Chapter 13: Communication Skills
from the book "RootEd: How Trauma Impacts Learning and Society" by S.R. Zelenz
Communication is important in any relationship. Without communication, assumptions and misunderstandings prevail. This creates emotional reactions and behaviors that are counter to effective relationship building or to accomplishing goals. Much of the communication commonly seen in schools and families is more in alignment with maintaining order than respecting the individuals in the room. It is as if the individuals are less important than the goal. This is not to be confused with collectivist cultures who are looking for the common good of all involved. This is different. This is meeting the desire of an external party for the good of that party. The family and school are then subservient to the external party’s expectations. So, meaningful communication takes a back seat to ensure that the external party is appeased.
Who is the external party? Well, in schools, it would be the school district, and the government entities that fund the schools. It isn’t about the teachers in the classroom, and it is definitely not about the students. Teachers are pressured to perform and to ensure that the students perform up to par. Without this, the teacher may lose their job, or the school may lose their funding. This changes the way in which the teacher communicates with students. Many teachers that I have spoken with became quite defensive when the suggestion of offering children more say in their learning experience was addressed. Every single one of them said that they don’t have that kind of time. Although this is what I did in my own classrooms and they saw the results and were pleased, they did not deem it possible to do so in their own classrooms. There are many factors relating to this response.
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Many teachers follow set patterns. They adhere to them because this is what they are familiar with and what has worked for them in the past. This does not always mean that it has worked for their students. Spend time in the teachers’ lounge and listen to the way they speak of the students who don’t adhere to the way they do things in their classroom. They deem these students as the problem. Never once will a teacher take responsibility for their contribution to the situation. Teachers don’t have time to deal with individual student needs, so most of these students are removed from the classroom, addressed through special programs, or repeatedly punished in manners that exacerbate their behavior.
Most teachers resort to reward and punishment cycles as previously discussed. The teachers adhere to a hierarchical structure to maintain their classrooms, which does not bode well for teaching students about democracy or how to behave in a democracy. For students living in a nation founded on the principles of democracy, this is very problematic. There is only one place that a student can experience democracy and that is through their student governance clubs, but not in their daily lives. One could easily argue that students were being trained to work in hierarchical employment scenarios. These employment scenarios are also lacking in democratic structure and are often rife with abuses. Any number of discrimination cases that have gone before the courts were in direct relationship to the non-democratic fashion in which our schools and places of employment operate. To have an equal and just society, then democracy has to be exercised daily in everyday environments so that true accountability and responsibility can be developed fully.
Who is the external party for families? Families answer to more than one. They answer to the school and they answer to the employers of the adult family members. They currently have the least say in their experience, even within their own homes.
Schools pressure parents to continue the school’s job at home. This is to reinforce learning and ensure that the child has ample opportunity to reinforce learning that was sanctioned by the school district. Parents also have to adhere to their own work demands. This can inhibit their schedules, their mental focus, and their stress levels with their own families. Having their livelihood threatened can have a grave impact on family communication and healthy relationship development.
What do children learn from this? Parents are often so focused on providing for their children and being there for their children’s numerous activities, that they don’t even realize the way in which they communicate with their children frequently disempowers them and sets them up for greater failures as adults. This in turn, sets the child up to have a more difficult time with their own employment scenarios and feeling inadequate as a parent. Many parents shower their children with material items that they felt were denied to them when they were children. Without realizing what their actions do, they teach their children that they deserve anything regardless of their own contribution to the environment.
Parents disempower their children by telling them that the failures they experience are not their fault. Parents may blame the coach or the teacher for the child’s failure in order to make the child feel more confident. This only teaches the child to believe they are above reproach, and they are never adequately challenged to improve their efforts so that they can feel truly proud of their accomplishments. This encourages the victimhood narcissistic behavior patterns that will also flourish in adulthood and ruin future employment and family relationships. Children do not learn responsibility and accountability with this method of communication.
