The problem with “I Statements”

Picture this:

It is time for math.  The students have been given a couple of problems to solve on their own.  While the rest of the class is busy with those problems, Anne has stopped working.  She is sitting with her arms crossed and has a scowl on her face.  She is staring daggers at Ms. Jones.  Ms. Jones really wants Anne to get to work.  When the teacher says something to Anne, the student begins to mock her by mimicking what Ms. Jones has said.

What should Ms. Jones say or do now?

Many teachers would say, “Anne, knock it off!  You are supposed to be working on your math  Why aren’t you doing that?”

According to those who advocate for using “I Statements”, the teacher has just put Anne on the defensive by being accusing.  If Anne feels defensive, she is more likely to act out furthe.r  Instead, they believe Ms Jones should use an “I Statement.”

“I statements” are a way of communicating with others in terms of what the speaker is feeling  They are in opposition to making “You Statements”, statements like “Anne, you are supposed to be working with the group.”  “I Statements” are supposed to be less accusatory, and are supposed to help the speaker to get the listener to stop doing something because s/he now knows how that behavior affects the speaker.

When using an “I Statement,” the teacher should say something like, “Anne, I feel hurt and frustrated when you mimic what I say instead of working.”  If we take the statement apart we see that speaker has phrased his/her statement by telling the listener what the listener’s behavior has made the speaker feel, and has turned it around from accusing the listener to communicating what the speaker feels as a result of the listener’s behavior

The idea of using such statements evolved from the work of psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987).  He is credited with developing a sort of non-directive therapy.  One of his clients, Thomas Gordon (1918-2002), was influenced by this kind of therapy to develop a series of training programs:  Parent Effectiveness Training (PET), Leadership Effectiveness Training (LET), and Teacher Effectiveness Training (TET).

TET was introduced in 1965 as a way of helping teaching develop better teacher-student relationships.  In this training, teachers are taught to communicate with students by using “I Statements”.  The premise is that teachers communicate to students that they are not valued by using certain phrasings, and they can also communicate that they are valued.  During the 30 hour training programs, teachers are taught better understand student behavior and to to use active listening when dealing with a student who is acting out.  They are also taught to use “I Statements”

There are several very useful parts to TET training.  Active listening is an important skill for teachers when meeting with a student or parent in a one-to-one setting, or when talking to a parent on the phone.  However, it is very difficult to use when trying to calm an angry student who is threatening to throw a chair, or when working with an oppositional or defiant student.

Every child will have its good and bad days  A truly oppositional child is something different.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, defines mental disorders like oppositional defiance.  The criteria listed in the DSM for diagnosing Oppositional-Defiant Disorder are symptoms that must have been happening for at least 6 months. The criteria include emotional and behavioral symptoms that last at least six months.  These are:

Angry and irritable mood:

  • Often and easily loses temper
  • Is frequently touchy and easily annoyed by others
  • Is often angry and resentful

Argumentative and defiant behavior:

  • Often argues with adults or people in authority
  • Often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules
  • Often deliberately annoys or upsets people
  • Often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior

Vindictiveness:

  • Is often spiteful or vindictive
  • Has shown spiteful or vindictive behavior at least twice in the past six months

In addition, the DSM classifies ODD into three levels of severity  These are:

  • Mild Symptoms occur only in one setting, such as only at home, school, work or with peers.
  • Moderate Some symptoms occur in at least two settings.
  • Severe Some symptoms occur in three or more settings.

Levels of severity aside, a teacher with an oppositional student knows that it almost always feels “severe” when THAT student is arguing with him/her, is defiant, or deliberately annoying the teacher.

Let’s think a bit about Anne’s behavior.  Ms. Jones has tried to communicate with Anne’s parents, but these conversations have left her feeling that she’s made the situation worse because the parents have over-reacted, or the parents tell Ms Jones that nothing they do will change Anne’s behavior.  Anne’s previous teachers and other current teachers have labeled Anne “a challenge” for several years.  Her older brother behaved in a similar way.  A couple of the teachers said they just gave up on Anne because it seemed like nothing they did helped.

Anne hasn’t been diagnosed with ODD, but she seems to fit the profile – and that profile is daunting.

So the advocates of Teacher Effectiveness Training would suggest that when Anne starts mocking Ms Jones and refusing to do her math, Ms Jones should use an “I Statement” to communicate how the teacher feels when Anne mocks her.  The idea is that by knowing how one’s behavior makes the other person feel, the person will mend his/her ways because s/he doesn’t want the other person to feel bad or feel bad about him/her.

Here is my issue with “I Statements”.  In the situation described above, is there any indication that Anne cares what the teacher feels?  I would suggest that Anne probably does not particularly like Ms. Jones, or at least doesn’t like her at that particular moment  In addition, the teacher probably does not have the time to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Anne.  If that is true, then will Anne particularly care how her behavior affects Ms Jones?

I went through Teacher Effectiveness Training back in the late 70s or early 80s  I see many good things in this approach to working with students.  However, there are parts of TET that I have come to believe are less effective.  I’ve come to those conclusions through using the strategies, observing others using the strategies, and through learning more about behavior, and linguistics

The words and tones we use convey messages beyond the simple meaning of the words.  There is the connotation, or underlying messages, in a communication.  If we think about the underlying messages that Ms. Jones is sending to Anne when she uses an “I Statement”, we can see some of the flaws in the strategy.  As mentioned previously, if Anne doesn’t already like Ms. Jones or care about how her behavior affects Ms Jones, then telling Anne about Ms. Jones feelings of hurt or sadness are unlikely to make Anne want to change.  Second, an oppositional student will use the knowledge that s/he is hurting the feelings of the other person as ammunition for further misbehavior directed at the teacher.  If Anne knows that mocking and mimicking the teacher hurts Ms. Jones’ feelings, and ruffles her feathers, then Anne is likely to act this way again in the future.  Remember, an oppositional person deliberately seeks to annoy or upset others.

“I Statements” simply do not work with THAT student, and, at worst, gives THAT student more leverage when she is engaging in oppositional behavior.

One may argue that if Ms. Jones wants to develop a better relationship with Anne, then her feelings have to come into play, that Ms. Jones is going to have to tell Anne how she feels because two people in a relationship of any kind must care about how the other is feeling.  While that is true, when Anne is being openly oppositional during a class, that is not the time to work on deepening the relationship.  It is also true that making statements that are likely to make Anne defensive won’t help much either.

Instead, using more neutral strategies would make sense.

Somewhere along the line, people began changing “I Statements” into phrasing directives in terms of what the other person needs, for example, “Anne, you need to do your math.”  The problem is Anne doesn’t feel any need to do math, and she doesn’t like math, so saying it is “you math” is likely to have Anne protesting that it is the teacher’s math, not hers.

In this case, being neutral means leaving “you” and “I” out of the mix.  Ms Jones does not want Anne to feel more defensive than she already does, so saying something like “you knock it off” wouldn’t work.  She doesn’t want to give Anne more ammunition, so saying something like “I feel hurt when you” doesn’t make sense.  She doesn’t phrase the directive in terms of anyone’s wants or needs.  The best approach is to try to redirect Anne while remaining calm and low key.  Something like this would work:  Ms Jones moves closer to Anne, but is standing a bit sideways presenting the smallest “barrier” or “threat” with her body  She says in a low, quiet voice, “Anne, get to work on the math problems.”  Or, “Anne, there is ten minutes left to do the math problems.”

Ms Jones has very simply stated what it is that Anne should do.

Here is a method I’ve used:

Step 1
Make sure you have the student’s attention by making eye contact, using the student’s name in a very calm, and business-like tone, or by using proximity.  Doing all three is best.

Step 2
State what you want the student to do.  Do not say what not to do.  Say what you want the student to do.  Use a calm, business-like tone, and use as few words as possible.

For example, do NOT say something like, “Anne, it’s time to take your math book out now, okay?”  or “Anne, it would be really nice if you would join us in doing math, so you need to get your math book out right now  Please?”  or “ANNE!  I told you to get your math book out right now!  Stop playing around and get to it!”  Or even, “Anne, I worry about you when you do not work on math because I don’t know how you will learn it without practice.”

The non-examples use too many words, put the directive in the form of a question, or demonstrate a loss of control by the teacher.  The student hears “okay?” or “please?” as making the behavior optional.  Shouting or becoming angry shows the student that his delaying strategy is working.  And putting the directive into an “I statement” just gives the student more ammunition for her defiance, or falls on deaf ears if the student doesn’t care what the teacher is feeling.

Saying “Anne, get to work on the math problems.  There is ten minutes left to do them” is clear and concise  There is no room for misunderstanding.

Step 3
Walk away!  Don’t give in to the impulse to breathe down the student’s neck.  Walk away and give the student 15 to 20 seconds to process the directive and to demonstrate that he is going to comply.

Step 4
If the student is showing ANY sign that he is beginning to comply with what you have told him to do, praise that partial effort.  Say, “Good  You have done the first problem.”.   Or say, “You have begun to work on that.  That’s a good start.”  And walk away again.

