Sunday, September 27, 2009

Do No Harm

A basic tenet of first aid training is, "do no harm."  Doctors live by this dictum as well.  It's a shame that teachers and parents don't get a daily morning e-mail reminding them of the very same plea.  Doing harm is the unfairly easy for those of us who contact kids daily.  I'm not saying we do so daily, only that we work in an environment that puts us innately at risk.

We are, in the end, emotional creatures.  We associate a feeling with most everything that we experience.  Typically, brain research tells us that we feel first and think second.  In our highly paced lives and in the modern classroom, it's common to be in "reaction mode." That is, it's way to easy to act first and think later.  It's not hard to see how this can lead to snapping out actions which hurt young people.

We imagine ourselves to be rational, though.  Worse yet, we assume that children have a rational development equal to ours.  They should understand our explanations, our rationalizations.  They should understand our shortcomings.  It would be nice.  Evidence seems to be to the contrary.  Kids experience us and they retain those interactions with the feelings that are associated with them.  Steven Glenn likened it to a sort of "bank account."  If we have enough positive deposits, we can afford an occasional negative withdrawal without jeopardizing the relationship.

Late in my career, I retrained my brain to respond to emotionally charged situations with kids with the Jim Fay stock response, "...bummer."  It gave me a space to think.  It triggered my thinking brain to take control before I shoved a foot so deeply down my throat that there would be no way to extricate it.  "Bummer," was not, actually, the only stock response, but it was the most reliable.  That there were other was driven home to me when a student gave me, as an end-of-the-year gift, a book he'd created of, "Mr. Howell Sayings."  Last week, doing a presentation to many of my former students, I twice asked them what I would have said in a particular situation.  They nailed it both times.  Stock phrases for parents and teachers are not perceived as insincerity.  They are first and foremost, a way of teaching.  Second, they protect one's poise so that those focused individual things that must be said can be said with an appreciation of the situation, rather than emotional darts.  I say get them, rehearse them, and use them frequently.  They'll lead to greater closeness and you'll "do no harm."

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