What should be focused on is what is within the child’s control. In order to raise resilient children who take responsibility and accountability for their actions, parents and teachers need to encourage the child’s autonomy. Knowing that the child is responsible for the outcome and that someone else can’t take it away from them or decide for them how it will turn out, empowers a child to focus intently on their goal and what they must do to achieve it. They are responsible entirely for the results because they were autonomous in their efforts. They can have a guide by the side to assist them in their effort, but to have the entire instructions and order of business dictated to from an external source makes the child remove the focus from their own effort and instead makes them focus on pleasing. Pleasing is a behavior that is found in the fawning trauma response. This conditions children to be eager to please any outside source that puts their value above the child’s value. It puts the responsibility on the external source who can later be blamed when it doesn’t go as desired. The hopeless belief of victimhood becomes far too easily obtained. All of these fall within the narcissistic abuse spectrum of behavior patterns.
It is far more important to show children that they are not powerless or at the behest of others who are bigger and stronger than they are. They should rely upon adults to protect them from harm, but not to be an additional source of harm regardless of how normalized the behavior is in society. What this creates are adults who know that they can change their outcomes because they know they are the sole responsible party for their life. This is stated in many places, but not held in practice as most adults feel they are dependent upon an employer or other external source for their very basic survival. We do not have an empowered society that feels capable of taking their own lives completely into their own hands. Very few feel they can start their own businesses, yet prior to the industrial revolution, most families owned their own businesses. In fact, it is quite normal in most countries around the world for families to own their own businesses and not seek external employment sources. It is critical that we do not undermine children’s confidence and problem-solving skills through robbing them of autonomy.
Disempowered children become disempowered adults who will chronically see that there is no way forward and that they are permanently held at the behest of forces greater than themselves. This makes them give up and give excuses rather than find solutions to their problems. This is an avoidance behavior that can also be identified in the trauma responses. Many who fall into this area tend to have chronic behaviors such as lying and manipulating others in order to get what they want. They do not believe that being stronger as autonomous individuals will succeed because they have never experienced it. They only know what they were raised and taught with. Disempowered adults create disempowered children, thus creating more disempowered adults.
Children mirror the behaviors of the adults they are exposed to. If the teachers and parents are disempowered and under external control, the children will learn to hold themselves down in order to maintain what is familiar to them. Much of this has to do with the way in which adults communicate with them.
There are numerous ways in which adults communicate with children. Adults very seldom communicate in an empowering way with children. Much of what we see between adults and children is dominance oriented. Adults talk down to children to demand obedience or to establish power. Other adults praise everything the child does regardless of the activity or choices made by the child. Neither of these options provide a healthy reflection for the child to learn from. Children do not learn autonomy under either option. One instills fear while the other instills contempt. Fear is a major factor in abuse and the results have been discussed in previous chapters. The contempt aspect is a direct result of the child not having a strong platform from which they can interpret what is safe and good for them. No guidance was offered when it was requested. Children are very intelligent, and they always ask for what they need. Many adults do not listen.
Adults should never talk at a child. Adults need to engage with a child in mutual conversation in order for the child’s mind to develop healthy connections in the brain that can help them navigate the world more effectively. This requires a conversation of equals. Without equality, the child’s brain will automatically go into survival responses, and those development patterns become learned behaviors for the rest of their lives. To program children through survival that is not a legitimate threat, is to program the mind to respond maladaptively to real world experiences. This has long-term consequences on their ability to function in society and within their interpersonal relationships. Communicating as equals also provides the child with language processing skills that they can use throughout their lifetime, which will empower their autonomous success far into adulthood. Ways in which communication can be accomplished look like the following examples:
Listen to children. Do not talk at them or direct them.
Mirror safety and order - do not be the chaos or something to fear.
Allow children to freely play and explore independently.
Allow children space and opportunities to fail and struggle.
Make your communication an intentional effort to understand.
Boundaries are developed in children by exposure to boundaries in adults. If the adult feels entitled to violate another’s boundaries, the child will violate another’s boundaries. This includes adults violating children’s boundaries. This can be emotional, physical, or intellectual.
Provide guidance by the side. Help the child understand what they are exploring when they ask. Do not decide for them what they are to learn. Let them determine what they wish to learn and then provide the materials they need to do this and help them when they request it. Do not interrupt them. Express your boundaries and limits in a respectful manner. This teaches children to also express their boundaries and limits in a respectful manner. Then respect those boundaries and limits.