If the student has not begun to comply, you have a choice to make.  Will telling the student about a negative consequence that will happen if she continues help Anne understand what she is supposed to do, or is it best to further ignore Anne’s oppositional behavior?

In my opinion, the decision is rooted in what one can predict the outcome will be.  If the student’s defiance is quiet, if it is not harming anyone else’s learning,  and if the teacher believes that engaging with Anne about the behavior now would escalate the situation, then it would be acceptable to ignore the lack of compliance until later.  If the defiance is more overt, if it is distracting others in the class, or if it is preventing the teacher from teaching, then one must take the next steps.  That is, repeat the first 3 steps and add a choice.  For example, “Anne, you may choose to do these math problems now, or you may choose to do them during lunch.”

Then walk away!

Walking away means you cannot get sucked into an argument.  Remember, students  with ODD want to engage you in an argument.  You will not give the student more ammunition for her attempts to pull you into an argument or to make you lose your temper.  By presenting the choice in a calm, business-like manner, you are continuing to teach the class with minimal interruption.

Step 5
If the student has even partially complied, use positive feedback:  “Good, you have your book out.  Now turn to page 93.”  If the student has not complied in any way, follow through on the choices.  Use proximity and quietly say, “Michael, you chose to do this during lunch.  I will see you here in this room at 11:15.”

And walk away!  Become deaf to the face-saving behaviors the student might show.  These could be making a remark under his breath, or slamming the book on the desk top, or putting his head down and not participating in class at all.  Remember, s/he is doing this to try to engage you in an argument.  As long as the behavior is only preventing the student from learning the lesson planned for the day, ignore what the student is doing.  At this point, you only need to intervene if the student is preventing others from learning or the teacher from teaching.

Using this 5 step strategy means the teacher is not being controlled by the student’s behavior.  The teacher is being authoritative and not being either a doormat or aggressive.

There is a time and a place for using I statements.  They are very useful when two people have a working or personal relationship that both want to keep positive.  They do not work especially well with that student who is chronically defiant or oppositional.

OMG! I Yelled at THAT Student!

Let’s face it.  We are all human, and being human means we lose our temper sometimes.  Everyone gets angry.  Honest.  We all do.

All teachers get angry. Is yelling sending the message you want?

Yelling is one way we humans cope with anger.  It can be a way of telling others that we are angry.  If our goal is to communicate that we are angry, it works pretty well.  However, if our goal is to change THAT student’s behavior, it is not the most effective route.

I’ve interviewed many students over the years, at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels.  They have increasingly told me that a teacher who would yell became fair game to them.  It became a game to see if they could make the teacher lose his/her temper and yell.  I find that appalling and scary that more and more students find out of control behavior funny and desirable, and I could speculate for pages on end about why that has happened.  However, the purpose of pointing it out here is to show that yelling may actually play into THAT student’s hands.

Many challenging students do not have a role model for what to do when angry other than yelling, screaming, hitting, or destroying things.  These behaviors cause many children to become anxious, and researchers have begun to classify growing up in a chaotic household as trauma..  The yelling may, to them, signal that something scary is going to happen.  They may respond by acting like nothing bothers them, or they may act out or they may withdraw.  All of these can be signs that the child has experienced this sort of trauma.  And when a child has experienced trauma, they are more likely to not respond well to yelling, and they are honestly not able to make changes in their behavior.  Childhood trauma actually rewires the brain, and not in a good way.  (We’ll talk more about the effects of trauma in another post.)

Consider apologizing.  Now back in the dark ages when I was training to be a teacher, we were told to never apologize.  We were told that it would make us look weak.  I’m calling BS on that.  Apologizing demonstrates what a mature person does when they lose control.  THAT student probably NEEDS to see that people can say “sorry” and that it is not the end of the world.

We can be role models for other kinds of behaviors when a person is angry.

We may need to repeat the mantra, “I am the grown up.  I am the grown up. I am the grown up.” many, many times to avoid losing our temper and showing an alternative to yelling.

We may need to perfect our use of “the Look” – you know, the teacher look – in a way that says, “do not do that.”

We may need to train ourselves to speak in a much lower, quieter voice when we are angry.  I’ve found that students (and children and grand-children) really come to attention when I start speaking very softly and slowly while giving the Look.  One granddaughter witnessed me doing that with a car repair person.  Later she asked, “I wonder if he knew how close he was to dying?”

Consider what would go on inside THAT student’s head if you lowered your voice and said, “I’m too angry to talk to you about this right now.  I will talk to you right at the beginning of recess.”  (Or before lunch, or at the end of the class period, etc.)  What would THAT student be thinking?  His/her anticipation of what will happen is often communicates more than yelling at him/her would.

I taught fifth graders to leave me alone if I was “on vacation.”  That is, I would put a post card of a tropical beach up on my desk.  I’d written “on vacation, back in . . .” on it.  I also had a timer that I would set.  So my “vacation” might be 5 minutes or no more than 10 minutes.  I would use the time to get that homework ready for that sick student, or to file some paperwork, or to check email.  All the time I was doing that, I was taking deep breaths and thinking calming thoughts.

And speaking of interruptions, don’t they drive you crazy?  They do me!  And when I’m being driven crazy, I tend to get angry.

So the next thing to consider is “what are the things that happen in the classroom that make me angry” and then think of ways to avoid having those things happen.

I hate interruptions.  I’m not talking about the student who blurts something out.  I’m talking about things like when I’m working with this small group, and a constant stream of students suddenly have to ask, “Can I use the bathroom?”, “Can I get a drink?”, “Can get a pencil out of my back pack?”  You know what I mean.

I taught the students to write their questions on little white boards in a what that could be answered yes, or no.  If I was working with a small group, they could write on the white board, and walk to a place where they could hold it up and I could see it.  I could then nod my head yes, or shake my head no.  I found this really helped me avoid getting angry about interruptions.

What things in the classroom tend to make you angry?  Make a list.  Now think about how you could structure things to help prevent those things happening.  Can you create a procedure?  (Remember, any procedure must be taught, practiced, and reinforced.)

Above all, think about this:  behavior of any kind is a sort of communication.  When babies “act out” we recognize that they are telling us that they are hungry or wet or tired or need cuddling.  We tend to forget that children, adolescents, and even adults do things to communicate needs.  Consider what THAT student’s behavior is telling you.  Sometimes if we treat situations as a puzzle or a mystery to be solved, we are less likely to be angry about it and more likely to treat it as data.

We’ve known for a long, long time that the most effective thing to do when trying to change student behavior is to notice and recognize the positive things a student does.  Positive recognition helps the student know what it is s/he should do again.  If we only tell kids what they’ve done wrong, they never learn what they should do instead.

Now, I do not mean giving students tangible rewards.  Giving kids candy, or stickers, or a trip to the treasure box does not change behavior for the better in the long run.  Instead studies show that it actually decreases student engagement in whatever the task is.  Other studies have shown that giving tangible rewards for anything beyond rote memorization actually decreases productivity.  (I highly recommend Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on the subject.  You can see a YouTube video of it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc )

What are the consequences of teaching students to do something only if they get a reward for it?

In addition, it is good to think about the underlying message we send when we reward behaviors or academics with tangible rewards.  Are we saying that this is only worth doing if we get something for it?  Are we saying that the good feeling we get when we succeed at something is not enough?

Tangible rewards can be useful with some students who have challenging behavior.  However, that practice comes with some limitations.

First, the goal of using tangible rewards to change behavior is to make that behavior go away, or to replace it with a different behavior.  To do that, we have to wean the student off the tangible rewards because eventually we want the student to do X without the reward.

Second, the reward must mean something to the student.  If I don’t particularly like chocolate, giving me a mini candy bar for X isn’t going to mean a lot to me.  (Yes, there are people who do not like chocolate.  I’m one who can take it or leave it.)

Third, the reward has to be something attainable.  I’ve seen too many children who have been set up to fail because of this.  For example, Cody’s* parents promised him that if he did not have any trips to the principal’s office for the whole 9 weeks, they would buy him a bicycle.  Cody wound up being sent to the principal’s office during the first week.  Cody usually was in the principal’s office 3 or 4 times a week, so being sent only once during a week was actually a real improvement.  It showed he was really trying to make a change.  But it also meant he wasn’t going to get that bike.  As a result, Cody now had nothing to lose and his behavior actually got worse.

*Names are changed for confidentiality purposes.

Fourth, many students with challenging behavior respond to rewards only if they are given by someone the student believes likes him/her, and who has a relationship with him/her.  If THAT student perceives the teacher as his/her enemy, all the candy bars in the world won’t change his/her behavior.  It is true, however, that some many change their behavior just enough to get the reward, but often it is done with a heavy dose of the attitude that says,  “I’m just doing this to get that thing, I still hate you and I am still going to make trouble.”

