Nurturing Good Intentions

A few years ago, I posted some ideas regarding good intentions that Darlene and I had learned in our workshops with Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a well-known Canadian developmental psychologist. Gordon’s ideas about attachments and relationships are quite unique and extremely helpful to anyone interested in using DWS.

Here’s the gist of his ideas regarding good intentions:

As adults we should actively look for times when a child is displaying or expressing good intentions––and then we should nurture those intentions.  Despite the fact that the young person may NOT be able to carry out their good intentions, and that the situation may actually turn out negatively in some sense, we can applaud their initial desire to do the right thing.  By pointing out that the intention was good, we can encourage the child to keep aiming in the right direction––the direction of following their conscience to do the right thing.

Of course this sounds like a sensible approach to working with people but it’s often the opposite of what we teachers actually do!

Often we discount good intentions if a child doesn’t follow through on them––and so lose the opportunity to influence and encourage a child to continue to AIM in the right direction.  Gordon points out that if a person isn’t AIMING in the right direction, he’ll never get to where he’s going.  So what could be more important than AIMING?  AIMING is a critical part of getting somewhere!

Regardless of how the immediate situation actually works out, it’s the AIMING that we should take care to nurture.  Over time, we will have an impact.  If we can convince a student to continue to AIM in the right direction, then one day––when they have developed the maturity that will enable them to follow through successfully on their good intentions––they’ll more often achieve the results we all hope for by actually DOING the right thing.  Gordon teaches that when a child displays good intentions, it’s our job to focus on those intentions and highlight the importance of them.

I found these ideas regarding good intentions to give me a lot of relief.  Before I understood these ideas, I always felt that as a good adult, it was my job to more or less berate a child who goofed up!  I hope you understand what I mean by this.  I felt that if a child said that they had really wanted to do something the right way, it was my job to point out that that didn’t count if the end result was that they had goofed up.

Since receiving the ideas I’ve shared above, I feel free to take on a much more positive approach to situations in which a child has goofed up.  That’s a great relief.  I can see that my job is not to berate or correct them in any way but to empathize with them and believe in them, thus encouraging them to try again.  I can reinforce my belief in them––that one day they will be able act appropriately in certain situations.  As Neufeld says,  I can keep encouraging them “to aim.”  I can put myself in the position of the coach who will cheer for them and help them as they move closer to their goals.  I don’t have to approve of their behavior but at the same time, I don’t have to dwell on their failures or try to teach them what to do better.  They already know what they need to do.  I simply have to encourage them to aim, thus nurturing their good intentions.

I can give you an example of how these understandings helped me with one student currently in our grade one class.  We have a little fellow this year who can only be described as a little monkey!  Surely, you know the type!  (Well, my principal actually calls him a little turkey but he means the same thing!!)  He’s quite a charming little fellow but he’s always pushing the limits and getting into trouble.

Early in the year, some older children taught him a few choice words which he used liberally out on the playground.  Of course, news of this kind of talk always spreads fast and he ended up in our principal’s office.  I took him over myself!  On the way over, we discussed inappropriate Level B behavior and he told me that he had not wanted to say these words in the first place, that he thought he was simply saying them in his head and didn’t realize that other people could hear him. He said he planned never to say these words again!

That was my opportunity to preserve the relationship and nurture his good intentions (as I had learned from Gordon) by saying that I believed him and that although he had goofed up and I couldn’t expose other children to the possibility of this particular kind of language at the moment, we could get past this event.  Then, rather than focusing on how he had goofed up and coming up with negative consequences, I simply felt free to encourage him to aim again.

I reinforced my belief in him by saying that I thought he certainly could live up to his good intentions by not letting those words come out of his mouth again.  I expressed that I was sure he could hold to that good intention.  Then I simply gave him a little hug and explained that whatever happened in the office, we could get past it and he’d be welcome back in the classroom to take another shot at talking appropriately with others.

Ever since becoming acquainted with DWS, I have felt that although students need to be aware of Level A and B, the key is really for the teacher to put the greatest energy and focus on Level C and D and the difference between these two acceptable levels.  This summer, the understandings I received from Gordon Neufeld really helped me understand why this is so. He gave me a way to respond to certain situations of misbehavior with positivity––another crucial part of Discipline without Stress.