The Power of “What’s Up?”


Today, we’re so pleased to be able to share a post from Wheelock professor William Sharp and his colleague Petra Hesse, about the power of a simple question when discerning student behavior: What’s up? Thank you so much for sharing this with us, William and Petra!

I was asked to run a first-grade social skills group a few years ago. There are good prepackaged programs out there like Second Step or Open Circle, but sometimes they fall short or don’t stay close enough to the where the kids are in the moment. Also, they don’t always highlight the importance of the teachers own character and self awareness, two important parts of social and emotional learning, according to organizations like CASEL. That is why, each week, I begin by taking the emotional temperature of the group with a simple question: What’s up?

I required the classroom teacher and teacher’s aide to be a part of the group. One week I entered the class and the teacher responded to my “What’s up?” She said she needed a lot of help. Every day at lunchtime the class ran down the hallway to the cafeteria. She had already tried a number of behavior modification techniques.  She offered her first graders more recess time if they went a week without running.  That didn’t work, so next she threatened to take away recess time if they did not stop running. The principal had come and spoken to the class, but that didn’t change the behavior. Everyone was frustrated.

I looked at their little faces and asked in the most sincere way, What’s up with the running? There was a silence that lasted for a very long time. I made eye contact with the teacher and encouraged her to just sit and wait. Eventually Susie, a small blonde girl, timidly raised her hand and reported, “If we don’t get to the cafeteria fast enough, they run out of hot lunches and we have to eat peanut butter and jelly.”

The teacher’s jaw dropped.  It took a moment for her to compose herself. She said, “I have asked you why you were running.” I believe the teacher had asked the question, but it probably felt like yelling: “WHY ARE YOU RUNNING?” Even more importantly, the students heard a complaint and not a question, something along the lines of, “YOU ARE IN SO MUCH TROUBLE FOR RUNNING!”

This teacher realized she was feeling frustrated and also judged by the administration for lack of control of her class. She was not in a place to really ask an exploratory question.  Once she realized that she was having those feelings, she was able to relax a little and be more objective and explore with the students, not just now, but with other issues.  The teacher solved the running problem by preparing to leave for lunch ten minutes earlier. She also spoke to the cafeteria staff about having enough hot lunches for all the children.

Taking time to ask your students "what's up?" could change your understanding of their behaviorJust going after a symptom sometimes ignores the problem. By using a psychoanalytic frame and asking the question, What’s up? the real material came up and the problem was addressed.  The teacher experienced a new way of being and was now able to reflect on how to ask questions in the future.  To borrow from Charles and Mary Beard, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” I say, “Those who are not examining the unconscious in an attempt to understand it are doomed to repeat patterns that often don’t work.”

“By using a psychoanalytic frame and asking the question, What’s up? the real material came up and the problem was addressed.”

This case study highlights the understanding gleaned from taking a slower approach and asking questions.  This helps children “build and create minds” to reflect on the world around them, as opposed to just blindly plowing through life never thinking about what is going on around them. Once there is some understanding, the teacher was not only able to ask effective questions but was also able to intervene from a new perspective that actually was less work than implementing behavioral plans or creating elaborate systems to stop running in the hallway.

William Sharp and Petra Hesse teach the Professional Development Institute in the Summer entitled “Supporting the Emotional Growth of Children.”  William has also written a textbook for new counselors that is full of stories like this entitled “Talking Helps: An Evidence Based Approach To Psychoanalytic Counseling” available through