And, finally, I’ve noticed that students who receive a lot of tangible rewards develop what I call the “what’ll ya gimme” syndrome.  That is, they do not do things just because it is the right thing to do.  They will only do things after asking, “What’ll ya gimme?”  For example, I had a group of fifth graders lined up to come into the building.  A bit of trash blew along the line and I, “Please someone pick up that trash and throw it in the bin on the way in.”  Every student watched the trash roll past them.  One finally said, “What’ll ya gimme if I do it?”  I looked at him, blinked, and said, “A nice big smile and a thank you.”  He let the trash lay there, and I began reflecting on what rewards were doing to children.

So if yelling doesn’t work, and rewards tend to backfire, what can a teacher do about THAT student?

I read a blog somewhere where the teacher said she would greet THAT student at the door in the morning and say, “I’m planning to make a call to your mom today to tell her the good things you are doing.  Make sure you are doing something today that I can tell her about!”  How ingenious!  It puts THAT student on notice to do good things and it makes the teacher notice them.  It is a win-win.

Think about how to offer a student encouragement when you notice s/he is trying to make changes or when s/he takes a baby step in the direction you want him/her to go.  (In another post I talked about the formula to use for praise or encouragement.)  Remember, THAT student can’t do whatever that positive thing is again if s/he doesn’t know what it is.  Think of encouragement as a way of getting students to replicate positive behavior.

If you are thinking, “Easier said than done,” you are likely right.  But also think about this:  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is ineffective as well.  Maybe it is time to try something new.

Teach students that when they see this picture to give the teacher a 5 minute “vacation”

Can THAT student really learn?  Maybe . . .

I recently had dinner with a friend who teaches special education at the high school level.  She was telling me about the difficulties she is having with some of the students.  (Confidentiality was not broken.)  At some point she responded to something I said by saying “No!  They CAN’T learn!”

It got me to thinking.

I have worked my whole life with students who were classified as “can’t learn”.  I was the parent to a child who was labeled in the same way.  I know from experience that people can and do learn when given the chance.  They can even blossom in ways that exceed our wildest dreams.  I also know  there are certain conditions that make their ability to learn increase or decrease.  I know THAT student can be made better or worse by the things we do.

We cannot, however, do it all!

Educators can control the environment in which THAT student is schooled.  We can control, to some extent, THAT student’s interactions with others.  We can ensure that our interactions with THAT student are equitable.  We can set aside our negative thinking and look for the positive in THAT student.  We can examine our beliefs and our attitude about THAT student.

Yes, we can make great advances with parents.  We can show them we know they love their child.  We can show them we care about their child.  We can go into conferences with a positive attitude and stick to what is observable and measurable.  We can make “good news” phone calls and work together with them for the benefit of the child.

But there are somethings we cannot control.

Students spend more than 2/3 of their lives outside of school.  They spend it sleeping, with parents, with other young people, and in front of screens.  We educators have absolutely no control over what those experiences are like.

Take sleep for example.  Adolescents need between 9 and 9.5 hours of sleep, but most get only 7 and many get much less.  Experts recommend that children aged 6 to 13 get nine to eleven hours of sleep and kindergarteners get 10-13 hours per night.  Few young people get this much sleep.  We know that a lack of sleep negatively affects a person’s ability to learn and to behave “appropriately” in school.

Educators can provide parents with information, but we cannot control how much sleep students get.

Continue reading Can THAT student really learn?  Maybe . . .

Does Sugar Make Kids Hyper?

Today is Halloween and I’m seeing posts on Facebook that refer to teachers and parents dreading Halloween because of the way candy (allegedly) makes kids hyper.

So does Halloween candy make kids hyper?

The research done back in the 1990s showed that sugar does NOT make kids or anyone else hyper.  There are a lot of scientific and medical explanations for this, but it really comes down to a question of what happens when parents and teachers believe this?  What’s going on?  Why do normal children turn into hellions on Halloween?

The answer has more to do with expectations and routines than with sugar.

Let’s look at three reasons that explain why the behavior of “good kids” changes during the Halloween season.

The self-fulfilling prophesy
Parents and teachers who believe that sugar changes children’s behavior communicate that belief to the children in many ways.  Some even say to kids something to the effect of “now that you’ve had all that Halloween candy, you will act crazy.”

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, our beliefs have power.  Whether we tell children our beliefs out loud or not, those beliefs are communicated through our behavior.  One article about the effects, or non-effects, of sugar on children’s behavior pointed out that parents who believed sugar made their children act out tended to position themselves closer to the child, and they tended to criticize the child’s behavior more.  (https://www.livescience.com/55754-does-sugar-make-kids-hyper.html )  We know from other studies of teacher behavior that the more a teacher criticizes student behavior, the more likely the child will act out.

Changes in class procedures and routines
In addition to our changed expectations of kids around Halloween, the classroom routine is changed.

Kids crave routines.  A well-managed classroom has a set of daily routines that provide a framework for the day.  Consider how different the kids’ normal behavior is in October compared with August.  By now, in most classrooms, the class routines and procedures are well-established and the teacher rarely has to remind students of this procedure or that.  But if those routines are changed, kids will start testing the limits to figure out where those limits are again.

I used to have the college level students think back on how student behavior changed on days when a class party was scheduled, or the school day was shortened, or, as is done in some middle and high schools, the day is reversed so that the last period of the day is the first period.  When the familiar routine of the school day is disrupted, kids’ behavior gets out of whack as well.

Changes in visual stimuli
If the kids are wearing their costumes to school, the level of visual stimuli has changed.  In the article, “Dos and Don’ts of Classroom Decorations” (https://www.edutopia.org/article/dos-and-donts-classroom-decorations ), author Youki Terada reviews the studies that show that too much visual stimuli can affect children’s ability to learn and their behavior.  The article suggests that there can be too little to look at in a classroom as well as too much (Terada, 2018).  The answer lies somewhere in the middle, or as my grandmother used to say, “Moderation in all things.”

Even if the classroom décor is in that “just right” range, Halloween can throw kids off.  Who can avoid looking at Cindy’s princess costume, or Peter’s Spiderman?  When students are wearing costumes, there are suddenly 20-25 brand new things to look at.  Is it any wonder that students seem to have stopped paying attention?  In reality, they are not paying attention to the teacher, but they sure are paying attention to other things in the classroom.

How to avoid Halloween behavior problems
Here are things you can do to avoid the behavior problems that seem to haunt Halloween and the days after.

  1. Review class procedures regularly during Halloween season.  When we anticipate that kids will stray from the established procedures, it is time to review them.  I recommend that the teacher remind students of a procedure before having them do any procedure on October 31 through November 3, and again after the weekend.

    Doing this might look like this:
    “Class, in just a moment, I’m going to tell you it is time to line up.  Don’t move until I tell you to!  Now, I want you to tell me the procedure for lining up.  What is the first step?  Cindy?  That is correct, the first step is to listen to see which pod goes first.  What is the next step?  Peter? . . . “

  2. Make Halloween and the following days highly structured days. These are not the days to take a walk to look for signs of fall, or the days to have students doing a science experiment that has the potential for getting out of hand.  This goes for class parties as well.  If we give students “free time” for a party, we are inviting disaster.  Instead, play learning games while nibbling on those class treats.  Play vocabulary or math games, and keep the party time to a minimum.  This doesn’t mean the class shouldn’t have time for laughs.  By all means, read fun stories aloud to the class, play those academic games, tell corny Halloween jokes, etc., but make sure the teacher is in control of what the activities are.
  3. Be prepared! This motto doesn’t just belong to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  It is a teacher’s best friend as well.  Before the day begins, think about what can go wrong.  Then think of ways to avoid that thing going wrong.  It does not mean eliminating the activity altogether, but it does mean helping students avoid problems.

    For example:  You want to send two students to get milk for morning snack just like you do every day of the school year.  But this is Halloween season and one of the things that can go wrong with this procedure is that the two milk monitors stop and stare into just about every classroom on the way to and from the milk cooler.  Knowing this, the teacher makes a point of saying to the milk monitors, “I know there is a lot of stuff to see on the way to the milk cooler and back, but we are counting on getting that milk in ___ minutes.  Can you do that?  Can you make absolutely sure you can get there and back in that amount of time without running?    Now I’m going to start the timer right about now.  Walk, and we’ll be waiting for you.”

I doubt Halloween or the days that follow will be any teacher’s favorite of the year.  There is too much potential for kids to act out or get off track.  Even if the teacher does everything in his/her power to do to make sure behavior issues are kept at a minimum during this time, we have no control over what the expectations and procedures are at home.  All we can do is keep looking for the good in students and structure the school day to minimize problem behavior.

Have a Happy Halloween, and have some fun!

Winning Parents Over

In another post I talked about forming a positive relationship with parents and a sure-fire way to do that – letting parents know you like their child by telling them good things the child has done at school.  It can take some effort to both make the contact with the parent and to find that good thing to tell them about, but the rewards are huge.  Parents see you as someone who likes their child and who is not “out to get” him/her.  And we benefit because it forces us to look for the good in each and every student.

There are other ways to get parents on your side, too.

Help students know what they learned
Students rarely understand what they’ve learned, so when a parent or other adult asks, “What did you do in school today?” they do not know how to respond.  In fact, many kids interpret that question to be asking what happened that was different from any other day.

