Teaching Kids to Slow Down

“Kids always want to fight me when I am at school, but I don’t do anything to deserve this.”

For years, our staff has had conversations with kids about conflicts they experience that sound a lot like this. Students often share that they do not know what they did wrong, why they got into the situation, and they feel mistreated or misunderstood. We’ve learned that the conflicts usually stem from a lack of awareness in their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

Making eye contact when communicating was noted by several students as being awkward, but our site coordinators are helping them learn that eye contact helps them become better communicators.

Making eye contact when communicating was noted by several students as being awkward, but our site coordinators are helping them learn that eye contact helps them become better communicators.

Josh Nava, CASE Site Coordinator at Donelson Middle School, wants to help his students see what they could do to prevent these arguments by acknowledging what provokes certain responses. “Because students are not usually self-aware, they can unintentionally communicate anger, irritation, or contempt through their body language, which is an automatic reaction from an ‘in the moment’ emotional response. This happens not just with their peers but also with their teachers and other adults in their life.Their unawareness doesn’t allow them to source the origin of their conflicts, which often results in them not knowing why they are in trouble with a teacher, or why a conflict started,” Josh explains. According to Josh, we all have a self-driving mind and in situations of high-stress, we tend to rely on our automatic reactions rather than stepping back to reflect (1). Instead of the students continuing to respond with automated responses, he and Co-Site coordinator, Institute for G.O.D. student Darbie Guess, wanted to help their students put a few seconds in between their thought process on how they feel and their response to the offense by asking “why.”

“Speed Conversations” was a game they played and had to hold a conversation by making eye contact and asking good questions based on a prompt given.

“Speed Conversations” was a game they played and had to hold a conversation by making eye contact and asking good questions based on a prompt given.

Josh and Darbie are starting with basic interpersonal skills such as eye contact, active listening, and formulating good questions within dialogue. Last week, the pair had a variety of conversation-based activities. In one game called “Why is That” the students took turns being the speaker and listener. They found it hard to hold eye contact and stay focused, especially if they found the conversation disinteresting. In another game, “Speed Conversations,” they had to hold a conversation by making eye contact and asking good questions based on a prompt given. This was not an easy task for the middle school students, but one they found valuable by the end of the week.

Darbie noted that she already saw small changes such as more positive speech between students’ interactions with each other and staff. Students have also improved in receiving correction without getting defensive. “By the end of the semester, my hope is that they would be able to communicate with intention,” Josh notes. Improvisation and acting will be taught next which will require students to focus on what the other person is saying. Communicating more effectively and slowing the mindlessness of responses are things we are eager to teach our students as they live in a world where they are surrounded by people are very different from them. We know that it will benefit them far beyond their middle school years if they learn to be slower to speak, quicker to listen, and slower to anger.

Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger- James 1:19


(1) Mullainathan,Sendhil.”The Self-Driving Mind.”Think Better Series, Chicago Booth School of Business, Chicago, Nov. 28.


The C.A.S.E. program at Dupont Hadley Middle Prep, Dupont Tyler, and Donelson Middle are programs of the Nashville After Zone Alliance. The Nashville After Zone Alliance is a network of coordinated after school programming for Metro’s middle-school students.  NAZA is a partnership among the Nashville Public Library, MNPS, and other existing youth-serving groups. It is modeled on successful efforts in other cities and is organized around geographically-defined zones.