Social and Emotional Learning

Modeling Assertiveness With Students

Simple role-playing exercises can show students how to stand up for themselves without being unkind to others.

January 25, 2018
Young girl preparing to speak in class
©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Assertiveness is a key concept in social and emotional learning and represents the middle ground between the extremes of aggression and passivity. When people behave aggressively, they prioritize their own needs and may use threats to get what they want. When people behave passively, they do things they don’t want to do because they feel pressured or threatened by others. 

But when people behave assertively, they stand up for themselves without diminishing or hurting others. In other words, they’re strong, not mean.

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Assertive communication is a hard skill to learn. Our culture tends to reward aggression. Putdowns are framed as humor in cartoons and sitcoms, and the internet can be a platform for bullying. It’s hard to find examples of assertiveness in the public sphere.

What does assertive communication look like and sound like in real life? How can we resist the pull of aggressive or passive choices, which may be easier in the moment but don’t solve our problems in the long run? How can we get our needs met without hurting others?

In the classroom, students who lack assertiveness skills may hesitate to share their thinking openly or ask clarifying questions when they’re confused, or allow a classmate’s bullying to go unchallenged. And teachers who lack these skills may struggle to set clear behavior expectations in the classroom or hesitate to seek support from coaches and principals.

Teachers can boost their students’ assertiveness skills—and their own—by teaching some simple communication techniques that can be used in and out of the classroom. Explicitly teaching these techniques can make all of us more comfortable using them in real life.

After introducing and discussing these assertiveness techniques, engage your students in role-plays to give them a chance to practice using them. You may want to present various conflicts or problems, brainstorm about which assertiveness techniques would be the most useful, and then allow students to role-play and evaluate the effectiveness of their choice.

Teaching Assertiveness

The “nice no”: Students and teachers may feel pressured to go along with other people’s ideas or invitations. Examples include: “Do you want to trade snacks?” and “Do you want to co-plan this lesson?”

These invitations can cause anxiety if we want to decline them. A simple technique for responding assertively to such requests is a “nice no.” We might say, with a smile, “Thanks for asking me, but I’m not interested.” Sometimes a simple “No, thanks” does the trick. Making a counter suggestion often works as a follow-up to a nice no.

Setting a boundary: Sometimes students are asked by peers to do things that are outside their comfort zone, such as “Will you let me cut in line?” or “Can I copy off your paper?” An assertive technique for responding to such invitations is to set a clear and firm boundary by saying, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.” Students don’t need to explain why or negotiate about it—they can simply set a clear boundary and hold to it.

Asking for some thinking time: People sometimes ask us questions that we’re not ready to answer. We might need more information, a chance to weigh other options, or time to reflect on our feelings about the situation. An assertive technique for responding to such questions is to ask for some thinking time: “I’m not sure how to answer that right now. Can I get back to you later today?” A key point is to ask for the amount of time we need, whether it’s later the same day or next week.
 
Stating your needs: We sometimes run into misunderstandings because we haven’t communicated our own needs clearly. It may seem that other people are ignoring or disrespecting our needs when in fact they’re simply not aware of them. If we recognize this, we can address the problem by stating our needs calmly. For example, a student might say to a peer, “I need space to hang my coat in the closet.” And a student might say to a teacher, “Could you please repeat that? I need to hear the directions again.”

Using an “I feel” message: Sometimes we have misunderstandings that are more personal. If we feel hurt by someone we’re close to, we may respond by being aggressive, making an accusation, or withdrawing passively to protect ourselves. But with friends, teachers, and colleagues who care about us, students and teachers can use an “I feel” message to assertively communicate their feelings and emotional needs. A student may say to a friend, “I feel sad when you cancel our plans, because I love hanging out with you.” This gives the friend a chance to understand the speaker’s needs and try to meet them.

Knowing how to respond to aggression: Sometimes when we communicate assertively, we’re met with an aggressive response that might diminish the validity of our feelings or perspective. The best thing to do in this situation may be to calmly remove ourselves from the conversation by saying something like, “I think I communicated my thoughts clearly, so there’s not much more to talk about.”