Frequent areas that are commonly used by adults toward children that are actually counter to the above examples include speaking to children in impatient and demanding ways. Doing so teaches the children to also respond in impatient and demanding ways. The following examples are common communication skills used by adults with children that do not adhere to patience and respect of the child (or anyone else they are speaking to in this manner):
What’s wrong with you?
You’re fine. Stop crying.
Stop making a big deal about it
It’s not scary. Come on do it anyway. You’ll be fine.
Eat all of your food.
Because I said so
Don’t be silly
Don’t talk back
Come on give your aunt a hug or grandma a kiss
You can’t have it until you say please
I will take “something important” away from you if you don’t do what I say.
After reviewing this list, it is very likely that the reader will find themselves feeling stress after identifying behavior patterns that they may have. This may also be followed by defending these choices and cognitive dissonance may start to take over. However, after deep reflection, it should be obvious how these word choices are domineering and disempowering to anyone who should be on the receiving end of them. These are condescending and disrespectful words. They do not represent safety or consideration of the child’s feelings or needs. It is all about the adult. What this teaches the child is how to disempower others and that they are of little value. I do not believe that this is the goal that any adult would want in guiding children as they grow into maturity.
The goal is to raise responsible adults who will take care of their lives and families, yet we raise and teach children to be afraid of not pleasing the adults in their lives who become angry with the child for not letting the adult control them. Responsibility does not grow out of being controlled. What comes from being controlled in trained trauma behavior. This disengages the victim’s mind from the purpose behind the action other than to avoid future injury from the person(s) who is the most current threat to their survival. Manipulation and external influence do not create responsible and accountable adults. Instead, the dominating person takes responsibility away from them, creating disempowered people. Simultaneously, the person taking the responsibility away blames the other person for not meeting their demands as they see fit, which is ultimately what narcissistic abusers do. This is an abuse cycle.
Relationships and Self-Control
Jacobs (1998) wrote that, "Self-discipline develops not by being silenced, punished, or inhibited, but by being permitted to express and act on the longings that represent the child's deepest nature” (p.188). Children who are listened to and consciously paid attention to develop healthy relationships with the adults in their environment. This nurtures the child’s autonomous development and reinforces mutual respect between child and caregiver or educator. Children are inquisitive by nature. They do not need encouragement to learn. Without intervention, they will learn far more by following their natural curiosity than any school system’s mandates could require of them. The freedom to explore and investigate provides natural learning and consequence comprehension development. This instills a deeper sense of sincerity and earnestness in the endeavors pursued. "When the central purpose in life is empowering others, Authority over them becomes hypocritical" (Jacobs, 1998, p. 181). So how can this be accomplished in our schools and homes?
How Democratize a Classroom
We can begin by democratizing our classrooms. What does that look like and what can be expected? Due to the fact that the majority of adults have never experienced this type of treatment in their own childhoods, they will be skeptical and fearful of how to manage such an attempt. It may be challenging at first as the teacher explores their own programmed abuse and behavior patterns. Do not be offended that you do harbor such tendencies. Any adult who was raised in an hierarchical environment has them. That is what they were taught. As such, this requires a lot of self-control by the adult as they explore their own programmed behaviors and watch those in correlation to the responses given by the children. The children are also in homes that utilize this type of structure as most parents were raised the same way. That may make this sound impossible to achieve, but it is not. I have done this in numerous schools within hierarchical school systems and with parents who had no idea what democracy was in a classroom. Many did not know how to speak respectfully to children. Children learn very quickly. The biggest obstacle lies in the way the children will not trust the teacher. This is in direct correlation with their survival instincts from previous ill treatment. As such, they are not going to readily believe that the adult trusts and respects them. That will be the first sign that there is programmed trauma in the children already.
