Saturday, May 26, 2012

Interpersonal Communication in the Classroom: How to Talk so that Your Difficult to Handle Student Listens

On this month’s blog, I share some “tricks of the trade” in interpersonal communication so that teachers and school staff can improve efficiency in managing students that are difficult to handle and/or noncompliant.

1. Remain Calm

When addressing misbehavior, lower your voice and speak slower. Loud (angry) messages are lost beneath all the noise and harsh words that accompany them. Project self-confidence and deliver your message using a business-like tone.

2. Stay in the Present

Do not dwell on past behavior, or something that happened weeks earlier. Correct only behavior that is happening here and now.

3. Own Your Message

Change “You-messages” to “I-messages.” For example, instead of saying, “You are such a potty mouth!” say, “I feel uneasy because I do not like being cursed.” Do not take the child’s behavior personally.

4. Challenge the Child

When you address misbehavior, keep it simple but keep it challenging. The simplest and most challenging message that we can deliver to a child with recurrent behavior problems is,Connect with the best in you.” Focus the child on her best qualities and in how those qualities can help in strengthening weaker performance.

5. Accentuate and Transfer Positive Behavior

Build on what the child is doing well already, concentrating in spreading out positive behavior to weaker areas of performance. Simply put, let the child know that “If you can do it here, you can do it there.”

6. Use Temporal Language

Use language that communicates your expectation that the negative behavior is going to change; it is just a matter of when (time). For example, you would say, “In the next few days, when you are no longer feeling angry about this…”

7. “Close” the Negative Behavior

On the other hand, talk about negative behaviors as if they were something from a distant past, even when the misbehavior happened just five minutes earlier. Always talk about negative behaviors using the past tense of verbs.

8. “Open” the Child to the Possibility of Better Behavior

At the same time that you are talking about the misbehavior as something from the past, use verbs in the future tense to build positive expectations and to “open” the child’s mind (make the child receptive) to those positive expectations. Now, you will be talking about how things are going to be (how the behavior is going to improve) sometime in the future. However, do not specify when; keep the “change” unstated and indefinite, so that it happens when the child feels ready for it.

9. Always Separate the Actor (Child) from the Action (Behavior)

Make sure that the child knows that although he does his behavior, he is not his behavior. To make this distinction clear to the child, you can replace messages that label the child’s character (e.g., “You are cruel”) with messages that label actions (e.g., “You are acting in a cruel way.”) Simply put, label the behavior, not the student.

10. Talk About Specific Actions

Use language that is specific to the behavior, or behavior specific language.  Behavior specific language describes what you see, hear, and can touch, staying away from inferences, interpretations, and judgments. You can start a discussion about a particular behavior saying something like, “Let us talk about the way you are handling this situation with Eric.”

11. Focus on the Child’s Goal, Not on Yours

Your messages to the child should be more about “Be the best you can be” (the child’s goal), and less about “Be the way I want you to be” (your goal).

12. Focus the Child on the Goal of Self-Discipline

Discipline is more effective and long lasting when it is comes from within (self-discipline), rather than being imposed by an external source such as a teacher or a parent. Help the child identify a long-term goal, and then, break it down into easier and manageable steps (short-term goals), so that the child experiences gradual success. Remember that nothing builds success like success; with the long-term goal in mind, strive for self-discipline.

13. Give Choices to the Child

Ensure that the child takes responsibility for the behavior choices she is making. The child needs to understand both that her behavior is her choice, and that choices have consequences, and these consequences can be either positive or negative. Once the child sees her behavior as her choice, you can start building a lesson for life: “Because I am the one responsible for the choices I make, the only person responsible for the things I do is myself.”
Related book: All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior. To preview this book on Amazon, click here.

A Call to All Teachers:

Proudly announcing our new group for educators worldwide, “We Teach the World.” Our aim is to connect teachers and related school personnel all over the world, so that we can share much-needed ideas, strategies, and lesson plans as well as all kinds of resources in classroom management and in student discipline. Coordinating our effort worldwide, we can tell each other where to find important resources and information. If you administer a teaching blog or have created educational resources to facilitate our job, you are welcome to share them here. As long as they contribute to education, we want to know of your business. Teachers with questions, post them here; mentors and seasoned teachers, your valuable experience and unique perspective matter to us, so make your voices heard. Because isolated, we teachers are imaginative, resourceful and resilient, but connected, connected we are imaginative, resourceful, resilient AND powerful. To join us, click on, “We Teach the World.”


  1. Many of these ideas are very wise. You sound like you have a lot of experience with the emotional differences of kids with labels. What you are trying to do is not be a part of the problem. Many teachers don't get that. It is all about punishing behaviors. I know I didn't before I had a child who learned differently.

  2. superb child psychology. I wish; I learn many more things from your experience and you. Being in the same profession I will definitely try to imbibe your ideology about human tendencies and behavior. I really appreciate your ideas and teachings. Thanks and will require your guidance in future too.