“Sorry Sir/Miss, I’ll stop doing it now”; Why we need to model responses for children

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This week I have been thinking a lot about how children speak whilst in school, especially how they respond in certain situations. I’m particularly interested when what they say isn’t polite or tries to justify poor behaviour.

I’ve heard people say ‘it’s because they do it at home’. Of course, in some cases, this is true. This is the only school I’ve worked in where some students say ‘thank you’ after a detention! But some children lack the structure of polite social interaction as their parents don’t model it or allow them to argue or be rude, often in desperation of not knowing how to deal with them; it’s easier to let them say what they want than to battle with them. However, school doesn’t need to be like this. We are a separate part of their lives and we need to behave within our own environment’s boundaries.

There are things that can/can’t be acceptably said in each environment but for some students they don’t experience what is needed for the ‘outside world’. We need to decide what we want our school environment to look like and how we will model it; we can create a different language within our environment.

Having thought about it, saying ‘we model good behaviour every day’ to our students isn’t enough. If a child isn’t used to a way of behaving or speaking, they’re not just going to naturally identify that one adult at school is speaking differently than another at home and then imitate. We need to give them a model, link it to when it needs to be used and explicitly discuss it. Which is what I’ve been doing this week.

When a student is on the phone (against our school rules), I will tell them to put it away however it is often responded to with, who they’re on the phone to or why they ‘have’ to be on the phone or ‘they’re just going to be a minute’. None of these are appropriate responses, they are attempting to argue their point instead of acknowledging they’ve broken the school rule. As we haven’t modelled to them what is a good response, they revert to speaking to me as though I am a parent or a friend, not a member or staff telling them to stop breaking a rule. We need to give them the best response in a situation when they break a rule.

So, I’ve tried it with my form. I modelled a sample, appropriate response for them and reminded them of it every day. “Sorry Sir/Miss, I’ll stop doing it now”. Of course some of them probably think I’m mad as I’m telling them something they would already naturally do (or they wouldn’t break the rule in the first place) but others need it. If I’m in a situation with them where this applies I’m now saying ‘you’re breaking the rule….what is the correct response?’ And (sometimes begrudgingly) they say the modelled response; they have to think about the model before their natural response.

Criticisms of  modelling responses

They’re just saying it, they don’t mean it

Does that matter? They are learning and practising the polite and best way to deal with a situation. The point is that this might impact them in daily life, even when they leave school and it might just be the best way to stop the police officer giving them a fine!

We shouldn’t have to do this; we’re not their parents

No we’re not. But we have two options. Ignore it and use constant (often ineffective) sanctions or build up a school language that prevents further escalation in a situation from a simple breaking of rules to an encounter where a student argues and is rude to a member of staff. In my eyes, breaking a rule is one thing but a student trying to argue makes it ten times worse.

Part of our wider social support for students is that we provide a model of the ‘best’ way to behave in the wider society. In some schools this might be needed, in others it isn’t. Ignoring it is doing a disservice to our students.

It also reinforces the idea of context and that specific contexts require specific behaviours. If they behaved the same way in a place of work than in their lounge with their mates, they may find themselves in trouble. We can easily make school a different context from home but we need to do this explicitly for some.

It’s just dealing with the negative

I’ve given examples of the negative. We also need to model the positive. So after a week of the above, I modelled a positive; saying ‘thank you’ to someone. I stole the idea from Twitter (Michaela school) and got them to write a ‘thank you’ note to anyone in school for absolutely anything. Again, some thought it was weird, but others may not have said the words ‘thank you’ for a while. It hopefully made them think of what others do for them, not always ‘just’ teaching them, as part of a different environment than home. Their responses brought a tear to my eye and when I delivered them to the staff, it was so lovely to see their response to this unexpected ‘thank you’. I will tell the form about the response from staff and how important it is. I will challenge them to do this face to face with someone next week. I will model as much as I can with them as well.

These models of how to speak have the potential to make schools such nicer places to be, even if rules are broken; it makes it manageable. Now I’m thinking further about how what I say can be tweaked to explicitly model the ‘best’ response.

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