Trust is a huge component of this. This means that the children have to be trusted. This means teachers need firm boundaries that students cannot violate. Students cannot violate each other or themselves, and the teacher cannot violate the students. This involves helping them to nominate their own classroom governance. There is no room for fear as fear is the essence of chaos. Whatever transpires, the teacher implementing this newly formed government cannot be deterred when the most traumatized children test to see if the teacher is sincere in trusting and respecting them. They all come around. The children with the least trauma adapt immediately. It’s so smooth, the teacher will wonder why they never did it before. For those addressing children in extreme trauma background environments, it may take a lot longer. It is important that the teacher adheres to this no matter how difficult it may seem at times. It always does work and once it does, the remainder of the school year is so smooth that you will accomplish far more than if you had remained strict with hierarchical authority structure. Most importantly, the children develop a healthy relationship with the teacher, and this fosters a much greater learning environment for the students and the teacher collectively. If the teacher remains steadfast, results are guaranteed.
I would highly recommend making this shift at the beginning of the school year because the students are new to the teacher and have no preconceived expectations of how the classroom is run. However, I personally did this in the middle of the year, and it went very smoothly. I have done this in 7 different schools and the ages ranged between 4th grade - middle school. There are numerous schools who operate completely democratically, and they have students ranging from pre-K - 12th grade. Age is not an issue in this application. What is an issue, is the teacher’s ability to fully implement and be comfortable with the application.
The struggle will remain with the teacher, not the students. They will be highly interested in what is being done. They will find it VERY different than what they've experienced in any other school. The majority of them will be highly excited that they have some kind of control and as such, they take this role very seriously and vehemently uphold the rules and regulations established by their collective decisions.
The few students that may question this process are the students that typically found themselves in trouble utilizing the more traditional classroom management procedures. They've been burnt before and are very mistrustful of anything that looks like they will be given any control. The message they have been told in the past is that they aren't trustworthy. When suddenly given control, the following responses may occur:
They will test the rules to see if the teacher was serious.
They will make a mockery out of it to see if other students will agree with them.
They will try to find a way to create a resistance between themselves and the teacher or even perhaps themselves and the students (but their main focus will always be the teacher because historically that's where the true resistance usually took place).
What becomes apparent as the process moves on, is that the resistors will suddenly become the heaviest enforcers and they will simultaneously and eagerly take their own punishments because they had some ownership in creating them. What will happen is that the teacher no longer has to issue threats of any kind. The teacher’s role will simply be to teach! This process also works well in flipped classrooms. In fact, I personally feel that a flipped democratic classroom is the ideal situation for public schools. Sometimes that is not entirely possible due to subject matter or logistics.
The only issues I have found with this type of process weren't really a problem with the process as much as the location in which I was expected to teach. If the teaching space is highly inappropriate for effective learning, the democratic process will not be any easier to implement. It can be done, but it may take a little longer to be fully effective and will likely require dividing students up into smaller groups with more autonomy.
When in difficult learning environments, the teacher needs to give more control over to the students, dividing them up into smaller groups with leaders in each group who are then given the ability to make decisions for their group. It is highly effective to allow students to teach others. The most difficult students are frequently effective group leaders. The difficult students are often quite intelligent and are thrilled that they are given the opportunity to take on a meaningful role and be involved in their class in a way they normally never have the opportunity to experience.
This is the protocol that I have utilized. Teachers can experiment with variations of this, which work for them, and the situations they find themselves in:
1) I introduce myself to the students and explain to them that things will work differently in your classroom from what they are used to experiencing.
2) I explain to the students that they will nominate rules for the class and that after the nominations of rules, we will take a vote on those rules and use the rules most heavily voted for as our classroom rules. (Clearly anything that jeopardizes the safety of anyone is not an option and please be sure to clarify to the students anything that makes that option invalid. Ensure that it isn't a personal opinion, but a true hazard or something which can harm others. Give the students full autonomy to make meaningful decisions for themselves and the safety of their group. They will truly surprise you with their insights).
Most of the classrooms voted to keep approximately 4-5 of the nominated rules. Democratically run schools often have more rules than traditional schools because the students become very aware of what they want and don't want to experience in their learning environment. Teachers shouldn’t limit students if they feel they need more rules that are important to them. Honor the students’ beliefs. The teacher’s thoughts are equally valuable and shared with the class for the group to consider. It is important to do so in a way that is honest and not manipulative. The teacher should ask them questions about their choices that make them consider the implications of their decisions.
