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The Unwritten Code: A Case Study
by Darrell "Coach D" Andrews
The effects of the hidden roadblock in connectedness with millennial students
Several years ago a school district contracted me to provide in-class motivation for a “self-contained” middle-school class located in the state of Delaware. Students were placed in this class after having been deemed “highly at-risk” over and over again. Often, they spent entire school days involved in activities with no actual academic goal; simply getting them to maintain their composure was the primary task of their educator. If this was accomplished, she then attempted to teach specific subjects. This teacher was a wonderful, patient lady. She realized the difficulty of her task, and still she walked into her classroom every day with the determination to reach her students.

I distinctly remember my first day meeting her students, a class of about 25. I always like to start new experiences with students by conducting an open-ended rap session with them. This technique is used to “break the ice” and connect with new students. With this technique, we allow the students to talk to us and tell us whatever is on their minds. Any topic is ok. Sometimes we are shocked by what they have to say, however we realize that they are only communicating what is considered normal to them. Rap sessions help us to realize that many of our students live in worlds that are far different than ours.

Immediately, I noticed that one student, Walter, set the tone for the entire classroom. Some might have referred to him as being large and in charge. His attitude caused apathy towards listening and learning among his classmates. When Walter was up, the other students were up; when he was down, they were down. It became apparent to me that he was not a bad kid, he was simply using his form of authority to mask what was really taking place in his life. After I made some connection with most of the students, I knew I needed a special plan for connecting with Walter. What concerned me was finding enough savvy to build a relationship with this “leader” of the class.

This situation was, in essence, identical to the circumstances surrounding student connectedness that I’ve come across in other situations. Simply put: Youth crave a sense of significance and belonging in their lives. If someone does not help them discover these ideas for themselves, the group surrounding those teens will define it for them.

If the group is negative, a teen will reach negative conclusions about himself or herself. This can start a spiral of destructive behavior, negatively impacting the student for the rest of his or her life. My task in each situation is to put on the blinders to whom I was dealing with “externally” and focus on seeing him or her “internally.” If I am moved by what I see externally in millennial youth, there is no hope for my ever changing that student, or any other student for that matter.

Years of experience motivating students also helped me realize that the plethora of negative attitudes in today’s kids are driven by an outside source educators probably are not even aware of, but that most have probably sensed. This hidden source of negativity was present in previous generations and is stronger in today’s generation than in any other that preceded it. To truly reach millennial students, to open new avenues of communication and to actually connect with them on a personal level, educators, parents, and community leaders must crack the unwritten code.


The Unwritten Code Defined

In this scenario the type of unwritten code that has been established within the millennial youth community became more apparent than ever. This code has more impact than educators may be aware of. Its effects are felt both inside and outside of the classroom, and it influences decisions inside and outside the community. It highly impacts an educator’s or administrator’s ability to build effective systems of connectedness and personalization with millennial youth.

Often, leaders of a group or clique are the ones who are enforcing this unwritten code on a daily basis. They are a sort of “keeper of the code.” They are shaping decision-making practices of their peers, resulting in teens who feel pressured to conform. I have counseled hundreds of youth and, time and again, found that this unwritten code has influenced each and every student, both those considered at-risk and those not at-risk. I have witnessed students that come from good homes and good backgrounds refusing to do well in school, exhibiting behavioral problems and conforming to a number of so-called “youth norms” because they respected the code more than they respected the expectations of adults who love them.

Youth are gregarious by nature and more highly influenced by the code than other age groups. While it’s true that this code has existed in some form for decades, the integration of technology has escalated it during the past ten years. This has caused an increase in resources for social networking and proliferation of the code. To put a halt to this wide-spread pandemic, administrators and educators must be on the prowl for “subliminal factors” that reinforce the code every single day.


Spotlighting Negative Behavior in Media

All types of media—television, radio, internet, etc.—are reinforcing the code among today’s students, not just those marketed specifically for teens. Many popular TV channels among the high-school demographic state that they specifically target audiences between 18 and 30-something. Recently, on one of these stations watched by millions of teenagers, a hip documentary on drug use, provided a demonstration of the best way to use designer drugs. A teen on the show stated that you “shouldn’t throw up the drugs—you have to keep them in your system to get the best results.” In the music industry, very few mainstream releases are popular or considered successful unless they contain elements which glamorize behavior that is destructive to the listener, demoralize women, or support rebellion or committing defiant acts. Media attention around the music or movie industry often highlights “successful living” by people who typically dropped out of school, a lifestyle which is depicted as full of partying and irresponsible actions.

The internet is perhaps the fastest growing outlet for the “code enforcers.” Sites for online videos or images of any sort are available for any to view. Despite warnings parents have heard repeatedly, children as young as three and four years old are still being left to stumble around the internet. Social community websites have risen in popularity with tweens and still host racy ads and push adult expectations on adolescents.


Fear: The Motive for the Code

The big sister of conformity is fear: the fear of not being “accepted.” Even among cliques, this fear is subliminally steeped in the minds of millennial youth. For today’s youth, the pressure for acceptance is coming in increasingly destructive ways. I have spoken to students who dress more and more “provocatively” or in a defiant manner, including students at the top of their class.

When I’ve sat down to have a one-on-one session with these students, many of them confide in me that they dress this way to so that they can “make it through”; in other words, without getting any flack or trouble for being smart. They are fearful of being rejected for not being like their peers. This is a first line in the code: If you want to be accepted, you don’t dare distance yourself from the group. This results in students backing away from what is considered outside the group. If there is a disdain for academics or achievement in their clique, you will find good students who are acting like bad students.

