This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: We might not realize it but our automatic responses and choice of words can sometimes send the wrong message to our students — here are 5 unhelpful things I’ve said to kids when I was in the classroom.
Have you ever been really upset and had someone tell you to calm down?
That happened to me the other day, and it drove home just how spectacularly unhelpful it is to tell a person who is upset to calm down. Telling me to calm down when I am rightfully mad about something just enrages me more. It has the total opposite effect of what’s intended!
As I reflected on that interaction, I realized the person who told me to calm down was simply parroting a normal phrase we use, at least here in America, when people are upset. It’s a default reaction, not an intentional word choice.
What we mean is, “I don’t like seeing you upset. It’s making me feel uncomfortable. I also don’t understand why you’re this bothered, or don’t understand the severity of your reaction.” We want the other person to react differently so that it’s easier for us to handle. But instead of expressing ourselves more honestly or better yet, allowing the person we’re with to experience strong emotions and just sit with them in that, we say, “Calm down.”
I love to reflect on word choice like this because I feel like it gives me better insight into myself and my relationships, and how people interact with one another. We’re all going to have moments when we’re frustrated and say unhelpful things. But noticing your patterns, and examining them, is really useful. It helps you be more intentional about your choices.
I particularly like what teacher and child psychologist Haim Ginnott had to say about this — listen to this 30-second clip:
Our automatic reactions — the things we say to kids without even realizing it because they just come out of our mouths — are things we’ve heard from other adults. Often our parents or our teachers said those things to us. And we can consciously choose to write a different story.
I want to lead by example here and share with you some ineffective and unhelpful things I’ve said to students over the years. I bet you’ll recognize yourself in some of these. And I hope you’ll take this as an opportunity to reflect with me and think about how we can create a different script, or write a different story so that other phrases become our default reactions.
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1. You’re in 3rd grade, you need to act like it!
What it really means: I expect you to demonstrate self-control every minute of the school day.
Why it wasn’t helpful: This seems to be a common teacher-ism because I’ve heard it said to kindergartners and high school seniors alike. Last time I checked, though, these are all still children. In my case, they were third graders, who were 8 years old.
8-year-olds — like kids of most ages — tend to be silly, impulsive, and oftentimes, illogical. So every time I uttered this statement, my kids WERE acting like third graders … they just weren’t acting like the elusive Perfectly Behaved Third Grader I had envisioned in my mind.
What I’d say instead: “I know you can do better than this. I believe in you.”
Or maybe I’d give a specific expectation instead: What exactly am I wanting the kids to do that they’re not? A simple “Have a seat please” is much more clear and kind than making a random statement like “You’re in third grade, act like it.”
2. Why are you doing that / Why do I hear talking?
What it really means: Stop that right now!
Why it wasn’t helpful: In those moments, I’ve already decided there’s no good reason for anyone to be acting that way. Therefore I don’t really want to hear what’s causing it or get into a debate with the kids about whether it’s justified.
If I ask a question like “why are you doing that” some kids are going to take it as a literal rather than rhetorical question and give an answer, none of which I’m going to like.
What I’d say instead: It’s better to replace those unproductive “why” questions with questions that inspire constructive responses from students and help them think about their behavioral choices. My go-to is: “What should you be doing right now?”
This is a genuine question that’s designed to help the student reflect on their behavior and the expectations. Most of the time kids respond to “What should you be doing right now?” with either the correct answer, which I can then affirm them for, or they just get themselves together and don’t say anything.
But the real magic is that this question primes me to see this as a learning opportunity. I feel and react totally different when I say “What should you be doing?” than “Why are you out of your seat?” The genuine question actually warrants a response and doesn’t trap the kid into a place where there’s nothing they can say that’s right.
If I ask, “What should you be doing?” and the student says, “Sitting down, but I didn’t get a drink yet”, I’m primed to actually listen to the motivation for their behavior and respond to that instead of feeling immediately defensive because I’ve asked a rhetorical question and they’re talking back. It sets us up for a much healthier interaction.
3. That’s none of your business. Worry about yourself.
What it really means: I don’t feel like dealing with this or you right now.
Why it wasn’t helpful: For me, this felt contradictory to the other things I was teaching kids about our classroom community and therefore, it was confusing to kids. Do I want students to only worry about themselves, or do I want them to help each other? How are they supposed to know when to pay attention to what’s happening with their peers and when to only care about themselves?
One minute I’d say, “Don’t just sit there, help her pick those crayons up!” and the next I’d say, “Do your work and let her take care of herself!” Or I’d chastise them with, “You knew he was writing those rude things on the cover of that book and you didn’t do anything?!” and then an hour later snap, “Worry about yourself — that doesn’t concern you!”
