Sometimes Less Is More

Photograph by Jeff WoodwardThe other day Ben returned to our classroom after a session with the occupational therapist, yelling “I’m here, guys!,” which interrupted the lesson and caused a few students to giggle. I looked at Ben and said “Stop. Take a break,” in a firm but neutral tone. Ben went to the Take-a-Break chair, and I returned to teaching the group.

Ben sat for a few minutes, and then, after regaining control, he joined the group without further disruption. At the end of the lesson, as students returned to their table spots for independent work, I followed up with Ben privately. Leaning down, I said “Ben, when you enter this room, you do so silently. You are not allowed to interrupt our lesson. Interrupting is not respectful.” Ben nodded his head and continued working as I moved on to help another student.

There are a lot of things going on in this anecdote, but I just got a copy of the new 2nd edition of The Power of Our Words and have been re-reading it, and that’s gotten me thinking about how I used teacher language here. To someone who doesn’t know me, Ben, or my classroom, the way I spoke to Ben might have seemed terse, but in this situation it was a good choice. I’ve written before about how there’s no one-size-fits-all response to misbehavior, and about how choosing the “right” response depends on what you know about the child and how he or she learns best—that’s what I did in the interaction with Ben.

The first thing that needed to happen was for Ben to regain his self-control, and I used simple, straightforward redirecting language to get him to the Take-a-Break chair so he could do that. [Learn more about the Responsive Classroom approach to Time-Out.] The other thing I needed to do was to make sure Ben understood why what he’d done was a problem, and what he should do differently in the future. I addressed that with a brief, private check-in after Ben had calmed down, again using fairly simple, directive language.

For most children, keeping teacher language simple and brief when redirecting behavior is the right choice. As Paula Denton explains in the “Redirecting Language” chapter in The Power of Our Words, when children are out of control, the teacher’s first priority must be to stop the problem behavior and regain their attention. You should hold off on explaining or discussing what went wrong until the children are prepared to listen and can follow your reasoning.

Sometimes less is more when it comes to teacher language in problem-solving conversations, too. I intentionally kept it simple when I checked in with Ben. With another child, I might have asked an open-ended question such as, “Why do you think it was not respectful for you to enter the room that way?,” but I know Ben well enough to know that for now, that isn’t the right strategy. He probably couldn’t answer such a question, because he may actually not know what he did wrong, or be able to reflect on the implications of his behavior. So, to help him develop those skills, I named the problem behavior (entering the room loudly), explained why it’s a problem (interrupting is disrespectful), and provided a solution for him to try next time (entering quietly).

Over the years, I’ve worked hard to become more skillful at communicating with students. I think a lot about how to craft my words so they convey my belief in children’s capabilities, guide them to develop their academic and social skills, and help them reflect on their progress. There’s usually not one “right” way to say it. Knowing your students, what they are capable of, and what they still need to learn is absolutely key. Have you experienced this, too? I’d love to hear!


Power Of Our Words

Tens of thousands of educators have used The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn as their guide to getting the most from positive teacher language. Read it to learn how you can use words, tone, and pacing to build a classroom where students feel safe, respected, appreciated, and excited about learning.


Candace Roberts is a Responsive Classroom consultant, kindergarten teacher in Rhode Island, and Early Childhood Generalist.

Tags: Redirecting Language, Reinforcing Language, Reminding Language

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