How students’ misbehavior changed my life

Dear Kid Whisperer: My students seem to always forget to put their names on their papers if I don’t remind them. How do I get them to remember on their own? — Beth, Columbus

A: Beth, oh, boy, have I been there. My first two and a half years teaching both first and fifth grade, I lectured, warned and threatened kids over and over about putting names on their papers. Doing this actually encouraged this negative behavior.

When we remind kids to not exhibit a behavior (in this case not putting a name on a paper) we are really telling them that they can do the thing we are saying that they shouldn’t do, and we are not going to do anything about it. In addition, if they do that negative behavior enough, they are going to get a show of frustration and anger from their teacher, which is very fun to watch.

My life changed forever when I stopped talking about no-name papers and took action. After this life-changing day, I never had to be angry or use lectures or threats ever again regarding names on papers. I’ll share with you what I did as an answer to your question. It went like this in my first-grade classroom at East End Community School on a beautiful winter day in 2002.

Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. I feel really badly about something, and I wanted to ask for your forgiveness. I have been getting really frustrated, and I have been threatening and lecturing you guys about you not putting your names on your papers. I’m really sorry. Do you accept my apology?

Kids: Uh, yeah. OK.

Kid Whisperer: Thank you, I have been feeling really badly about this. So I promise I won’t get angry or lecture you guys anymore. In retrospect, once I calmed down, I realized that yesterday’s lecture about how not putting your names on your spelling papers being indicative of a national trend toward irresponsibility was probably not really an appropriate or helpful teaching moment for 6 year olds. I think that perhaps making a parallel to the decline of the Holy Roman Empire was similarly wrong-headed.

Kid: Yes, we felt that we lacked the prior knowledge necessary to benefit from that instruction.

Kid Whisperer: So, I’m sorry about that. OK, instead of getting angry and lecturing, I am just going to change the way that you hand in papers. From now on I just want you to put all papers with names on them in the red bin like you do now. For any papers that do not have names on them, please put them in the trash can next to the red bin. Any questions?

Kid: How are we going to get a grade if the paper is in the trash can?

Kid Whisperer: I don’t know.

Kid: What if we accidentally put a paper with no name in the red bin?

Kid Whisperer: Hmm. Well, I’ll tell you what. I will do you a favor and put it in the trash for you.

That was the day when my life improved forever.

It was amazing how few kids turned in papers without names on them from then on. It went from about half of all papers not having names on them to maybe 20 no-name papers being turned in for the rest of the year. As an added bonus, instead of me entertaining kids with my lectures and tirades, they would entertain me by often walking up to the trashcan and begin putting their paper halfway in before thinking hard, returning to their seat, applying their name to their paper and returning victorious to the red bin.

Have fun with this one, Beth!

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Scott Ervin is an independent facilitator of parenting with Love and Logic and The Nine Essential Skills for the Love and Logic Classroom. He is a parent and behavioral consultant based in the Miami Valley. More information: www.askthekidwhisperer.com.

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