Look Into the Discipline Mirror

It wasn’t lost on me that my last blog post, Aiming for Discipline Instead of Punishment, used the word discipline rather freely.  This was not a big deal to many of you. For you the title made sense and alerted readers to the content of the post. To others of you with a Choice Theory background, though, the word discipline may have stood out to you. If it did, just know that it stood out to me, too.*

A brochure Glasser created in the mid-70s that described his 10 Steps to Discipline.

The reason it stood out to us Choice theorists is that, beginning around 1990, William Glasser came to reject the idea of discipline as it was being applied in schools. In fact, he came to the point where he flat out stated that he no longer believed in school discipline programs, including his own.*  Yet here I am tossing the word around like that never happened.

William Glasser, 1977

Drawing on portions of the Glasser biography – William Glasser: Champion of Choice (2014) – it is clear that he saw discipline programs as part of the problem, not part of the solution. Noting the key elements of Reality Therapy and Choice Theory, and also of the compelling ideas of W. Edwards Deming,* the biography describes how –

In the spirit of Reality Therapy, schools needed to place a high premium on supportive connections; according to Choice Theory schools needed to recognize that an individual is motivated to meet his or her needs in the best possible way at any given moment; and according to Deming, schools needed to relinquish the habit of coercing and forcing students to do school work and behave themselves. So important were these elements, especially the last element, Glasser would write The Quality School wherein he described the importance of managing students without coercion. He would later credit Deming with leading him to write The Quality School. The point is that as a result of these insights he began to disassociate himself from school discipline programs. “I was trying to get people to think in terms of preventing discipline problems,” he later explained, “and if I focused on discipline problems, I, in a sense, would be admitting that they’re going to happen, that they’re inevitable.” pgs. 296, 297

Dr. William Glasser (1990)

For Glasser, the focus had to be on the system, not on the student. Creative and committed efforts must be put into prevention of misbehavior that doesn’t rely on punishment. In one of his memos to his institute members he wrote that –

I believe that teachers are getting the wrong message: focus on the student’s misbehavior, not on the system. No matter how you do it, when you focus specifically on what a child is doing wrong, instead of putting all your effort into improving your relationship with that child, it is unlikely that the child will ever put you into his or her Quality World. pg. 311

And a short time later he wrote that –

I believe that discipline programs are stimulus-response based and focus on changing students rather than changing the system from stimulus-response to Choice Theory. I believe it is impossible for any school that focuses on discipline to become a Quality School. pg. 314

So now you may see why the word discipline should get our attention.

It is interesting to think about the origin and use of the word discipline. To do so is to look into a special mirror – a mirror that reveals your deepest management beliefs. For instance, you may see the word discipline and quickly think of definitions that hearken back centuries – definitions like penitential chastisement or punishment or treatment that corrects or punishes. Discipline from this definition family has everything to do with manipulating behavior through threats, discomfort, and even pain.

Hearkening back even further, though, is the word disciple, the root from which discipline comes. From this root, discipline is about instruction given, about teaching, and about knowledge. It is about mentoring and training. It is about a relationship and patient tutoring. Discipline, when seen through the lens of this definition family, becomes an act that is personal and supportive.

Discipline = Teaching and Mentoring Built on a Positive Relationship

It may be that your life so far, saturated in stimulus-response ways of being, has you seeing discipline as strategic manipulation, a necessary coercion in a world that operates according to external control. But as the two definition families remind us, there is another way. There is a discipline that focuses on relationship, teaching, and mentoring. Which do you want?

* I included this explanation at the end of the Aiming for Discipline post, which I want to say again here – Some of you may be like me and prefer the word management rather than discipline when talking about student behavior. However, the discipline word is the one I see presently being used in the educational literature. It may be that Choice Theory authors can in the future point out the importance of using the word management when referring to classroom behavior.

* Click here to link to a quick overview of what used to be Glasser’s Ten Step Discipline Model.

* Click here to access Deming’s 14 Management Points.

 

Aiming for Discipline Instead of Punishment

Edutopia* recently ran a short article that “hits it out of the park” – a home run! Reading about the author – Lori Desautels,* an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis – I don’t see that she has RT/CT training, yet my goodness, does she hit the Choice Theory bulls eye here!

edutopia-300x116

My takeaways from the article include –

+ The difference between discipline* and punishment is effectively defined.

+ At-risk students, and those who have or are experiencing trauma, especially need comprehensive, compassionate discipline, not traditional punishment.

+ Such discipline is about guidance, prevention, and natural consequences. It teaches problem-solving and life skills.

+ Discipline must be aligned with what we know about the brain.

+ Prevention based on Procedures and Routines are a key to classroom success.

Read Lori’s wonderful article that follows and let me know what your takeaways are.

Aiming for Discipline Instead of Punishment
Brain-aligned discipline isn’t compliance-driven or punitive – it’s about
supporting students in creating sustainable changes in behavior

There are many perspectives on the topic of discipline in our classrooms and schools, and I’d like to explore the idea of using brain-aligned discipline with students who have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

Traditional punishment with these students only escalates power struggles and conflict cycles, breeding an increased stress response in the brain and body. Punishment is used to try to force compliance. The vast majority of school discipline procedures are forms of punishment that work best with the students who need them the least.

With our most difficult students, the current way schools try to discipline students does not change their behavior, and often it escalates the problems.

“A hurtful child is a hurt-filled child.”

Discipline, unlike punishment, is proactive and begins before there are problems. It means seeing conflict as an opportunity to problem solve. Discipline provides guidance, focuses on prevention, enhances communication, models respect, and embraces natural consequences. It teaches fairness, responsibility, life skills, and problem solving.