3) Once the rules have been voted on, students will then have to nominate consequences for violating those rules. Typically, I have them vote on a set pattern of "consequences" that they can apply to all rules. If you have an unusual pairing of rules and consequences, then clearly individualized consequences can be implemented. I focus on keeping things as clear, simple, and straightforward as possible so that no one can be confused by the implementation. After nominations of consequences have been done, take a vote on each one.
4) The teacher or selected student then writes the nominations on the board, if one is available, or takes notes so that the nominations can easily be repeated back to the group. The teacher should also clarify for the students what the meaning of their own nominated expectations are so that everyone clearly understands what they're voting on. Think of this as a Presidential election. Their lives are involved, and the future of their community will be seriously impacted by these decisions. Take this very seriously.
5) Insert a process of monitors for the classroom rules. Change "guard" weekly or daily as the teacher and students see fit. No student should be left out of this role. Every student has a right to make the rules, and every student has a right to enforce them. Make the voted rules and consequences visible so that regardless of who is in charge that day/week will not forget the processes voted on or the next step in the consequences if they have to handle something.
When the students are self-monitoring, they will be much more participatory in the daily activities, and the students who caused trouble in the past will suddenly come alive and be much more involved in learning and in behavior management of themselves and others.
How to Democratize a School
The same concerns mentioned in democratizing a classroom still apply to the school setting. However, the transition may be easier to adjust the school structure if done methodically from younger grades and then grow with those students as they move upward in the grades.
Individual teachers will run their classrooms democratically in order for the full engulfment of school democracy to be effective and realized. Once all teachers are functioning in this platform, the hierarchical structure of school governance is then in place. Each classroom will have nominated their "Senators" or "Congressmen" (mere name suggestions) and those representatives will then be part of the larger school meeting where larger school functioning decisions can be made.
Weekly meetings should be encouraged, and representatives of the staff should also be elected. The realization that the adults are just as responsible to the children's expectations as the children are to the adults' expectations must be tightly acknowledged and adhered to. If the children feel that they are part of some sham government, it will completely disintegrate and waste everyone's time. If they feel that their decisions have real impact (like voting in America- many don't vote because they feel they will have no impact), they will be fully engaged and take their roles very seriously. They will participate in making school-wide decisions that impact rules/regulations/social decisions for all students and teachers/staff. Adult votes are equally significant as student votes in the meetings. True equality equals true democracy.
Where else can students learn what democracy is if they never experience it in their formative years? There can be guidelines that are non-negotiable, such as safety and district-wide regulations/state regulations. Clearly there are parameters that cannot be changed. However, if adults find issues with any suggestion mentioned or considered by the student representatives, they are just as welcome to share their thoughts and concerns with the group before any voting or decision making is passed. A breakdown of how this would be structured is as follows:
1) Each classroom votes for their class representative. This can be done weekly, monthly, semester/quarterly or annually. A change of representative should be honored frequently so that all of the students have a deeper understanding of what that level of responsibility is like and how much impact it has on others.
2) Each representative meets in a weekly meeting with representatives from the staff (who ideally were also voted on by other staff).
3) Meetings include an agenda (just like board meetings) where issues are brought to the table, discussed, solutions offered, and then solutions are voted upon. Once voted upon, they become the guideline upon which the school must operate until otherwise changed by another meeting or larger entity (district/state) overrides the decision. Motion carries - just like all other adult meetings we experience in America. Treat the children as leaders and respect their feelings and thoughts. Adults share thoughts as equally as students share theirs. Adults and students bring up concerns for consideration. Adults cannot belittle student choices. Instead, adults should offer solutions effectively explaining why and how they impact everyone. Give students the opportunity to consider what kind of impact their choices will have, without making them feel inferior or insignificant.
