Responding versus Reacting in the Classroom and Life

“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?” – Lao Tzu

First, let’s understand something. We all react at some point or another. But, maybe now you’re seeing that reacting to a situation based on your emotions is not proving very efficient nor effective. That’s okay because this is the first step in understanding there are more positive alternatives available to you. The best part is this: if you’re reading this, you are ready to make the switch because you want to and you need to.

To respond has a positive connotation where reacting is implicitly negative in our human psychology. It may seem to be a simple difference in semantics to the average person, but the difference in practice is rooted in results. We always have a choice, it’s a matter of recognizing that we alone have the power to respond or react accordingly.

To React

According to Miriam-Webster, react is a verb meaning “to do something in reply.” The key here is the phrase to do. When we react, the result is a force of emotion and impulse that we cannot control. To react is highly instinctual; think in terms of the fight or flight mode. A reaction is typically rooted in a strong emotion like fear, anger, or a trigger of some form of pain. To react is to not be in control.

Here’s an example of an event from my classroom:

My students won’t listen. I react and get angry. We’ve all been there. I may yell or remove a privilege, which temporarily destroys the peace in myself and my classroom (or home). Little do I know at the time, but I’m also losing my credibility as a great teacher or parent or leader or coach. I look like another angry adult. The situation may not be worse than it was, but it is definitely not better.

Every time this would happen, I’d feel like a jerk and have to apologize. There had to be a better way. That’s when I discovered the response.

To Respond

Now, on the other side of the spectrum, we have a response to a stimulus. According to Miriam-Webster, respond is a verb meaning “to say something in reply.” When we respond, we’re acknowledging the fact that we want to react, but we don’t. We take a moment and weigh our options. A response should be mindful and planned. There should be no emotions driving the response, but a calm and collected state of mind. Basically, to respond is to be in control.

Here’s an example of what happens in my classroom since I’ve made the switch from reacting to responding.

My students won’t listen. I recognize the reaction in myself before it happens and I pause. I take a breath, maybe go to my desk and “look for something” while I consider my options before moving forward. I have to make it positive, or at least not negative; it’s a learning environment and that is something special. Within a second I know I have a choice to make. I could

  • calmly talk to the student or students separately who are causing the chaos to see what’s going on in their world;
  • offer a brain break with the expectation that after three minutes, it’s work time;
  • ignore the issue and practice what my former behavior analyst side calls extinction. I know they’ll come around when they realize they’re not getting the attention they want because they’re not behaving appropriately (this takes time and training.. not for yourself, but the students!).

This is no exhaustive list of options, but you get the point. I am able to calmly and positively move on while setting a superb example for my students. Kids have a difficult time communicating their needs as it is, I don’t want to add to it. No harm was done; no foul in action.

In summary, the first step to a mindful response is to pause and take a moment as soon as you feel a reaction coming forward from within. This sounds spiritual, but it’s basic biology and chemistry. Invoke that highly sought after wait time our observers love to see during classroom walk-throughs. Then, consider your options. You want to make a positive or neutral impact on the situation at hand. Rinse and repeat as often as necessary.

It takes time to master; I still haven’t yet! Remember that you will have your moments and even your best student will have their down day. We are simply human. But, being mindful is a trainable muscle; with more practice, fewer mistakes will occur. Just let go and allow yourself to learn.


It’s your turn! Share some experiences or how you can make this work in your classroom.

Take a moment and tell me something. What do you want me to dive into next?