May 28, 2015:
A restorative conversation stops a spiraling Tiara.
This morning, I walked into an SBAC testing room and saw that there was cereal on the floor around Tiara’s desk (Tiara is a 6th grade student at our school, and, of course, this name is a pseudonym.) Ms. Napoleon was texting the phone, and Tiara was sitting back at her desk and sulking.I said, “I’m going to pick up this cereal. Tiara, would you mind helping?” I started picking up the cereal, and Tiara started helping. When we were done, I said, “Tiara, can I check in with you?” and walked out of the room with her.
We walked to the dining hall, which was empty - I didn’t walk us upstairs (toward the reflection room) because I didn’t want Tiara to feel like she was being removed from the room. When we sat down, I said, “Tiara, I’m proud of you. A year ago, if I would have asked you to help pick up the cereal, I don’t know that you would have said yes. But just now, you chose to help. You’ve come such a long way.” Tiara smiled, a little bit. I paused for a few moments.
Me: “So what’s going on?”
Tiara started talking quickly, in a high-pitched voice. I couldn’t really understand what she was saying. This is how many of her meltdowns start. I said, “Tiara, I can’t understand you and I just want to hear what’s going on.” She was still mumbling somewhat, but I did my best to hear what she was saying and listen actively.
Tiara: “We were in class and they said we could talk but I was by myself in the back so I asked if I could move and he said no.”
Me: “Who is he?”
Tiara: “Mr. Landshark. So I got mad and that’s when I threw some cereal on the ground. Then Ms. Napoleon was texting for me to get removed and I was mad about that, too.”
I repeated the key facts, then asked, “what were you thinking about when that happened?”
Tiara: “I was mad because he didn’t let me move, and yesterday we already had an issue so it was already bad.”
Me: “Are you saying that part of your anger was carried over from yesterday?”
Me: “What have you thought about since this happened?”
Tiara: “I’m feeling a little better.”
Here, I decided to teach Tiara a little bit about how we, as humans, react to stress. This is where I was hoping most of the learning would take place, both from the perspective of Tiara understanding herself (personal growth) and from the perspective of Tiara understanding others (empathy.)
I explained what some call the “compass of shame”, which I instead called “the four stress responses”:
Whenever we go from a positive feeling to a negative feeling, it causes stress. This is something that happens to everybody: Our brains release a chemical, and whether we notice it or not, we tend to react in one or more of the following ways (I draw the compass):
- Withdraw: We actually leave the place we are.
- Avoid: We stay where we are, but we do everything we can to avoid the issue.
- Attack other: Usually not physically - often this looks like us saying mean things about the other person in our minds.
- Attack self: Also not physically - this is most often us putting ourselves down in our own minds.
Like I said, we all do these things. Sometimes we do more than one of them. Like when I trip on shoes that I left out and I get mad at my wife. I say in my head, “why didn’t she move those shoes!?” [points to “attack other”] But that’s absurd; it has nothing to do with her! It’s just my response to the stress of going from feeling good to feeling bad that happened when I tripped. Sometimes I’ll say something and somebody else will say something about what I said, and I have a stress response and say in my head, “that was so stupid. I can’t believe I said that. I’m so dumb/inconsiderate/mean.” But I don’t really believe those things about myself; it’s just a stress response.
I ask, which of these stress responses do you think you had today?
Tiara points to “attack other.”
Me: “What happened? Please know I’m not going to share any details of mean stuff you said in your head.” We both smile.
Tiara, “I was just thinking mean things about Mr. Landshark.”
Me: “Thanks for sharing. Again, that’s a normal stress reaction. It’s not what you chose to do; it’s just what happened...did you do any of these other things?
Tiara pauses and studies the compass. Finally, she points to “avoid.”
Me: “That’s what I was thinking. Say more about that.”
Tiara: “Well, when Ms. Napoleon was texting the phone, I was just kind of avoiding the problem, kind of in my own world, trying not to deal with it.”
