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When Choices are Disguised Threats

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Which of the following are real choices?

  1. You can stop fighting or go home for three days. It's up to you.
  2. You can do your work now or sit in the office for the rest of the class. The choice is yours.
  3. You can either stop interrupting or be quiet for the remaining class time. You decide.
  4. You can do your work now or during recess. It's up to you.

A Brief History of Teacher Authority

Years ago, one of teachers' biggest fears was that they were losing control of their classrooms, and steps were taken to give control back to the teachers. Reward/punishment programs flourished, including escalating suspensions and public humiliation by writing names on the blackboard with checkmarks for offenders.

Many wonderful educators fought hard to change this state of affairs. Nowadays, most educators understand the need for student choice and that things work better when control is shared between students and teachers. The influence of this change in thinking can be seen in the popular topics of Edutopia posts about student empowerment and involvement, empathy, inclusion and student-centered classrooms.

But high-stakes testing has reinforced the need for teacher control. So how can we give students choices and still maintain control? The answer, in many but not all cases, is by disguising threats as choices. Threats give the teacher control by scaring the student with undesirable and hurtful punishments if he or she refuses to do what the teacher wants.

Positive Choices vs. Control

Students often respond positively to these hidden threats in the short term, but over time, negative effects gradually appear. Because threats of this type are psychological in nature, they produce psychological flight-or-fight, withdrawal, passive-aggressive behavior or defiance.

When used positively, choices can:

  • Empower students to feel in control.
  • Prevent difficult pushback and escalation.
  • Build trust between teachers and students.
  • Resolve issues more satisfactorily -- most of the time.

If I stuck a gun to a teacher's head and said, "Your money or your life," he or she might say, "I don't have any money. I'm not even sure if I have a life!" But in all seriousness, is "Your money or your life" a threat or choice? Most teachers know it is a threat, but when I ask why, they say, "Because the choices are both negative." This is a wrong answer. It's not about negativity -- it's about control. For example, if a doctor tells a patient who was in a serious car accident, "I can save your life by amputating your leg, or I can try to save your leg -- but you might die," both of these choices are negative. However, the control is with the patient, not the doctor.

There are two distinct ways to tell if you are offering a choice or a threat to your students:

  1. Are any of the alternatives punishments? If so, then it is a threat.
  2. Do you already know which choice you prefer the student to choose? If so, it is a threat.

Using these criteria, it becomes clear that the first three of the choices I offered at the beginning of this post are threats. Going home for three days, sitting in the office for the rest of the class, being quiet for the remaining class time -- all are punishments, and in every case, the teacher prefers the student to choose the other option. It doesn't matter if we add the words, "The choice is yours." They are still classic threats and are best avoided.

The fourth example is tricky. It could mean either of these:

  • If you don't do your work, you'll miss recess.
  • You can do your work now, but some students like doing it during recess when the room is quiet. Do you have a preference?

I included this example to show that intention is more important than words. If you truly have no preference in the answer, then you're offering a real choice. But if the options are weighted toward a specific outcome, then maintaining control is probably your true intention.

Examples for Guidance

Below are some real choices. Notice that the teacher has no preference, and no option is designed to hurt. Each begins with a limit, clearly telling the student what line has been crossed. And since this is a limited set of examples, further consequences are not included, but may be necessary.

Sidney, hitting is not allowed in the classroom. You can apologize to Arvin if you are sincerely sorry, do something helpful for him, or help a different student if you are still angry.
Will, coming late to class is unacceptable. You need to learn what you missed. Ask someone for the information, or read these pages in the book, or find a time when I can go over the material with you.
Jack, interrupting in class steals other students' chances to answer a question. If you want to speak, either raise your hand and wait to be called on, write your comment or question of a piece of paper and give it to me at an appropriate time, or use one of these three "call out" coupons I'll give you each day.

Are you in the habit of giving your students real choices? How would you handle situations described in this blog -- or situations that I haven't described?

Was this useful?

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ms.Garcia's picture
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

This is wonderful! Thanks for the examples of "true choices" and helping teachers create a more inclusive classroom. I will be printing this out for our PLC meeting next week.

Madame Aiello's picture
Madame Aiello
French Teacher & Curriculum Developer - Ontario, Canada

Interesting read. I think I see the third option a little differently though... to me, it sounded like "if what you have to say is so important to you, that ou simply can't let another person speak right now, then say it. But then, you'll have contributed enough, and it's time to sit & listen while others have their chance to speak."

I would say that there's almost always a response that a teacher prefers when giving a choice. That alone doesn't necessarily qualify it as a threat.

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

Ms. Garcia,

I have worked in the past extensively with native schools including Sioux (now Lacota), Apache, Pueblo, and many tribes in Canada that I can't spell. I loved being on the Navajo reservation school in the beautiful location among the fabulous rock formations.I was there for a week and treated wonderfully.

Madame Aiello, I agree that if you have a choice preference, it is not always a threat, but if you weigh the choices to a certain outcome, it is always a threat.

to both: thanks

Sarah Bender's picture
Sarah Bender
Seventh grade math teacher from Idaho

Dr. Curwin,
I am a first year teacher and I appreciated this. I still have a hard time giving real choices and not threats. I want to be listened to by the students and I often feel that if I let them make the choice then they win and that is bad. I need to remember more that letting them win the small battles will make it easier when it's time for the big ones.

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

Hi Sarah,
Thank you for your comment on my post. I am going to make a suggestion for you that almost no first year teacher understands. So this might make sense now or in a year or two. You cannot win if the students lose. You aren't opponents, even though it often feels that way.You are more like their coach on a sports team. The team and the coach either both win or lose. If you offer them choices and you can accept all of them, you can never lose. First year teaching is extremely hard. I cried more than I taught that year. I promise that if teaching is right for you, it will be significantly better by the third year.

Tara's picture

Hi! I really enjoyed reading your post. I can recall myself using some of those same "threat choices" with students. Needless to say, they only worked for the short-term like you stated in the article. I am glad I read this article because now I know how to ask better choices with students. Thank you Dr. Curwin.


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