What I’d say instead: For my classroom and my students, I found it was more effective to teach kids how to address problems with each other. It was better to say instead: “Did you talk to him/her/them about that?” and guide kids through problem-solving together.
If they were asking me a question I didn’t feel like answering or felt was too personal, I could just say so outright!
I wanted my students to be questioners, and I wanted them to feel comfortable with questioning authority rather than just blindly obeying anything any adult in charge tells them. Apart from those moments of frustration, I didn’t want them to only worry about themselves. I wanted them to care about other people and be tuned in to the community around them. So, “worry about yourself” is a message I tried to avoid saying.
4. If you don’t want to learn, then you shouldn’t be here.
What it really means: This is something I said a few times when kids were refusing to cooperate with my lessons and being repeatedly disruptive. It was a stand-in for, “I have no obligation to teach students who aren’t enthusiastic and compliant.”
Why it wasn’t helpful: It’s just not true! Our job is to teach the students we have, not the ones we wish we had.
I’ve actually taken the unhelpful statement a step further and said, “You don’t want to participate? Then leave!” and sent the kid to a coworker’s classroom for an hour or so. That solved the problem of my derailed lesson, but not the problem of the child’s disengagement.
While I think it’s appropriate to remove a disruptive child sometimes, I personally did not want to remove the child using a statement like that. It sends the message that the student is only welcome in my classroom when they are fully invested in their learning.
That’s really unrealistic because every kid is going to have a lot of moments when they’re not feeling that way. I didn’t even feel that way about being at school myself! I didn’t want to be there every second and do everything I was supposed to do.
By setting this standard that if you don’t want to be there, just leave, I wasn’t allowing space for any of us to be HUMAN.
What I’d say instead: “We’re counting on you to participate with this, and we want you to join in appropriately. If you choose not to, please sit at the table over there so your group can continue working. You’re welcome to re-join anytime you’re ready.”
When I chose this approach, I wasn’t making the determination that the child is not going to learn. Sometimes kids get drawn into a lesson halfway through, but if we remove them from the room at the first sign of disinterest, they don’t get the opportunity to self-correct.
By only removing them from the proximity to kids they were distracting, they were still able to learn and had the opportunity to rejoin the group quickly instead of just being banished.
5. Do you want to get a zero/repeat 3rd grade? Then you need to get to work!
What it really means: This one’s deep. In Florida where I taught, kids were retained if they didn’t pass The Test, and reminding them of this just became part of our vernacular in many classrooms.
The truth beneath it was really hard to face. When I say, ”Do you want to repeat the third grade? Then get to work!” what I really meant was, “I am terrified that you’re going to fail and I’m going to be held accountable for it. The stakes feel really high for me right now, and I am livid that you seem so carefree when I will literally get fired if you don’t buckle down and learn this material.”
Why it wasn’t helpful: If you’ve ever threatened a child with repeating the grade level or course, then you know it’s generally a poor motivator and does not inspire them to care on the same level that you do. It might get them back on task for the moment, but it does nothing to build their confidence. It creates anxiety and raises the stakes for a task that they already find difficult and uninteresting.
What I’d say instead: In retrospect, I should have stopped anticipating problems in the future and just dealt with the task at hand. During the times when I was able to take a deep breath and compose myself, I’d say something like: “Which part are you stuck on? How can I help?”
There’s no reason to raise the stakes on a child and make the task feel so important that it’s insurmountable. I found it was better to just figure out what the student needed in that moment and offer it.
While I’m betting you probably recognize yourself a bit in this episode, I hope you won’t rush to defend practices that could probably use improvement.
I also hope you won’t condemn yourself. Most of these are common teacher-isms that we pick up in schools and we just say on auto-pilot. These are not 5 statements that make you a bad teacher: They’re just things that I personally have stepped back from, reflected on, and decided, “That was a pretty ridiculous thing to say in that moment and not helpful to my kids. Next time, I’m going to try to respond more productively.”
I can’t promise that none of these things will ever come out of my mouth again. I’ll probably even find myself telling other adults to “calm down” when they’re upset, even though it was so frustrating when someone said that to me! Old habits die hard.
But I’m definitely much more aware of these phrases so I can correct myself/apologize if I say something unhelpful. That awareness is key — the only way to become more effective in our interactions with students is to reflect, and I hope my words today have been a jumping off point for you to think about some of your common phrases that could use replacing.
So now that I’ve been vulnerable and put myself out there, I hope you’ll do the same! Head over to the Truth for Teachers podcast community — that’s our new private discussion group on Facebook — and let us know … is there anything you’ve caught yourself saying to students that you would never want to repeat? What are the ineffective responses you say a lot and are trying to move away from?
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