There is a subset group impacted by fear: the educators and mentors who work directly with these students. Many workers have developed a subliminal “fear” of their students—not the kind of fear related to physical harm, however; one that is connected to “giving them their space.” To quench their fear, educators begin accepting bad behavior. This ultimately has an adverse impact on the classroom and the school facility.

This unwritten code impacts just about every school, in every city and in every state. In order to “crack the code” and move forward, administrators and educators must use innovative strategies designed to shift the school paradigm towards one of mutual respect and congeniality.


What Happened to Walter?

I realized I needed to speak to Walter outside of the classroom in a one-on-one format. I told the teacher that in the upcoming weeks I would like to meet with Walter exclusively, one-on-one, after which we would continue the larger-scale classroom activities. During our first session, hardly one word came from Walter. He was simply not used to having any form of serious conversation, especially one with a caring adult. He had spent a long time building his façade and regarded me with suspicion: How dare I try to break it down!

Obviously, my words were meant to shake him loose of the chains he had bound himself with, and the next time we met I was prepared to take advantage of any ground I had made in our previous session. He knew where I was coming from, and now it was time for him to talk. I started by asking a few questions geared to have him reach into a deeper part of his being.

“Walter,” I asked, “do you enjoy life?”

He seemed startled by that question. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I think life is worth enjoying, but it’s up to each of us to actually enjoy it. I think you have things you care about and I am trying to find out what you enjoy and care about.” I waited a moment and then asked, “Who do you care about?”

He hesitated. “My father. But I haven’t seen him for years.”

I gently responded, “I know what you are feeling; my father and I don’t have much of a relationship either, and it’s painful at times. Where is your father?”

“In jail.”

“Why don’t you visit him?”

“I don’t want to see him in there,” Walter said. “It … hurts too much.”

I thought for a moment, and then asked, “If you could do one thing to make him proud of you, what would it be?”

“Probably not go to jail like him.” Walter’s answers were coming more easily now.

“How can you prevent that from happening?”

Walter shrugged. Then he slowly replied, “Start to take my life seriously. Try to do well in school.”

I sensed I had broken through to a new level and decided to ask one last question. “Walter,” I asked, “What can I do to help you accomplish those goals?”

Walter looked me in the eye and said evenly, “Keep talking to me the way you are now.”

By taking the time to better understand his world on a personal level, I was able to start the process of cracking the unwritten code in Walter’s life. This was vital; not only was he a major leader of the code in his group, but he was young man heading down a path of destruction. Most likely, he would have taken quite a few others with him. After our sessions together, Walter became the most cooperative person in that class and, as expected, his classroom followed suit. His grades skyrocketed from that point on. His teacher later shared with her district her amazement at having seen a student change so quickly. In her classroom, he became an exemplary student and one she later called a “joy” to teach.


Code Breakers

To communicate with Walter, I had to help him disengage the code’s control. The methods I used have become tried and true tools in my toolbox of student connectedness and personalization. In order to “crack the code” and begin to establish a sense of relationship with millennial students, school leaders (administrators and educators) can use these proven strategies:

1. Look for opportunities to reach the students outside the environment where the code has the strongest influence.
     I have found that this is a critical point in helping students develop a new paradigm towards educators and others in authority. The atmosphere in the code environment is too “pressure-filled” for the student to open up to you. Meeting in a neutral place can move you one step closer to building a trusting relationship with your student. I always encourage classroom educators initially to make it a priority to target the classroom “code” leaders with this strategy. By connecting with them, you open doors to connect with other students.

2. Make the student a part of his or her own change strategy.
    I allowed Walter to answer his own questions without any input from me. It took me a few sessions to get him to open up completely. However, once open, I asked only open-ended questions. Students will shut out your efforts at connecting if they sense it is being fabricated. The educator must allow the students to come up with the answers on their own and be careful not to press too hard. Students believe their code is normal and right and that those who care about them are wrong. It will take creativity and effective listening skills to help them make life-changing decisions and to connect with caring educators and administrators. They will make this connection faster and stronger if they sense they are making this decision of their own volition.

3. Help connect students to a “Positive Outlet.”
    If students are not given positives to replace the vacancy left by removing the negatives, they will slip back into the code expectations. With Walter, we allowed him to continue to be a classroom leader, this time as a leader toward positive outcomes. We continued to have our one-on-ones; it was this special time that started and subsequently sustained his change. Once we have broken through their barriers and have related to them personally, our students need positive reinforcement and “new outlets” in order to maintain our connection to them.

4. Personalize your interactions.
    By caring about Walter’s father, I was caring about Walter. He connected with me because I connected with something that was important to him: his dad in prison. Many people would look at his dad being in prison as a negative factor to back away from, but they would be throwing away a major opportunity. I realized years ago that the most important people in a young person’s life are their family and friends. If you show you care about the important people in their lives, they will show they care about your role in their life. Students believe that most people don’t care because most people never ask. Find out what is important to the student and you will begin to open the door to a relationship that will be rewarding both academically and personally. The code can be cracked. Your students can change!

Cracking the code, one student at a time, you will begin to see new horizons in the quest for student connectedness and personalization. I have been blessed to have students I worked with reach out later just to say, “you were the one who helped me turn my life around.” Those messages make it all worth it! Utilize these principles, help your students start changing their lives, and see student connectedness become the norm in your school.


Darrell “Coach D” Andrews, an educational consultant, has been a speaker and trainer for many schools and school districts and is the author of the books
Believing the HYPE—Seven Keys to Motivating Students of Color and The Purpose Living Teen, A Teen’s Guide To Living Your Dreams. He can be reached at his office toll free at 866-426-2243 or by e-mail at info@coachdspeaks.com. His website is www.coachdspeaks.com.


Copyright 2014, Peter Li, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Peter Li, Inc.