Attitude Germ: Releasing the Hold

If Kelsey likes the learning activity, it flies. If she doesn’t, the lesson bombs.

Daniel carries the same sort of influence in his classroom. As soon as he disengages, the others shut down, too. If students disrupt class with silly comments, they turn to check if Daniel is laughing.

“Attitude germ” is a condition that holds classrooms captive to the sentiments of one or two dominant personalities. Those who spread the disease gain a sense of power through demotivating others, or by encouraging resistance. Victims emulate the negativity in order to avoid ridicule or rejection.

When attitude germ settles in, most teachers want to know how they should discipline their antagonizers. That’s a crucial question: if troublemakers stopped making trouble, others would be more ready to learn, right? I’ve shared discipline strategies for instigators in various places,¹ but here we must address an equally important, yet often overlooked question: how do you release “followers” from the hold of negative leaders?

After struggling with attitude germ in multiple groups over the years, I’ve found one remedy that loosens its grasp: offer children two things that antagonizers are reluctant to provide: one, a sense of self-worth that transcends the judgement of others and, two, the freedom to think for themselves. You see, dominant students believe that they choose the standards for what is considered cool, fun, or acceptable–and what is not. Teachers who overcome attitude germ continually show children that they don’t need to pattern themselves after domineering classmates, that they can make up their own minds and form their own opinions.

How can teachers work toward these goals, and still keep students focused on their learning?

For starters, honor the qualities bestowed upon each person by their Creator. Children who lack confidence in themselves are likely to engage in behaviors that will gain acceptance or approval from dominant classmates. You can alleviate some of that need for acceptance through the ways you interact: listen when students talk, for example, note their efforts and accomplishments, and laugh at their humor (when it’s appropriate). Acknowledge their gifts, too. Better yet, find ways to make those gifts useful in your classroom. If you consistently show children their built-in value as God’s image-bearers, you’ll free them to focus more on learning, and less on the need to impress or conform.

Next, guide students to think for themselves by taking their ideas seriously. “Right-or-wrong” questions have their place, for example, but teachers who limit themselves to those sorts of questions leave some students with a dilemma: either please the teacher by consistently providing correct answers, or please classmates who prefer to make trouble. Open-ended questions, by contrast, invite learners to share opinions without risk of judgment: Can you think of a way to demonstrate Newton’s Third Law? What would make this persuasive letter more convincing? Why are so many readers drawn to fantasy literature?  

Questions about the operation of the classroom also encourage original thinking; and these questions build a spirit of collaboration, another deterrent of attitude germ: How could we insure that everyone gets a chance to speak? Are there any ways to make this process more efficient? What questions are on your mind as we begin our study of the Civil War? How would you like me to assess your learning of lunar phases?

Students who sense that they’re accepted as they are–and who believe their thoughts and questions matter–can concentrate on learning more easily than those who feel compelled to seek the approval of others. All things considered, however, attitude germ is still a tough bug to exterminate. If you’d like to learn more about teaching amid resistance and negativity, my recent book, Beyond Control: Heart-Centered Classroom Climate and Discipline may prove helpful.

This is the third blog on Classroom Climate and Discipline. Stay tuned for the following blogs posts in this series: 

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