There are times when students need to be removed from the classroom and school for aggressive, volatile actions, but upon re-entry we should make a plan of action that begins to address these actions in these brain-aligned ways.

The neurobiological changes caused by chronic negative experiences and a history of adversity can trigger a fear response in the brain. As Pam Leo says, “A hurtful child is a hurt-filled child. Trying to change her behavior with punishment is like trying to pull off only the top part of the weed. If we don’t get to the root, the hurtful behavior pops up elsewhere.” In children the fear response often looks aggressive, defiant, and oppositional.

Young people with ACEs have brains that are in a constant state of alarm. In this alarm state, consequences don’t register properly. Discipline can only be done when both the educator and the student are calm and self-regulated. If they aren’t, behavioral difficulties will escalate.

The vast majority of school discipline procedures
are forms of punishment that work best
with the students who need them the least.

In a brain-aligned model of discipline, we must teach the behaviors we want to see, laying the groundwork for prevention systems and strategies.

PREVENTIVE BRAIN-ALIGNED STRATEGIES

Preventive systems are taught as procedures and routines. They are collaborative and filled with choice. Their purpose is to create a sustainable behavioral change, not just compliance or obedience for a short period of time.

” .  .  .  sustainable behavior change .  .  . “

I teach students about their neuro-anatomy, so they understand what happens in their brains when they become stressed, angry, or anxious. When we understand this, we feel relieved and empowered.

In morning meetings or whole class time, I discuss the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and neuroplasticity with students. We identify and make lists of our emotional triggers and coping strategies, and I teach students to use their breath and movement to calm their stress response systems.

Is there an adult in the school who connects with this student and has a space where the student can go if they need to regroup and calm their stress response systems? Are you teaching these procedures ahead of a time when a student needs to regulate away from the class?

Could your school create a area for both teachers and students to go to when they need to reset their emotional state? This area could be stocked with paper, markers, crayons, water, soft music and lighting, a jump rope, a stationary bike, lavender scented cotton balls, jars for affirmations or worries, or a rocking chair. Students will need to be taught ahead of time how to use this area, which they should need for just two to five minutes in order to feel refocused and ready to return to class.

EXAMPLES OF NATURAL, NON-PUNITIVE CONSEQUENCES 

Name-calling: Have the student create a book of positive affirmations for the class, or have them create a list of “kind words” and teach them to a younger class.

Low-level physical aggression (pushing, kicking, hitting): Some consequences could include giving the student a new learning space in the room or a new spot in line, or they could be tasked with performing an act of kindness or service for the hurt person.

If this occurs at recess, the student could be tasked with assisting a teacher on recess duty in monitoring the playground, noticing everything that is going well. They can roam around the playground, still getting the exercise they need. Or again they could perform an act of kindness toward the student who they hit.

Inappropriate language: This calls for a discussion when both student and teacher are in a calm brain state. Sometimes words that are inappropriate at school are used at home, so we need to understand the cultural context and have a discussion with the student.

An older student could research the words they used and report to you on why they’re not school words; younger students could try to write out what they were trying to convey using school-friendly language or drawings.

Incomplete assignments: Have a one-on-one discussion to convey what this behavior communicates to you. Ask if something has changed at home or school, or if the student doesn’t understand what is required. Make a plan with the student and possibly a parent for making up the work that has been missed. And consider assigning a student mentor to help the student.

The research is clear. Our brains learn best in a state of relaxed alertness. Our discipline systems must begin to shift toward creating this state in all the members of our school community.

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* If you are not subscribing to Edutopia, a free educational website sponsored by the George Lucas Foundation, you should. Check it out at https://www.edutopia.org

* Some of you may be like me and prefer the word management rather than discipline when talking about student behavior. However, the discipline word is the one I see being used in the educational literature. It may be that Choice Theory authors can in the future point out the importance of using the word management when referring to classroom behavior.

* As shared on Edutopia here is Lori’s full bio – Dr. Lori Desautels, is an assistant professor at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at Butler University in Indianapolis. Before coming to Butler University, Lori was an Assistant Professor at Marian University in Indianapolis and earlier on taught children and adolescents with emotional challenges in the upper elementary grades, worked as a school counselor in Indianapolis, was a private practice counselor and co-owner of the Indianapolis Counseling Center, and was a behavioral consultant for Methodist Hospital, in Indianapolis on the adolescent psychiatric unit.

Lori’s passion is engaging her students through neuroscience in education, integrating Mind Brain Teaching and Learning Strategies into her courses at Marian and now Butler University . Lori has conducted workshops throughout the the United States and abroad, recently returning from Dubai. Lori’s second book was published in January 2016, “Unwritten, The Story of a Living System,” co-authored with Michael McKnight.

 

7 Cardinal Rules for Life

Cardinal

I’ve appreciated the stuff that often is posted by the website at www.lifehack.org, like the 7 Cardinal Rules for Life that follow here. (What cardinals have to do with rules for life, I’m not sure.) Along with the Rules, I share a choice theory response to each of them. (Of note: The Better Plan workshop dates for this summer have been set and are listed at the end of the blog.)

7 Cardinal Rules for Life

Rule #1 – Make peace with your past, so it doesn’t spoil your present. Your past does not define your future – your actions and beliefs do.

It would be hard to come up with a more choice theory statement than this one. I think the phrase “make peace with your past” is important. We’re not trying to run from the past, hide from it, cover it, or deny it. We come to desire our joy in the present and realize our need to see the past for whatever it is and, like it says, make peace with it. I like the statement’s emphasis on thinking and acting, too, which supports the idea of every behavior being a total behavior. It really is pretty amazing that we were created to have direct control over what we think and what we do.

