THINK Before You Speak, PAUSE Before You Act

February 2, 2021
Woman looking at someone talking

Most of us have heard the phrase, THINK before you speak. And it makes a lot of sense. Before opening your mouth there should be intentional thought to these five questions:

  1. Is it True?
  2. Is it Helpful?
  3. Is it Inspiring?
  4. Is it Necessary?
  5. Is it Kind?

Choose your words carefully

 We know that words are powerful. When words are spoken in the appropriate tone, volume, and cadence, at the right time, and to the intended audience, they have the power to move mountains. They can solve misunderstandings, build relationships, and de-escalate situations. They can inspire, repair, teach, and encourage. Yes, words are powerful, and we should choose them with intention.

But … what about actions?

 I’m not talking about the “sticks and stones” kind of actions that we know do harm. I’m talking about the actions that happen without conscious thought, without one’s full intention, without foresight or the weighing of possible negative effects. Actions that we do by default when we are operating on autopilot.

Actions that happen because, “I’m a teacher,” because, “we have a good relationship,” because “I was being supportive,” because “they usually like it.” Actions that might make sense to you but may be unclear and confusing to the recipient. You know what I’m talking about, actions that seem like no big deal. Let me tell you, I see the impact, and it is a big deal.

"Everything we do should be a decision."

I wrote this quote down in my CPI Workbook at my latest trainer recertification course. Not only did I write it down, but I underlined and highlighted it! Our trainer shared a story about a co-worker of his that pretends to punch him in the stomach every time that they see each other. He talked about how it negatively affects his relationship with this person because he doesn’t understand the purpose of his behavior. He shared that he walks away from these awkward interactions feeling confused and annoyed. This got me thinking about the situations that I was seeing in the classrooms I visit as an Autism Spectrum Disorder teacher consultant. Are people really thinking about their actions beforehand? Are their actions a result of intentional decisions? I needed to investigate further.

Reflecting on my trainer’s story, I wanted to identify some differences between his example and the classroom situations that I was preparing to take a closer look at. The two players in my trainer’s example are individuals that have the skills needed to communicate with one another, cope through confusing situations, identify and make sense of their own emotions, and assert themselves. I trust that should there be conversation between these two people regarding the concerning behavior, that they would be able to walk away having a better understanding of the why and how of these interactions and make any changes necessary in order to work toward building a more positive relationship.

It pays to pause

But let’s consider a different example, one in which the individuals involved have communication and social skills that are impacted more so than the people in the first. As we give attention to this next scenario, I would like you to consider this acronym: PAUSE before you act. Similar to THINK before you speak, PAUSE before you act challenges you to ask these five questions before making an intentional decision and taking action:

Does it have a Purpose?
Is it Appropriate for the moment?
Is it Understood by the individual?
Does it contribute to student Success?
Does it Echo your guiding principles?

An autistic learner is sitting at a table. Actually, let me rephrase that. An autistic learner is still sitting at their table. Let me be more specific. An autistic learning is sitting at their table completing their independent work tasks. As the teacher walks behind him, she gently ruffles his hair with her fingertips. The student stops working. His gaze rises from the top of his desk to the wall in front of him. He sits there for a couple of seconds, processing. He looks to be confused and could use a supportive prompt to keep working but the teacher hasn’t looked back since passing him. The student starts to tense up and pushes the palm of his hand into his chin, a clear sign of anxiety for him. He gets up from his chair and walks away from his work area, pacing and holding his ears with both hands.

Another staff member, who did not see the earlier interaction, shows the student a, “When and Then” visual, trying to redirect him back to finish his last work task. The student starts screaming and crying, drops to the floor, quickly jumps back to a standing position and pushes the staff member before dropping back to the floor, continuing to cry. The teacher, who ruffled the student’s hair, turned around to witness the student push the other staff member. The two staff members looked at each other confused about what had just happened and one of them said, “What was that about?”

Let’s look into each question, keeping in mind how our actions, no matter how benign we think they are, may negatively impact students if one or all of these questions aren’t considered.

Does it have a Purpose?

What was the teacher’s purpose for ruffling the student’s hair as she walked by? While debriefing the incident, the team oriented themselves to the basic facts that occurred. When the teacher said that she walked by the student and ruffled his hair as she passed, the team recognized that this was one of the factors that led to the student’s anxiety, defensive, and risk behaviors. The teacher shared that she was trying to provide the student with some positive reinforcement because he was doing such a great job on his work. She said she really didn’t give it much thought as she passed him and didn’t realize it would turn into an incident that needed debriefing. She said she wouldn’t have done it if she knew it was going to lead to him getting so upset.

Is it Appropriate for the moment?

Was it an appropriate time to ruffle the student’s hair while he was completing his independent work? The teacher shared that this is usually a welcomed and enjoyable interaction between her and the student. After reflection, she shared that the purpose of independent work time is for the student to be able to complete a series of tasks independently and that positive reinforcement, in whatever form, would have been more appropriate after he had completed all his work.

Is it Understood by the student?

Did the student understand what happened to him, why it happened, and who did it? The team agreed that the student was probably confused about what happened especially since he did not see the teacher coming. The teacher admitted that she had not consciously considered his personal space while he worked. It was discussed that the student may have had a lot to process in the seconds after contact was made; the surprise of an unexpected touch, organization of his sensory system, probable confusion, possible anger, and other things that the team could suppose.

Does it contribute to student Success?

Did this interaction between the student and the teacher contribute to his success? When the team discussed this, they shared that they were in the process of collecting data in order to update the student’s Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). While this may not have contributed to the student’s success in that moment, they hoped to learn from this incident and make changes to their interactions, responses, and approaches to him, which would hopefully result in future success.

Does it Echo your guiding principles?

Guiding Principles are a set of values that establish a framework for expected behavior and decision-making. Guiding Principles ensure that the humans in your care are receiving focused care. Did ruffling her student’s hair while he completed his independent work go against the teacher’s Guiding Principles? This is a question intended for reflection on the part of the individual or individuals in charge of providing focused care. This question, while not any more important than the others, will help us look closer at those “no big deal” actions and guide us in making more intentional decisions.

It is estimated that the average adult makes 35,000 decisions each day. And with that many decisions, we can either get really good at learning from our mistakes, or we can get really good at learning how to make really good decisions. I know that we won’t get it right every time and that making mistakes is a part of our learning and growth, but if we PAUSE before we act, making sure our actions have purpose, are appropriate, are understood, contribute to success, and echo guiding principles, we will bring more intentionality into the decisions that we make, leading to less behavior, more learning, and a whole lot of success!

Author Bio

Biona HeadshotBriona McKinney, M.Ed, is an Autism Spectrum Disorder Teacher Consultant for Birmingham Public Schools in Birmingham, Michigan and a CPI Certified Instructor. Briona has contributed to our podcast series, Unrestrained, in Episode 58, “Classroom Choreography and Improvisational Education”.


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