To top it all off, kids don’t always know how to put their learning experiences into words.

I realized this when I was teaching all day and later I would ask my son what he did in school.  I had the advantage of knowing more about what goes on during a school day so I was able to ask more probing questions, but many, if not most, parents do not know this.

I began by asking the students if their parents ever asked them what they did in school.  Most raised their hands.  Then I asked what they told their parents when they were asked this.  Sure enough, most said, “Nothing.”

I started by teaching the students a procedure.  “I’m going to help you look absolutely brilliant in front of your parents.  At the end of each day (or class period) we’re going to go over what you can tell your folks when they ask that question.”

What we did was reviewed aloud the learning targets for that day (or class).  Most teachers write these on the board so it is not difficult to go over them with the students.  It is important to have the students read the learning targets out loud, first in unison.  Then quickly say, “What did you do in school today . . . Jackson?”  And teach the students to respond, “I learned . . . “  Insert the learning target there.

In addition, if your school uses student agendas, those required assignment books, have the students write the learning target in the agenda.  Teach the students that they can refer to their agenda to answer the adult’s question.

A picture is worth a thousand words
Parents and grandparents love to show off pictures of their children.  Sadly they rarely are able to see what their child is doing at school.

Use technology to show parents you are on their child’s side.  Take photos of their child doing school work, laughing at a joke, cleaning up, or helping.  Send that photo to the parent using your preferred method.  These are not photos that should be put into a class newsletter.  That could be considered a violation of confidentiality.  Instead these are photos you take just of THAT student and are sent to just his/her parent(s).  You can even use photos like this as that monthly positive contact that I’ve discussed in previous posts.

It is difficult for parents to say that Lois hates school when they have a photo of her laughing while working in a small group.

Don’t forget that many families either choose not to use technology or cannot use it.  Reliable internet is difficult in rural areas, and costs money in all areas.  People who do not use technology as part of their job may be less likely to use it at home.  So we have to use the technology the parent is able to use.  If you know Lois’ parents do not have access or rarely check email, then print the photo out and drop it in the mail.

If you do use the mail, don’t use an envelope with a school logo or printed return address on it.  Too often, those envelopes disappear, either because the child gets the mail before the parent does, or because the parents are too alienated or frustrated by the school to open it.  In their experience, mail from school is usually bad news.  Instead make the letter look more personal.  I’ve even used the more square envelopes you’d expect to find a greeting card.  Jot a quick note (Hi, I thought I’d share this photo of Lois with you.  Ms. Roe) on a sticky note on the photo and pop it in the mail.

Be careful to not take sides
The majority of marriages end in divorce, and divorce can get really messy.  It is easy to fall into the trap of taking sides.  As a professional, you are required to work with both parents unless there is a court order to the contrary.  This may mean making two phone calls about one child.  This may mean sending two copies of the class newsletter instead of one.
Sadly, many parents who are going through a divorce try to get the teacher to side with this one against that one.  Don’t do it.  This doesn’t mean you cannot listen sympathetically to a parent vent about the other.  It does mean that you make sure both parents know you are on the side of the child, and you are willing to work with both of them to benefit the child.

Recognize parental love and concern
There are parents whose parenting style is light years away from ideal, but the motivation behind their parenting is the same.  Nine times out of ten, they want what is best for their child.  Their understanding of “what’s best” and your ideas may differ, but wanting what is best for the child is a motivating factor both the parent and the teacher has in common.  Use it!

When having that difficult conversation with the parent, start by saying something like, “Ms. Jones, I know you love your daughter.”  Stop there.  Don’t give in to the temptation of adding a “but”.  You do not want to say anything that could be interpreted as “but you’re doing it all wrong.”  Instead, continue with something like, “I want Lois to be successful just like you do.  Let’s work together to help her.”

In my experience, this method gets hostile parents to do a double-take.  They’ve probably only had teachers who phrased things to the effect of “your child is broken; fix her!”   Those dreaded tiger parents or helicopter parents, as well, have difficulty blaming the teacher for this or that when she puts this slant on it.

This approach puts the conversation with the parent on a completely different foot.  Suddenly it is not about the teacher telling the parent that it is the parent’s responsibility to “fix” their child.  Instead it is saying that the teacher wants to work in collaboration.

Be sure to reinforce this by ending a conference with something like, “I am confident that by working together, we can get Lois back on track.”

Think “solutions” not “problems”
It is common for teachers to inform parents of problems with the idea that if a parent knows there is a problem, the parent will find a way to fix it.  However, parents do not always know what to do.  They do not always see the same problem in their interactions with the child.  If the child has a history of problems at school, the parent may have begun to think of the school being out to “get” their child.

Labeling a behavior doesn’t help.  Saying Jackson is lazy might be true, but it doesn’t offer any way to change the behavior.  Telling parents what has happened in a neutral,, business-like way can put us on the way to finding a solution, while just naming the problem just names the problem.

A way to tackle this is to plan out what you are going to tell the parent when you are going to have a face-to-face meeting or if you are making a phone call to them.  Try this:

  1. Tell the parent what the child has done in observable and measurable terms.  Saying, “Jackson did not turn in his homework on Monday and Tuesday” is neutral.  There isn’t room for arguing about it.  However, saying, “Jackson doesn’t want to turn in his homework” leaves a lot of room for argument.  And when you get right down to it, do you really know what Jackson does or doesn’t want?
  2. Tell the parent what you’ve done to try to solve the problem. Again, do this using observable and measurable terms and do it in a neutral voice:  “I talked to Jackson privately just before recess on Monday.  He said he’d been too busy to do his homework.  When he didn’t turn in work on Tuesday, I talked to him again.  He told me that he did do his work, but his mother threw it away by mistake.”
    Doing this is less likely to make a parent defensive than saying something to the effect that Jackson was sassy or lying.
  3. Ask the parent for their input. Yes, we are professionals and have a great many ideas on what to do to solve problems, but parents have expertise, too.  The parent may answer your question by saying they don’t know or they may tell you things that make you see the underlying causes of the problem behavior.
    Be sure to phrase this question in a way that there is no hint of parent-blaming.  Saying, “What is going on at home that Jackson is doing this” will make most parents more defensive and hostile.  Saying, “Can you help me understand what’s going on with Jackson” is much more neutral and more likely to help the parent see the teacher as wanting to collaborate.
  4. Tell the parent what you will or can do at school to try to solve the problem, and what you’d like them to do at home. Plan out ahead of time what you’d like the parent to do at home in case s/he doesn’t have any ideas about what to do. If you can, incorporate any ideas the parent may have had into these solutions.  Tell the parent, this is what you said you will do at home.

Be motivating by offering hope
Unless you are a preschool teacher, odds are the parent(s) of THAT student have heard over and over again about things s/he has done wrong at school.  The parents are likely to be frustrated, defensive, overwhelmed or bewildered about what to do to turn things around for their child.  They need to work with a teacher who projects confidence and the belief that by working together, things can be different for the child.  The parents need to know that the teacher does not think their child is beyond help, or that s/he is so deeply flawed that s/he will always be or have a problem.

In my experience, ending a problem-solving conference with a parent by saying, “I am confident that by working together we can get a handle on this and help Jackson get back on track” works far better than simply telling parents what you want them to do.  Saying that, offers parents a glimmer of hope.

Don’t we all need hope to keep on keeping on?

Remember, our language has the power to shape what others think, and it also shapes our beliefs about things.  We need to see light at the end of the tunnel when working with THAT student as much as THAT student’s parents need to see the teacher as sincerely wanting to help.  Changing the way we talk about things helps.  Notice that I called the conference with parents a “problem-solving conference” rather than a “negative phone call” or just a conference.  Thinking “problem-solving” shapes the way we think about it.  It helps us think about working together with the parent, rather than just naming the problem.

 

Try these ideas on how to build a more positive relationship with parents, and especially the patents of THAT student.

Do let me know how these ideas are working for you!

The Passive-Aggressive Student

Do you recognize these students?

Katie
You have given the class a directive to do a certain assignment.  Katie gives a big sigh and rolls her eyes.  You look at her and raise your eyebrow.  Katie responds by saying, “No offense, but a whole lot of people think this is busy work.  Just saying.”

Michael
You tell the class to put away their markers and glue sticks, to get out their math books and do the warm-up exercises on page 98.  Michael seems to be making a career out of putting the caps onto his markers just so, making sure the glue stick is twisted back into the tube exactly this amount.  He spends some more time arranging the markers and glue stick in his desk, then gets up to sharpen a pencil.  He takes the long way back to his desk, and then spends a few minutes looking in his things for his math book.  The rest of the class has completed the warm-up exercise before Michael has even opened his book.

Ann
Ann knows the teacher is an avid Packer fan.  A few minutes into the class period she asks the teacher what he thinks the Packer’s odds are of wining over the Bears.  She asks this knowing that the teacher will begin to rant about this team or that team and their coaches.  When the teacher seems to slow down a bit, Ann asks another question to keep the teacher going.

