3 Ways To Turn Ultimatums Into Positive Student Interactions 

October 25, 2021
Teacher explaining something to a student

Consider for a moment the number of times you have said or heard statements like these:

“If you can’t find your seat, you’re going to find yourself sitting in the office!”

“If I have to tell you one more time to work quietly, you’re going to have a detention!”

“If you can’t get your book out and get started, I guess I’ll have to give you a zero on this assignment!”

Usually said with an intimidating (and exasperated) tone, I’m sure educators around the globe can relate to these statements. If you haven’t said them, you’ve heard them. And if you haven’t said them, you’ve at least thought in some of these archaic ways. When we as educators are frustrated with our students and their sometimes-uncanny ability to get off task at times, we get into our emotional brains and jump straight to ultimatums we think will yield the best results.

The truth is these ultimatums can work. Students don’t want to end up in the office, in detention, or losing credit on an assignment. However, delivering such ultimatums creates an adversarial relationship between teachers and students. If there was a better way—a more rational way—to get our students on track and striving towards their learning goals without damaging our rapport, we would use that, right? Thankfully, CPI and its Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® programming provides us with some options that can turn ultimatums into positive student interactions that build relationships instead of challenging or damaging them.

1. Consider an “Interrupt and Redirect”

This is a strategy with some science behind it. In summary, when a student is off task, he or she is somewhere in his or her emotional brain. That student is refusing to do a task purposely, or that student may even be off task because he or she is seeking the positive emotions associated with socializing with friends or getting attention from others. Our job as teachers is to get students back into their thinking brains: Interrupt and Redirect gives us that opportunity. Our goal is to interrupt off-task thinking with any rational shift that gets the student to stop thinking about one thing and move to another topic, before finally settling on the task at hand.

One of my favorite ways to Interrupt and Redirect is with compliments. Once while working in a high school classroom, one of my students just could not seem to get herself started on a writing assignment they were given time to compose. She had procrastinated by talking to the person on her left and her right, as well as the person behind her. She seemed to be determined to not use any of the class time she had been given for this assignment. As a teacher, I had every right to be frustrated or annoyed, but I opted to create a positive student interaction.

As I approached her workspace, I saw the anxiety in her body language. “Here it comes,” she had to be thinking, “I’m going to get into trouble now.” But instead, I complimented the rings on her fingers: “Oh my goodness, Julia, I’ve never noticed those rings before!” She smiled. I took a knee next to her seat and continued. “. . . and I love the color you’ve chosen to paint your nails! Why did you pick that color?” After she briefly explained her nail color selection, I turned her attention back to her assignment: “Don’t forget, this is the only class time you’re getting to work on this assignment. I hope you’ll get going on it so you don’t have to worry about it when you’re at home.”

With behaviors that Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® labels as Defensive, such as refusing to begin work on an assignment, the recommended staff approach is to be Directive. Interrupt and Redirect, however, is not about simply giving a directive. Instead, it is about directing a person from one’s emotional brain back into his or her thinking brain.

In my example, Julia may not have been thinking about the time she was going to have to spend at home working on an assignment if she didn’t use her in-class time. I like to think that my Interrupt and Redirect not only got her back on track, but was the kind of positive student interaction that built up our relationship instead of tearing it down—even if just a little—with the sternness I could have used.

2. Consider a “Fail-Safe Choice”

Another way to help a student move from one’s emotional brain into his or her thinking brain is by offering a Fail-Safe Choice. To do this, we as teachers need to stay in our thinking brains (instead of allowing ourselves to grow frustrated or angry) and acknowledge two ways a student may successfully get back on task.

For instance, if a student is wandering around the classroom and refusing to work on an assignment or task, I might give him or her a Fail-Safe Choice by asking, “Would you prefer to work on this assignment at your desk, or would you like to try working at the table in the back today?”

Giving choices can create a positive student interaction that’s also empowering. With younger students, they might prefer to use a pencil or a marker to work on an assignment. My preference may be for the student to use a pencil, but maybe giving the student that choice allows me to get something I want even more: that student to be on task! If Billy refuses to get into line to walk to music class that day, I might ask if he would prefer to be the engine or the caboose in today’s walk to music. The examples here can be plentiful. Again, when CPI says to be Directive when behaviors become Defensive, we aren’t necessarily suggesting you immediately tell the student what to do; you can be craftier than that! A Fail-Safe Choice allows you to give two positive options to get the student on track without even really acknowledging the off-task behavior. Instead, give two or more on-task options and wait for the student’s thinking brain to take over.

I once had a student come into my class who was seemingly angry and emotional from the moment he walked into the room. I didn’t do anything to cause these emotions, but his body language clearly communicated that he was upset. When we began our class conversation that day, I tried to pull him in with a softball question. After rolling his eyes and taking a deep breath, he mustered some sort of response and it looked like it took everything he had to keep from yelling at me. His tone at this point also suggested he was not happy. When the class was moving into groups for an activity, I discreetly went to talk with this student, acknowledged that he likely didn’t want to interact with anybody, and gave him a Fail-Safe Choice.