Rule #2 – What others think of you is none of your business. It’s how much you value yourself and how important you think you are.

Choice theory emphasizes that the only person we can control is ourselves, but I like how Rule #2 is worded. It is such a debilitating condition to be worried about what others think of you. It is so freeing to let this particular worry go.

Rule #3 – Time heals almost everything, give time, time. Pain will be less hurting. Scars make us who we are; they explain our life and why we are the way we are. They challenge us and force us to be stronger.

I hesitate to write about #3. The topic of wounds, especially emotional and spiritual wounds, is a sacred space to me and deserves a special respect. That said, it is apparent to me that some people allow healing to take place and continue to want to make the best of life, while others seem to want to nurture the hurt and hold onto it.

Rule #4 – No one is the reason for your own happiness, except you yourself. Waste no time and effort searching for peace and contentment and joy in the world outside.

The world of choice theory is a place of responsibility. A key, though, is that responsibility is something that dawns on a person, rather than it being a message that one person enforces on another. Responsibility functions best when it is like the sun coming up in a person’s life, providing light to see the world in a new way.

Rule #5 – Don’t compare your life with others. You have no idea what their journey is all about. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we would grab ours back as fast as we could.

Comparing our life to that of others traps us in thinking that our happiness depends on our circumstances being different. Or worse, that our happiness depends on our circumstances being better than someone else’s. Choice theory keeps bringing us back to our happiness coming from within, not from without.

Rule #6 – Stop thinking too much. It’s alright not to know the answers. Sometimes there is no answer, not going to be any answer, never has been an answer. That’s the answer! Just accept it, move on, NEXT!

I’ll have to think about this one.

Rule #7 – Smile, you don’t own all the problems in the world. A smile can brighten the darkest day and make life more beautiful. It is a potential curve to turn a life around and set everything straight.

A smile is a choice. Yes, sometimes we laugh as a reflex, but sometimes we just need to choose to smile. And in making that choice, in a small way, the day does get just a little bit better.

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Which of the Life Hack Rules do you relate to? Did any of them get you thinking about choice theory ideas? Let me know.

Reminder – Middle School and High School teachers can share the Rules with students and have them respond to them and evaluate them. They can be a great springboard for talking about choice and responsibility. Tie a writing assignment to them. Discuss them in a life skills class.

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Important Dates

The Better Plan workshop dates for this coming summer at PUC have been set.

The Better Plan 1 –  June 25 – 28

The Better Plan 2 –  July 9 – 12

If you have questions about the workshops get in touch with me at jroy@puc.edu.

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* 7 Cardinal Rules for Life first appeared as a Better Plan post on January 25, 2014. It has proven to be a popular post and I wanted to share it with those of who may not have seen it yet. Remember that the Year At a Glance pages have a lot of choice theory articles that you can easily access at the touch of a link.

Led Zeppelin and Internal Control Psychology

Glasser referred to Choice Theory as an internal control psychology. Gaining an understanding of Choice Theory means coming into an understanding of internal control and that our thoughts and behaviors are from within us, rather than externally imposed on us. What follows are a couple of short stories that highlight this internal control thinking process –

                                                      STORY ONE
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a high school Art classroom, observing one of my student teachers as she did her practice teaching. Her lesson went very well and led to students having time to work on their individual art projects. The mentor teacher asked if he should put some music on as the kids worked and my student teacher said, “Sure.” Soon the tunes of Led Zeppelin were filling the classroom, a pleasant surprise for me, given my own 70s exposure to rock and roll.

I took a short video clip of the classroom, with music pulsating in the background, and sent it to my son, now grown and a lawyer, thinking he would get a kick out of it since he came to appreciate Led Zeppelin, too, during his 90s exposure to the music world.

My text message to him (which accompanied the video clip) said, “I am in the Calistoga High Art classroom, observing one of our candidates doing her student teaching. The Art teacher put on some tunes after the lesson was done, and the kids were working independently. Thought of you.”

Several hours later he replied, “I must have gone to the wrong school! Though I’m not sure I would’ve liked it as much if my teacher had played it.”

What a great example of the internal choice process happening within each of us all the time. My son’s comment reveals that there are many reasons a young person might be drawn to certain kinds of music. The tone and beat of the music itself can appeal, as can the lyrics, as can how edgy the performer or group is. Kids like music for social reasons, including the idea that it gives them a way to assert their independence, much to the chagrin of adults wanting to control that independence.

“I’m not sure I would’ve liked it as much if my teacher had played it.”

All of these reasons are internally based and uniquely unpredictable. Teenagers choose music for reasons that are important to them, including whether or not adults like their particular music, too

                                                   STORY TWO
My wife and I were driving to the Sacramento airport a couple of weeks ago. We went through Napa, which eventually brought us to Hwy 80 toward Sacramento. People drive fast on Hwy 80 (like 80 is more the speed limit than the highway number). We were in the fast lane, but it was raining off and on, and when it rained it was raining quite hard. As a result, I wanted to keep a safe distance between me and the cars ahead.

My wife frequently reminds me about tailgating and will sometimes ask me to slow down if she thinks I am driving too close, although in this case I was already driving slower and keeping a safe distance. At one of these rainy, slow-down moments she said, “Thank you for not tail-gating.” Almost immediately, instead of thinking thoughts like thank you for noticing, I found myself thinking thoughts like I am driving this way because it is safe for these circumstances, not because you want me to drive slower. I am a bit embarrassed to admit this about myself, but it is one more example of the internal thinking process.*

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Consider for a moment the phrase internal locus of control. If we look it up we find that “In personality psychology, locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.” This definition is helpful because it explains what internal control isn’t, rather than what it is. Choice theory, and the internal control that it describes, isn’t about having control over the outcome of events. Choice theory describes how people can intentionally control their own thinking and behavior and in the process very much affect their emotions. Choice theory describes how our motivation comes from within for reasons that are uniquely personal.