All three of these students are displaying passive-aggressive behavior.  They may not be openly defying the teacher, but the result is the same.  Katie is using her “no offense” statement to deliberately insult the teacher’s ability to plan meaningful assignments.  Michael is using stalling tactics to avoid doing the math warm[up exercises.  Ann is attempting to make it so there is no lesson today in that class.

Ann, Katie and Michael have become THAT student, the one who can frustrate a teacher to the point where s/he loses control and begins to shout.  An openly aggressive student might holler, or pinch, or throw a book.  That is upsetting, but the passive end of the passive-aggressive spectrum is probably more frustrating.

Whether the student’s behavior is on the passive end of passive-aggressive behavior or the aggressive end, students (and sometimes teachers, friends, administrators, and parents) who are passive-aggressive are attempting to confuse, control, or punish other people with their behavior.  Aggressive behaviors generally send a clear, unambiguous message that X is not something the student is willing to do, or that Y has made him/her angry.  Students, and others, who attempt to manipulate others by being passive use a constellation of behaviors to confuse, control, or punish other people without being overtly aggressive or confrontational.

These passive but aggressive behaviors can be grouped into some common categories.

Subtle insults or digs:
Katie was using this strategy to let the teacher know what she thinks of the work the teacher has planned.  Starting the statement with “no offense, but” is a clear signal that what follows is meant to be offensive.  She then says that “a whole lot of people” to try to put numbers on her side, to imply that she is the only one honest enough to let you know what “everyone” is thinking.  Katie ends with “just saying”.  This phrase seems to be a way of saying that the speaker is supposed to be absolved of any insult, slight, or hurt that is the result of  what s/he just said.

Slow to respond or does not comply:
Michael used this tactic to express his feelings about the math warm-up exercise or about being made to stop doing what he was doing, a preferred activity.  He does everything he can think of to delay taking out his textbook.  If the teacher were to correct him or attempt to hurry him, he would probably act stricken and hurt that the teacher did not “allow” him to put his things away neatly or to have a pencil with a functioning point.

Another example of a delaying tactic is the student who cannot seem to move a millimeter without asking the teacher for help or to validate what s/he has done.  This is the student who asks 493 questions about an assignment, or who consistently asks the teacher to help him.  Many students who use this tactic have been successful in the past at getting the teacher to do the work for him.  For example, Michael asks the teacher for help with a math problem.  The teacher starts to talk Michael through the problem, but because Michael continues to act confused or frustrated, the teacher winds up saying, “Here, Ill show you” and does the problem for Michael

The silent treatment:
When a student does not respond to what the teacher says to him, he is giving the teacher the silent treatment.  A more frustrating version of this is the student who might roll his eyes, drag his feel, but slowly complies without speaking aloud, however the look on his face let’s the teacher know that, whatever it is, he is doing it under protest.

Students may also signal they are using the silent treatment by saying something, “Whatever” when told to do this or that.  This is saying, in effect, “I’m doing this under protest.”  It also makes sure the teacher, and fellow students know that THAT student is not happy.

Sabotage:
A student who is using sabotage might subtly but deliberately mess up her work, her group’s work, another student’s work, or the teacher’s work in order to avoid working or to let the other person know that she doesn’t approve, or is mad about this or something else.  It is tough sometimes to know what the student is mad about.  Students can deliberately sabotage by consistently leaving homework at home or in their lockers, by consistently “forgetting” to bring necessary supplies (when it is not an economic reason).  Sabotage can be as subtle as trying to get the teacher off on a tangent to avoid having a particular lesson or class  In my experience, high school and middle school students can be masters at this!

Keeping score:
In essence, keeping score is saying “I’ll do this if you do that” or “you did this to me so I am going to do this other thing.”  Students who keep score often will try to persuade the teacher to do this or that because the student has done this or that.  For example, Marcus says, “If I turn in my paper, what will you give me for it?”  or “Because you let me chew gum in class today, I will do what you have asked me to do now” or “You did not allow me to chew gum in class when Henry was chewing gum so I’m not going to comply with what you want.”

This last can happen even when the teacher didn’t know that Henry had gum.  A passive-aggressive student might try to pull the teacher into an argument about Henry chewing gum or the advantages of chewing gum, switching tactics from keeping score to sabotage.

Psychologists tell us that anger is the root cause of all of these behaviors.  The student might be angry at the teacher, at education in general, at his parents, or at the world.  However, for whatever reason, the student has learned that an outright expression of anger is not allowed.

Like many negative student behaviors, there may be very good reasons why the student has learned to act in this particular manner.  We could spend days looking at these reasons or fill a book with examples.  What we really want to know, though, is not its cause but how to cope with it in the classroom.

Here is a method I’ve used:

Step 1
Make sure you have the student’s attention by making eye contact, using the student’s name in a very calm, and business-like tone, or by using proximity.  Doing all three is best.

Step 2
State what you want the student to do.  Do not say what not to do.  Say what you want the student to do.  Use a calm, business-like tone, and use as few words as possible.

For example, do NOT say something like, “Michael, it’s time to take your math book out now, okay?”  or “Michael, it would be really nice if you would join us in doing math, so you need to get your math book out right now.  Please?”  or “MICHAEL!  I told you to get your math book out right now!  Stop playing around and get to it!”

The non-examples use too many words, put the directive in the form of a question, or demonstrate a loss of control by the teacher.  The student hears “okay?” or “please?” as making the behavior optional.  Shouting or becoming angry shows the student that his delaying strategy is working.

Instead say, “Michael, get your math book out now.”

This is clear and concise.  There is no room for misunderstanding.

Step 3
Walk away!  Don’t give in to the impulse to breathe down the student’s neck.  Walk away and give the student 15 to 20 seconds to process the directive and to demonstrate that he is going to comply.

Step 4
If the student is showing ANY sign that he is beginning to comply with what you have told him to do, praise that partial effort.  Say, “Good.  You have taken out the math book.  Now open it to page 93.”  Or say, “You have your math book out.  That’s a good start.”  And walk away again.

If the student has not begun to comply, repeat the first 3 steps and add a choice.  For example, “Michael, you may choose to get out your math book now, or you may choose to do the warm-up exercise during lunch.”

Then walk away!

Walking away means you cannot get sucked into an argument.  You will not “help” the student do something s/he is perfectly capable of doing.  And you are continuing to teach the class with minimal interruption.

Step 5
If the student has even partially complied, use positive feedback:  “Good, you have your book out.  Now turn to page 93.”  If the student has not complied in any way, follow through on the choices.  Use proximity and quietly say, “Michael, you have chosen to do this during lunch.  I will see you here in this room at 11:15.”

And walk away.  Become deaf to the face-saving behaviors the student might show.  These could be making a remark under his breath, or slamming the book on the desk top, or putting his head down and not participating in class at all.  As long as the behavior is only preventing the student from learning the lesson planned for the day, ignore what the student is doing.  You only need to intervene if the student is preventing others from learning or the teacher from teaching.

Using this 5 step strategy means the teacher is not being controlled by the student’s behavior.  The teacher is being authoritative and not being either a doormat or aggressive.

What if you have just realized you use passive-aggressive strategies to get a student to comply?  A teacher’s passive-aggressive behavior can trigger rebellion in some students, making the student into THAT student.  But a teacher has an advantage.  Teachers are grown-ups, and as grown-ups, we are much more capable of recognizing and changing our behavior than children are.  We can choose to adopt behaviors that are assertive, not manipulative.

You now know some of the warning signs of a student using passive-aggressive behaviors.  To get the student to do what you want him/her to do, remember to be direct, say what you want the student to do in clear, simple, positive terms.  If the student does not comply, use the steps above to tell the student what s/he must do to comply.  Don’t forget to praise partial compliance!

Is Seeing Believing?

He’s just lazy.

She just wants attention.

He is sneaky.

She doesn’t care.

We’ve all heard these statements or ones like them.  And they are true, aren’t they?

Well . . . maybe.

Apparently, human minds are wired to be able to speculate about what others are thinking or feeling.  When she was a cognitive neuroscientist at MIT, Rebecca Saxe discovered there is a specific part of the brain that becomes active when we think about how others think and feel (TED Talk, 2015).  Some scientists have hypothesized that the human brain evolved to be able to do this as a survival skill, an essential skill that enabled humans to determine if another was friend or foe.  However, experiments demonstrate that we do not always get it right.

Let’s try our own experiment.

Take a look at this photo of something you might see in your classroom:

What’s going on with this student?

Did you say he’s bored?

Working with pre-service teachers (aka, college students), I found that the majority said this student was bored.  Some said he was tired.  When asked why they said that, the students would say they could tell by the way he was sitting, or the expression on his face.

But do we really know what is going on in this kid’s mind?

When I was a principal, there were teachers who were very frustrated with a student.  “She’s lazy!” they said.  “She’s always daydreaming!”  “When I call on her, I never know if she is going to answer or just stare at me.”  “Sometimes she looks at me like I’m not even there, like she’s boring holes in my with her eyes.”  The teachers complained to me and to the parents.

