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Tuesday, October 1, 2019

What to do with THAT Class: toxic negativity

The helpless feeling you get when nothing you do seems to work with that one class can be absolutely horrible. Over the years I've had classes that leave me in tears, fill me with dread, make me want to take a sick day, or just leave me feeling like I have no idea what I'm doing. It's disconcerting at best, and can leave you completely miserable if you let it get the best of you. Over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some strategies that have helped me improve my ability to work with some challenging classes with various difficulties- I hope they help you if you find yourself in the same situation! Today I'm focusing on classes that seem to be completely negative about everything you try to do.

Last week I shared my advice to keep those challenging groups from making you miserable- if you haven't already, I encourage you to read that post by clicking here. Hopefully the solutions I'm sharing today will help you improve your relationship with your tough class, but that process is going to take time and you need to make sure you keep the situation manageable (for you and your students) in the meantime.

One of the points I shared in last week's post is to be prepared with a plan B, C, D, and E. There's a good chance the first strategy you try won't work! Remember that this is a process, and a very important one at that. Don't give up.

Toxic Negativity

Some classes seem to have a negative attitude about you and your class, no matter how hard you try to engage their interests. This is probably the hardest type of class for me to deal with because it's just mind-boggling to me. How can an entire group of children be so negative? It throws me for a loop, big time. Sometimes this results in students just not being willing to participate in anything, sometimes they insert negative comments every time you introduce an activity, or sometimes they are more combative and completely refuse to listen to you, follow any directions, or participate in any class activity.

tip #1: find the source(s) Usually when an entire class (or at least the majority) seem to have a negative attitude about the class, there are a few strong leaders that have decided they don't like the class and the rest are following along, getting drawn into the negativity, or just staying out of it. Figure out who those students are that are leading the charge by reflecting on who is the most vocal in expressing negativity, who initiates conflicts, who is the first to refuse to join in an activity. Talk to their homeroom teacher about who they see as the "ringleader".

tip #2: start the conversation Once you've narrowed down the key players, try having individual conversations with them outside of class. Pick a non-threatening time, like sitting with them at lunch, or stopping them in the hallway before school. Tell them the behaviors that you see them exhibiting in class and why you see it as a problem. Ask them 1) if your description seems accurate, 2) if they can identify any reasons for those behaviors, and 3) what suggestions they have to help music class be a more positive experience in the future. It may take a few tries but I've found persistence usually pays off. Show them you're open to their feedback on things you can do, while also holding them accountable for ways they can help to improve the situation as well.

tip #3: divide and conquer When an entire group is feeding off of each other's negative energy, splitting them up can often be the best thing to do! Try centers or small group projects. Depending on the specific students and the personality mix, sometimes I've found it best to put all the "ringleaders" in one group to contain the negativity in one place (and focus your energy on them), and other times I've found it best to split them up so that they don't feed off each other. If you're not sure how to have the class work in small groups, here are some of my favorite ideas that I've used in this situation (and in general for centers and group projects!):

tip #4: build relationships I almost think this goes without saying but it's important enough to say it anyway: it's so important to invest the time and energy to foster positive relationships with all students, but especially with those that don't seem invested or interested in your class. Here are some practical, simple steps to build relationships with students when you teach so many, and here are ways to build community in your classroom through community-building circles. Not only is this important for the "ringleaders" that are causing the most headaches, but it's also important for the other students who may be unable to connect with you even though they want to, because you're having to focus so much attention and energy on the other students in class.

tip #5: have a heart-to-heart I would try to avoid a group conversation in this situation unless you've exhausted all other options, because if the problem is toxic attitudes then giving students an opportunity to express their opinions even more openly and trying to respond to them in front of the whole class can often just lead to the negativity spreading even further. But if you've tried all of the other options, including multiple individual conversations with specific students over time, and still feel like you're not making headway, this may be something to try. If you do, it's important to lay some ground rules: remind everyone that they need to all be willing to take some ownership of the problem, tell students they cannot point out specific individuals by name if they're expressing what they think the problem may be, and encourage them to try not to complain but instead either pinpoint the cause, describe what they see as the problem for the group as a whole, or offer a specific solution- preferably all of the above!

I can think of 2 instances in my career when I had this conversation with the entire class. In both cases it was late in the year after trying everything else I could, both were upper grades (4th grade and 6th grade), and both times the conversation was mildly successful. The conversations did give me a better understanding of how students were feeling, and in both cases we were able to come up with a few plans that we were able to try afterwards that did help improve the overall tone of the classes and lead to other strategies that helped us move forward.

If you do decide to have a conversation with the class as a whole, I have found the format of problem-solving circles to be very helpful for structuring the conversation:

I hope these suggestions help you find a positive way forward together! They may not ever be your most enthusiastic class, but if you continue to make it a priority to improve the class for everyone involved, you're bound to see positive changes over time!

If you have any suggestions of your own or questions you'd like to ask about this topic, please leave them in the comments below! And if you'd like to read more about how I handle "behavior management" as a whole, here are all my top posts on the topic.

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