A few simple ways to get a child back on task

Dear Kid Whisperer,

If a student is off task, how do you handle it? Instead of giving them a warning, what is a better/more effective way to correct that behavior? – Denise, Austin, Texas

Dear Denise,

Many people who teach classroom management say that teachers should identify the behavior (tell them what they are doing wrong) and then verbally give them an alternative behavior (tell them what they should be doing). So, in this case, they would suggest that you tell the child that he is not working and then tell him to work.

I will now employ this ineffective strategy in order to answer this question.

• Identify the Behavior: This advice is stupid.

• Give Alternative Behavior: Follow my advice instead.

This Advice is Stupid

If you follow the aforementioned advice, you will make your life exponentially more difficult, making it less likely that the child will get to work and you will be needlessly creating a potential power struggle which will negatively affect your classroom environment. Don’t feel badly, this bad advice has been around for such a long time that a vast majority of teachers do this even though they are aware that it doesn’t work. In all of my years as a teacher, principal and superintendent, I would have 10 kids in my class or a hundred kids in my school with whom using this strategy would cause a huge power struggle. It doesn’t work because human beings hate being told what to do. This is doubly true for difficult kids. When you say this to a difficult kid, he will either tell you or show you that you can’t make him do his work. Either way, he’s right.

Follow My Advice Instead

Teachers have no extra energy and no extra time. They do the job of three people. Therefore, they cannot afford to do things that take more energy or time than is absolutely necessary, especially if those things are ineffective. Effective teachers follow the law of The Minimum Effective Dose. It means that if water boils at 212 degrees, there is no reason to heat it to 213. With kids in a classroom, if you can give a kid who is not working a puzzled look from across the room and he gets to work, why would you go through the trouble of telling him what he’s doing wrong and telling him what he should be doing instead? The following are just a few of the simple low-dose moves that I teach that you can use in a classroom. They are highly effective. All of them work better than the first interventions that I mentioned because they assume intelligence and compliance on the part of the student, making it more likely that they will act intelligently and be compliant. They don’t make the kid feel bossed around or disrespected. Feel free to experiment with these.

• Tap your temple while saying the word “Think.”

• Look confused and whisper “What should you be doing?”

• Say “How’s it going?” Then tap the work in front of the student and walk away.

• Just stand next to a student or students and look at them with a dumb-looking smile on your face. Remain in place until work begins to occur.

If you are a classroom management “expert” who believes in simply identifying behaviors and giving an alternative behavior (what I call “bossing kids around for no reason”), think about how you are reacting to me using your own suggestion for how to deal with negative behaviors on you. Are you more or less likely to stop teaching this nonsense to teachers? No? Well, why would this technique be any more effective when used with kids?