George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

5 Ways to Avoid Manipulation

Avoid manipulating students into compliance by giving them a voice in classroom management procedures, using musical cues, or making allies of natural group leaders.

November 17, 2015
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.

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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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Filed Under

  • Social and Emotional Learning
  • Classroom Management
  • Mindfulness
  • New Teachers
  • All Grades