A Real-Life Rules Story

I was sitting stock-still on the interstate in a rental car I needed to return before catching my flight home. As minutes ticked by the on the dashboard clock, I became increasingly worried. I hadn’t seen my little boy in four days, and if I didn’t make the flight, chances were good that I’d be in Massachusetts for another night. I started thinking about trying to make it over to the shoulder so I could get off at the next exit. Pros for this plan: I would make my flight. Cons: it might keep emergency vehicles from being able to get through if there was an accident ahead, plus getting over there from my lane seemed pretty risky, and oh yes, driving on the shoulder is illegal.

Finally, a state trooper who seemed young enough to be in high school tapped on my window and told me there had been a head-on collision ahead, and they were closing the interstate. When possible, I was supposed to turn the car around and figure out a different route to the airport. Upset, I explained about my flight and my little boy, hoping he would let me use the shoulder. In a compassionate and completely nonjudgmental voice, the trooper said, “I know it will be hard if you miss your flight, but at least you’re alive. I’m not sure the people in the crash up ahead are.”

Despite his kindness, I may never have felt as selfish as I did in that moment. I turned around, found my way to the airport, hoped that the people in the crash survived, and of course, still wished I would make my flight. I did – with about two minutes to spare. But it was not my proudest hour.

Doing the right thing can be challenging, for adults and for children. If I were currently in the classroom, I might use this story as a launching point for a class reflection about how sometimes it’s hard to resist breaking the rules. Here’s how I’d do it:

  1. I would briefly tell the story, warts and all, and then ask: “Have you ever been tempted to do something wrong (such as when I wanted to drive on the shoulder) for what seemed like a pretty good reason (such as wanting to see my son)?  Did you resist, or did you give into the temptation?” I’d give the students time to think, and then I’d have them share their stories with a partner.
  2. Next, I’d ask the children what strategies they’ve used (or could have used) to resist making a selfish or hurtful choice. To get them started, I’d offer my strategy: “trying to think through what might happen if I broke the rules.” Again, I’d give them time to think and then talk with a partner.
  3. Then, we’d share some strategies. For instance:
  • thinking about what a person they respect might do in the same situation
  • trying to consider the situation from everyone’s point of view
  • trying to put the problem in perspective by thinking about how much our problem would actually matter in an hour, a day, etc.
  • using self-soothing strategies, meditating or praying to calm oneself down before deciding what to do
  • talking to a trusted friend

I would chart the strategies and post them for all of us to consult when we face challenges or ethical dilemmas in the future.

Letting students know about our own struggles with behavior can help them realize that being a responsible community member is difficult, sometimes requires sacrifices, and is a lifelong effort. Doing so can also help them develop and hopefully internalize strategies they can use to make those difficult decisions.

Positive behavior can be taught. Learn more about the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching discipline works in the new edition of Rules in School.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Classroom Rules