Going for the win-win

This post was written before the holidays and saved for post-season reading.

This week is week 3 in our trifecta of gift-giving projects. The idea behind making botanically-inspired crafts between Thanksgiving and Christmas is to lower stress and give the students something fun and fruitful to focus on.

This week, over the healthy din of a class working, I heard a 14-year-old student being quite cheeky with a staff member. Unfortunately, the staff was falling into his trap, that diabolical scheme that can ensnare almost anyone. The pitfall I am referring to is the Cycle of Conflict, and it can be a hard one not to step into.

It went a little something like this:

  • A student misuses classroom supplies.
  • A staff member corrects the student and asks him to stop.
  • The mild reprimand is enough to be a trigger. Irrational behavior switch gets turned on in child’s head.
  • Child becomes defensive, and because he is now in an irrational state, he is unable to process his feelings.
  • His or her inappropriate behavior now escalates; s/he is not going to loose this battle! He decides to defend his position, raise his voice, become hostile and stick to his guns.
  • Adult has now been provoked by the student’s bad behavior and here is where the choice lays: either get swept up in the cycle and mirror the child’s bad behavior OR, disengage.

The staff member was not going to back down and definitely not disengage so I decided to intervene. It was way too early in the morning for a big issue and we’re making Tub Tea people, a luxurious combinations of salts and essential oils to melt stress away in the bath. We don’t have time to get caught up in conflict – we’ve got smellies to make!

I needed to flip the script; I feared that my entering the dispute would only make the student feel he was being outnumbered. I began to pull on my fleece and request that the student come with me. As I was opening the door to leave the greenhouse the student insisted on knowing where we were going. It was no secret; I was taking him back to his dorm. (His particular living unit intercedes during the school day if a student in their dorm becomes very disruptive.) He didn’t want to go, but as I began to step away from the greenhouse he followed me outside.

Once outside, away from classmates and staff that the student would want to save face in front of, we could actually begin to talk. Okay, at first I was the only one talking, he was still rather agitated, face pinched and fists clenched. We were probably about 20 feet away from each other; he really didn’t want to go back to the dorm – and guess what? I didn’t want him to go back to the dorm either. My goal is to work through problems whenever possible, not hand them over to someone else. Besides, I really wanted him to make his Tub Tea – it rocks! Sometimes though, you need to make big gestures to make an impression.

Anyway, I was explaining to him that being disrespectful to staff or peers is unacceptable. Then came the excuses. First excuse was to put the blame on the staff member. When I pointed out his faulty logic he fell back on his ADHD. “My medicine hasn’t kicked in. I get like this before my medicine takes effect!” I found this dubious; what happened to excuse number 1? But when I raised my suspicions he wanted to know if I had ever taken ADHD medication. This was going nowhere fast. It’s true, I’ve never taken his medication, how could I know how it effects him?

Luckily, just at that moment, my director was walking by. He saw that we were having a “moment,” greeted the student and asked me if I knew what an amazing job the student had done the previous weekend selling Christmas trees down at Boni-Bel (our organic farm). He went on about how great the student was with the customers and what a hard worker he was. My director then continued on his way.

And just like that, the wound-up crinkle in my student’s face began to fade away and the fists began to loosen. It’s amazing what a long way a little bit of praise can do. Also, instead of mirroring the child’s bad behavior, as is the case in the Cycle of Conflict, by modeling good behavior we remind our students of how they should be interacting.  Eventually, he began to tell me about an event set to take place that night which he was rather anxious about it. We continued to talk and I again asked him to take responsibility for his actions. His previous, rather insincere apologies became quite profound and we returned to the greenhouse, walking and talking together. I called the staff member he had had the issue with over to us and he apologized to her and she quickly accepted. He was able to return to his table, complete his project and go on to have a good day.

Amaryllis, “Amalfi”

It’s not always easy to choose to disengage, bad behavior from kids can be quite persuading; just taunting us to join in the fray. But, this is where emotional intelligence kicks in, and it’s as important for students as it is for staff. Know how you are feeling and why you are feeling. When things become heated, everyone needs to take a step back and a moment to breath. Getting caught up in the Cycle of Conflict creates a lose-lose situation every time.


About Green Chimneys Garden

Green Chimneys was founded on the belief that children will benefit from their interaction with nature and animals. Horticulture comes to life in our educational school gardens, allowing Green Chimneys students to heal, learn, and grow. Learn more about about our nature-based approach to special education by visiting www.greenchimneys.org
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