By Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller
One of your students sits there doing nothing and five minutes has passed. What do you say?
Later, another student starts a side conversation during quiet reading time. What verbalization would be helpful here?
How are you going to respond when one of your students takes out his cell phone? Do you have an effective verbal skill ready?
The situations above and many others like them happen to teachers every day. More than once. The action you take, the words you use, the attitude you bring to each situation can serve to ignite or extinguish problematic behaviors. The goal here is to handle each incident by redirecting the student behavior with the least amount of action and number of words necessary. Becoming confrontational and using too much power, too strongly, too early is tantamount to pouring gasoline on the fire. Here, less is better.
Following are several strategies available to educators as they attempt to redirect behavior. They are arranged from low-level interventions to strategies that require more words and increased action.
1. Do nothing. Don't feed the behavior and maybe it will go away. Ignore it and see if it ends quickly by itself. Sometimes it does. If not, move on down the list.
2. Make eye contact. Yes, we are suggesting that you simply look at the student. When you engage their eyes with a serious look on your face they know that you see they are not in their seat, haven't got their book out, or don't have a pencil. Sometimes words aren't necessary. Why waste them?
3. Add a nonverbal gesture to your look. A tiny finger wave or a point in the direction of their seat is often enough to get the student to choose a more helpful behavior. Gesture as if you are opening a book, or place your forefinger across your lips to simulate a shhh sound. Make a circular movement with your forefinger to suggest "Time to get going."
4. Move forward. Take a step toward them. Often students will end the behavior if they think you are on the move in their direction.
5. A closer proximity may be necessary. Get close enough to them so they can hear a private message. Add words to your physical presence. "Please make a different choice" often works. So does the "Feel free to . . ." or "Save it for . . ." technique.
"Edmundo and Robert, that's probably an interesting conversation. Please save it until after class. Right now I need you to be working on your project. Thank you."
"Arwa, feel free to sleep when you get home. Now is the time to practice translating on page 45. Thank you."
Notice that the words “thank you” follow these verbalizations. Thanking them in advance sends a clear message to students that you expect they will comply.
6. Beware of questions to which you already know the answer. They smack of sarcasm and add fuel to the student's fire.
"Do you know where your seat is?"
"Didn’t I just tell you this?"
"Do I have to tell you this again?"
"Are you on the wrong page?"
"Do you know who you’re talking to?"
"Are you out of your seat again?"
7. Refrain from asking questions that belittle. You'll get an answer that sounds like disrespect. Actually, you were the one who started it.
"Aren't you ever going to learn this?"
"Why do you always have to do that?"
"How many times do I have to tell you?"
"So is this what I can count on you doing today?"
"Who are you going to pick on next?"
"Just how long can I expect you to misbehave?"
"Do you think I'm stupid?"
8. Issuing a challenge invites a power struggle.
"Just try it and see what happens."
"Go on. Push my buttons one more time."
"Do you want to find out what happens next?"
"Just keep doing it."
"I'm not going to put up with much more."
9. Ask questions that move the student toward redirection.
"What should you be doing?"
"Is this helping or hurting you?"
"What Responsible Action Statement (class norm) could you be using right now?"
"Is that going to get you ahead or behind?"
"What's the procedure if you don't have a pencil?"
10. Ask closed-ended questions that allow for limited choice.
"Is this against our norms, yes or no?"
"Would making a different choice be helpful or unhelpful?"
"Is that going to help you reach your goal, yes or no?"
"This is what I heard. Is it going to continue, yes or no?"
"Just because I like you, do you think I'm going to let you continue it, yes or no?"
11. Use "I" statements.
"I need you in your seat" garners less resistance than "You need to get in your seat."
"You need to quiet down" is not received as positively as "I need to have it less noisy in here so all of you can concentrate."
"I would like it if you'd raise your hand and wait to be called on" is less confrontational than "You need to raise your hand if you want to be called on."
The eleven nonverbal and verbal skill suggestions listed above could help you eliminate many of the misbehaviors students create during a normal day. They will allow you and the student to return more quickly to the important business of education. Use them to your advantage to keep misbehaviors from escalating into major power struggles.
Chick Moorman and Thomas Haller are the coauthors of The Teacher Talk Advantage: Five Voices of Effective Teaching. They are two of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. They publish a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for their newsletters or learn more about the seminars they offer teachers and parents, visit their websites today: www.chickmoorman.com and www.thomashaller.com.