Categories
Behaviour Management

2 Styles: How Do You Communicate With Kids?

Paul Watzlawick was a family therapist and communication theorist. As part of his work, he detailed five principles of communication to consider. One of these was the idea that there are two types of interactions between people. Relationships and interactions can be symmetrical or complementary. I find this to be interesting when contemplating which one works best for children with emotional or behavioural needs.

A symmetrical relationship interaction involves two individuals mirroring each other’s behaviour or emotions. The two parties minimise the differences between each other. A practical example would be when a student gets angry, the teacher responds by getting angry or vice versa. Alternatively, a teacher may be indifferent about a topic of conversation and a child mimics this indifference. When this is the prevalent dynamic of a relationship, behaviour and emotions can escalate. Have you ever had a symmetrical relationship with a child in your class? What about a colleague or friend?

A complementary relationship or interaction results in the two parties having two distinct roles. One person is in the “one-up” position and one person is in the “one-down” position. In a complementary relationship, one person’s persistent aggression would lead to the other’s constant withdrawal. Equally, one person’s habitual negativity could lead to the other’s consistent positive outlook. 

Is symmetrical or complementary better?

Naturally, a teacher may feel that a complementary relationship is best where they are in an assertive “one-up” position while the student is in the compliant “one-down” position. However, neither a symmetrical or complementary relationship is productive all the time. Different children and different teachers require different interactions and relationships dependent on the context. Problems can arise when a relationship becomes stuck in one style of interaction.

For example, if a child has persistent aggressive, angry tendencies and a teacher is habitually meeting this with a symmetrical response of mirroring the emotions through confrontation and reprimanding, it may be time to consider a complementary approach. Take the “one-down” role when they get angry and adopt a calm demeanour and style of interaction. Will this de-escalate the situation?

Equally, a parent may be passive about a child’s behaviour which is being mirrored by the teacher. The relationship may be positive but are the changes that need to occur happened? It could be the perfect opportunity to switch up the style of interactions to complementary and inject some urgency.

The answer nobody wants

If there were black-and-white answers to supporting children with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties, they wouldn’t exist. Like everything we consider, it is trial-and-error and a reflective process. If you’re supporting a child, working with a parent or just interested in communication, consider which of the two relationships you have and contemplate whether it is productively serving you or in need of a change.

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Categories
Behaviour Management Special Education

What Toltec Wisdom Can Teach Us About Behaviour

Building relationships is a complex business. When we talk about teaching, behaviour and students, we are talking about a relationship. There are theoretical perspectives and strategies recommended to maximise the productivity of this relationship. Teachers may decide to take a behaviourist approach and incorporate rewards systems or may decide to take a more humanistic route and develop self-esteem. These approaches work for the majority of students when implemented effectively and the relationship between the two thrives.

When a relationship is unproductive, however, things get even more complex. Negative cycles of behaviour can emerge and patterns can stagnate. A repetitive format of the teacher intervening ineffectively and the student behaving undesirably appears fixed. Neither will change but only one party is being cited as difficult.

If a surgeon came out of a theatre and informed us that the operation was a success but the patient died, we might have a query about their rationale. Similarly, teachers (including myself) can get stuck in a rut of claiming their strategies and interventions are the “right” ones even though they are blatantly ineffective.

An effective behavioural strategy is one which causes the behavioural change it is seeking to achieve. Do I have to include that it also needs to be within obvious ethical parameters? Probably, as this is the internet.

There is a need to have a diverse range of strategies and theories to draw from when seeking to change a dysfunctional relationship into a functional one. Marrying yourself to one theory is comparable to only having a hammer in your toolbox. When all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail. You can descend into trying to fit the child into the strategy as opposed to fitting the strategy to the child. To demonstrate this point, we can take heed of the Toltecs.

The Six Images of A Relationship

According to Toltec wisdom, everyone has an outer image. This is the image we try to project to the world. We also have an inner image that we have of ourselves. Teachers have this outer and inner image. A student similarly has an outer image they try to project and an inner image that teachers and others cannot see. We then have to introduce the image that the teacher has of the student from their point of view and the student’s image of the teacher from their perspective. If you have managed to keep count, that is six different images involved in the relationship between teacher and student. Let’s not even start considering the rest of the class.

The first thing I love about this analogy is I find it relatable. I certainly have an image I try to project as a teacher. I try to project a level of confidence and certainty in my actions. I also have an inner image that differs greatly. My inner image has far more doubts than my outer image ever displays.

The second thing I love is the simplistic way that it conveys the complexity of a relationship. There are so many factors that remain unseen in a relationship between two people. How can we ever say with absolute certainty that we “know” a student and it’s not the intervention being used that is the issue, but the child? How can your favourite three strategies for supporting a child with complex social, emotional or behavioural needs ever be considered sufficient?

This interpretation of a relationship would jar with a fixed mindset that there is one or two theories or strategies for success. I’m sure if the Toltecs were in charge of behaviour policies in schools, they would recommend that schools and teachers strive to build their knowledge base with a diverse range of theories and strategies so when they meet a child that needs the support, there will be a deep well to draw from. A strategy’s use is defined by the behavioural change it causes. The more strategies we have, the greater the chance of success.

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