Me: Sounds like a very normal stress response.
I explained the significance of knowing about this:
There are two reasons it’s important to know about stress responses: One, because it helps you recognize when you’re having one so you can stop it. You’ll notice that you are saying mean things about someone in your head and be able to say, “wait, this isn’t a choice I’m making; I’m just having a stress response.” And then you can give yourself a minute to let your body get rid of the stress chemicals. Because if you don’t notice it, often you’ll do something you didn’t mean, which will cause more stress, and then you’re stuck having a bunch of stress responses in a row.
The second reason is because another thing that causes us to get stuck is when we’re not right with someone else. That feeling is stressful and, if we don’t deal with it, it leads to even more stress responses.
Me: So you said you already felt like you weren’t right with Mr. Landshark. It sounds like that had something to do with what happened today.
Me: So in these situations, the way to become right with somebody again is to figure out what harm was done, and then repair the harm.
Tiara: You mean apologize?
Me: Maybe. It probably depends on the harm. Let’s start with Ms. Napoleon. How was she impacted by what you did?
Tiara: She might have been confused because she had just come into the room.
Me: That’s a good start. How do you think she felt when she was texting?
Tiara: Maybe a little concerned, because she was trying to help me but I was avoiding it.
I wrote down: Ms. Napoleon - confused, concerned.
Tiara: And Mr. Landshark, I don’t think he cared because he didn’t notice what I did.
Me: That’s possible, but be careful with that. Just because somebody doesn’t say something doesn’t mean they didn’t notice. If he did notice, how do you think that affected him?
Tiara: He would have been mad...or maybe frustrated.
Me: Great. Is there anybody else affected by this?
Tiara: The kids around me, I don’t know if they saw it, but they might have been confused about what was going on.
Me: There’s one more person who I think has been affected by this, and it’s not me :) Who do you think that person is?
Me: How were you affected by what happened?
Tiara: I was angry. But I’m feeling better now.
Me: What do you think was causing that anger? Were you embarrassed by the way you acted?
Tiara: I think that was it.
Me: Remember, that’s just a stress response. But it made you feel embarrassed, then you got angry. So - do you forgive yourself for having that stress response?
Me: OK; we’ve been talking for about 10 minutes. I’m curious - what have you learned?
Tiara explained the stress responses to me, fairly accurately. I asked why they matter, and she explained that they’re normal and we have to know they’re happening so we can stop them.
Me: How can you repair some of this other harm? What do you think you could do?
Tiara: I could tell Ms. Napoleon I’m sorry, that I didn’t mean to make her upset.
Me: That would probably help. What about with Mr. Landhsark?
Tiara: Same thing?
Me: What’s that?
Tiara: I think I should tell him I’m sorry, that I was just having a response to my anger and it wasn’t really about him.
Me: Do you think that will make the two of you right with each other again?
Tiara: I think so.
Me: Great! I’ve been learning about this stuff and I find it fascinating...it helps me to explain a lot of things that have happened in my life. Have you found this helpful?
Me: In what way?
Tiara: Because it helps me know why sometimes I start saying things about myself, but it’s just because I’m stressed.
Me: Thanks; that’s helpful to know. Let’s go back to class and crush this SBAC, OK?
Tiara: All right. [she smiles]
We walked back to class and, on the way, I said, “now, when you go back in there, know that you’re sitting next to some people that sometimes have their own stress reactions that sometimes affect you. Keep in mind when you see them having stress reactions, and notice when you’re having a stress reaction to what they’re doing.
Tiara came into the room, got right to work on her SBAC, called Ms. Napoleon over and said, “I’m sorry for what happened earlier. I didn’t mean to do it”
Ms. Napoleon asked me a minute later, dumbfounded, “what did you SAY to her!?”
Ten minutes later, Tiara and Mr. Landshark checked in outside. I asked her how it went afterward, and she said it went really well. “You’re all right with each other?” I asked. “We’re all right,” Tiara said, and she smiled and got back to work on her test.