When I was six years old, my family moved from the big city of Memphis, TN, where my dad was an accountant, to the western North Carolina mountains. Back in the 70s, there weren’t many “ferreners” in the mountains, and we stood out like a tick on a beauty queen.
When I got a little older, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. Anytime we stopped for gas at the local full-service station, my dad would always get out and talk to the owner. That wasn’t the interesting part. Rather, I was fascinated to hear my college-educated father pick up the country twang of the locals while he leaned on the fender talking about the weather, wild hogs, and deer hunting, which I was not aware that my father did. His entire demeanor changed in that situation, and I realized at some level it was necessary to try to fit in.
It turns out that this is called the Chameleon Effect, and we all do it. We tend to adapt ourselves to the surrounding social environment by changing our speech patterns, gestures, posture and behaviors to match those around us.
This morning I was in a 5th grade classroom in which the teacher has built an amazing sense of community. She is constantly encouraging kids, celebrating their accomplishments, and having them set individual goals. As I was visiting this morning, I overheard one of her boys pass by her and whisper, “I love you!” to the teacher. She smiled and whispered it right back to him.
How many 5th grade boys do you know who willingly tell their teachers they love them? This boy’s outward show of emotion is a direct result of the Chameleon Effect – he is taking on the same behaviors he sees modeled in his teacher. We’ve all observed it – students with a sarcastic teacher are much more likely to make biting comments to each other. “Good” students will suddenly become trouble-makers when put with a teacher with a loose management style. We see chameleons when upper elementary students must change their demeanors multiple times a day as they transition between classes and teachers with very different styles.
The good news is that kids are listening and watching. The bad news is… kids are listening and watching.
We must be incredibly tuned in to our demeanors and how we interact in our classrooms because, like it or not, we will have a couple dozen chameleons mimicking our actions. Studies show that, “if teachers ask lots of questions that everyone knows they already know the answer to, then often students ask teachers questions they tend to already know the answer to – questioning becomes a performance rather than an inquiry” (Hattie & Zierer, 2018, p. 137).
Do you feel like your kids aren’t listening to you? Is it possible that you’re not listening to them?
Do you kids love being at school? Are they picking that up from you?
This is one reason that establishing community is so incredibly important in classrooms. It’s not just a feel-good fluffy thing. It actually changes student behaviors and thought patterns as they mimic us. Hattie & Zierer say, “the more intense our relationships are, the more closely we imitate each other” (p. 137). It’s worth examining our students’ behaviors for what we wish were different, and then considering how we might model those behaviors when we interact with them.
Your students are chameleons. What types of behaviors do you want them to take on when they enter your classroom?
Hattie & Zierer (2018). 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning