Thinking Words vs. Fighting Words

   With a classroom full of students to teach and manage it can make for a stressful day. Many of us end up barking out commands and issuing ultimatums in order to keep things together. While sometimes necessary, using “fighting words” with students can often lead to power struggles and the students acting/reacting without thinking. Instead, try using “thinking words” to communicate directions and limits to students. Using thinking words to ask questions, offer choices, and set limits will put the responsibility for the decision-making on the student and force them to think rather than just listen.

Example 1:

Teacher: “You’re not going out to recess until you pick those crayons up!”

Student: “Well, I’m not doing it so there!” (Don’t tell me what to do!)

Teacher: “Then you don’t get recess.”

Student: “Fine!” (I’ll show her!)

Now you’re both sitting there upset and not getting what you want. The crayons aren’t getting picked up, the student is angry, and now you have to supervise this kid during your lunch/planning. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone. Instead, try using thinking words to get the results you want.

Teacher: “I would love to send you out to recess just as soon as you get those crayons picked up, okay? Thanks for your help!”

Student: “I’ll do it later.” (I’ll do it, just not now.)

Teacher: “Sorry, but in this class we clean up before we go outside. No worries though, as soon as they’re picked up just head on out there okay? Thanks.”

Student: (Ugh, I want to go outside. . . I’ll just pick them up and be done with it.)

Using thinking words instead of fighting words here puts the responsibility for going out to recess on the student. You’re not keeping them from going outside. Only the student’s inaction is. By using thinking words you’ve avoided setting up a power struggle with the student. Nine times out of ten they’ll pick the crayons up and head outside.

Example 2:

Teacher: “Who keeps writing on my books? No one is allowed to read my books anymore if you can’t treat them the right way!”

Instead of issuing an angry command, try phrasing it as a choice for the students to think about.

Teacher: “I really like it when you guys read my books, but I’ve noticed some writing on them lately. You’re more than welcome to keep reading them if you can keep your pencils away from them.”

This sets up limits for using the books by issuing a choice instead of a command.

Example 3:

Teacher: “No homework again? You’ll never pass this class if you don’t start turning your homework in.”

This is all negative and setting the student up to feel hurt and defensive. Try giving them the same information, but in a way that will help them to think about their choices.

Teacher: “I noticed I haven’t been getting too much homework from you lately. Turning homework in will really help you to get a good grade in this class. So you think about it and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you out with that okay? Thanks.”

This gives the same information as before, but in an empathetic and supportive way. This is more likely to have the student think about the choices they’re making instead of becoming defensive and angry.

Example 4:

Teacher: “This is the second time you’ve been late to class this month. One more time and you’ll be in detention.”

This statement probably won’t help the student to think much about their coming late to class. You’re just saying things they already know.

Teacher: “Hey, I just wanted to remind that you’ve been late to class twice this month. School policy says if that goes to three you’ll be in detention and I would hate to see that happen. Just something to keep in mind, okay? If there’s a reason you’re having trouble making it here on time I’d love to help if I can so let me know. Great, thanks.”

This also gives the student a reminder of the consequences of their actions, but in a way that reminds the student that THEY have the choice whether to be in detention or not. It’s on them to figure out how to get to class on time while letting them know that you’re willing to help if they need it.

   Sometimes you do need to give commands in the classroom. If a kid is running wild with scissors you’re not going to say, “Boy, it sure would be nice if you could put those down, huh?” You’ll be saying, “STOP THAT NOW!” For the other times though, it really is helpful to try to use thinking words versus fighting words. It will give you a better relationship with the student while encouraging them to be responsible for their choices, and the consequences of those choices by thinking through things. It also helps to cut down on the power struggles and back and forth that can take over a day.


Photo Courtesy of Phillipe Put from Flickr Creative Commons


Hannah T

About Hannah T

I am a 2010 graduate with a degree and certification in Elementary Ed., and I have worked with students from birth to junior high. I believe that one of the most important qualities to surviving a teaching career is a sense of humor. I also strongly feel that students are most successful when they are active and hands-on learners. My Mom was a Special Ed. teacher for almost 30 years, and my Dad was an English major, so I enjoy bouncing blog ideas off the two of them. This usually results in an exchange of great stories with my Mom, and a correction in my writing from my Dad. When they're not available, the job falls to my rescue dog, Coozie.

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