Note from Barbara: Communication Tools that Build Trust and Respect

One of the most important jobs we have as middle school educators is to help our students learn to navigate social norms that seem to be constantly shifting. They are eager to impress one another and connect through humor, and they are learning to understand and assert their own personal boundaries. They make mistakes all the time. I want to tell you about some tools we’re using to help them and to help ourselves as adults, navigate those mistakes, and build an even stronger community of trust and respect.

Since the fall, we've led a series of activities in assemblies and advisories focused on understanding the dynamics of “mean jokes” and microaggressions. What can be confusing to kids is what some people consider mean or harmful, others consider silly or harmless. It’s true! What’s key is learning to read the context and one another, and learning to speak directly about what we experience and what we need. Recently we’ve been using a “stoplight” metaphor, where we’ve asked each student to identify those things that are always, sometimes, or never okay with them. Here’s the example Andrea shared a couple of weeks ago:

Students made their own and shared them with their advisories. It’s important for students to understand that those lists may look different for different people, but that in a community (like our school, for example), there may be some “bottom-line reds” that are never okay, like jokes or comments that put people down based on race, gender, religion, etc. 

Identifying your own boundaries is so important, but we all know how hard it can be to figure out what to say when someone crosses them. As adults we struggle with this all the time – we value our relationships, many of us avoid conflict, we’re not always sure about other people’s intentions, we don’t want to appear oversensitive … and we get tongue-tied. It’s even harder for kids. We all need tools! 

At last week’s Assembly, Tara and Andrea did some role-playing to help everyone practice. We imagined that Tara had just “crossed into Andrea’s red zone,” and students brainstormed responses for Andrea: 

  • Wait, that doesn’t make me feel respected. 
  • I know you probably weren’t trying to insult me but I didn’t like it.
  • I’m not comfortable with that – can you not say it again?
  • Dude, that’s in my red zone!!

Students also gave Tara ideas for what to say in response, and they wanted to make sure she wouldn’t over-apologize to “make it all about her,” or push back about how Andrea interpreted her remark: 

  • Thanks for letting me know. I’m sorry.
  • Whoops – sorry. I won’t say it again.
  • Sorry, that’s a bad habit – will you remind me if I do it again?

These simple prompts normalize these moments and help kids imagine what to say when they’re tongue-tied. As adults, we often need help too. At our faculty meeting yesterday afternoon, we worked on practicing what to say when we see or overhear behaviors between students that we want to address. One tool we used was crafting helpful “affective statements” using an Observations-Feelings-Needs-Requests (OFNR) framework. For example, instead of saying, “Stop teasing John!” an affective statement would be, “When I heard you speaking to John in the way you did, I felt worried because I value respect. Would you be willing to tell me what you were talking about?” You can read more about these affective statements here. Our goal is to “call students in” instead of calling them out, to strengthen trusting relationships, and to model direct and respectful communication. It’s important and ongoing work!