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July 22, 2022
ASCD Blog

Setting Students Up for Success With Behavior

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Help students learn positive behaviors by shifting your language.
Classroom Management
Setting Students Up for Success With Behavior
Credit: Shutterstock
The start of a new school year gives teachers and students alike a clean slate, But, even with the best intentions, behavior can quickly go sideways if educators assume students already know what to do. Bestselling author Mike Anderson says there's one aspect of a teacher’s toolkit that's paramount to effective classroom management: Words. In fact, even very minor shifts in language can have a profound impact on how students might feel about work.
In the following excerpt from Chapter 5 of What We Say and How We Say It Matter: Teacher Talk That Improves Student Learning and Behavior (ASCD, 2019), Anderson details how important positive shifts in language can be when setting expectations.

Focus on What to Do (Instead of What Not to Do)

One of the lessons I learned as a teenage lifeguard is that when stating expectations and reinforcing rules on the pool deck, it’s better to focus your language on what to do instead of what not to do. For example, when reviewing rules with a group of kids at the start of a pool party, we were taught to state the positive expectation (“When you move about the pool deck, it’s important to walk”) instead of focusing on the possible mistake (“Don’t run on the pool deck”). Similarly, once the party started and a kid was running, instead of calling out, “Don’t run!” we were to call out, “Walk!”
This is important for two reasons. The first is that to state what not to do is to leave open the possibility for other improper ways to travel around the pool. Kids might skip, leap, hop, or speed-walk. By stating a positive direction, you are clearer about the expected behavior. The second reason has to do with tone. It is more positive to focus on positive expectations rather than on rule-breaking or misbehavior. To the child who was running, “Walk!” is a reminder about what to do, while “Don’t run!” is a public calling-out of improper behavior.
Additionally, when we state expectations in the positive, we show that we assume that students have the best of intentions, which helps set a respectful tone and climate of trust in the classroom. I remember how excited I was for science class my first day of 6th grade as a student. This was the first year we traded classes for different subjects, and it felt so grown up. The classroom looked like a science room: There were complex posters of anatomy on the walls, jars of animals in formaldehyde on shelves, and microscopes arranged in a line on top of a set of cabinets. Then our teacher began the first class with a lecture about how he kept his cabinets locked to make sure students didn’t steal any of his science supplies, saying if he caught anyone stealing materials we’d be in big trouble. My heart sank. Here I was, bursting with excitement to learn about science, and my teacher already had his eye on me, expecting me to steal from him. I was crushed. Though I learned to enjoy science that year, I was never able to quite shake that feeling that I wasn’t trusted. Notice that in Figure 1, the second statements emphasize positive behaviors and intentions.

Figure 1. Emphasizing Positive Behaviors and Intentions

Anderson Book excerpt fig 1
Are there times when we need to specifically name a negative behavior, though? What if there’s something specific that we anticipate and want students to be aware of ahead of time? Certainly, this is sometimes the case. Part of effective classroom management is heading problems off at the pass—addressing them before they happen. So, let’s explore some ways we can be both proactive and positive—how we can assume best intentions instead of worst—even as we anticipate student mistakes. Notice how the language in Figure 2 emphasizes empathy and kindness.

Figure 2. Emphasizing Empathy and Kindness

Anderson Book excerpt 2

The Gem of Positivity

We know that when students are learning a new academic skill, whether it’s long division, writing a persuasive essay, or making a quick relay start in the pool or on the track, they are going to need lots of modeling, practice, and gentle guidance. We expect them to make mistakes and need coaching. We recognize that we won’t be able to just tell them what to do and expect that to be enough. So, when it comes to helping students learn positive behaviors, we should keep these same things in mind—using language that is proactive and positive, clear and direct, firm and kind.

EL’s experienced team of writers and editors produces Educational Leadership magazine, an award-winning publication that reaches hundreds of thousands of K-12 educators and leaders each year. Our work directly supports the mission of ASCD: To empower educators to achieve excellence in learning, teaching, and leading so that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. 

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