These parents wondered if something else might be going on.  They took their daughter to the doctor, to a psychologist, and other specialists.  Eventually, they asked to set up a video camera in the classroom.  The camera was rigged so that the students would not know if it was on or off, and the student was filmed over the course of a week.

The result was that this little girl was diagnosed with petit mal seizures.  She wasn’t bored, or daydreaming, or staring holes in the teacher.  Her lack of attention was not something she was doing on purpose.  She had a serious medical issue — one that might not have been discovered if the parents had only relied on the opinion of the teachers.

So let’s look at this photo again.  What is going on with this student?

Well, yes, he could be bored.  He could be tired.  He might have a headache, or have a neck injury, or just being hungry.  He could be frustrated that he  was not called on.  He could be trying to keep up with the lesson even though he doesn’t feel well, or even though he doesn’t understand everything being said.

Would it make a difference in our beliefs about what this student is thinking if we were told he is a second language learner?  If we were told he was moved from one foster home to another in the middle of the night?  If we were told he had an IQ of 140?

The teachers who described the little girl who had the petit mal seizures thought they were accurately relaying information about her.  They were not trying to be malicious or trying to deal with her unfairly.  Sadly, they were labeling what they thought was going on rather than reporting exactly what they were seeing and hearing.

Back when I worked in juvenile corrections, I was trained to report only what was observable and measurable.  This was a difficult thing to learn to do, but it was essential to how this particular institution dealt with the students/inmates.  Why?  Well, because we really do not know what is going on inside another person’s mind.  We may pride ourselves on our ability to read body language or to spot “tells”, but we don’t always get it right.

On top of the chance at being inaccurate and unfair, when we use terms like “lazy”, “unmotivated”, “day-dreaming”, or “bored”, we are demonstrating that we have formed an opinion about the motives of the student, and that reveals the opinion we have formed about him or her.

In a previous post, I discussed how we form opinions of students that become self-fulfilling prophesies.  We develop an opinion about how capable the student is and then we treat her a little bit differently based on those beliefs.  We might call on her less if we think she is not as capable of answering a question.  We smile less at those students we believe are less capable, and we talk to them differently.  In short, we create a very different socio-emotional climate in the classroom for the students we believe are “good” or “better” than we do for those we believe are “less capable” or “naughty”.

However, if we are not always accurate about what we think is happening with a student, is that opinion fair?

Probably not.

The fact is we cannot see what is going on inside a student’s head.  The expressions and body language for many feelings and emotions are quite similar.

Perception is reality.
If you are perceived to be something, you might as well be it
because that’s the truth in people’s minds.
Steve Young

This phenomenon is something linguists have been exploring since the 1930s:  The words we use and how we label things shapes our thinking about those things.

Adults are usually better at masking what they are thinking than children are.  Adults have usually learned to pretend to pay attention, to be engaged, even when their brains are actually planning a grocery list, thinking that the speaker’s hairstyle is unflattering, or when thinking about how happy they will be so see their significant other later in the day.  But children do not have that skill, and while many will learn it as they enter adolescence, not everyone does.  Human brains do not reach full maturity until age 25 or so.

So what is the take-away?  If we have become frustrated with THAT student, we might find ourselves labeling what THAT student is doing as being something negative when it really might not be.  That negative opinion will have an effect on how we treat him or her, and how we treat THAT student effectives his or her behavior until s/he lives up or down to our opinion of him or her – if we believe s/he is a trouble-maker, s/he will become a trouble-maker even if s/he wasn’t beforehand.

Yes, humans are wired to make assumptions about others based on what we see, but we must remember, sometimes we get it wrong.

If we really want to turn THAT student around, we have to train ourselves to report on just what we see and hear, what is observable and measurable.

One has not only an ability to perceive the world but an ability to alter one’s perception of it; more simply, one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them.
Tom Robbins

 

We will look at some other uses for using observable and measurable terms in another post.

 

Watching Our Language

You’ve told THAT student to sit down 943 times this morning and you may just lose your mind if you have to tell him to sit down one more time!  You already know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is one definition for insanity – and THAT student has pushed you right up to the edge of sanity!

My godmother used to say, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to.”  I always thought it was just a funny saying until I came to analyze my teaching strategies.

The majority of teachers in K-12 are female.  Let’s face it:  girls are raised differently than boys, and that means their language is different.  No, I don’t mean men speak Martian and women speak Venusian as a popular book in the 80s would say.  Both men and women speak English, or Spanish, or French, or whatever.  But the way we use language is different.

There are many studies and articles that show that women tend to speak more “cooperatively” whereas men tend to use more commanding language.  Both styles of language have their strengths and both have their weaknesses.

Weakness in this case has to do with how the listener hears what the other person is saying.  It is not a condemnation of the way women speak or the way men speak.  That more cooperative speaking style is very useful in some situations.  A more commanding styles is useful in other situations.  The reverse is also true:  either style can be perceived very differently than the way the speaker means the listener to hear.

So why is this something to think about when we’re reading this because we are trying to find a way to keep our cool when THAT student it pushing our buttons?  Well, we express what we want students to do using language.  In fact, it is the only real tool we have in the classroom.  Teachers explain, ask questions, and tell students what to do and when.  How we use language, how we phrase a directive is often received by the listener in ways that we do not intend.

One of the things that females are often raised to do is to up a rising inflection at the end of our statements.  In English, that rising inflection changes any statement into a question.  .

Look at these sentences.  If possible, read them aloud.

  •  Sit down!
  •  Sit down?
  • Time for lunch!
  • Time for lunch?

You probably read these with a bit different inflection.  The way you said the ones with the question mark was a little bit different than the way you said the ones without.  That difference is that probably you gave the questions a rising inflection.

Listeners respond differently when they are asked a question than when they are told something.  Take the “Time for lunch” statement.  If we give that a falling inflection, it means we are saying it is definitely time for lunch.  If it is said with a rising inflection it means we are asking if it is time for lunch.  We aren’t certain, and the response could be “Yes, it is time for lunch” or “No, it is not time for lunch.”

Really, whenever we ask a question, there are essentially two answers:  yes. Or no.

Let’s take this back into the classroom.  If we say “Sit down” with that rising inflection, we’ve just asked the student a question instead of giving him or her a directive.  Because it is a question, the student can answer “yes” by sitting down, or s/he can answer “no” by continuing to stand up or walk around.

The problem is we want students to do what we’ve just told them to do.  Making that directive into a question allows the student to choose to do it or to not do it.

Another way we have been conditioned to be polite is by ending directives with “okay?”  It might sound like this:  “Boys and girls, put your books away now, okay?”

We think we are being polite or asking if the listener understands the directive.  What the listener hears is a question, and a question can be answered “yes” or “no”.

We don’t really want students to think of our directives as optional, as being something they can choose to do or choose not to do.  What we really want is for students to do what they are told.  And doing what the teacher tells them to do is one of the things with which THAT student has difficulty.

Some people might think, “If I stop saying okay, and if I stop using rising inflection, the students will think I’m being mean and rebel!”  We don’t have to give directives in a mean tone.  We can change the inflection and still be polite.

It is possible to make statements sound mean just as there is a way to make statements sound like questions.  Let’s take a closer look at how we make statements sound different in different situations.

Try this experiment.  You are going to say two words in some different ways.  (Okay, you can say these in your head if you are reading this where others would see or hear you.)   The two words you will say are “Now Aaron”.

  • The teacher is angry because the student hasn’t done what s/he was told to do, and she says, “Now, Aaron”.
  • The teacher is telling the students which one can line up right now, and he says, “Now, Aaron.”
  • The student has told the teacher a tall tale and the teacher doesn’t really believe what the student has said. The teacher says, “Now, Aaron . . .”
  • The student has told a joke and the teacher is laughing and says, “Now, Aaron.”
  • The teacher is introducing the student who will give the next speech during an assembly, and he says, “Now, Aaron.”
  • The teacher has just brought the class back from a break where students were supposed to have used the bathroom. The student walks up to the teacher and asks if he can use the bathroom right now.  The teacher says, “Now, Aaron?”

The words we use (in English) are the same in each of the scenarios, but the sound of our voices saying those same two words is different.  That was six different ways we use inflection in our voices to get our message across.  It is likely someone could come up with other ways to say those two words that would give them even more shades of meaning.

In the classroom, we want students to do what we’ve told them to do, and barring any misunderstandings the student might have, we expect students to do what we are when we ask it.

Whoops!  Ask?  Remember, if we ask something we have to be prepared for a positive response or a negative response.  So if we ask students to sit down (“Aaron, will you please sit down?”) the student could respond by sitting down – a positive response — or by remaining standing which would be a negative response.

If we were to use a polite, authoritative, but firm tone without the rising inflection at the end, then the student hears that they are supposed to do X.  Period.

This means we are putting our voices into neutral.  We are not using either the cooperative style or the commanding style.  If we are in neutral, we are not asking students for their cooperation, nor are we trying to force it.

A bit more about the word “okay”:  You may want to try recording yourself when teaching or ask a colleague to come in and observe you.  Either way, what you want to check for is how often you use the word “okay”.  In all seriousness, I’ve listened to many, many teachers who might say “okay?” 20 times in 5 minutes!

