As any teacher or parent can tell you, trying to control children, or demanding compliance, is an exercise in futility. Children can be persuaded, enticed, rewarded or even bribed but rarely can they be controlled. After facing several situations this month where I struggled with defiant behaviors at school, I decided to brainstorm a list of strategies teachers can use to convince students to do what we expect them to do without getting into a battle of wills.
Build relationships. Students crave relationships with us. Without a relationship, they won’t want to please us. Without a relationship, they won’t trust us. Get to know your students by having personal conversations about their interests. Check in with them daily to find out how they’re feeling about school. Create strong bonds and let them know you care. Once the relationship is established, convincing them to follow our lead becomes easier.
Add fun to our lesson plans. How can we add a little bit of play to the task we’re doing? Use manipulatives for math, something creative like cotton balls or smelly stickers. Reading to a stuffed animal, working with a partner, turning a mini-lesson into a class game, and incorporating technology all make lessons more lively. Thematic units were popular with students but went by the wayside when the Common Core State Standards were introduced. Brainstorm ways to incorporate a fun theme into a unit while still teaching to the core.
Offer choices. All students are unique and like to learn in different ways. Consider how you can offer choices to activities or assessments. Let’s say you read a book and want to make sure students understand the theme. Give them the options of taking a test with theme-related questions, writing an essay on the theme of the book, or developing a slide presentation they could share with the class. All assess the same skill but allow for more buy-in from the students.
Be empathetic. I’ve worked with several students over the years who have had difficulty communicating their feelings. The irony is that they also really want to be understood, especially when they’re upset. What most often works is approaching them with the goal of gathering information, as opposed to controlling the outcome. When I say things like, “It looks like you’re upset. How can I help you?” or “I can see you don’t want to (blank); what is it that you want to do?” I can figure out what is getting in the way of compliance. Sometimes I discover they need a five minute break, the work is too challenging, or someone hurt their feelings. Taking care of these immediate needs will often get us back on track for learning.
Individualize your expectations. Not all students need to behave the exact same way. Teachers are getting pretty good at differentiating instruction. We now need to work on individualizing our student expectations. Let’s say a student is oppositional and refuses to do their work. We’ve tried the typical strategies like withholding recess and sending the work home, but they’re not effective. The defiance continues. We realize this is the result of a skill deficit because we know how much the student loves recess and how much they dislike homework!
We decide to work on building the lagging skill. Let’s say, in this example, we discover the student has a lack of confidence and is afraid to try challenging tasks. We begin to teach them that trying hard things is how we make our brains grow, but we know learning this concept is going to take some time. In the meantime, we can help them set a goal of getting started with work and continuing for five minutes. Often teachers ask, “But how will the other kids respond if Brittany only has to work for five minutes?” This can be tricky. The best way I know to approach this is to have a class discussion about fair not being equal. “Some of you need help with math. Some need help with reading. Some need help making friends, and some need help getting started with work. My job is to help each one of you grow.”
The more differentiated instruction is part of our everyday instruction, the easier it will be for kids to accept it. The workshop model is a great way to support this type of learning.
Shake it up. When students are experiencing stuck thinking, shake it up to get them unstuck. Say something funny. Surprise them. Shift gears to get them to move on. My significant other and I were on an airplane a few months ago. We were flying out of Orlando and sat behind a family who had spent the week in Disneyland. They were tired – mom, dad and the two young children. There was a lot of whining and fussing going on after the plane landed. In a very effective attempt to give the parents some relief, my significant other, Kirk, said loudly, “Geva, did you see the big giraffe outside the window?” The crying and fussing immediately stopped and the little guy whipped around to look out the window. Kirk flipped the child’s switch. He forgot what he was whining about and focused his attention on something else. I’m not suggesting you lie to children; Kirk quickly followed it up by saying he must have been mistaken. It did, however, give the parents some time to gather their belongings and get everyone off the plane calmly and quietly.
Keep our emotions out of it. Easier said than done, right? It doesn’t need to be. There are two tricks I use to keep myself calm when students are being especially challenging. The first is to remember that they aren’t being defiant to make my life miserable. They’re missing a skill and it’s my job to help them develop it. I certainly wouldn’t get impatient if a student was having difficulty multiplying. There really isn’t a difference. Both defiance and multiplication require me to teach them strategies they haven’t yet acquired. The second trick I use is to picture myself made of teflon. I know, it sounds silly, doesn’t it? It actually works. I picture the defiant words and actions sliding off of me like an over-easy egg sliding out of a teflon pan. I don’t absorb their words and feelings and they can’t stick to me.
Think ahead to the “What will I do if they refuse to comply?” and follow through. Typically we know which students are going to be our biggest challenges and the situations that trigger them. We can prepare in advance of setting the expectation. Logical, natural consequences seem to work best. For example:
- “If you don’t do the work now, you’ll have to try again at recess/choice time/home this evening,” will usually result in a positive outcome.
- “If other people can’t learn because of your behavior, you’ll have to leave the room and go to the office/behavior support room.”
- “We need to come up with a solution and the two of us seem to be out of ideas. We’ll have to call mom or dad to see what kind of suggestions they have for us.”
Setting the expectation, telling them what will happen if they refuse to comply, and walking away is usually the best approach when all other options have proved to be unsuccessful.
Most of these posts are written about a topic that is currently challenging for me. I use the writing as an opportunity to brainstorm ideas. Hopefully the result is the generation of some strategies that may help you as well.