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5 Ways to Avoid Manipulation

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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A closeup on a young girl's face, her mouth wide open, singing, with grass and hills in the background.

This past summer, I wrote a post on things never to say to children. It was fun to write (and, I hope, fun to read). In the comments, many readers recalled hearing or saying some of these forbidden statements. While about 95 percent of the commenters agreed with me, one of my points became a real controversy.

Teachers were only about 60 percent in favor of this point:

"I like the way Toby is sitting."
This is a manipulation to get the class to sit down. Saying this teaches children that manipulation works. It's better to be direct and tell the truth by saying, "Class, please sit down." In addition, any student who is never publicly singled out for something positive will resent you. While I used to employ this technique myself, I think the downside far outweighs the good, even if it works.

Both Sides of the Coin

One commenter asked, "What's wrong with this?" That's a wonderful question because it can be asked of everything we do in the classroom. And if we can't answer it, we shouldn't use that strategy. Every classroom choice that a teacher makes has both positive and negative outcomes. Classroom decisions are like coins, one side heads, the other side tails. Great teachers know both and choose what to do by weighing both sides.

If your goal is to appreciate a student's behavior, it's best done privately. If your goal is affecting the entire class rather than appreciating an individual student, then the good side is it that it usually works. The bad side is that it's manipulative, and further, it teaches students to be manipulators.

You've probably heard a student say, "But Mr. Curwin lets us do it." If you're a parent, your own child has certainly claimed, "But other parents let their kids do it." These children are doing the same thing as you when you say, "I like what David is doing." Whether or not you use this technique, at least understand both sides and make an informed decision. Lots of things "work," but at what cost? Think of how much harm has been caused by those who never asked the second part of the question.

Here’s another behavior management principle that I strongly believe: If you take something away, give something back. In other words, it's not enough to say, "Don't fight." Alternatives to fighting are equally necessary. Because my summer post was not about the question we're discussing today, I had no time to offer other choices. Had I done so, the conversation would have been a lot different.

Offering an Alternative

Here are five practical, non-manipulative strategies for getting your classes ready to work. The negative side is that all of these take more time. Are those few seconds worth being a non-manipulative teacher? Only you can decide. These five techniques, effective across all grade levels, are not based on winning the teacher's regard. Since school is for all children, not just the good ones, students should not need to win or even earn your positive regard. These strategies work mostly by giving control to students.

1. Student Leaders

Divide the class into groups of about five. Rotate a group leader each week. Do not use leadership as a reward for good behavior. Doing so will destroy the process. Each student in each group gets a chance at leadership regardless of his or her behavior. When you want the class ready to pay attention, let the leaders get their groups organized. Before setting this technique up, teach your students how to be good leaders without bullying or ignoring students who don't listen.

2. Music #1

Bring in music, a different type each day, and tell your class that the music means get ready to work. Play the music when you need class attention. Allow students to remind nearby students that it's time to get ready.

3. Music #2

On a daily rotating basis, let students bring in their favorite music and use it as in Music #1.

4. Leaders of the Pack

As i discussed in my post Dogs as Role Models: A Lesson in Classroom Management, every classroom has student leaders. You don't choose these leaders -- the other students do. The true classroom leaders aren't always obvious. The way to find out is to evaluate your classroom atmosphere when a student is absent. If things are the same, that child isn't a leader. However, if the class changes in that student's absence, he or she is one of the leaders. Most classes have one or two leaders. Ask them to be your helpers in getting the class ready to work. The most difficult students are typically very good when given a positive responsibility.

5. Ask Your Class

Have a class brainstorming session to come up with their preferred ways for you to bring the class to order. I've seen first-grade kids who have done a great job at this. If your students' suggestions don't work, tell them that they need to think of ideas that will work. Students generally want their ideas to work, so they respond more enthusiastically.

