Letting Go of “But”

Have you ever had a friend (or relative) who couldn’t seem to give a full compliment? I have one (she shall go unnamed) who can’t help but qualify every kind thing she says to me. “Your hair looks great—but you really ought to learn how to use make-up,” she’ll say. Or “Your cake tastes so much better than last time—did someone else make it?” Or “I heard your party was really fun . . . until the food ran out.”

It’s easy to fall into a similar habit when speaking to students: “I see many people cleaning up, but others haven’t started yet.” Or “You lined up quickly, but next time we need to work on being quiet as well.” Or “Lots of people asked interesting questions at Morning Meeting, but I noticed some people haven’t asked any questions in a long time.”

There is nothing wrong with occasionally following a positive observation with a “but.” Of course, we need to have high expectations for our students and hold them to those standards. We also sometimes need to redirect or remind students when they’ve gotten off track. However, keep in mind that qualifying positive statements with “but” usually diminishes the power of your reinforcement. Be sure this is not your only way of telling students what they are doing well.

Here are some tips to help you avoid the trap of using “but” too much:

  • Pause before you speak. Take a few seconds and think about why you want to say what you are about to say.
  • Be clear about your purpose. If you want to reinforce positive behavior, try to use language that does that without qualification. Positive feedback has the strongest effect when it stands alone: “So many people started writing immediately—no wonder you have such interesting pieces to share!” On the other hand, if what you really want to do is to remind or redirect students who are off track, just do that. Don’t try to “soften the blow” with a positive prelude.
  • Speak directly to the recipient of your message. Do you want to reinforce the whole class? Does everyone need a reminder? If your words apply to the whole class, go ahead and address them as a group. However, if only one or two students need feedback, speak directly to them.
  • Be careful of tone. “But” becomes more problematic when we adopt a sarcastic or judgmental tone. “I see that almost everyone is ready for our math lesson, but some people are still goofing around!” Try to keep your tone calm, respectful, and neutral.

Using positive language with our students can be very powerful. Hold onto that power by letting go of  “but” as much as you can!

Read more about how positive teacher language reinforces learning and keeps behavior on track in The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Reinforcing Language, Reminding Language