4) Make an announcement to the entire school that informs the teachers, staff, and other students what the student/staff governance has decided so that the implementation can be made effective upon a specified date. Be very communicative. No one can make informed decisions without authentic communication. The students are more inclined to adhere to the guidelines as they have personally selected the representative, they informed their representative of the issue they wanted brought to the council, and they see action taken upon that concern.
In order to make such a major transition in a larger public school, a gradual process may need to be implemented. Perhaps in a high school, it could be implemented immediately, but democratic schools who have experience with transitioning students out of traditional school models to democratic models have found the effectiveness of implementing full democracy in a school is more difficult for children who were treated differently prior to 12 years of age. There will be more struggles in the initial implementation because the students will not trust or believe that they were given control. However, it is possible. It relies more upon the steadfastness of the staff in ensuring effective implementation. It will require a lot of effort, patience, and self-control on the part of the adults involved.
The best strategy is to begin this with the kindergarten grade. Run a small democracy between their classrooms only. Then as they grow up in grades, implement it in the next grade level, and so on and so forth as they become older. After 6 years, your entire elementary school will be fully democratized. You can do the same with middle schools and high schools. However, if done with the initial class that began from kindergarten, they will already know how to function and will be much more effective at helping the teachers and staff adapt to the process rather than the staff having to struggle with their own lack of experience and knowledge about such a philosophy.
It will be longer than a decade, but 10 years is a small price to pay for a lifetime of smooth-running schools that teach young people
how to live in a democracy;
who then understand the value of their vote as adults;
who are autonomous and know how they affect others;
and who feel heard and represented.
Many of the struggles currently found in our schools will be solved by changing how we view children and their ability to self-govern.
Resources are available at the Alternative Education Resource Organization for further reading and support on how to implement and understand educational structure from this standpoint. There is over a century’s worth of well-researched and applied insights available, which will positively impact how our schools operate with the involvement of student governance. These resources can be found at http://educationrevolution.org.
How to Democratize at Home
As mentioned in the previous sections, this requires more effort on behalf of the adults to unprogram themselves than it does for the children. Children who will struggle are those who have had no voice in their experiences prior. They will not feel safe knowing that they are suddenly in a new environment that trusts them, and they may challenge this to see if it is true. If the home was already respectful, it will be a smooth transition and no major issues should occur. The health of the family will be obvious in the implementation based upon the reactions of those who feel insecure or threatened in their position as authority or rebellion against authority. Once the whole family operates democratically, removal of the resistance and much of what common parenting conversations contain disappears. Rebellious children do not occur in respectful home environments. They result from being disrespected and controlled.
In order to keep this as simple as possible, it is most important to focus on the way in which everyone in the house communicates with one another. Disrespectful word choices and tones are not allowed as they do not offer a healthy platform in order for anyone to feel heard and respected. That means apologies are required and everyone is given the opportunity to correct their choices and try again. This will be especially critical in the beginning. It is important to discuss behaviors that are bothersome, but not in a way that calls another any kind of derogatory name. Talk about behavior, not identity.
If a simple family rule should be made, the most effective is that anyone can do anything they want in the house as long as they aren’t violating anyone else’s experience. It sounds simplistic, yet it truly covers every single issue that anyone could possibly have with any other family member. It also reinforces autonomy and natural consequences. If a child chooses something that doesn’t violate anyone else, but ultimately violates themselves in some manner, they will naturally experience the consequences of that choice. An example might include not going to bed and accomplishing sufficient sleep.
If any family member has been violated, then they are entitled to discuss the issue with the party who did the violation. Again, this should be discussed as a behavior and not an identity label. Name calling is not constructive. Telling a sibling that their choice to stay up all night impacted others in the house is appropriate. They need to understand how they impact others as much as they learn how they impact themselves. If there are repetitive issues, then the family should have a meeting to discuss boundaries, rules, and consequences to address the issue. The person who committed the offense is equally heard and has an equal vote. It is important that they are involved so that they have equal power in their own experience. Ultimately, the family members will learn to not violate one another nor to violate themselves. This is a critical skill for boundary development that can also be implemented in the larger social community. This will prevent potential abuse from outsiders as well. Children who learn that they have a right to not be violated, will not allow others to violate them.
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