“My teacher doesn’t like me,” a third grader recently confided.  After employing all my magnificent counseling skills, I was able to get some context for why the student felt this way. She had asked a question about outer space, a topic they were studying in science. She felt her teacher’s answer was too short and, frankly, dismissive. With some additional questioning, I learned she’d asked this question hours after the discussion about outer space, interrupting a math lesson. Then we were able to work on reframing the situation.

What is reframing?

Reframing simply means seeing a situation from a new perspective. This is important because our brains are incredibly efficient and hard-wired to look for negative situations because their first priority is to keep us safe. So while it is easy to chuckle at the anecdote above as a classic example of the logical fallacies of kids, the truth is that we are all prone to subconsciously interpreting events in ways that are more negative than an objective observer would. These types of cognitions are called automatic negative thoughts.

Teachers are most likely to negatively react when we see students behaving in a way that goes against our expectations, especially the ones that most push our buttons. Here is a list of some of the most common student behavior challenges, the automatic negative thought it could provoke, and an example of reframing that thought.

1. Students are talking when you are trying to talk.

Automatic negative thought: I have no control over my own classroom.

Reframed thought: They are very energetic. I am excited for when we do activities that will channel that high energy into learning.

2. A student puts head down on their desk.

Automatic negative thought:They are so disrespectful!

Reframed thought: I wonder what is going on in their life that is making them so exhausted or overwhelmed. I wonder if I can help.

3. A student is not turning in their homework.

Automatic negative thought: They are so lazy!

Reframed thought: This student is either not understanding the work or is having trouble finding the opportunity to work on material outside of school. I wonder how I can support.

4. A student doesn’t tell the truth

Automatic negative thought:You think so little of me that you will lie right to my face.

Reframed thought: I have had moments where I didn’t tell the full truth because I was afraid of the consequences. I am going to work on building up this student’s trust in me.

5. A student rolls their eyes at you or backtalks you.

Automatic negative thought:800 of the red anger emojis fill your brain and swim in front of your vision.

Reframed thought: In that student’s home life, this is probably an expected form of communication. I either need to accept that or have a conversation about ways in which they can show disagreement in a more school-appropriate way.

6. A student is always standing up and moving around.

Automatic negative thought: Seriously, I have seen hummingbirds less active than this kid. Just. Sit. Still. So distracting!

Reframed thought: I wonder what I can give them to help them divert their energy in a less distracting way?

7. A student exaggerates greatly.

Automatic negative thought: Really, pal, your mother works for the Secret Service and once saved Obama from an alien sniper? Suuuuuuuuuuuuure. You are so manipulative.

Reframed thought: It seems that this student feels the need to stretch the truth in order to be accepted. I bet he would get along well with Billy, so I should encourage them to play together at recess.

8. A student is constantly writing on the desk or destroying little objects like pencil erasers, paper, etc.

Automatic negative thought: Keep it up, kid, and the next desk you will be writing on will be in the in-school suspension room.

Reframed thought: This student has a tactile sensory need. What can I give them to help them fulfill that need in a way that won’t deface property or make a huge mess?

In many ways, reframing our thoughts requires us to realize that student behavior is a way of communicating a need. As Dr. Ross Greene puts it, kids do well if they can. So, as in all cases, a little empathy goes a very long way. And in this case, a little introspection goes a very long way. After all, it is the only way to squash ANTs.

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How to Use Reframing With Your Students to Address Challenging Behavior