We cannot control events, but we can intentionally affect our
cognitive and emotional response.

Choice theory does not guarantee that we can change the outcome of events in our lives. It does guarantee that we are capable of changing our thinking and our emotions in ways that improve our mental and emotional health.

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Exercise: Begin to identify examples of your own personal internal control psychology. Identify moments in your thinking that are entirely generated by you or that are unique interpretations of events that others most likely see differently. Practice acknowledging your viewpoint as just that, simply your viewpoint. Consider what your viewpoints say about you – Are you an acceptor? A blamer? An encourager? A critic? A risk-taker? A worrier? The viewpoints that we nurture are in some way need-satisfying. Not always helpful to ourselves or others, but need-satisfying none-the-less. When it comes to our mental health and our relationship health, our internal control viewpoints are everything.

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EDUTOPIA and Social-Emotional Learning

Reality: Educational journals and a growing number of school districts are emphasizing the need for social-emotional learning in schools (SEL). Increasingly, educators are realizing that academic success is less about amount of content covered and more about becoming a competent learner. For such learning to occur, schools must be emotionally safe and students must learn to self-manage their own thinking and emotions. These are mandates that if ignored, will only postpone the success of our students, and ultimately our country.

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* Do you have personal examples of internal control thinking? I’d love to hear them!! Share them as a response to this post.

How Emotions Are Made

I love it when research and science confirm Glasser’s beliefs, and Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made (2017) does just that in a big way!

HowEmotionsAreMade

Glasser wanted people to understand the concept (and reality) of internal control, that is, that they are not controlled by circumstances outside of them nor are they victims of life’s curve balls, but rather they are the architects of their thinking and their behavior.

Glasser created the concepts of total behavior to give people insights into their choices. Using the graphic of a car, he emphasized that thinking and acting are represented by the two front tires, the two tires that a driver can directly steer and control. Glasser’s point was that similarly people can have direct control over their own thinking and acting. The remaining two parts of a total behavior are feelings and physiology, or our emotions and all the ways that our bodies come into alignment with the other parts of our behavior. He believed that we can have only indirect control over our feelings and our physiology. For him, the key was that our total behaviors throughout the day always come into alignment with each other.

Total Behavior Car

The tires on a car are used to represent the four parts of total behavior.

How Emotions Are Made does nothing to argue that point and, if anything, Feldman Barrett goes farther than Glasser in explaining that not only are we the architects of our thinking and behavior, we are also the architect of our emotions. Check out the TED talk that follows for her brief presentation –

The TED talk is good, but I want to share some quotes from the book that reveal why a Choice theorist would especially be interested in her findings.

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action.*

Glasser made a case for our behavior coming from within, rather than being controlled by others, and Feldman Barrett believes the same as it relates to emotions. In this next quote, she reminded me of Glasser and the way he would state the terms he really didn’t want to use – terms like mental illness, schizophrenia, and bi-polar, to name a few. Read her quote that follows and you’ll see what I mean.

images

Lisa Feldman Barrett

Likewise, we do not “recognize” or “detect” emotions in others. These terms imply that an emotion category has a fingerprint that exists in nature, independent of any perceiver, waiting to be found. Any scientific question about “detecting” emotion automatically presumes a certain kind of answer. In the construction mindset, I speak of perceiving an instance of emotion. Perception is a complex mental process that does not imply a neural fingerprint behind the emotion, merely that an instance of emotion occurred somehow. I also avoid verbs like “triggering” emotion, and phrases like “emotional reaction” and emotions “happening to you.” Such wording implies that emotions are objective entities. Even when you feel no sense of agency when experiencing emotion, which is most of the time, you are an active participant in that experience.*

If by introducing you to How Emotions Are Made, and sharing these quotes from the book, I have ignited more questions that answers – good. I encourage you to read the book for yourself. I am convinced Glasser would have added it to his book collection, right there on his office shelf alongside other books like Mad in America (2001), by Robert Whitaker.

We’ll end the post today with this last quote, which summarizes her Glasser-like findings –

After conducting hundreds of experiments in my lab, and reviewing thousands more by other researchers, I’ve come to a profoundly unintuitive conclusion shared by a growing number of scientists. Emotions do not shine forth from the face nor from the maelstrom of your body’s inner core. They don’t issue from a specific part of the brain. No scientific innovation will miraculously reveal a biological fingerprint of any emotion. That’s because our emotions aren’t built in, waiting to be revealed. They are made. By us. We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems. Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.*

Feldman Barrett’s work will help anyone trying to better understand human behavior and motivation, and especially those of us interested in the emotional pieces of what Glasser referred to as total behavior.

* Sorry about not having the page numbers. I purchased the book on my iPad, which doesn’t have the same page numbering as the hard copy.

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Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits
buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain:
we are architects of our own experience.
Lisa Feldman Barrett

 

 

 

 

Too Big a Deal?