Stay Flexible

All strategies lose their power over time. This is a natural phenomenon. If you listen to your favorite song too often, it becomes hard to listen to for a while. When your strategy for bringing order starts to break down, go to another one on your list. Having multiple strategies and the flexibility to rotate them is a critical component of any successful classroom.

I wonder what great, non-manipulative strategies you use. Please tell us about them in the comments below, and please try to describe both the positive and negative so that readers can make an informed decision.

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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Sped62's picture

I also tell my students (5th and 6th) that I will always speak to them in a professional manner, and that I am setting the example for them so that when they go on a job, they will know how to communicate appropriately. By providing this kind of interaction, I not only get complete compliance from my students, but they are being given hope for their future. I have total buy-in from them.

Mytfinn's picture

I do think this changes depending on the age level of students. You can't use this technique with middle and high school students, but I think it can be effective with elementary students, depending on how savvy they are. What I do with my middle schoolers is say, "I see about half of you are ready to go. I'm still waiting for the rest of the class to open their books to page ___. " Then I thank them for getting ready, counting down as I see more students attending and complying with the request. "Three more to go. Two more....and done. Thank you. That was a lot faster than last time, guys. Nice work." I want them to think of this as a group effort.

I have noticed that calling out students by name when they are ready frustrates the ones I missed, so I've been trying this technique instead, and there is less calling out with "Hey, I'm ready too!" It's hard to see them all and notice each individual, even though they all need recognition from time to time.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Mytfinn, Thank you for your ideas. Actually these suggestions work best with older students, especially high school and middle school. That's where I discovered them. The real question is more about the teacher. These ideas do not fit every teacher's personality and in some cases, skill. I'm discovering all the time how differently different teachers approach getting their students ready to learn.

Dr. Tom Mawhinney's picture
Dr. Tom Mawhinney
Touro College professor teaching graduate education courses

If pointing out appropriate behavior is a form of manipulation, then isn't all education a matter of manipulating students to become life-long learners. Using positive affirmation is a strategy that I recommend for all teachers, especially those with low motivation. One of the problems with teaching some tough students is that we expect them to know how to act like students, when in fact we have to teach them. If we took your example of praising a student for sitting up appropriately, then any public positive comment would be deemed manipulation.

I agree that we shouldn't be teaching students how to manipulate, e.g. "If you finish your work, I'll let you play with the class Ipad." This is negotiation and a mistake that many of us make. In other words, "What's in it for me?"

I think suggesting that positive affirmation is a bad thing is taking a powerful tool out of teachers' hands!!

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi Dr. Mawhinney, I can see that the concept of manipulation is hard for many people to fully understand. It took me decades to fully grasp the complexities of manipulation. Let's start with two premises. We all agree that students need positive affirmation. It is essential to learning, especially for those with low motivation. Most teachers agree that manipulation harms students and prefer to other methods. We are left with two questions: what is positive affirmation? What is manipulation? In my view positive affirmation comes without a price tag. It is given without expectations of future behavior change. It includes such things as encouragement and appreciation. Like love, it isn't something to be earned. Can we all agree on that? Manipulation includes getting someone to do what WE want without stating directly to the student what we want them to do. If I say, "I love you" because I want to hear you say, "I love you, too," that's a manipulation. If I say, I need you tell me that you love me," it is not a manipulation. Can we all agree on that? If you say, "I like they way Rick is sitting," it is clearly a manipulation because you want others to sit, but don't say so. The positive affirmation given to Rick comes with a price tag. It is a way to influence other student's behavior without directly telling them what you want. If you a behavior change in the class, why not say, "I would like everyone to sit down. It makes me happy to see everyone ready to work."If you want to positively affirm a student for sitting, tell him privately. That way, it is more genuine and far more honest. So I disagree that all education is manipulation. There are so many ways to motivate unmotivated students without using techniques that might have harmful side effects, why use one that does? What say you and everybody?

Dr. Tom Mawhinney's picture
Dr. Tom Mawhinney
Touro College professor teaching graduate education courses

Dr. Curwin - I agree with you about the use of manipulation in school, especially when it's overt; if you do this, I will give you this. I see parents as well as teachers getting caught in this trap.

At Touro, I work with teachers from Success Academy and have observed their use of the No-Nonsense Nurturer system, which uses positive affirmation in much the same way that you consider manipulative. As Jensen says in his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, if you expect students from at-risk neighborhoods to behave in a certain way, you have to teach them. Sitting appropriately, tracking the speaker, and working collaboratively are all reasons to affirm. The mistake we make working with kids from poverty is that we expect them to react appropriately when we ask them to sit nicely. When we expect 100% participation/cooperation, we constantly need to affirm/praise until the behavior becomes routine.

Thanks for taking the time to respond - Tom

Smurphy's picture

Thank you Dr. Curwin for this article! I am very passionate about this topic and enjoyed your strategies! I'm looking forward to putting them into motion. I am always looking for ways to move away from manipulation to create intrinsically motivated and independent thinkers. This has been a process of undoing habits for many years in both my work and my home. It is so much easier to have kids "comply" and do what I say! Ha!!! I am loving the learning and growth!

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

Perhaps we can look at the question of whether or not to say, "I like how Kathryn is sitting," in a bit different way. What is the purpose of the statement? It seems to me that there are two purposes. First, the teacher is trying to get other students to emulate Kathryn. Second, the teacher is trying to convey to Kathryn that s/he noticed s/he is doing the right thing, perhaps because Kathryn doesn't do that very often.

In the first instance, the teacher is, indeed, trying to manipulate others into doing what Kathryn is doing. The purpose might be a positive one, yet the means to that end are not. As a former principal, I've seen too many tearful students who have been victimized by peers because a teacher "likes" what they do. In one school, students who were recognized in that way were called "schoolboys" or "schoolgirls" and it was not a compliment.

In the second example, the teacher gets points for trying to use positives to reinforce student behavior. However, the manner is questionable. First, it is public, and that can be humiliating, or can lead to the student believing she cannot learn but only comply. Second, it doesn't give the student enough information -- why is sitting desirable? what is the advantage? Feedback needs to be explicit enough that students not only know they have done the right thing, and also why it is important. Lastly, why should a student have to rely on what a teacher likes? Should a student learn to rely on what a teacher likes, or should she learn to rely on her own understanding that the behavior gets her where she wants to go? If we want students to believe they can control their own lives in a positive way, we need to attribute the behavior to the student, not the teacher's likes.

A more effective way to get the student to replicate the behavior is to take a quiet moment and say, "Kathryn, you were sitting and ready to go at the beginning of the lesson. That takes self-control and will help you learn!"

So how can we get students to be ready for a lesson? Procedures! Have a "bell-ringer" activity to get students immediately engaged. During transitions, use a stop-watch to have students compete against themselves to make the transition in short order. Trust me, there doesn't have to be any tangible reward. I've worked with elementary. middle, and high school and that works. Use an attention-getting signal. One can use the stop watch with that, too. Anticipate times and places where students will be slow to comply and think of ways to change the situation to avoid that.

In my observations of teachers, I see many asking students to sit or get out books or whatever. My godmother used to say, "Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answer to." In the classroom, teachers think they are being polite when they say, "Would you sit down, please?" Asking invites the student to make a choice, yes or no. It makes compliance optional. In other observations, I've seen teachers put that in terms of, "I'd like everyone to sit down now." How does this affect the student who doesn't care what the teacher likes, or the one who likes walking around right now? Instead, one can say, "Sit down now," and it doesn't have to be impolite or mean, it can be said with a smile. It is a directive, not something that is optional.

We don't have to make school or learning all about the teacher with "I like". We don't have to manipulate compliance. Instead, we can use language to help students understand that education is about them and not about the teacher.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College


I like the way you comment on my posts. Only joking. Your comment is precisely what I believe and advocate. School is for students, all students, not just the good ones.

Thanks for saying what I think.

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

Your replies mean a lot to me! Thank you!

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