Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Messages We Send to Children in the Words We Say- Part 3: More About Verbal Modifiers

In today’s challenging schools, we need strong classroom management skills and strategies just to keep our classrooms operational. The better we communicate to students our rules, goals, and expectations—both for behavior and academics-- the better our management of behavior, including behavior that seems not conducive to learning. On the other hand, unspoken or misunderstood rules, goals, and expectations are an important contributor in classroom behavior difficulties. Clear communication then, is the key that opens the door to successful classroom management. Teachers that are good communicators are able to keep their students focused on goals and engaged in achieving their individual goals. Quoting Karns (1994), (good communicators) “come from a caring—not a scaring place” (p.17). Good communication skills are also revealed in the way teachers approach social problem-solving. Conversely, teachers that do not communicate well are at a disadvantage in the handling of important social or interactional issues, which translates into a bigger than expected share of classroom interpersonal conflict (student-to-student and/or teacher-to-student). Just by ignoring interpersonal problems we are not going to make the conflict go away. Ignored or mishandled, interactional issues almost invariably find their expression in misbehavior. And the more is ignored or mishandled, the faster the interactional conflict spins out of control.

 When we do not express our ideas, thoughts, and opinions clearly and assertively, our message weakens substantially. Similarly, when our message lacks clarity, we certainly are not going to communicate what we intended to communicate. A message lacking in clarity is the same message lacking in influential value or influential power; simply put, when we fail to communicate positive behavior to children, we fail to influence positive behavior in children. The good news is that the power to influence positive and constructive changes in children’s behavior was always within reach, lying in the kinds of messages we deliver to children. Rooted in this fundamental communicative and psycho-educational principle, the starting point in influencing positive and permanent changes in children’s behaviors is by us making positive and permanent changes both in the way we communicate how we feel about those behaviors and in the way we communicate what we expect done about those behaviors. In other words, we need to make long-term changes in the way we talk to children.

Good communication is a skill, like swimming or learning the long division algorithm; with practice and perseverance, we learn how to perform the skill, and after more focused practice, we are in the path of improving the skill. Like any other skill, interpersonal communication is best learned when we sub-divide it in elements or components that we learn to master in shorter and easier steps. On this blog post, I expand on the role of verbal modifiers or verbal qualifiers in changing message meaning. A verbal modifier is a word or a phrase in the sentence that restricts the meaning of the other words in the statement, most specifically, indicating how absolute, generalized, or certain the whole message is delivered. In close partnership with the tone of our voice, verbal modifiers are a main contributor in shifting all kinds of messages in either a positive or a negative direction. Some examples:

1.    I know you tried your best (certainty and positive) - You tried your best, I guess (doubt and less positive).

2.    I know you are capable (certainty and positive) - I guess you are capable (doubt and less positive) - You are capable, I guess (implying lack of capability and negative).

3.    Of course, you can do this (certainty and positive) - I think you can do this (doubt and less positive).

Additional examples:  

v You sure have a potty mouth! (Certainty.)

v You were just minding your own business. (Using a qualifier of relative quality to create doubt.)

v Naturally, you had to curse! (Certainty; presupposing that cursing is something the child does all the time.)

v Are you still angry? (Using a qualifier of time to create certainty. Presupposing that the child was already angry.)

v Supposedly, you were minding your own business. (Doubt; strongly indicating that we did not believe what the child said.)

v You boys certainly know how to disrupt this class! (Certainty.)

v If you could only listen! (Certainty and generalization; presupposing that the child is not listening. Also that, at the very least, the child needs to listen. Could is considered a qualifier of possibility: listening is possible and probable.)

v You must chill out! (Certainty about the child being out of control. This is also a qualifier of necessity: something needs to be done.)

v Now, what do you want? (Using a qualifier of time to generalize: the child wanted things before and I’m losing my patience.)

v Here you go again! (Using a qualifier of time to create certainty: what the child is doing, she does it repeatedly.)


Karns, M. (1994). How to create positive relationships with students: A handbook of group activities and teaching strategies. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Related Blog Posts…

The Messages We Send to Children in the Words We Say- Part 1: Presuppositions. To read this blog post, click here.

The Messages We Send to Children in the Words We Say- Part 2: Verbal Modifiers. To read this blog post, click here.

Related Readings…

Watch Your Language! Ways of Talking and Interacting with Students that Crack the Behavior Code. To preview this book on Amazon, click here.

Essentials of Emotional Communication for Reaching the Unreachable Student: Where Do I Start? What Do I Say? How Do I Do It? To preview this book on Amazon, click here.

All Behavior is Communication: How to Give Feedback, Criticism, and Corrections that Improve Behavior. To preview this book on Amazon, click here.

Keeping the Peace: Managing Students in Conflict Using the Social Problem-Solving Approach. 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.”

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