As an educational consultant working out of the district central office, one of my responsibilities was to design and implement professional learning opportunities for educators and administrators on research-based best practices and new curriculum initiatives from the government to educators. While I might be very enthusiastic about these new resources and new ideas, reaction from educators and administrators often varied from excited to lukewarm to downright hostile.
A colleague once gave me this perspective on participants who push back and challenge us: she said these are the people who are on the cusp of change. They are experiencing some cognitive dissonance and discomfort. They realize that they should change their practice. When they push back and challenge us, they are saying, “Convince me. I know I need to change but change is going to be difficult and uncomfortable, and it would be so much easier to just keep doing what I’m doing. Convince me.”
Now I embrace it when people challenge me, and question me, because I know they are grappling with the ideas and trying to develop and deepen their own understanding. They are actively constructing knowledge, not merely acting as a passive recipient. As an educator, I view myself as a constructivist, so these challenging questions to me are indicators of growth and learning.
Another way to reframe resistance is through the lens of self-regulation. Dr. Stuart Shanker defines self-regulation the ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviour and attention in ways that are socially acceptable. If we are self-regulated, we can cope with the stressors in our lives and maintain our ability to be calm, alert, and ready to learn. When someone’s stress levels are too high, their biological systems for thinking are compromised. The signs of this dysregulation are visible in the person’s behaviour, mood, attention span, and even their physical well-being.
Dr. Shanker advises educators to reframe students’ behaviour by asking – is it misbehavior or is it stress behavior? Misbehavior is deliberate and under students’ control. It is ruled by the prefrontal cortex. Stress behaviour is the result of someone being overwhelmed by the stressors in their life. They may resort to fight, flight, or freeze. In stress behaviour, it is the limbic system, not the prefrontal cortex that controls behaviour.
As presenters and educational leaders, we can use this same strategy to reframe the behaviour of participants at a professional learning session. Is it really hostility or is it is stress? Who knows what stressors a seemingly resistant workshop participant or administrator may have been dealing with before they arrived at the session – an elderly parent at home, an angry parent at school, a struggling student, a staffing issue, a traffic jam, an upsetting conversation awaiting them at home that evening, or just another long day with too many things to do and not enough time to do them all.
When considering possible strategies for reducing stressors, creating a positive learning environment and moving people to a mindset where they are feeling calm and ready to learn, it is important to look across all five domains of possible stressors – biological, emotion, social, prosocial and cognitive. Since stress is cumulative, reducing stress in one area will free up resources to assist in mitigating stress in the other areas. We usually start with the biological domain, since that is the domain where, we as workshop facilitators, have the most control with regards to our participants.
1. Biological stressors
- Provide food and drinks
- Create opportunities for movement and discussion
- Ensure the room is a comfortable temperature
- Monitor noise level
- Use microphone in larger room so all participants can hear the speaker(s) clearly
- Ensure the room is large enough to accommodate the number of participants comfortably, and to allow for freedom of movement
2. Emotion stressors
- If participants need to leave to check in with their school or family members at home via cell phone to ensure all is well, then provide opportunities to do so
- Create an inclusive learning environment so no one feels left out
- Recognize that the excitement of new learning, new resources, meeting with colleagues can be an emotional stressor for some participants.
3. Social stressors
- Allow participants to self-select seating arrangements when possible
- Create opportunities for independent, small group/partner as well as whole group learning
- Provide name tags to reduce the stress of remembering names
4. Prosocial stressors
- Connect the goals of the workshop and the learning to overall school and district goals – what is the purpose for the learning? How will it help students? families? the community?
5. Cognitive stressors
- Provide a clear agenda with outcomes and goals
- Provide handouts of key points
- Provide both the agenda and handouts in paper and electronic format, to accommodate preferences
- Allow people to ask questions in a variety of ways (oral, written, whole group, individually).
- Include a variety of ways to access and extend the learning (conversations, use of technology, hands-on, etc.)
By reducing stressors, we can create a positive learning environment for everyone – participants and facilitators.