Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Using Assertive Language and 'I' Messages to Tell a Student that His Behavior Bothers Us

On this blog post, we discuss a basic child guidance intervention: telling a child that his or her behavior is troublesome. The key for any teacher here is to approach the topic in such a sensitive and empathic way so that we get the positive outcome that we are hoping for without intensifying the problem behavior, or even worse, triggering a teacher-student power struggle. Approaching and talking with a habitually disruptive student so that the child does not push us away and becomes receptive to what we have to say is a high-level child guidance skill that requires much more than one blog post. However, there are initial changes in the way teachers interact and talk to children that can influence positively the way students respond to us, and those little changes that make a big difference are our focus next.
How Not To Talk to the Child
These are probably the two most important things that teachers need to keep in balance when managing a habitually disruptive child: being too passive and being too aggressive. When we are too passive, we keep our discomfort to ourselves, accumulating inner anger and resentment that ultimately does more harm than good. A teacher that is too passive may feel overwhelmed with the situation and perceives the student as the person “in charge,” which is the fastest way for any teacher to start feeling hopeless and to start accumulating self-doubts about own ability in changing the problem behavior. When the teacher is too aggressive, on the other hand, the same hidden resentment and frustration that overwhelm a passive teacher now turn into angry outbursts that escalate into nasty verbal exchanges and interactions with the child. For an aggressive teacher, the disruptive child is “the enemy,” and, in “the battlefront” (classroom), the best line of defense is to defeat the enemy. Hostile teacher-student exchanges increase the possibility of the child counter-attacking (e.g., yelling, screaming, kicking, cursing, and/or acting-out), damaging the therapeutic goal of developing a positive relationship with the student. Too passive or too aggressive, either kind of reaction from a teacher is mainly revealing frustration, low self-confidence, and low self-efficacy skills in managing children’s challenging behavior. The right balance to find is what I like to call the goldilocks approach, that is, “not too little neither too much, but just the right amount of each.” We find this right balance when we manage students’ difficult behaviors both assertively and constructively, that is, using the assertive approach.
Assertive communication means that we are able to stand up for our personal rights without violating the rights of the student. When we use assertive language, we express our thoughts and feelings in both a direct and honest way, and, because we are taking into consideration the child’s rights and feelings, we articulate our position without trying to dominate the child, much less trying to humiliate the child. Assertive interactions are less likely to trigger an angry or a defensive reaction in children. We can say that assertive teachers resemble therapeutic teachers in the sense that they share the long-term communication goals of helping children understand own behavior, and of learning effective coping skills. This is the exact opposite of trying to control and/or to “get back” at the child.  Both assertive and therapeutic teachers convey an atmosphere of respect and acceptance when talking with students about their behaviors, resulting in higher compliance from children. I like to see assertive teachers as a starting level in becoming a therapeutic teacher; once an assertive teacher moves into the realm of connecting and communicating with the child, the teacher upgrades her/his assertive skills into more in-depth therapeutic or child guidance skills.
The Assertive Self-Focus
Key in talking in a direct and assertive way is using a self-focus (I) rather than the other person focus (you). When we use a self-focus, we concentrate on stating our own feelings and needs by means of ‘I’ statements, also known as Gordon I-Messages for psychologist Gordon Allport. Some examples of ‘I’ messages are:
  • Lucy, I lose my concentration when you leave your seat without permission.
  • I do not like when I am cursed.
  • I must admit that I felt disappointed when I heard you cursing.
  • I really feel annoyed about this.
As we can see, on an ‘I’ message the focus stays on us, more specifically, what we feel or want. Sentence stems for ‘I’ messages would be “I like _____,” “I do not like _____,” “I feel _____,” “I do not feel _____,” “I want _____,” and “I do not want _____.”  Self-focus is one part of our assertive message; once we concentrate on stating our own feelings and needs, the next step is to identify in a descriptive and no blameful way the behavior that is causing the problem. For example, saying, “Gregory, when you do not pick up the art supplies it makes a mess on the floor.” The effect of the behavior on you follows, for example, “A messy floor means more work for me to clean up, and we are not going to find our art materials the next time we need them.” The “grand finale” in our assertive message would be to describe our feelings (or needs) about the problem. For example, saying, “I am really feeling annoyed about this.” When we talk assertively, it is easier to stay away from “you” messages aimed at finding fault in the child (e.g., “You should be ashamed of yourself for being so careless”) or threatening the child (e.g., “You’ll be sorry if you keep this up”). The goal of our assertive message is to tell the student the specific reason for us feeling the way we are feeling. For example, saying, “When I have to deal with unnecessary interruptions, I cannot finish what I want to teach the class. I feel frustrated when I cannot complete my lesson.”
If you are planning on having a longer conversation with the student, a word of advice would be for you to know your message; simply put, it is important that you identify what exactly you want to communicate to this particular child. If you need to write a list with bullets or to outline your main talking points before saying anything to the child, then go ahead and outline the most important points. This writing exercise is also helpful in identifying those words and phrases with negative connotation, so that you replace hopeless and negative language with encouraging and positive language. A second exercise that you can do before addressing the student is looking at your reflection in an imaginary mirror and saying, “This is how I feel about this behavior.” What you see and hear in the self-reflection mirror is what the child is going to see and hear later on. If you do not like what the imaginary mirror reflects back that is an indication of the need to modify your body language and/or your words. Keep in mind that, on most occasions, we need to talk with the child several times before seeing significant and enduring changes in the habitually disruptive behavior, so be consistent in your message, communicate positive expectations to the child, and always hope for the best.
More Suggestions for Delivering an Assertive Message
1. Make sure that the tone of your voice is firm but never hostile, scornful or sarcastic.
2. Make sure that you address a specific behavior that the student can do something about it, for example, a messy desk or cursing. Avoid messages directed at the child’s character (e.g., sloppiness).
3. Make one reference at a time and talk about one specific thing. Do not overwhelm or confuse the child with too much information or explanations.
4. Always reinforce the child’s compliance with your appreciation (e.g., a smile and a “thank you”).
Related to this Blog Post:
Interpersonal Communication in the Classroom: How to Talk so that Your Difficult to Handle Student Listens
To read this blog post, click here.
All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior. To preview this book on Amazon, click here.