Teachers: a strategy for getting students to calm down.

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A simple method for getting students to calm down and reflect on their behavior.

A few weeks back I was observing a third grade teacher’s reading mini-lesson. Despite this teacher’s faculty in managing her large class, the little boy in front of me was on a mission to disrupt. It started when the teacher tossed him the “speaking ball” so he could respond to her question. Instead of tossing it back, you know what happened, right? He went for the Cy Young award and launched it back toward the teacher, grazing a student’s berets and nearly popping the teacher in the eye.

The teacher reprimanded him, but a minute later he was back at it, this time jawing with the girl seated next to him. He smacked her pencil case repeatedly, and then stuck his head under his desk to talk to the boy seated on the carpet in front of him.

I could take no more.

“Get up. Now. Outside the classroom. Move,” I said. My voice was firm and even.

“Huh? But what I do?” he whined.

“What did I ask?”

“Ooh. I hate this school,” he said, as he slinked out of his chair and out the door.

I followed behind, shut the door, stood sideways in front of him, and threw him my best changeup.

“What kind of shoes you got there?”

He was looking fastball. “Huh?” he said, his face contorted and confused. Strike one.

“Your shoes,” I said, “are those Nike?”

“Naw,” he said, defensively, “these is Adidas.”

“Oh,” I said, my voice inquisitive now. “Hmm. That’s interesting. Who bought ‘em?”

“My mom.”

“She buy all your shoes?”

“Yeah.”

“How come?”

“Cause I don’t have no money. And she has to drive me to the store.”

“You don’t have no money? Why? You ain’t got a job?”

“No!” he said. I thought I detected a smile start to slip.

“That’s interesting.” I followed up with several more curveball questions: favorite colors (his shoes were gray), favorite sport (they were basketball sneaks), and any other queries I could sneak in until I noticed him get comfortable. The whole conversation lasted a few minutes.

Then I threw the fastball. “So why did I ask you to leave that classroom?”

He was looking for another curveball. Strike two.

“Because I was being bad.”

“Tell me more about that.”

“I was talking.”

“Oh yeah? And why was that a problem?”

“Cause the teacher was teaching.”

“Oh yeah? And what about the ball. Why was that a problem?”

“I threw it hard and it could have hurt someone.”

“Huh. Yeah, I guess so.”

The conversation continued for another minute or two while I elicited all of his transgressions (in his own words) and a way he might be able to atone for them, and a plan for what he’d do when he reentered the classroom.

“So, if I come back and check on you in a little while, what should I expect to see?”

“Me doing my work.”

“Great. Have a good day.”

Strike three?

The idea is simple. When students are stuck in that emotional state, the one that gets activated when a teacher yells, “Step outside the classroom right now!” then students are unlikely to respond to any rationalizing about their misbehaviors. We want students to activate the thinking side of their brain when they’ve made a mistake. That will lead to reflection, atonement, and prevention of future mistakes.

If that question doesn’t work for you, try something else. In the schools I work in, most students are uniformed, and shoes are really the only ubiquitous sign of individuality.

The most beautiful thing is that even if they’re so frustrated that they refuse to answer, the question has already wormed its way inside their brain and forced them to think. Despite their display of shrugged shoulders and pursed lips, the neurons have been activated in the logical portion of their brain, and activity is slowly moving towards that part of their brain.

I’m no scientist. And I haven’t done any research to prove this, nor have I taken the time to search for related studies. I don’t need to. I use it every single day that I’m at a school, and it’s success rate is well over 95%. (Anecdotally, of course.)

So the next time you pull a student outside your class, or ask to see them after class, start with something simple: ask them about their shoes.

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