In our alternative education setting, we have seen students benefit from effective
redirecting teacher language. Students enter our alternative program almost
always in the habit of feeding on conflict. Often, they have been removed from a
traditional classroom due largely to this tendency. Many have come to believe
their only power lies in resistance, and some use verbal attacks of any kind in
an attempt to seize power. Our goal is to deflect students who appear to be
headed in the wrong direction and teach them the skills of self-management so
they can get themselves back in the groove of learning.
Good kids—our kids—can make bad decisions. Over time, we’ve
compiled quick verbal techniques to deflect conflict before a struggling student
gets everyone off track. Keeping them in charge of their behavior is the key to
our approach. Our population comes and goes, so we need to revisit topics like
this with some regularity.
By deflecting, we reinforce the notion that a
student’s mistake is fixable by that student. It’s the student’s problem, and he
needs to learn to deal with mistakes in an appropriate way. We teach students
how to fix; we don’t fix for them. That said, we’re constantly analyzing how we
conduct classes, and we do all we can to keep students in positive frames of
mind: there’s more to discipline than just discipline!
Our top 10
1. “Let it go, and let’s move on.”
We use this
deflector whenever we see a conflict brewing. It is very important, and its
implications are many: we need and value the student; we’re in this together; we
are responsible for our learning and our behavior; in order to move on we have
to not get stuck in a minor conflict. This message is quite different from
something like, “Whether you’re with us or not, we’re moving on,” which implies
that we would tolerate a poor decision and would leave someone behind. We hold
mini-sessions with our group about how to let things go. For example, one of us
might model how to physically shake it off, take a deep breath, and dig back
into our books rather than get caught in a downward spiral of
2. “Use I (intelligence) over E (emotions)”
get this important idea across to our students, anger remains impenetrable.
These words remind them of the power of thinking and the danger of relying
entirely on emotions. This deflector also needs to be taught and re-taught from
time to time when everyone is in good shape, as students won’t be able to heed
its message when things get heated.
3. “Now that you said what you
said, what has changed?”
We use this deflector when a student makes a
harsh or defiant comment. In our class, angry talk changes neither what is
acceptable nor the teacher’s commitment to the student. When we use this
deflector, we’re saying, “You’re still here, your problem behavior hasn’t been
fixed by the outburst, and I’m still here and haven’t lost my faith in you.”
We’ve noticed it works for us without pre-teaching, but we try to have
discussions about its meaning during cool times.
4. Who is being hurt by
your not getting your work done?”
We use this deflector when a student
appears to be trying to sabotage himself by shutting down. We’ve found if we say
this and walk away, it really makes students think. Often, after a few moments
they let it go and move on. No pre-teaching is necessary for this
5. “We’re not mad, but we refuse to accept that
We use this deflector when students protest teacher
redirection. If we engage them in a discussion after we’ve attempted a
redirection, a power struggle is almost sure to ensue. So instead we employ this
statement or something of similar sentiment. No pre-teaching is necessary for
6. “Fix that.”
We use this deflector to hold
students accountable by having them repair the damage they have done. We often
use it after saying, “Now that you’ve said what you’ve said, what has changed?”
to remind students that an outburst doesn’t remove their responsibility for
repairing damage and getting back on track. No pre-teaching is required, but we
talk a lot about this one, usually in relation to how to think rationally about
potential fixes, how to select the best one, and how to carry out the
7. “Are you getting what you wanted?”
We use this
deflector to invite a student to reflect on his behavior: did he misbehave to
meet a need? Is he now pushing back, for example, because he wants attention?
These deflector words show we care and want students to meet their needs in
appropriate ways. We won’t, for example, get sucked into a power struggle and
thereby help a student meet his need for power in the wrong way.
“Do you think you are in trouble? You’re not in trouble. But your behavior needs
We use this deflector when a student appears to take a
redirect personally, and whenever we think a student has reverted to a
crime-and-punishment mentality. In addition to reframing the intervention, this
deflector reminds students that a redirect need not automatically trigger a
defensive response. No pre-teaching required for this one.
isn’t a discussion about what you did. Just fix it.”
We use this
deflector to remind students that our redirects are non-negotiable. No
10. “You have 27 (or another small number)
seconds to fix what you just did.”
We use this deflector to allow a
defiant student to save face. Sometimes
a small amount of “think time” helps.
We say something like this and walk away. Then, if the student doesn’t fix it,
we don’t give up. We might try saying something like, “No big deal, you still
have four seconds left. I’ve seen you make the right decision before. Get back
on track.” If this still doesn’t work, we don’t let it go. We may need to have a
quick talk away from the action, or send that student to a cool-off spot, or use
another consequence. But if we let it go, they gain the wrong kind of
10 key points for teachers
1. Know your role. You have
been granted tremendous power: the power to teach. This includes the power to
change, to assist, to set limits, to influence; in short, to be a positive force
in your students’ lives. You want them to learn so they have the power to manage
themselves in a strong, positive manner. (Growth and Action mindsets)
Maintain self-control, verbally and physically. Keep your tone neutral and calm,
but positive. Body language should suggest confidence and assertiveness but not
aggression. Look at the student, but don’t demand eye contact in return.
3. Remember, it is not about you, nor is it about
them; it is about the expected behavior. Don’t take offense at what a student
says or does. (Objective mindset)
4. Much of our approach is based on
being in relationship with the students. Without this, results will be
far less positive. Regular community-building activities, acknowledgments, and
celebrating successes are important. (Action mindset)
5. Be consistent.
Stay true to the expectations you’ve established. (Action mindset)
“Sweat the small stuff” in order to develop a community. Don’t decide instead to
“choose your battles.” Left unchecked, little things turn into big things.
(Growth and Action mindsets)
7. Make sure students know they are not in
trouble. A redirection is a teaching opportunity for the student receiving it
and for the community as a whole. This takes time and persistence: initially,
many students automatically perceive any redirect as a threat and/or a
punishment. (Growth mindset)
8. Avoiding power struggles is essential to
effective behavior management. We deflect student anger and walk away, staying
firm about the expectation but avoiding the conflict. Getting angry is the way
our students have learned to deal with issues. It’s their way of holding onto or
gaining power. (Objective mindset)
9. Show faith in the rule breaker.
Making mistakes is expected; with guidance, they’ll make better choices. (Growth
10. Process what occurred afterwards, when the student is calm.
Restoring a relationship while problem-solving is the immediate goal. This can
be very quick, or can take several minutes. (Growth
Through using the deflectors and the key
points mentioned above, we have again and again seen out-of-control behavior
improve quickly. Two years ago, the adult staff was physically restraining
students on a daily basis. This year, we’ve had to resort to restraint only
once. And we’re working with half the number of adult staff in our room compared
to before! This tells us it’s not the number of adults in the room that matters;
it’s the approach you use with the students.
More students than ever are
successfully completing our alternative education program and then returning to
their mainstream schools. What’s more, most are remaining there. Some have even
complained to us, upon returning for a visit after “graduating” back to regular
classes, about how lacking in self-control some classmates are!
finally, we teachers have noticed a welcome change in our expectation: we now
know there will not be fights in our classes, and we come to school expecting to
have a good day with our students and with each other.
is Student Development Coordinator for the Harrisburg City School District.
Bernie Blosky teaches social studies at John Harris High School in Harrisburg,
Published January 2011