I was recently asked to write a 500-word article on school discipline as a non-coercive process. The short essay appeared in Leading the Journey, a newsletter for SDA school administrators. As a result, a few of you may have already read it; I reprint it here for those who haven’t –

Sometimes I wonder if I make too big a deal out of the Choice Theory thing, or if it is even a thing at all. Doubts and stinkin thinkin seem to lurk. Yet while distracted by these temptations to doubt, I soon come back to what, for me, are unchangeable realities. These realities include –

  • God places an exceptionally high value on love and freedom.
  • He designed and created humans for free will and internally driven choices.
  • He died to redeem us, to restore us, and to preserve our freedom to choose.
  • The sanctified life is about our becoming, through Jesus, loving, powerful, and joyful self-managers.

Regardless of where my thoughts and feelings may want to take me, these truths are not going away. These are the truths that jolt me out of my occasional sulking and doubting.

God Values

Adventist schools have a tremendous opportunity and, indeed, responsibility to teach students what it means and what it looks like to be sanctified self-managers. Whether we’re talking about how learning is organized, or about how classroom Procedures are implemented, or about how discipline is applied when serious infractions occur, students need to be shown how to evaluate their own behavior and make choices for improvement.

For students to gain this important (eternal) life skill, Adventist schools must let go of management strategies based on rewards and retribution and instead pursue strategies based on redemption and restoration. Reward and retribution (punishment) strategies are tools for controlling students from the outside, even though humans were designed for internal control. Attempting to externally control students is like putting regular gasoline into a diesel engine. The sputtering results are predictable.

God Values-3

We tend to like students that comply, even if it places their ability to self-manage at risk. The prodigal son’s brother was compliant and we can see what that led to. And so our challenge is to outline behavioral standards that are realistic and relevant for kids and then to artfully support them toward achieving their learning and living goals. Redemption and restoration don’t have to be words and concepts only associated with the mysteries of Bible class. Instead, they can be concepts that become very real to students as teachers and principals model the spirit of redemption and provide students with a means to on-going restoration. For instance, when we problem-solve with students do we tell them how it is going to be or do we help them effectively self-evaluate; when students get in trouble do we simply apply a punishment or do we ask them how they are going to resolve the problem?

In the book Education, EGW made a very powerful point when she described that “In the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one . . .” (p.30) To this end may we each become fully-equipped self-managers and as we do, may we help our students become the same.

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The Better Plan workshops this summer at PUC are designed to help educators become fully-equipped self-managers, with the hope that you will then be able to share these insights and skills with students.

The Better Plan 1    June 25-28

The Better Plan 2    July 9-12

Contact Jim Roy for more information on the workshops at thebetterplan@gmail.com or at jroy@puc.edu.

Getting Stuck in the Terrible Two’s

The terrible two’s – an iconic rite of passage when a toddler becomes aware of his abilities, his personal preferences, and the discovery that he can disagree and even say no. The terrible two’s are famous for causing parental frustration as children resist being coached toward trust and cooperation. Two year olds can be pretty adamant about their view of things.

toddler-terrible-twos_-says-no.jpeg

In the last post, Perceptions as Portraits, Not Photographs, we were reminded that reality, for each of us, is not so much like a photograph in its exactness, but instead is a like a portrait that we paint, very much a creation based on our values and preferences. It is a significant thing to realize that reality is your perception of it. One reason for its significance is that we can admit that we don’t have all the information or all the answers, and that new information can therefore affect our view of reality. I can be an on-going learner, open to new facts and experiences.

Your view of reality is like a portrait you paint.

A two-year-old, it turns out, wrestles with reality, too. Some of our insights about two year old behavior we get through our own observations, while other such insights we get from people like Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist and researcher who became very interested in children’s cognitive development.

jean-piaget

A young Jean Piaget, probably the age when he worked at the school for boys in Paris.

The book I spoke highly of in the last post, Stumbling on Happiness, describes one of Piaget’s discoveries very well, especially as it relates to the theme of perceptions as portraits, not photographs. Here is a wonderful passage from the book –

In the 1920s, the psychologist Jean Piaget noticed that the young child often fails to distinguish between her perception of an object and the object’s actual properties, hence she tends to believe that things really are as they appear to be—and that others must therefore see them as she does. When a two-year old child sees her playmate leave the room, and then sees an adult remove a cookie from a cookie jar and hide it in a drawer, she expects that her playmate will later look for the cookie in the drawer—despite the fact that her playmate was not in the room when the adult moved the cookie to the drawer from the jar. Why? Because the two-year old child knows the cookie is in the drawer and thus expects that everyone else knows this as well. Without a distinction between things in the world and things in the mind, the child cannot understand how different minds can contain different things. Of course, with increasing maturity, children shift from realism to idealism, coming to realize that perceptions are merely points of view, that what they see is not necessarily what there is, and that two people may thus have different perceptions of or beliefs about the same thing. Piaget concluded that “the child is a realist in its thought” and that “its progress consists in ridding itself of this initial realism.” In other words, like philosophers, ordinary people start out as realists but we get over it soon enough.
Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

But do we? Do we come to see that others may view something differently than us, or do we at times seem to be stuck at the level of . . . well . . . a two year old? The realistic or photographic view is so appealing, especially when it comes to religion or politics or the behavior of our spouse. Things are exactly as we see them, right?

Recognizing that we don’t know everything or that what we know can change doesn’t mean that we can’t have convictions and strong beliefs. Each of us can and will continue to paint a canvas of reality that represents our view of things, of people, of events, and of ideas. It’s important, though, to also recognize that as we paint our reality that we are doing just that, that there is a paint brush in our hand and that we are capturing events and ideas as we see them, and that everything that we have been and are, everything we hold dear and value, is somehow influencing the canvas in our heads, influencing our reality.

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It may sound crazy, but our mental health actually depends on being aware of this truth. When we help students understand concepts like forgiveness and working through disagreements with a classmate, when we mentor them in conflict resolution and teach them about perspective and empathy, seeds for the betterment of students and society are planted. Piaget saw the importance of schools in this matter when he said –

Only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual.

