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Modifying Our Language to Improve Behaviour

By The Arty Teacher - July 18, 2021

Modifying our language to improve behaviour and relationships with our students should be part of our behaviour management strategy and is a useful tool to pull out of our behaviour management toolbag. I’ve found it fascinating that small modifications in how we say things can have a big impact.

I was thinking about the difference between saying ‘thank you’ and ‘please’.  I always say ‘Put that in the bin, thank you’ or ‘Sit quietly, thank you.’ and never use please.  Thank you implies they are going to do it.  It is authoritative but polite.  ‘Please’ implies they have a choice and in the examples used here, you don’t want them to have a choice.  It got me thinking, how else can I tweak my language to improve behaviour?

Positive Instructions

Our instinct when we see any behaviour that we don’t like is to say ‘Stop doing that!’  We need to retrain ourselves and change to a positive phrase.  Even experienced teachers, myself included, need to be reminded of this.  For example:

‘Stop talking’ – ‘Listen to me, thank you’ or ‘Focus on your work.’

‘Don’t paint each other’ – ‘Use the paintbrush correctly’

‘Stop turning round.’  – Face the front.’

You are changing from a ‘don’t’ statement to a ‘do’ statement.  The instruction is the same but the phrasing is as positive as it can be.  To make these instructions even more effective, use the student’s name.  e.g. Gemma, focus on your work.

It’s too easy to focus on bad behaviour or low-level disruption and forget to praise the positive behaviour.  Create a positive environment with positive whole-class praise. ‘This table has understood, great work’. ‘There’s a great working atmosphere in here today’. ‘Love what I’m seeing.’

Powerful Phrases

Wouldn’t you love to be one of those teachers who walks through the door and everyone goes quiet?  They are legends, aren’t they? Well, fake it until you make it.  One useful tool to bring out of your behaviour toolbag is ‘Powerful Phrases’. Imagine saying these combined with a steely gaze.

‘When I am speaking, you are listening.’

‘Students behave in my lessons.’

‘We don’t do that here.’

Avoid Sarcasm

Do your students know when you are joking?  It’s great to have a laugh with your students; it’s a great way to build a good rapport.  However, with sarcasm, you are often saying the opposite of what you mean.  It is worth noting that children don’t develop the ability to understand sarcasm until they are about 10* and then beyond that often interpret sarcasm as being mean**.  I have observed that they still don’t appreciate it at a much older age.  Children on the autistic spectrum may never understand it. Best avoided.

A Warm Welcome

Create a warm welcome.  Hopefully, this is sincere but even if you have to fake it, create it!  As adults, we don’t want to be with people who clearly don’t want us there and the same goes for our students.  Many people, your students included, are very intuitive.  They will sense a hostile environment or your bad mood in an instant.  ‘Hello Artists!’ and ‘Welcome to the art department’ helps to set the atmosphere.  You can shift someone’s mood with your language & tone.

Start your lesson with what I call ‘A Zinger’.  A zinger is a positive statement that you start the lesson with and you can even write them in your lesson plan to remind yourself.  For example: ‘I’ve got such a great lesson planned for you today’. ‘I can’t wait to show you this artist, we can learn so much from their work’. ‘This is my favourite medium to work with’. Enthusiam is a great teaching strategy.

The Power of a Whisper

Do you want to be that teacher who shouts? Didn’t think so.  When a teacher shouts they sound out of control.  When you shout your voice often becomes higher and shriller.  Children will think you are mean and won’t earn you any respect from anyone. A much quieter, lower voice and a whisper can be used to great effect.  Here are some ideas:

Take the register quietly.  Students will have to listen carefully to hear when their name is called.

Instead of giving a reprimand across the room, go over to the child and very quietly give the instruction.  Without wishing to sound creepy, if you can go up to them unawares and whisper ‘Keep doing that and I’ll be speaking to you after the lesson.’ or ‘We don’t do that here’ is far more powerful than any shout.

Experiment with lowering the pitch of your voice.  Combine it with a slow delivery for dramatic effect.

Don’t bring your baggage to work.

As stated above, your voice sets the tone for the lesson. What you say as students walk through the door has a huge impact on the atmosphere in the room.  This can be difficult as we are human and have human problems.  It has occurred to me that a lot of teachers fall into one of two categories.  One type uses school as an escape from their worries.  They enter the building and switch into work mode.  The other brings all their problems with them and finds it hard to let go of them.  I’m sure this is out of their control, but don’t bring your baggage to work if at all possible. Children don’t come to school to hear your problems or to absorb your negativity.  The lesson isn’t about you, it’s about them.

Your voice is your teaching tool.  Like any instrument you’ve got to learn how to use it.  Choose a few of the ideas above that you feel comfortable with and test them out with your students.  It’s really fun when you see that they work.

If you’ve enjoyed reading ‘Modifying Our Language to Improve Behaviour’ you may be interested in this further reading:

Strategies to Manage Behaviour in the Art Room – The Arty Teacher

How to Build a Good Rapport with Students – The Arty Teacher

Is Enthusiasm a Teaching Strategy? – The Arty Teacher

*Getting Sarcastic With Kids – Science Daily

**Development of children’s ability to distinguish sarcasm and verbal irony – National Libaray of Medicine

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The Arty Teacher

Sarah Crowther is The Arty Teacher. She is a high school art teacher in the North West of England. She strives to share her enthusiasm for art by providing art teachers around the globe with high-quality resources and by sharing her expertise through this blog.

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