Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Improving Children's Compliance- Part 1: Kinds of Commands
In the classroom, the three most common types of commands that teachers give are the initiating command, the terminating command, and the mixed command. With an initiating command, we start behavior; with the terminating command, we end behavior. A mixed command, on the other hand, includes elements of both an initiating and a terminating command. I like to call this third kind of command the “stop… and…” command, because it generally resembles that sentence pattern. “Rebecca and Frankie, distribute the protractors and graph paper” and “When we get to the library make sure that you sit within your reading group” are examples of initiating commands. Examples of terminating and mixed commands follow.
· Hector, you and Ryan stop talking!
· Camille, stop daydreaming!
· Gregory, stop pushing in line!
· William, stop wasting time!
· Hector, you and Ryan stop talking and get back to work!
· Camille, stop daydreaming and pay attention!
· Gregory, stop pushing and get back in line!
· William, stop wasting time and finish your work!
Notice how each terminating and mixed command end with an exclamation mark. This is so because, in spoken language, to communicate our intention (what we want), teachers generally accentuate the last two kinds of commands by either speaking louder, faster, and/or both. This is known as the intention of the communication in linguistic theory. Simply put, with both the terminating and the mixed command our objective or communicative intention is not only to get the child’s compliance, but also to get the child’s compliance fast. By experience, we all know that although we may succeed in achieving our communicative intention (getting the child to comply quickly), chances are that compliance with that particular command will not only be fast but also short-lived. That is, the child or children may comply for one minute or two, and then, they happily go back to what they were doing originally.
A second factor that we need to take into account is the fact that, when we deliver a directive with a louder and/or a faster tone of voice, we sound angrier than when we deliver the directive using a neutral and business-like tone of voice. Perception is reality, when we sound angry (even if we are not feeling that way), we may get a counter-reaction from the part of the child, especially if the child exhibits habitually disruptive behaviors and/or oppositional behaviors. Because they sense anger, our terminating and mixed commands mostly trigger resentment and resistance in these children. A combination of resentment with resistance is a well-known recipe for children’s noncompliance, which is why terminating and/or mixed commands have the well-deserved reputation of reducing compliance, that is, at the end, they accomplish the opposite of what we wanted to accomplish.
A third key factor in influencing compliance is that both the terminating command and the mixed command focus on misbehavior, or what we believe students are doing wrong, instead of narrowing on those things that we like and appreciate about them, or what children do well. A familiar principle in child discipline and compliance is that, by bringing attention to misbehavior, we reinforce misbehavior with our attention. Following this principle in child discipline, teachers can improve the overall classroom atmosphere and get better compliance by simply keeping students focused in their strengths, positive behaviors, and best qualities while either minimizing or ignoring negative behaviors. On my free article, “Child Behavior: Winning Compliance Using the Language of Praise and Encouragement,” you get detailed guidelines. To read this article, just click here.
A common attribute of mixed commands is the fact that they always contain two or more directives in the same statement, most specifically, one directive that intends to terminate behavior, and a second directive that intends to start a new behavior. This by itself may represent a problem to a very young child, to children with weak receptive skills (weak listening skills), and to children with poor attention. Sometimes, the demarcation line between what the child needs to stop doing and what he or she needs to start doing is even less clear; that may happen when we deliver directives at the same time that we are lecturing or reprimanding the child. In child discipline literature, a command with excessive verbalization and unclear directives is known as a beta command, a kind of command with the infamous reputation of having a very low compliance ratio. In contrast, its stronger and wiser twin, the alpha command contains no extra verbalization and includes only one task to do for each command. On my next month posting, “Improving Children’s Compliance- Part 2: Mastering the Alpha Command,” I compare and contrast these two kinds of commands and give guidelines on how to deliver alpha commands. In the meantime, here is a quick checklist in how to deliver commands that are more effective:
ü Use more “start” or initiating commands and less “stop” or terminating commands. Try to keep a ratio of 5:1, or five initiating commands for each ending command.
ü Make sure that you tell the child what you want him or her to do (e.g., “Please raise your hand to talk”) instead of what you do not want the child to do (e.g., “Stop calling out!”).
ü When deliver your command, say the child’s name and make eye contact with the child.
ü Do not deliver the command at a distance, instead, come closer to the child’s desk and talk to the child in close proximity.
ü Regulate your voice volume, lowering your voice instead of raising the voice.
ü Make sure to include only one directive (task) in each command. Use the one-sentence rule, that is, deliver your command in only one sentence or one phrase. Anything more than that is extra verbalization that neither the child nor you need.
ü Do not repeat the same command in the same way. An easy command-giving technique is to state the command, wait ten seconds for compliance, and then if necessary, say, “You need to ___ (state the directive). If not, you will _____ (state an unwanted consequence).” For example, you would say, “You need to return to your desk. If not, you will lose five minutes of computer time.” Then, count down from ten-to-one (or five-to-one), to give the child a few seconds to comply. If the child still does not comply, enforce the unwanted consequence.
Finally, let us change our terminating commands into more effective initiating commands. With practice, this becomes easier and easier to do. For example:
Ø Terminating Command: Hector, you and Ryan stop talking!
Ø Initiating Command: Hector, you and Ryan sit with your reading group.
Ø Terminating Command: Camille, stop daydreaming!
Ø Initiating Command: Camille, open your math workbook on page 184.
Ø Terminating Command: Gregory, stop pushing in line!
Ø Initiating Command: Gregory, you need to keep an arm’s length distance in the line.
Ø Terminating Command: William, stop wasting time!
Ø Initiating Command: William, pair up with your math partner.
All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior
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