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Fun Facts:

+ Piaget was referred to as “the great pioneer of the constructivist theory of knowing.” I am a constructivist so I think he and I would have gotten along fine here.

+ After graduation Piaget went to work in Paris at a school for boys. The school was run by Alfred Binet, the developer of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test (think IQ test). Piaget got involved marking the tests and while doing so he began to notice that young children consistently gave wrong answers for certain questions. That is what got him started in his life study.

Perceptions as Portraits, not Photographs

I do a lot of my reading on my iPad. Books that I am reading or continuing to re-read I keep on my main iBooks screen. I have created a folder for Finished Fiction and another one for Finished Non-Fiction. Usually when I finish a book I move it to one of those folders. In a few cases, though, even after finishing a book I leave it on my main screen, since I know I will be going back to it again and again. Such is the case with Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (2006). More than his funny, even irreverent, style of writing, I am drawn to the amazing research studies to which he refers and bases his points. This research points to the incredible complexity of human beings and the processes that affect our thinking and behavior, a complexity ultimately anchored and intertwined in choice.

 

 

According to Choice Theory, people are always in the process of creating and monitoring their view of reality. A person’s view of reality has a great deal to do with how she relates to others and especially how she values her own status. This view affects how events are interpreted. Our personal view of reality is a big deal.

It is on that word personal, at least when it comes to their view of reality, that many stumble and eventually disagree. We see with our eyes what is and we hear with our ears what is – and that means, we figure, that we know what is. Previous posts have commented on the frustrations, and even dangers, of this way of thinking. (e.g. – Three Types of People – Awesome, Dangerous, and Run and Why Are So Many Christians So Un-Christian?) Is it possible that what we see and hear is somehow different than what we see and hear?

A portrait, not a photograph, of John Locke.

Immanuel Kant, showing off the look of the day. What keeps this hair from coming back into vogue?

Given that Solomon was right when he said that “there is nothing new under the sun,” (Eccl. 1:9) Stumbling on Happiness reminds us that the argument over how we perceive reality has been around for some time. John Locke, English philosopher of the Enlightenment and regarded as the Father of Liberalism, described the theory of realism in 1690, which explained that our senses confirm that things exist and that this existence produces an idea that we then perceive. Almost a hundred years later Immanuel Kant threw that way of thinking out the door. His theory of idealism in 1781, instead described a multi-faceted process through which a person’s picture of reality is created. An excerpt from Stumbling on Happiness says it best –

Kant’s new theory of idealism claimed that our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brains, but rather, they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality. “The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing,” Kant wrote. “Only through their union can knowledge arise.” The historian Will Durant performed the remarkable feat of summarizing Kant’s point in a single sentence: “The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost—one might say—a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli.”

I think Gilbert summarized the centuries-old argument even better when he wrote that “Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.”

Perceptions are portraits, not photographs.

 

Locke believed the eyes and the mind combined to produce a photograph, a perfect replica of reality, whereas Kant believed the eyes, and all the other senses, combined with the mind to create a painting of reality that represents sometimes our best guess, sometimes a deep need or want, but always a reality that is meaningful to us and that makes sense. The research in Stumbling on Happiness reveals that Kant was right. The ideas of Choice Theory certainly affirm the accuracy of perceptions as portraits.

Whether we view our perceptions as photographs or portraits is a big deal! It’s a big deal when it comes to our mental health, primarily because it’s a big deal in our relationships. Of course, how we perceive reality affects all aspects of our behavior, including how we vote politically, how we drive a car at rush hour, how we manage children and students, how we see gun control, and how we worship, to name just a few. If we believe our senses take in a perfect picture of reality, like a photograph, then there isn’t much to talk about when faced with a person who supposedly sees things differently. The photograph in our head confirms our rightness; there is no need to talk about differences, other than to inform the other person of their being wrong. Such a view, as you might guess, leads to a narrow, locked-in mentality and hurts relationships in the process.

If we believe our senses take in a perfect picture of reality,
like a photograph, then there isn’t much to talk about
when faced with a person who supposedly sees things differently.

Being able to recognize our own role in forming our picture of reality creates a healthy freedom that allows us to learn from changing circumstances, especially when it comes to communicating with those whom we love. We allow that we don’t know everything and that we are open to new information. Because of seeing reality as a portrait we are constantly in the process of painting and modifying, we are more able to accept and respect the knowledge and views of others. This perspective skill set is one of the keys to empathy, which is a powerful piece of mental health and a huge piece in healthy relationships.

We do our children and students a big favor when we teach them about how we each paint a portrait of the world as we see it. Such knowledge allows for growth (mindset) and prepares the way for positive relationships in the future.

If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to check out Stumbling on Happiness. It is an enjoyable read that is chock full of insight.

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Such as are your habitual thoughts;
such also will be the character of your mind;
for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Marcus Aurelius

 

Marriage and Those Pesky Trash Cans

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Sophie Sims-Stapleton turned onto her street and could see them as plain as day. It wasn’t day, of course. It was actually twilight, the evening fast approaching as street lights started to come on, the darkness slowly draping the neighborhood. Her commute had taken a bit longer this evening, which had prompted her to abandon her plans to stop at Safeway on the way home, but even in the twilight she could clearly see them. All three of them, standing in front of her house like sentinels – the brown one, the green one, and the blue one. Except they weren’t sentinels; they were trash cans, standing somewhat askew after the trash truck had emptied them with its robotic arm and unceremoniously dropped them back onto the pavement. And now they were chiding her with a message as clear as their bold colors, that message being, You don’t matter!

