This is the second post in a series on mindful communication we’re doing this fall with Oren Jay Sofer, our Senior Program Developer who teaches our Mindful Communication course. Oren is author of a new book, Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.
In the first part of this series, we explored how mindful presence lays the groundwork for teaching by developing our relationships with students. Today, let’s explore four key principles of communication with kids. These principles build that primary relationship, strengthen healthy classroom culture, and support learning-readiness.
1. Identify what matters, which helps kids feel seen and creates relevance for your lessons and requests.
Whether we’re listening to students, teaching a lesson, or managing behavior, learning to identify our students’ deeper needs in a situation is transformative. Instead of focusing solely on what is happening—our lesson, a student’s words or behavior—try shifting your attention to why—what’s important to our student right now?
There is a difference between our strategies and our deeper objectives. We might want a student to be quiet and cooperate; they want to goof around. Our attempts to get them quiet is a strategy for our needs, and those of other students. We want everyone to be able to learn. But they may be longing to be noticed, or to have their classmates talk to them.
When we’re able to identify and understand the needs behind someone’s choices, strategies or words, something transformative happens. When they feel understood for what’s important to them (and trust that we care about that), we are no longer locked in conflict. We can learn to make these inquiries, and listen, in the midst of our lesson without losing the rest of the group. Here’s how:
Let’s say you have a student who’s talking during your instructions and into the time you’ve set for writing. You’ve tried making your usual brief request, “Quiet, please, so everyone can hear the instructions.” Next, you might connect further with the student by guessing what’s going on for them, then share your own needs and propose some ways of working together.
“I notice you’re talking during this assignment. Are you bored? Do you want to be a little more engaged? Or just want to have some fun?”
“I’d like to find a way for you to have that, and I want everyone else in the class to be able to focus on getting their work done too.”
Depending on the student’s age, you might offer one or two suggestions, or invite them to share their ideas.
When we teach a lesson or make a request, if we share the “why”—our needs, values, or objectives—we honor our students autonomy and intelligence, and help create a sense of relevance and meaning.
2. Make space for emotions, which can build trust, de-escalate tension, and bring healing.
Growing up, did your teachers mirror and validate emotions?
So many of our kids today are struggling with confusing and painful feelings. If there’s emotion, something matters. Emotions are evolutionary signals that point to our needs being met or not. Unacknowledged emotions can build up inside, interfere with learning, and cloud decision making. Making space for them can help us understand what’s going on for a student, which lets them know we care about them and that they’re safe with us.
If a student is visibly upset, acting out, or seems to be in a terrible mood, find the time and space to empathize with their feelings. Be patient. “I hear how angry you are but …” will likely register as dismissive. Genuinely reflecting what you hear and see is more likely to help:
“I hear how angry you are. This must be very important to you.”
Similarly, when you’re feeling upset (as we all do at times), use it as an opportunity to model your healthy relationship with your own emotions. Instead of trying to stuff it, pretend you’re okay, or express things reactively, how would it be to share what’s happening in an open and transparent way? Not only are we taking responsibility for our emotions and modeling how to do that for our students, but when we do this, we’ll feel more internal balance.
3. Learn to see “resistance” as information, which supports better outcomes.
When students behave in a way that’s at odds with our goals, we might label it as “resistance.” This judgment blinds us to the real emotions and yearnings driving our students’ behavior. A mindful teacher terms resistance as a student communicating their inner experience or exercising autonomy. This is especially true with teens, who need to be seen as an individual with a clear identity.
As educators committed to teaching mindfully, when students make choices different from our wishes, we need to choose: can we connect and build the relationship right now? Find ways to balance respecting the individual, the needs of the classroom, and our own wisdom. Engage with care as we inquire about the student’s feelings or needs. Invite collaboration to work towards a shared goal.
4. Share power and discuss limits, which models respect and teaches collaboration.
Many schools function in a power-over, hierarchical system as a strategy to create safety, order, and support learning. If we’re not conscious of how we use the structural power we have with kids, we may unintentionally reinforce cultural messages that disempower our children and stunt creativity. This dynamic is amplified if we are part of the dominant culture. (As a white, male teacher, for example, am I conscious of the inherent power dynamic with female students or students of color?) When we acknowledge the power we hold and engage our students in collaborative decision making we model democratic values and send an important message about their self-worth, intelligence, and capacity.
If you need to set limits or use your power to resolve a situation, share your reasons calmly and clearly. Acknowledge any limitations of time, resources, or energy that prevent you from working more collaboratively, and affirm the student’s autonomy by restating their choices that are viable for you.
Each of these principles points to the underlying ethos of a range of more specific, concrete communication tools. To learn more about the mechanics, join me for a free workshop with Susan Kaiser-Greenland, or check out the resources below.