Classroom Management

The Art of Effectively Communicating With Students (and Staff!)

June 5, 2015

The simplest and quickest strategy for improving student behavior (and staff performance) is through effective communication. Communication is relatively complex and can be used to prevent behavior, start behavior, stop behavior, increase behavior(s) (performance), and decrease behavior. Even your proximity to somebody, the smallest facial expression, slightest change in tone of voice, or tiniest of gestural movements can communicate a large array of things.

One of the keys to effectively influencing behavior through communication is to remember it’s not just "whatcha say", it’s "howya say it" (and when!). Has anybody ever tried to get you to do something by using a condescending or agitated voice? How did it make you feel? Did you do what they wanted you to do? Did it strengthen your relationship with the person, or make you want to avoid them? If it was your supervisor, were you more likely to work harder for them, or just get the work done when they were looking in order to avoid being reprimanded?

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The Relationship Bank

Think about every interaction you have with a person (students and staff) as being a deposit or withdrawal into a "relationship bank". Try to make deposits in the bank with as many meaningful interactions as you can while correcting behavior in a way that only takes a small withdrawal. The goal here should be 4+ positive interactions to every one corrective interaction...with the corrective interaction being presented in a way that respects the person’s dignity and helps them to perform better. If your interaction is coercive, it’s akin to taking a major withdrawal from the relationship bank. If you do not have enough positive invested, you will likely incur overdraft fees. In fact, you may go bankrupt! Incidentally, overdraft fees will likely result in more of the very behavior that you are trying to eliminate. Below I’ll briefly discuss strategies that are generalizable to interactions with both students and adults.

Good communication skills can help you in both your personal and professional life. While verbal and written communication skills are important, researchers continue to find that nonverbal behaviors make up a large percentage of our daily interpersonal communication. How can you improve your nonverbal communication skills? The following are some tips for nonverbal communication that will enhance your own ability to communicate effectively with your students and colleagues.

Keep it Short and Sweet

I may be overgeneralizing my own thoughts to the others, but when folks talk too long, I begin to quickly lose interest! In fact, it won’t be long before I begin looking for the quickest escape route. And if I sense that the person communicating to me is attempting in any way to be coercive or condescending, I’m probably not hearing a word they are saying as I’m surely crafting my rebuttal…which will definitely be short, but likely not sweet!

It’s been my experience that brief, meaningful interactions tend to be more effective when attempting to influence behavior, especially when the goal of the conversation is correction.

Body language is also incredibly important. It is very much like a transmitter that is constantly pumping out signals. You must be aware of these signals and understand their impact on the people around you. When my son was young he once asked "Daddy, why do you look angry?" At that moment, I looked into the nearest mirror and realized he was right. I did look angry! The problem is that I wasn’t. I was just in deep thought. I’ll never know how many times people might have thought I was mad when, in actuality, I was just thinking. Behaviors like crossing your arms and knitting your brows are commonly perceived as coercive and can quickly put students or staff on the defensive.

When it comes to correcting behavior, try relaxing your body language and addressing misbehaviors in a business-like manner. Some students (and adults, imagine that!) may actually want to get you upset. I’ve seen this occur when some couples argue, and it is very common with students labeled "defiant." When they recognize even the tiniest behavioral cues that indicate you are getting upset, you can be sure that they will quickly "push those buttons" to evoke your reaction in the same way they push buttons on their game controllers. I love those little guys...so smart. Each time your body language (even the slightest change) communicates that you are on the way to Incredible Hulk mode, they are actually being rewarded for their misbehavior. Neutral and consistent is usually a good idea here. Like the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day off: "Bueller... Bueller..."

Incidentally, one of the most powerful interventions for preventing this is by focusing on developing meaningful relationships with your students. Relationships eliminate the reinforcement available for making you upset. In fact, when you have a good relationship, your mild disappointment has great potential to have a major impact on the student’s behavior.

Stay tuned for my next post on the superpower of eye contact and gestures for influencing behavior.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.