As my son (11) and I went to drop off school supplies for my son’s teachers, we approached a school employee who appeared to be the building gate-keeper; she stood strongly in front of the entrance doors. The conversation went something like this:

Me: [Smiling], ma’am I am dropping of supplies for the teachers, would it be OK for my son to come with me to help me?”

Gate-keeper: [No smile- no words] a swish of  her hand motioning to go in.

Me: “Why thank you so much, I hope you enjoy your day.”

Me to my son: “Is she always like that?”

My Son: “Yeah, she is scary, but if you want  her to like you or talk to you, you have to bring her coffee.”

As adults, we tend to pride ourselves on being a good friend; loyal, responsive and considerate.  We greet our friends with a big smile and hello, maybe a hug, show concern, or a verbal acknowledgment of how wonderful it is to see them; it makes them/us feel special and loved. Imagine this behavior modeled abundantly in our schools; what positive outcomes would come from kids seeing this on a daily basis? Unfortunately, this is not always how students feel as they enter onto school campuses where they spend a large portion of their time.

What if positively greeting and acknowledging kids as human-beings was a staple in our school systems? Imagine the positive modeling students would experience each day, besides: “hurry, your late, pick that up, you go it wrong, what do you want” etc. Alfred Bandura believed that role models where a crucial and significant part of development, yet when it comes to modeling behaviors, educators [all adults] do not always hold themselves to the emotional standards of which they interact with others as do they when they interact with children. How, if we expect children to develop into caring, acknowledging, empathetic and fair adults, can this be accomplished if  these are not the behaviors modeled consistently? You can’t raise a lion to be a puppy.

Consider giving the benefit of the doubt

As the teacher walked into the class, a young girl plopped her backpack on the floor making a loud sound. The teacher yelled at the girl to stop being irresponsible and get to her seat. The young girl swept the backpack aside with her foot and sat down. Later, the teacher caught a boy sleeping at his desk. Without a word, the teacher ordered the boy out of her classroom; to be dealt with by the principal.

These actions and behaviors, by students, are what some teachers would consider the lazy or irresponsible, and given, at times this could be the case, but WHAT IF?

What if?

What if that teacher had responded with giving the benefit of the doubt and asked why the young girl had abruptly dropped the backpack? That teacher might have learned that the young girl had been hit across the shoulders by her father the night before and the girl’s arms were sore and bruised. What if that teacher had asked the boy if he was OK, and if there was something wrong? That teacher might have learned that the young boy and his family were living in their car and he had not eaten for two days. If the teacher had reacted differently, the outcomes might have been very different, and even more so, what message would have been sent to the kids?– I am worth someone understanding, I have someone who cares, I am acknowledged as a human.

In given situations, and certain jobs, it can be taken for granted that we know the reasons for behaviors even before they happen. Heuristically we develop situational reasoning even prior to the occurrence of the events with a given population. In some cases there are power liberties that become acceptable in the way adults react to children. Power liberties are behaviors from those who have controlling power that become acceptable towards one population but not another, generally due to unequal distribution of perceived power. Positive Psychology, functionally, switches the paradigm of what was acceptable in the past and asks us to look through a different lens. Lens 1 past: “I am the authority and they will do what I say because I have the power to make them”. Lens 2-future: “I am an authority and have a much greater power to shape them through what they see in me”.

Giving the benefit of the doubt

Neither child, in the above scenarios, had recourse to tell or share their side of the story. The adult took liberty to being the presiding authority and deeming themselves judge and jury. Consider how we as adults react when we see a friend drop a bag, a purse or when they appear overly tired. Do we react by scolding them or yelling them? No, we give them the benefit of the doubt and ask what is wrong or if everything is OK; do growing children not deserve the same treatment? Of course  they do, and at a much more extensive rate as they are growing and learning how to be in the world.

In Bandura’s research with Bob the Doll, he found that modeling took place when an adult modeled aggressive behaviors. Given this type of modeling can take place across a wide range of actions and behaviors, it would be reasonable, in academic settings, to ask the question “what outcomes are we looking for as we model behavior in front of kids?” The answer: respectful, caring, nice, happy, honest, considerate etc.  If these are the answers, then these should be the behaviors that the teachers and adults themselves should be modeling.

About the author: Dr. Lynn Soots has been teaching psychology at the higher education level for over ten years. She is proud to integrate Positive Psychology applications in each of her courses to support growth and student goal attainment. She specializes in higher education online course-room design, adult learning, and diversity appreciation.


‘We are the Positive Psychology People’

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