As she neared the house she could see her husband’s car already parked in the driveway, which seemed to grind salt in her festering wound. Hadn’t she and Greg, her husband, talked about this at length last week, after the cans had sat in front of the house for three days following trash day, both of them expecting the other to bring the cans to the side yard where they were stored during the week. The two of them had quietly and sullenly dug in, both acting like they hadn’t noticed the cans in front of the house, even though it was difficult to park with them sitting where the trash truck had ditched them.

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“Why can’t you just bring them in?” she pleaded. “You usually get home first.”

“I usually do,” he retorted, “but why can’t you bring them in once in a while? I help around the house, seems like you could help with some of the outdoor stuff now and again.”

Truth be told, she felt that her job was more stressful, and basically more important than his, and that he should pick up more of the chores at home. It bothered her that he could act, through his ignoring of the trash cans, like he was somehow equal to her. He had reminded her of the things weighing on him at work, as well as at church, with all the time he was donating to the needs of the building committee, and she had momentarily relented, even as she harbored a sense of resentment toward his laziness and stubbornness. In the end, they had gone out and brought in the trash cans together, which kind of felt good, like they had solved a problem through communicating and respect.

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Yet now, just a few days later, the trash cans once again were askew in front of the house, with big grins on the front of them (at least as far as she was concerned), driving home the point that her needs didn’t matter. As she navigated around the blue recycle can to park in her usual place, her thoughts were not positive.

I kind of hate him, she thought to herself. Why can’t he just bring in the freaking trash cans? Seeing his car parked in its usual place she got even angrier. He’s been home for how long? A half hour? An hour? That’s plenty of time to bring in a few trash cans. Jeez! Why do I have to nag him? His laziness makes me crazy!

The thought occurred to her to bring in the trash cans herself, but she responded gruffly to such an idea. That would be totally non-supportive of her goal. There are responsibilities for which he needs to step up to the plate, and this is one of them. She laughed at herself for even entertaining the thought of bringing the cans in herself. True, during last week’s discussion on this very point she had agreed that sometimes she could bring in the cans, too, but she pushed this memory aside now. Instead, the thought occurred to her to place one of the cans directly behind his car so that he would have to move it in the morning.

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The front porch was dark, which added to her anger fuel. If he gets home first, can’t he at least turn on the porch lights as a courtesy to others that come home later? How did I marry this jerk? What was I thinking?

She put the finishing touches on her anger and frustration, all of it completely merited and defensible, as she covered the final steps to the front door. Which persona to be she wondered as she unlocked the door – should I go with lashing-out anger or should I go with the silent treatment? Full of appropriate disgust she entered a dark house. What’s going on? she thought.

“Greg,” she called out. “Greg,” she tried again. But only silence in return. What in the world?

And then a memory slipped across her mind. Her brow furrowed as the audio memory tape in her brain wound into position. She almost declined to press the play button, but her brain seemed to have an automatic play option. Faintly, but growing stronger, the tape said, Honey, I will be home late tonight. Roger is picking me up in the morning, as we have a joint meeting in Forrest City tomorrow for work, and then we are both part of the special board meeting this evening at the church. It may be close to 10:00 when I get home. She recalled the look on his face as he explained his schedule, the way he regretted being away from her for the evening, and a pang of awareness began to overtake her.

She turned the kitchen light on and immediately saw the note he had written, after she had left for work.

Just a reminder that I will be home late tonight.
More meetings at the church.
I’ll get the trash cans in when I get home, though.
Love, Greg.

She stared at that simple note for a long time, her eyes growing wet as the recognition regarding her own anger became clearer and clearer. A tear dropped on to the note, quickly blurring the ink of trash and cans. She had created a story and nurtured it into a reality that she had fully embraced. Her reality had led her to think terrible things about her husband, but she was beginning to see that she had made it all up. All of it. For some reason, she realized, her version of reality applied the worst interpretation to Greg’s behavior, while applying the best interpretation to her own behavior. Another tear dropped onto the note, this time obliterating the word Love.

That can’t happen she thought to herself. Our love can’t be so easily blurred. And with that she returned to the entryway, turned on the porch light, and headed into the night air to get the trash cans and put them away.

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It is true that reality influences our perceptions. Our circumstances can affect any part of our total behavior – our thinking, our acting, our feelings, or our physiology. Information and events external to us may or may not matter. A ringing telephone, as Glasser used to say, lets us know that someone wants to talk with us, but it can’t force us to answer it. An angry, threatening person may convince us to comply with his demand, or it may not. We decide. In fact, we make a ton of these decisions every day. Circumstances constantly hit us with data; we process the data and decide how to respond.

It is just as true that our perceptions create our reality. In fact, this may be one of the most important of the elements of choice theory. It is probably more accurate to say that our embraced perceptions create our reality. When we settle on a value or belief, everything we experience passes through our values filter. The result of this filtering is our version of reality. Our actions are always based on our view of reality, so the importance of this process cannot be overstated.

It can be hard for some to come to grips with the idea that people create their own version of reality. Reality is reality, some say; it isn’t a matter of opinion. For each of us, though, reality is formed in the frontal cortex of our brains, which continuously takes in millions of bits of information and turns it into pictures and sounds and smells. A danger lurks in the belief that our personal pictures and sounds and smells represent total, all-knowing, crystal-clear reality. Such a view cannot tolerate new information and limits itself to shrunken interpretations. Sophie had embraced faulty pictures of Greg, but she was able to admit this when new information corrected her version of reality. This is not always easy to do – Has anyone’s mind been changed, for instance, because of all the political information and articles being shared on Facebook? Exactly, we choose to ignore some articles, even as we consciously click on links to other articles we consider more trustworthy or accurate. Having values is fine, even preferable, but staying open to new information is a healthier state of mind.

Just remember not to jump to conclusions when you round the corner and see those pesky trash cans still sitting out by the road.

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** This post first appeared on The Better Plan page on October 29, 2016. Trash cans still need to be brought in, though.

A Gun and Winter Survival

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With so much attention being centered on guns, my mind recalled a group exercise in which I participated years ago. I was completing a degree in Educational Leadership and the exercise was meant to “compare the effectiveness of five different methods of group decision-making.”* The exercise, which placed group members in a hypothetical survival scenario, revealed the communication habits of not only groups, but also specific members within the group. Our focus today, though, will be less on the communication patterns and more on the survival scenario on which the exercise was based.

This post first appeared in October, 2015, and is being re-printed today
because of the on-going effects of guns in our lives.

After organizing the groups (and each group is given a unique set of instructions) the following scenario is distributed –

You have just crash-landed in the woods of northern Minnesota and southern Manitoba. It is 11:32 am in mid-January. The light plane in which you were traveling crashed on a lake. The pilot and copilot were killed. Shortly after the crash the plane sank completely into the lake with pilot’s and copilot’s bodies inside. None of you is seriously injured and you are all dry.

The crash came suddenly, before the pilot had time to radio for help or inform anyone of your position. Since your pilot was trying to avoid a storm, you know the plane was considerably off course. The pilot announced shortly before the crash that you were twenty miles northwest of a small town that is the nearest known habitation.

You are in a wilderness area made up of thick woods broken by many lakes and streams. The snow depth varies from above the ankles in windswept areas to knee-deep where it has drifted. The weather report indicated that the temperature would reach minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime and minus 40 at night. There is plenty of dead wood and twigs in the immediate area. You are dressed in winter clothing appropriate for city wear – suits, pantsuits, street shoes, and overcoats.

While escaping from the plane, several members of your group salvaged twelve items. Your task is to rank these items according to their importance to your survival, starting with 1 for the most important item and ending with 12 for the least important one.

You may assume that the number of passengers is the same as the number of persons in your group and that the group has agreed to stick together.

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The items to be prioritized are as follows:

______ ball of steel wool
______ newspapers (one per person)
______ compass
______ hand ax
______ cigarette lighter (without fluid)
______ loaded .45-caliber pistol
______ sectional air map made of plastic
______ 20-ft by 20-ft piece of heavy-duty canvas
______ extra shirt and pants for each survivor
______ can of shortening
______ quart of 100-proof whiskey
______ family-size chocolate bar (one per person)

Ok, so your task is to rank these from 1-12, from most important to least important. Think, too, about how you would defend your rankings to your fellow group members. (One way to do the activity is to have individuals complete the ranking and then have the group complete a group ranking. The group score needs to be the same for each group member. Each member then compares his individual ranking and group ranking to the answer sheet, noting the numerical difference between their scores and the right score. For example, if Joe lists the compass as #1, and it turns out to be ranked #12, that would be a difference of 11. If the group ranks the compass at #9, the difference then would be 3. Like golf you want the lowest score possible. When the score sheets are all completed, with the differences noted, you can begin to see how well the group functioned.)

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Welcome back. You’ve finished your ranking scores, right?

Fortunately, a small expert panel weighed in on how to prioritize the items, along with a rationale for their ranking. There are surprises, but that is part of the fun of the exercise.

For instance, the top three items in order of their importance are –

+ the cigarette lighter
+ the ball of steel wool
+ and the extra shirt and pants for each survivor

The gravest danger to the group is exposure to the cold; therefore the greatest need is creating a source of warmth. The lighter, even without fluid, is essential in that it can still create sparks. The steel wool is the best substance to catch a spark and support a flame. The second greatest need is for signaling devices. According to survival experts, the importance of the rest of the items on the list would be in the following order –

+ the can of shortening (the lid would be an excellent reflector)
+ the large piece of canvas
+ the hand ax
+ the chocolate bars
+ the newspapers
+ the loaded pistol
+ the bottle of whiskey
+ the sectional map
+ the compass

It is interesting to me that the loaded gun appears toward the bottom of the list. It has some value as a signaling device, and the gunpowder from the shells could help in starting a fire, but these advantages are significantly outweighed by the danger a loaded gun contributes to the dynamics of the group.

Surviving a plane crash in a life-threatening environment, especially with two people killed in the crash, is traumatic. With people in shock, clear-headedness and reasoning may be all that stands between life or death. The gun represents quick access to power and control, not good when the group needs to work together to survive. As the group waits to be rescued, members will need to deal with fear, anger, irritability, and even lapses in rationality. The presence of the gun brings a substantial danger to the group under these circumstances.

It seems to me that guns bring a similar level of danger to the everyday situations across the country in which fear, anger, or irritability are present. As I think of it, fear, anger, and irritability are present a lot.

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The Winter Survival Exercise is an excellent activity from which individuals and groups can learn to communicate more effectively. Why do some people try to force their wrong answers on others? Why do others with the correct answers silently sit in the background? On what basis do we allow some to influence us, while we ignore others? These are important questions that can be addressed within the choice theory classroom. There are many such exercises. Others include Stranded in the Desert, Lost on the Moon, and Lost at Sea. Each of them are based on the same group format.

* All quotes in this post, as well as all of the specific material related to the Winter Survival Exercise, have been taken from David and Roger Johnson’s classic book, Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills (1994).

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