When you were interviewed for your last teaching job, chances are you had to answer at least one question regarding challenging student behavior. It’s a common question because regardless of where or whom you teach, at some point you’ll face challenging behavior. In years past, I would have answered this question by stating that I redirect students, offer choices, or model desired behavior. This year, I’ve rethought that approach.
Students at my middle school love to make “poppers,” or paper folded to make a very loud, extremely annoying noise when opened. At the start of the year, when kids would make these, I would give them my best teacher look that told them, Don’t even think about it. While this initially worked, after a few weeks kids got brave. Even after a clear “Don’t do it,” they popped away. This created a bit of a power struggle between teacher and popper.
I knew I needed a way to defuse these power struggles, so I decided to try a new method: open curiosity. Instead of immediately redirecting minor infractions, my first line of defense is to ask a genuine question regarding their behavior. This approach has helped me learn more about my students and the reasons behind their actions. It has opened doors to meaningful conversations and defused situations that could otherwise escalate quickly. While this method doesn’t work in all situations, it can be very handy for minor infractions when safety isn’t an issue.
Moving Away from Power Struggles
My middle school has a rule that students can’t wear earbuds except when needed for specific academic tasks. Early this year, I felt like I was constantly battling kids as I asked them to take their earbuds out. My initial approach to the earbud battle was simply to ask kids to remove their earbuds, but this method had mixed results. Some kids removed their earbuds until I was out of sight and then put them back in. Other times they would just ignore the request altogether.
In my English Learner class, one of my students showed up with his earbuds in every single day, and every single day I would tell him to take them out. Clearly, my request had no long-term impact. Recently, instead of asking him to remove them, I asked what he was listening to. This led to a wonderful conversation about his home country, Ukraine, and how he was feeling toward his new life in the United States. When I asked what he was listening to, he responded, “Music.” I asked if it was Ukrainian music, and he said yes.
This opened the door to a conversation about his life in Ukraine and his taste in music. I asked if I could listen to his music, and then we looked up the band online. If I simply told him to take out the earbuds, I never would have learned about his taste in music or heard about how he was adjusting since leaving Ukraine.
After our conversation, I thanked him for sharing his music with me and asked him to take out his earbuds, which he happily did. Approaching this minor infraction with curiosity instead of discipline not only opened meaningful conversations but helped get my student to comply with the rules without being heavy-handed. These interactions don’t take much time, but they go a long way in building trust and getting desired outcomes.
Combating Distractions with Questions
One of my more rambunctious students frequently comes into class making loud, distracting noises. I used to send him out of the class and ask him to enter more quietly. Again, this approach had a questionable success rate. Sometimes he would comply, sometimes he would make noises in the hallway and need to be coaxed back into the room.
Encouraged by the success with the earbud conversation, I changed my approach and began to ask him questions about his noises, such as “Where did you learn to make that noise?” or “Do you think that noise would make a good ringtone?” This shifted the feel of our interaction from “You’re being bad, go away” to “I’m curious to know more about your actions.” Also, by asking a question that warrants a response, you are creating a safe space for the student to reflect on and give thought to their behavior. Although the response in this particular situation was “I don’t know where I learned to make that noise—I’m just good at making noises,” it gave the student time to reflect on his actions and change course.
By meeting minor infractions with curiosity and learning a bit of the reasoning behind our students’ actions, we are better equipped to handle issues when they arise again. We can enforce rules with compassion and understanding and perhaps a bit more patience.
When the earbuds show up again, we could say, “I know you might be feeling a little homesick and want to listen to music, but I need your attention now, and if we have time later, maybe you could play some music for the whole class, or during your independent work time, you could listen to your music.” When the distracting noises start, we can connect with the students’ attempts for attention with authenticity and understanding. This approach acknowledges the students’ feelings but still holds them accountable for following the rules.
Building Relationships and Empathy
Going back to my popper issue, I decided to engage students in conversation. The next time a student had a popper, I asked how they learned to make them and whether there was a trick to making poppers to get the loudest, most annoying sound. It turns out there is.
This opened conversations about origami, how to handle boredom, and pet peeves. One of my pet peeves is loud noises. I let my students know this and asked them about their own pet peeves (as a teacher, that’s valuable information to have in your back pocket). I also told my students that they could earn the right to pop their popper, which took the battle (and some of the fun) out of the issue.
Knowledge is power, and when we approach minor infractions with curiosity, we are equipping ourselves with knowledge that can go a long way toward building safe, functional classrooms where learning is the primary focus. It also shows that we want to understand, not punish. At the end of the day, building these relationships makes for safer, more welcoming, and more understanding classrooms for the kids to learn. So, the next time a child is causing distractions in class, try to respond with genuine curiosity. You might be surprised by how it transforms the situation.