connects to a positive aspect of the adults’ relationship with the child. “You’ve shown me your ability to be a leader when you got the class’s attention,” “I appreciate that you’ve tried so hard that you actually got frustrated—that shows persistence,” “I’ve seen how many friends you’ve made in this class; you’re trusted by your classmates.”
In RCD, the adults also address the child’s behavior and support the child in finding a solution to the behavior. Adults point out the real-life benefits of solving the problem, and students end up owning and taking responsibility for the issue.
Learning from Thompson, I realized that when children are being difficult, we adults often communicate frustration, exasperation, and dislike towards the children. This is normal. However, Thompsons’ method requires that adults retain emotional control and helps adults build a strong relationship with the child, even in the most challenging moments. And rather than going for mere compliance, the method teaches students to take responsibility. Thompson describes his program as one that “brings out the best in everyone.”
In RCD, no matter how challenging the child is being, the adult must give support to the child. In fact, Thompson talks about how the most difficult and “tough” children are actually the ones who need the most support– their “toughness” is often an act to hide their vulnerability. The “support” is a version of “I like you just the way you are.” I imagine that the better adults get at bringing out the best in the children, the more they’ll like the children—and the more they’ll like themselves.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman