When We Say No

By Ellen Perconti, Superintendent of Goldendale School District in Washington State.

Years ago, in the depth of winter, our school team was asked by a teacher to support a kindergarten student (“Lisa”) who, in response to every request, replied “no.” Sometimes, the “no” was accompanied by a foot stomp, a plopping to the floor, or a head on her desk, and it came for almost everything—from getting dressed to go outside, to picking up a pencil, to walking down the hall… But whatever the context and the chosen accompaniment there remained that consistent and emphatic “no.”

This current school year has been hard. Due to the pandemic, we are being asked to do learning differently, and we’re facing many issues that were present prior to COVID that are now exacerbated. Our district is fortunate to be successfully navigating a hybrid model, but we still have a lot of questions, insecurities, and frustrations about how we are doing in meeting the needs of each student. While we are confident that having students in our buildings at least two days a week is a benefit, each aspect of the system is being tested, and each person’s knowledge and skills are being pushed to their limits. As we approach that limit, when we run out of tools, the willingness to adapt and to put in the work isn’t always as appealing as just screaming “NO.”

When we take the stance of “no,” it’s often to sustain the comfort that comes with keeping things as they are. But doing so can also sustain the feeling of being overwhelmed. It limits our options and narrows our ability to learn. Seeking solutions and options for learning can remove some of the negativity and actually help us get to a place where we are less overwhelmed.

Lisa’s use of “no” prevented her from interacting and connecting with her peers. She missed recess, learning opportunities, and chances for developing a sense of belonging in the classroom. Her teacher started a routine of having her say “yes” after each request and breaking down every task into the smallest possible chunk. The teacher would say something like, “Lisa, we are going to go outside for recess, so it’s time to get your snow clothes on. Say ‘yes,’ and then stand up.” That “yes” became the replacement behavior of “no”—and a tantrum.

With COVID providing a potential excuse as we face each new challenge, it’s our choice to respond with a “yes” or a “no” to the learning opportunities that are being presented. Our choices as educators impact ourselves as well as our school cultures, colleagues, and students. In the moment, “no” is a way of resisting a change, a way of protecting what we know, or maybe the first step in acknowledging that we need different tools or need to try a new approach. We each need to understand where we are on our learning journeys to be able to access our capacity for growth.

I’d love to be able to say that the strategy of “say yes” was an immediate turnaround for Lisa. It wasn’t. There were still many times that she didn’t get her snow clothes on before the end of recess, or when she missed opportunities because she was stuck on “no.” But the teacher was patient and consistent, and eventually there were fewer tantrums and Lisa was better able to independently work through tasks presented in small steps. And her overall affect started changing as well. She smiled more, strengthened her connections with classmates, and engaged a lot more in the process of learning.

It’s important to build in time for reflection, to identify what’s possible and how we can leverage our growth toward continued improvement. As a leader, I find that if I stay curious and lean into intentional learning, I stay more positive and spend less of my time overwhelmed and stuck in “no.” There are many opportunities in the midst of this pandemic for us to grow and develop new skillsets that will benefit us and our students far beyond the current situation. Being intentional about what I say “yes” to and leaning into a learning stance makes it easier for me—like it first did for Lisa—to smile, connect, and engage.