The next thing to think about in our use of language also has to do with how we ask students to do something.

Let’s remember THAT student doesn’t especially like teachers.  S/he may have had a rocky relationship with all of his/her teachers since kindergarten.  S/he may just not like you, especially if the two of you have butted heads already this school year.  So what do you think might go on in his/her head if s/he hears the teacher say, “I want you to sit down now” or “I need you to sit down now” or “I would like you to sit down now”?

Phrasing directives in terms of “I want”, “I need”, or “I would like” could be considered a more cooperative style of giving a directive because the speaker is asking the listener to make a choice about whether or not to fulfill the speaker’s wants, needs, or likes.

Yes, there are those who say that “I statements” are the best way to phrase a statement, however that works best if the other person actually cares or is concerned with the speaker’s wants, needs, or feelings.  They are much less effective when the listener does not care if the speaker has a positive outcome.

But, let’s face it, THAT student doesn’t really care what the teacher wants or needs.  So it is worth the effort to change what we are saying to THAT student.

The same is true when we phrase things in terms of the student’s needs.  An example of this would be the teacher saying, “Aaron, you need to sit down now.”  If you think about it, does Aaron really think he needs to sit down?  If he is up and about, the answer is probably not.  It is likely that being up and out of his seat is what he thinks he needs right now.

The solution is to put our language in neutral.  Try rephrasing these kinds of statements to:

Sit down.
Aaron, sit down.

The difference is subtle yet the rephrased comments carry a very different connotation.

Of course, it is also important to make sure how we say things is neutral.  Saying “Sit down” with a rising inflection is not perceived well, and neither is saying it in an authoritarian way.

It is not always easy to change our language habits.  You may want to create a reminder system for yourself.  When I wanted to change something I was doing in the classroom, and I didn’t want the students to know or help me with the change, I would create a set of symbols that were designed to remind me of the change I wanted to make.   I would cut them out and tape them in places where I would likely look regularly.  For example, I would tape them to the lesson plan book, the student desk I used to prop up my copy of the textbook, by the door, etc.  I would see those little symbols and it would remind me to make the change I was trying to make.  In this care, these two signs would help me remember to not say “I” or “you” and to put my language in neutral.

Neutral Emoji:  Posting symbols can help us remember to make changes to our language.
No I: Use this reminder to avoid saying “I need” or “I want”

Changing the way you use language will not change THAT student’s behavior instantly, however it is a step towards being able to work with THAT student calmly and in a way where THAT student is more likely to do what you really want him/her to do:  be a productive member of the class.

Calling on Students and Making Groups: Tips You Can Use Monday

In the last few posts we looked at some of the reasons why THAT student may have become THAT student.  The main idea was to look for positive things about THAT student, and that would shift your focus a little bit.

Today we will look at a couple of management ideas.  Remember, classroom management is not discipline.  Management is how the classroom is run.  Discipline is about what we do when a student steps out of line.

One thing that happens when we have THAT student in class is we start to call on students to answer questions a little bit differently.  First, we tend to call on students we think are most able to answer the particular kind of question we are asking.  If we subconsciously think Aaron is more capable, we call on him to answer questions that take higher levels of thinking.  If we subconsciously think Leia is less capable, we call on her to answer questions that have yes or no answers, or questions that involved low level thinking skills.

One of Roe’s Rules is about hand-raising.  Here it is:  There are two kinds of students who raise their hands to answer a question.  One is the student who actually knows the answer.  The other is the kid that wants to look like s/he knows the answer.  That’s the one who always answers, “I forgot”, when we call on him/her.  There are also two kinds of students who do not raise their hands.  One is the student who is praying, “Oh, please don’t call on me!”  The other is either day-dreaming or thinking, “Yeah, I know the answer but I’m not going to tell that !@#$% teacher what it is.”

I got to thinking about who does and who does not raise their hand, and about how we educators subconsciously direct particular kinds of questions to students who we think are capable of answering them.  I wondered how I could get every student to participate in answering questions without my subconscious running the show.  The solution was Roe’s Card Trick.

Here is how it works:  Write each student’s name on a 3×5 card.  (Or you can buy half size cards.  I liked the half size ones but I used to cut my cards myself.  I liked the half sized ones because they fit into the too small pockets manufacturers put into women’s pants.)  You now have a deck of X number of cards.  You can use this stack to call on students.  You ask a question, look at the name on the top of the deck of names, and then put that card on the bottom of the stack.

That’s where I discovered a flaw.  I discovered that once I had called on Aaron and put his name at the bottom of the stack, Aaron figured he will not be called on again until every other student in the class was called on.  That gave Aaron “permission” to start doing everything except pay attention to what was going on in class.

The solution was to have a second deck of cards with the students’ names.  Now you have a larger deck of cards and every student’s name is in the deck twice.  Students don’t know if their name is going to be first and fourth or tenth and twentieth.

Here is the procedure I taught the students.

  • Do not raise your hands to answer questions. I will call on you using this deck of cards.  Each student’s name is in the deck twice.
  • I will shuffle the deck regularly so we don’t know where your name will come up. You will have to pay attention to be able to answer a question when I call on you because you won’t know when the cards will turn up your name.  Because your name is in the deck twice, I could call on you right now and you don’t know if your name will be next again, or if it will come up again 15 names from now.
  • Now you may be thinking, what if I don’t know the answer? That’s not a problem.  If you don’t know the answer after a few seconds, I’ll put the card back into the deck more into the middle.  That means you’ll probably get called on again soon.  But it also means that nothing bad happens if you don’t know the answer.
  • Let’s try it out. Here is the question:  How do you get a turn to answer questions?  (Look at the cards and call on the student whose name is on top.)  Leia?  Yes, that’s right.  I will call on students using the cards.  Next question is this:  . . .

With a little practice, students got the idea.  They liked that it wasn’t real high stakes to get called on to answer a question because they could pass without a penalty – and in the first couple of weeks that I used them, I would make sure it was not the least bit high stakes by making sure my face was in neutral if a student didn’t know the answer.  We both liked that things moved along faster because I was not waiting to see who raised their hands.

Sometimes I would put my name into the deck, or I would answer questions if I turned up the name of a student who was absent.  The students got a kick out of me having to answer questions, especially if I pretended to be a student when answering.  (All those years in drama club helped a lot!)

I know some teachers use popsicle sticks to call on students.  That can be okay, but there are some drawbacks to using those.  First, usually each student’s name is in the can only once so if the student is called on, he knows he probably won’t be called on again.  Second, it is difficult to carry the popsicle sticks around, so they really work best when the teacher isn’t mobile.  When you use the cards, you can slip them in your pocket as you walk around the room.  The third thing is that some teachers make a production out of stirring the sticks, and selecting one.  This means that the lesson doesn’t flow along as quickly.  (THAT student often has difficulty with the time gap between when a question or directive is given and when it is executed.)

As time went on, I discovered another use for the cards.

I used a lot of small groups when I taught elementary and middle school.  One of the complaints I got regularly was from students who felt they were being burdened with being put into a group with THAT student.  I know a lot of education gurus recommend putting students into groups for the long term.  I tried that, but found that whatever group THAT student was in was the one that had the most problems and the most complaints.  I tried several different ideas when the idea struck me:  use the cards!  (Right now I’m thinking “Use the cards, Luke” in Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice.)

I changed the cards a little bit.  I used two different colors of cards.  Let’s say one set of cards is yellow.  Each has a student’s name on it.  The other set of cards is green and each has a student’s name on it as well.  Shuffled together they look pretty colorful and can be used as described above.  But when it is time to divide students into groups, the teacher can separate out one color of card, and then deal those out into however many groups s/he wants.  The students see that the group members are being selected randomly and they feel less targeted.  And because the groups are changed with every group project, they know whomever else is in the group, it is a temporary grouping.

The routine went like this:

  • Class, in just a minute I’m going to put you into groups to ___ (whatever the task is going to be).
  • You will need to have a pencil, your notebook, your textbook. While you are getting those out, I am going to shuffle the cards.  (I’d quickly separate out the colors of cards and deal the cards out.)
  • Are you ready? Okay, do NOT move until I’ve said all the names.  When you hear which group you are in, hold up that number of fingers to you don’t forget.
  • Group one is . . . . and you will sit here. Group two is . . . and you will sit here.  (Etc.)
  • Do you know what group you are in?   You may go to your group’s area now.

I found it was useful to use some humor when looking at who wound up in which group.  For example, I had two young men in a seventh grade science class who had been best friends since they were born.  They had a bit of a problem being in a group together because they would talk about off topic subjects.  So if their names came up in the same group, I’d dramatically act like that was the worst thing ever and raise my eyebrow at one or the other.  They’d laugh and I’d continue with the melodrama and say something like, “Well, if you are sure you can manage to work together . . . “  They’d laugh some more and we’d move on.