“It looks like you need a few minutes to yourself,” I said. “Would you like to walk down the hall and get a drink, or would you rather just relax in the hall for a few minutes?” These options allowed the student to feel understood and then to take the time he needed in a rational way. In this case, I think he was thankful for both of those options. He chose to go get the drink and came back into the classroom a little more composed. At that point, I gave him a second Fail-Safe Choice: “Would you rather work with this group or another group?” (I thought he’d be a good fit in both.) He chose a group and was back on track for the rest of the day.

Again, I could have let my emotional brain take over. I could have gotten frustrated or angry with his initial “attitude” and demanded compliance and respect. Instead, I focused on creating a positive student interaction, letting him choose while also leading him to do what I hoped he would do when I planned my class that day. I like to think that he and I also improved our relationship that day when I very easily could have damaged it.

3. Consider a “When and Then” or an “If and Then”

The Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® course also gives us two options that work very similarly, but word choice here can make a big difference! A When and Then is a very optimistic way to approach a situation, and we hope it allows a student to feel like his or her teacher believes in him or her while simultaneously pushing the student back into his or her thinking brain. To illustrate this point, I would like to go back to the three examples I provided at the beginning of this post:

“If you can’t find your seat, you’re going to find yourself sitting in the office!”

“If I have to tell you one more time to work quietly, you’re going to have a detention!”

“If you can’t get your book out and get started, I guess I’ll have to give you a zero on this assignment!”

Let’s consider how some word choice changes can turn each disciplinary ultimatum into a directive that’s also a positive student interaction.

Instead of saying, “If you can’t find your seat, you’re going to find yourself sitting in the office,” we suggest using a When and Then, such as: “When you find your seat, then we can get this assignment done so you don’t have any homework.” The key here is figuring out what that student might not be considering and finding a positive that he or she might agree with. Maybe we instead say the following: “When you sit down, then your legs can take a rest and you can run faster later at recess.” As adults, we know that sitting down for 30 minutes may not actually affect a student’s running speed at recess; however, first graders may very much appreciate the tip that they can run faster if they just give their legs a rest. I know my first-grade self would have done anything if it made me run faster; that was a pretty notable attribute back then!

Second, let’s change the phrasing of “If I have to tell you one more time to work quietly, you’re going to have a detention” to “When you work quietly, then the most creative part of your brain is going to give me something I would love to read.” Or “When everyone begins working quietly,” then I’ll know it’s time to turn on some music for the whole class to enjoy while we work on this assignment.”

Music may not be an option in your classroom, but chances are that something is. I encourage you to compose a list of things students like whenever everyone is on task. Maybe these aren’t rewards, like music, but maybe there are environmental positives that you can help students see when their thinking brains are fully functioning, and they are not yet off-task.

With the third example—“If you can’t get your book out and get started, I guess I’ll have to give you a zero on this assignment!”—we can use that same mentality. I would change it to “When you get your book out and get started, then I know you’ll be working on something that is going to make everyone smile.” Maybe that’s enough. If I let students know that their work genuinely affects others’ emotions, it can go a long way. I might precede my When and Then with the following:

“Javier, I absolutely loved the assignment that you created for me last week! You paid so much attention to detail, and I smiled all day! When you get your book out and get started, then I know you’ll be working on something that is going to make me smile.”

Lastly, I want to address the choice of using If and Then instead of When and Then. I can take any of my When and Then statements above and replace the When with If and still utilize the phrase. However, If and Then may best be used if I need to share a consequence as well, because the student may not already be thinking of the consequence. For instance, instead of using my last When and Then example, I might say instead: “If you get your book out and get started, then I know you’ll be working on something that is going to make everyone smile. But if you don’t, then nobody will know how brilliant you were today.” This slight shift allows you to say more: If helped get your point across—and that student into his or her thinking brain.

I acknowledge that a lot of disciplinary ultimatums—including my examples—use some If and Then language (e.g, “If you can’t find your seat, you’re going to find yourself sitting in the office!”). A properly used If and Then doesn’t make a threat like “finding yourself in the office.” Instead, it gives students some options to consider and think about. If I can focus on creating a positive student interaction through my If and Then statement, I am more likely to deescalate any behaviors that exist.

Used correctly, all three of these options can work wonders to build relationships and rapport with students, even in situations where a negative, rapport-damaging interaction seems likely. Remember that adults have the same tendencies as kids. We like to stand up and walk around every once in a while. We like to be social and talk, even when there’s work to be done. We like to procrastinate to do our work just because we don’t feel like doing it. Sometimes, we as rationally thinking adults can get ourselves back on track. Other times, we need a friend to help us. By using the strategies in this post, I hope you can be the friend students need when they’re off-task.

Kevin Mabie, Ed.D. is a Global Professional Instructor at Crisis Prevention Institute, and an educator with over 20 years of experience as a high school teacher and administrator. Dr. Mabie also facilitates trainings for the National School Reform Faculty.

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