Over the next year, I’m participating in a school-based book study of George Couros’s Innovator’s Mindset.
If you haven’t read it before, you ought to pick it up. What I dig the most about it is the fact that George’s ideas are incredibly approachable. Not only will you walk away with a better understanding of just what innovation looks like in action, you will walk away with a belief that innovation is doable.
My a-ha this week came in a chapter on the importance of relationships in education.
George references this Atul Gawande bit describing how ideas spread through an organization. In the article, Gawande describes something called “the rule of seven touches” that he picked up from a pharmaceutical sales representative:
I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change.
That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.
I know firsthand that the rule of seven touches works with adults. Here’s why: I’m ‘notoriously stubborn’ too!
Need proof? Ask literally ANYONE who has worked with me professionally over the last 25 years.
If you are going to have ANY chance of convincing me to embrace a new practice or behavior or to walk in whatever direction you are hoping I’m going to walk, you are going to need to rely on more than just your authority or position. Instead, you are going to have to have a series of smaller interactions with me that build trust. If I don’t come to know you — or worse yet, if I’m not convinced that you’ve tried to get to know me — I’m never going to trust you. And if I don’t trust you, there’s not a chance in the world that you are going to convince me to take your ideas for a spin.
But I wasn’t thinking about adults when I read about the Rule of Seven in The Innovator’s Mindset. I was thinking about the students who struggle with behaviors in our schools.
You know the kids that I’m talking about: The ones who aren’t in their seats when we want them to be or who use unkind words to their peers or who can’t keep their hands to themselves or who are late to our classes time and time again or who are in spaces where they aren’t supposed to be or who mouth back when we try to correct their behaviors.
For years, my response to those behaviors had nothing to do with “the rule of seven touches.” Instead, my response was more along the lines of “the rule of seven consequences.”
I’d sign their behavior trackers or fuss at them in the hallways or chase them back to their classrooms with a stern voice or the ‘evil eye.’ I’d write them up and send them to the office and argue that we needed MORE consequences if we were ever going to ‘manage their behaviors.’
I actually took pride in being ‘the strict teacher’ and would warn kids at the beginning of the year that if they didn’t behave, I would be their LEAST favorite teacher. I’d call their parents during my planning period, intentionally trying to get kids in trouble. “Wait until you get home,” I’d crow. “Your mom is NOT happy with you.”
The funny thing is that NONE of those ‘command and control’ approaches to dealing with student behaviors worked.
Students who were suspended time and again or fussed at time and again or shouted down by teachers time and again or ‘disciplined’ time and again by the adults in a schoolhouse don’t become MORE likely to follow your rules or to participate in your school community in positive ways.
Instead, they resist and fight back and begin to doubt and disrespect everything and everyone in your school community. Why would you expect cooperation from kids who have been buried in consequences by important adults at every turn?
So I’ve done my best this year to create “positive touches” with the students who struggle with behaviors on my hallway.
Specifically, I’ve learned the names of kids in different classes that I stumble across over and over again out of place in the hallways. I say hello using first names every time that I see them. I ask about their weekends, about their interests, and about how their days are going every chance I get. I say goodbye as the head out the door at the end of the day. I say, “It’s good to see you!” a thousand times a day to kids who have gotten used to being somebody’s outcast.
There’s nothing remarkable about any of these interactions — and they cost me nothing. But they are deliberate — designed to get kids to ‘come to know me’ because I realize that if kids who struggle to behave ‘come to know me’, they are more likely to trust me. And if they trust me, I’ll have a better chance to coach them around behaviors when I need to.
And it’s working.
I’ve already established trusting relationships with some of the most ‘difficult’ kids in our school. Those kids stop and listen when I ask them to. If I need them to head back to their classrooms, it happens without any kind of resistance involved.
When they make poor choices, I can call them out on it and know that they will hear me rather than slip directly into denial or anger or belligerence. What I love the most is that many of them have started stopping by my room on purpose just to say hello in the morning — and they’re bringing friends who want to get to know me, too.
None of this would have happened in previous years, y’all.
That’s because in previous years, I would have tried to drop the hammer on these kids every time I saw them in the hallways. I would have chased them away or fussed first and asked questions later. I would have used every punishment that I had available to me, convinced that those punishments were not only deserved, but essential to “send a message” to kids.
Can you see the flaws in my logic?
My priority was obedience first and relationships later, not realizing that obedience — or the lack thereof — was a direct reflection of the state of the relationship that I had with each individual student. The kids who misbehaved the most were the ones that I’d done nothing to get to know and appreciate and value and celebrate.
Now don’t get me wrong: I haven’t ‘rescued’ any of these students yet. They aren’t behaving everywhere that they go in our building. In fact, it’s not unusual for me to find out that they are in trouble for shouting at other teachers or staff members that they’ve encountered during the school day.
But each of those negative interactions bothers me more now than ever because I KNOW that these same students CAN respond in a positive way to correction and to guidance from adults. That correction and guidance just has to come from adults that they trust — and trust starts when adults concentrate on having positive touches with the most difficult kids in their buildings.
So here’s a simple question I want you to consider: Is your school a “rules first” or a “relationships first” community?
You are a “rules first” community if you spend more time in staff meetings or leadership meetings or school improvement meetings talking about consequences for kids than you do talking about the best ways to build trust with the kids who need you the most.
You are a “rules first” community if you have an incredibly long list of misbehaviors and their corresponding punishments posted all over your school’s website, but you can’t make a similar list of the deliberate steps that YOU are taking to make sure that every kid — including those that are always in trouble — has positive interactions with adults in your building each day.
You are a “rules first” community if your school is full of teachers who are constantly grumbling about the lack of “enforcement” or “discipline” in your building but those same staff members aren’t willing to roll their sleeves up and create experiences intentionally designed to strengthen relationships with students who are struggling to behave.
You are a “rules first” community if teachers in your building can list all of the things that a difficult student has done WRONG but struggle to come up with anything that those exact same students have done RIGHT.
You are a “rules first” community if you are more than ready to call home to notify parents of all of the ways that their kids have broken the rules, but you never take the time to call home and notify parents of all of the ways that their kids inspire you and make you proud.
And you are a “rules first” community if there are a group of kids that you never seem to be able to reach with consequences. They’ve tuned you out. They’ve given up on you. They don’t trust you — and because they don’t trust you, they will never respond to you in the way that you hope that they will.
If that sounds anything like you, maybe it’s time to start thinking about relationships.
Related Radical Reads:
Is Your Team Failing Unsuccessful Practices Together?
Three Promises I’m Making to the Parents of Quirky Kids.
When Was the Last Time You Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?