I am a third grade teacher. I have a lot of behavior issues in my class and I am looking forward to being done with the year. I feel like the most annoying issue that I have is simply that my students won’t be quiet when I have to teach. Specifically, when they are working, and I let them talk when they’re working, getting their attention and getting their eyes on me is rarely very successful. It makes me very angry and I feel helpless to do anything about it. I’ve tried screaming and yelling, I’ve tried taking away their recess. Nothing works. I am out of options. I know this year is down the drain, but I don’t want to deal with this another year. Any ideas? -Kayla, Eugene, Oregon
Dear Kayla,Nothing is more frustrating than feeling that you don’t have the control necessary to make your students quiet enough to deliver instruction. It makes you think things like, “If I can’t get these kids to stop what they’re doing and listen to me, what the heck am I even doing here?!?” I certainly felt that way before learning the skill I’m about to show you.
It really does lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. I think only teachers truly know the depth of the frustation that this causes. Unfortunately, I am going to tell you something now that, if you are not already aware of it, will make you feel much, much worse.
Students without hearing impairments who talk after they have been prompted to be quiet are doing so willfully and intentionally, and are purposely challenging-and in some cases disregarding- your authority to make them be quiet.
“Those jerks!” you say.
“I know!” I say.
Whenever you have a situation in which you feel like you have no control, you are probably making one very big mistake: you are trying to control that which you cannot control. This leads to you looking weak in front of your class and it makes you feel powerless. Next time, you could experiment with how I deal with this challenge. Notice that at no point do I use anger, lectures, warnings or threats. Also notice that I never try to control anything that I can’t control. Here’s my Calm/Assertive Procedure for making sure kids are completely, 100% silent whenever I want them to be.
First, I have this conversation with my class on the first day of school:
Kid Whisperer: Friends, I have a bit of a problem. I was wondering if you could help me out with it.
Kids: Er, ok.
Kid Whisperer: From time to time this year, I am going to need everyone’s attention. I only speak when all of the students in the room have their eyes silently on me. The problem is that I hate bossing people around. I don’t like saying things like, ‘Be quiet!’ and, ‘Everyone look at me!’ I was thinking that you could come up with a secret code word that I could say that is silly or funny, but that would let you know that it is time to be quiet and have your eyes on me. How would that work for you all?
Kids: Uh, fine I guess.
Kid Whisperer: What would you like the secret code to be? Let’s come up with five possible codes and then we’ll vote.
Past codes in my class have included “Mucky Muck” and this year’s winner, “Goofy Goober.” Make sure the code is at least three syllables. This will allow the students the time to quiet down while you finish saying the code. Hint: Say the code slower when the room is louder, but don’t greatly increase your volume. This will train their little ears to listen for the cue.
***ATTENTION*** AT THIS POINT, YOU MAY START TO THINK “OK, THIS IS SOME STUPID, CUTESY DEAL WHERE HE’S GOING TO TELL ME TO USE SOME MAGIC WORDS AND FAIRY DUST AND SAY THAT THIS WILL SOLVE MY PROBLEMS WHEN ANY TEACHER WITH KIDS LIKE MINE WHO TRIES THIS IS GOING TO GET LAUGHED AT AND THEN EATEN ALIVE.” SOUND ABOUT RIGHT? I’M JUST GOING TO ASK YOU TO TRUST ME FOR A COUPLE MORE PARAGRAPHS. THIS STRATEGY IS JUST ABOUT TO BECOME AIRTIGHT.
Kid Whisperer: OK, friends. So you’ve chosen ‘Goofy Goober.’ I’ll say that and that is your cue to be quiet with your eyes on me. We’re going to practice until we can get it right. First I’m going to have you all talk. Listen for the secret code. Here’s a topic: Justin Beiber is terrible. Go!
[the students talk for ten to twenty seconds]
Kid Whisperer: Goofy (slight pause) Goober.
We then practice this until we have three to four successful runs. I hope and pray that the kids are unsuccessful. Every time someone talks or doesn’t have their eyes on me I simply say “Oh man, I guess we need more practice, ” never bringing any attention to those failing to comply. After about ten tries to get three or four perfect runs with our secret code words, I say this:
Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. Looks like we need to practice later. We need to get to some other things right now. No problem. Some classes need more practice than others.
Later, when it is time for recess, calmly invite them to sit down in their seats before going outside.
Kid Whisperer: OK, friends. Let’s practice until we get this right! We can practice as many times as we need to in order to get it perfect!
The students will practice until it is perfect. Again, I like to make sure they get it three to four times in a row. This will probably take five to ten to minutes. Hopefully, though, it takes longer. You can let them go out for recess as soon as they have perfected their new skill!
Here’s where, how and why we get to be extremely strict and calm for the rest of the year. For the rest of the year, whenever you use the secret code and a student talks or doesn’t have their eyes on you, we don’t yell, warn, lecture or threaten. We simply repeat that same phrase “Oh, man. Looks like we need to practice later.” The students know that they all have an appointment with you at recess time.
A couple of hints:
1) Avoid any anger and frustration. Some kids would rather see an angry teacher and get into a power struggle than go out to recess.
3) Make the expectations whatever you want. You may not need your students to look at you when you give the cue. If you don’t want it, don’t ask for it.
3) Fight the urge to lecture, warn or threaten. This includes warning them that they will have to stay in to practice at recess. Don’t ruin a perfectly good surprise!
Kayla, good luck with your class next year. I hope this helps!
-The Kid Whisperer