I would usually deal out the cards for the group very quickly, and then scoop them up and reshuffle them quickly as well.  That was so the students didn’t get into the habit of looking at the names I’d dealt.  Why?  Well, besides the fact that I wanted the students to listen the first time, I have a little confession:  I didn’t always tell the truth about whose name was in which group.  If two students were likely to attempt to kill each other if they were in the same group, I’d quickly change one of the names out of that group and into another.  The students were none the wiser.  I’d show them the names just often enough that they thought I was always being honest.

Okay, I have a second confession:  I wasn’t always honest about whose name I called when asking questions either.  But I was pretty careful about this.  I only skipped over students if I thought someone was having a very, very bad day.  I don’t mean like they had an argument with a friend kind of bad day.  I mean the “he didn’t get any sleep last night because his parents were too drunk and too loud” kind of day.

I’ve used Roe’s Card Trick with elementary, middle, high school, college, and teachers.  Out of the four groups, the one group that had the most difficulty with it was the college students.  They would often pause too long before trying to answer, or would ask me to repeat the question.  The latter was often because they had gotten into the habit of not paying attention to questions.  I think this is because college students have already had 13 years of K-12 education where students were called on by raising hands, and because college students are often multi-tasking during class.  (I can’t tell you the number of times I observed students writing papers for another class or messaging others on their laptops.)

What this illustrates is that if you introduce your own “Card Trick” to use with your class after the school year has begun, you will need to allow students a little bit of time to practice the procedure before it becomes an established routine.

If you want to make absolutely sure that you are not subconsciously directing only certain kinds of questions to certain kinds of students, and that you are being completely fair in creating groups, use the Card Trick.  It honestly works great!

 

The plan for next week is to look at my godmother’s statement of “Never ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to”.

 

The OTHER Relationship to Nurture

I usually post on Sundays, but I just read an essay by a parent that triggers this response:

We all know relationships are a very important part of being a teacher.  Who hasn’t heard the saying that kids won’t care about learning unless they know you care about them?  In the last two posts, I’ve encouraged you to try to find something THAT student does that is positive.  Looking for the positives in a student can change our whole perspective!

There is another person (or persons) with whom we need to establish a positive relationship:  the parent.  If you are like many teachers, you read that line and rolled your eyes.  After all, if THAT student had parents who cared, would s/he be such a challenge?

Let me share a little story about me.  I have a son.  When he was a child, he was very challenging, both at home and at school.  From what I head from teachers, A was rude, defiant, lazy, distracted, and he did not turn in homework.  I used to feel sick when it was time for parent-teacher conferences.  I wouldn’t sleep the night before.  I knew I would hear a litany of negative things about the little boy I loved.

To make matters worse, I was an educator, for goodness sake!  I knew what was expected of a child in school.  I knew how to get 30+ kids in a single room to behave and how to instill a sense of self-discipline.  What A’s teachers did not seem to know was that every day I did all of the things that I knew were supposed to work, all of the things I had suggested to parents during a parent-teacher conference myself.  I never found a particularly good way to tell the teachers that A had an assigned homework time, that if he didn’t bring his homework home, he would be assigned homework by me.  He had a bedtime that was enforced.  He was encouraged to read and explore his interests.  He was forced to practice his saxophone daily.  We played chess.  He did chores.  He was disciplined when he make a poor behavior choice.  Screen time was limited.  We did things together.  In short, we did all of the things one would expect a parent of a “good” kid to do.  And if I did manage to tell the teacher these things, it was always clear that s/he didn’t believe me.

As I would listen to teachers tell me things like, “He’s smart but . . .”, I would cringe inside.  As the teacher began to speak in a more and more patronizing tones, I would take a firm grip on my anger with both hands.  I would feel furious and guilty at the same time.  At school functions I felt like teachers were whispering among themselves, “You see her over there?  That’s A’s mom.  Did you know . . .”  After all, I had heard teachers say such things in the school where I taught, so why wouldn’t the same be true at A’s school?  I felt judged and belittled.

(Yes, A is smart.  He earned the second highest ACT score in the state the year he took that exam, but he graduated from high school with a 1.0 grade point average.  He managed to raise his GPA that high the day before graduation by showing the English teacher the novel he was allegedly writing; he’d managed to knock off the first three chapters the night before.)

This repeated for every parent-teacher conference for every year A was in school.  I figure that is about 26 conferences, and that does not count telephone contacts or letters or “mid-term reports” that would usually arrive just about in time for report cards to come out and it does not count the times I was asked to come to the school for a “special” conference.  Is it any wonder that I felt stressed and angry and fearful at the thought of going to conferences or attending school functions?

My son was diagnosed with ADD when he was very young, back when it was called “minimal brain dysfunction.”  I did all of the things the doctors recommended:  medication, changing his diet, using behavior modification strategies.  I would try to talk to teachers each school year about what that kind of diagnosis meant and how I wanted to work with them so that we would be a united team to help A reach his potential.  Each year the teachers would demonstrate that they did not really understand ADD (“He pays attention to the computer well enough!”) and they began to assign the “challenging” label to him, and would talk about his “bad behavior.”

Although I lobbied for my son, and even though I repeatedly requested 504 plans, I was consistently told that he did not qualify.  I heard this even when I was working on my masters and studying education law.  I knew he qualified for many things, but the schools told me he did not and that if I would just do this or that, he would “straighten out.”

I can honestly say that in A’s whole school career I only heard one positive thing about him and that was from the school principal when I was called in to discuss some other infraction.

Why do I tell you all this?  To show that I have a prejudice?  To gain some sympathy?  No.  I tell you this because I have a unique perspective:  I’ve seen students’ behavior from both sides of the desk – from the perspective of a teacher, from the perspective of a parent, and, later, from the perspective of a school principal.

Because of this unique perspective, I learned something:  parents who care deeply about their child’s school success can be alienated from the whole school system.

If you’ve taught for any time at all, you know what it is like to deal with parents who are alienated from the schools.  These are the parents who do not answer emails, who do not return phone calls, and who do not come to school functions.  They are the parents who are hostile when we do catch up to them or who seem to dismiss our suggestions and requests.  They can be the parents we dread to contact because we know they will yell or blame us for whatever the student is doing.  Eventually we start to shake our heads and talk about how so-and-so’s parents let him or her get away with murder and who just don’t care.

Raising A taught me many things.  One thing is that parents do care.  They may not care in the way you would like them to care, but they do care.  They are doing the best they can, and while we educators may not agree with how they deal with school issues, they are trying to raise their child well.

Don’t get me wrong!  It only takes a single trip to WalMart or the grocery store to see parenting styles that any teacher would classify in the fail column!  Nonetheless, parents do care.

So why do so many parents act like they don’t care?  Because of their previous experiences with the school, and their perception of what the “school” thinks of their child.

I tried an experiment when I was still in the classroom.  I was reading on my never ending quest to know more about classroom management and discipline, and I found a suggestion that I contact every student’s parent(s) with something positive about him or her at least once a month.  I was teaching middle school at the time and saw more than 100 students per day.  I wasn’t sure I had enough time to do it, but I gave it a try.  I was overwhelmed by the response.  I heard parents sob on the other end of the phone and tell me they had never once heard anything good about their child from the school.  I had parents tell me that they were surprised that anyone at the school liked their child.  Suddenly I had parents describing me as one of the “good” teachers even though I was strict.  In fact, they would praise my being strict with their child.  The principal called me into her office to tell me that she’d received phone calls about me, positive phone calls.

Why did they react this way?  I think the parents defined it best:  they believed those positive phone calls meant that I liked their child.  Later, if I had occasion to make a call about something negative the student did, they were much more willing to listen and to discuss what we, together, could do about it.

I tried the same tactic when I became a principal.  I could not contact every student’s family every month, but I picked out the kids who had a reputation for being chronic troublemakers.  I watched those kids and made calls about the positive things they did.  The response again was positive.

(You can read a short essay I wrote about this in ASCD Express:  http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol9/905-roe.aspx )

So besides your relationship with the students, there is another relationship for you to nurture:  your relationship with parents.  Yes, there are parents with whom it is very easy to establish that positive relationship.  It is more challenging to contact the “helicopter” parents and still more challenging to work on the relationship with those parents who have a reputation for not caring or for hating the school system  It can be done, and the rewards are enormous.  Every positive contact a teacher makes is like putting money into the bank.  When that day arrives when the teacher has to make that contact about the student’s negative behavior, that “bank account” pays huge dividends!

Don’t forget that not every household has internet access.  It costs money that many families do not have, and it is hard to come by in rural areas.  Email is convenient, but it is not the only way to contact parents.  I learned to love voice mail.  I could make a call, leave a quick message – “Hi, this is Ms. Roe from school.  I just wanted to let you know that . . .”  I came to believe that there was something more personal about using the phone anyway.

Give it a try!  Hopefully, you are already looking for positive things about each of the students, especially THAT student, as suggested in previous posts.  You know some of the reasons we form negative opinions about students and are, hopefully, working on ways to overcome the self-fulfilling prophesy.  Take the next step and start to let parents know about the positive things you’ve noticed about their child.  It is well worth the effort!