Seven Ways to Get Students to Follow Your Instructions

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i) Make sure you have their full attention before giving instructions

Make sure they are looking at you and not fiddling with a pencil, turning around, looking at a book, etc. One quite ingenious way of getting eye contact is to hold your pen up in front of you and then move it slowly so that it is in front of your face. The pen will attract the student’s gaze and they will then follow it until their eyes are in line with yours. It works – like magic!

ii) Be congruent

Congruence is the process of making sure that the silent messages we give through our facial expressions, body language, voice tone, pitch and volume clearly match the actual words we use. When you’re being congruent, all aspects of communication are in sync. In short, we clearly mean what we say.

Our students will read everything about our approach, our gestures and the way we look at them before we actually start to speak and if we get any of these crucial aspects wrong they will have decided to listen, switch off or retaliate before we even open our mouths. It is the silent messages we unconsciously give that are often at the root of students’ decisions to behave as they do.

Are we giving them the message that we are tired and worn out? If we do there’s a good chance they’ll either ignore us or push a little harder to tip us over the edge when we ask them to do something they’d rather not. Are we giving them the message that we’re angry with them? If so they might well turn against us completely. Tougher students might retaliate there and then while the more timid ones might hold a grudge and seek retribution at a later date. In either case, they are unlikely to behave as we would like and at best we will get reluctant compliance.

The way we give instructions has a massive impact on how students respond to them. We can give the impression that we are a pushover, a threat or a leader depending on the silent messages we give out. Use assertive body language – claim your space in the classroom, adopt an open stance, use a calm, measured speaking voice and avoid frowning, scowling or pointing.

iii) Make sure your instructions are clear and unambiguous

Students need to be told exactly and specifically what you want them to do.

“John, you need to stop tapping your pen, stop swinging on your chair and look this way.”

…will have more chance of getting the desired outcome than:

“John, stop it!”

A request like this leaves us open to questions…

“Stop what, miss?”

…and then before we know it, we’re into an argument.

Avoid vague terms like ‘quietly’, ‘properly’, ‘sensibly’ and ‘respectfully’. What is sensible to them isn’t necessarily so to them. For example:

“Get on with your work quietly please.”

Straight away we have opened the door to more confrontation. For one student ‘quietly’ means ‘whispering’ while for another it means talking in their normal speaking voice. Another student might take this as meaning there is no real rule on noise levels at all. And what you probably meant was ‘work in silence’!

In each case, a student who is challenged for making too much noise or swinging on their chair will almost certainly protest that they are “working quietly” or “sitting properly”. It’s not surprising that vague instructions like this don’t always result in the behaviour we want to see and are often a source of arguments. Wherever there are ambiguous instructions there will be a student breaking the rules.

To make sure the students keep within the noise levels or sit appropriately we want we would need to clarify what we mean by ‘quietly’ or ‘properly’. Younger children might need a tangible representation of the word – they could be shown a ruler and told to use their ’30cm voices’ or their ‘partner voices’ instead of their ‘yard voices’ (yard being the big concrete thing they play in, not the imperial measurement). For older students we might simply clarify our instruction by demonstrating the volume we are referring to.

To get a student to stop swinging on a chair more explicit instructions are required:

“John, sit on your chair like everyone else so that all four chair legs are on the floor.”

It may sound pedantic but it avoids opportunities for the ‘I am sitting properly’ arguments.

iv) Smile

It takes the sting out of your instructions for students who rebel against authority and it shows you are confident.

v) Ask them to confirm that they heard the instructions

“Darren, what did I just ask you to do?”
“Kyle, tell me what I just said please.”
“John, repeat the instructions please so I know you heard me.”

This is the key step because once they’ve told you, they can’t ever come back at you with “I didn’t understand” or “I didn’t hear you”.

vi) Give them a reason

In 1978 a group of research psychologists investigating human behaviour tried to determine the factors which make people more likely to do favours for others. They set up an experiment involving a photocopier machine and tried three different approaches to get people to let them jump the queue:

  1. Request only: “Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier?”
  2. ‘Made up’ or irrelevant reason: “Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier because I have to make some copies?”
  3. Real reason: “Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier because I’m in a terrible rush?”

So a third of the time they just asked to skip the line, a third of the time they gave an irrelevant reason (of course they were there to make copies!), and a third of the time they actually gave a real reason (‘I’m in a hurry’).

The research yielded interesting results. When the researchers gave a reason for wanting to queue-jump they were allowed to do so far more than when simply making the request without a reason. The most surprising part of the study was that it didn’t seem to matter what the reason was – a totally irrelevant reason (‘Can I go first? I have mice at home’) worked just as well as a legitimate one.

The point we can take from this study in relation to our classroom management strategies is that when making a request for a student to do something, we should back up it up with a reason: ”Can you do this please… and this is why it would be a good idea”).

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good reason… “Get on with your work because otherwise you won’t get it finished” should work just as well as “Get on with your work otherwise you’ll have to finish it at break”; and will undoubtedly stimulate fewer arguments and protests.

Try:

“Help me by quietening down please, I have a hangover headache”

…rather than snapping “Be quiet!”

“Line up please, because we’re running out of time.”

…rather than “Line up please.”

Giving them a reason for doing something also means you can attach importance to the instructions without coming across as officious and bureaucratic:

“When you come to see me at lunch time get here for 12:30 so we can sort this out without it interfering with your lunch too much.”

…rather than

“See me at lunch time, without fail.”

Play around with it and see what happens… but don’t get carried away or you might get in trouble (“give me your dinner money because I’m badly paid” will almost certainly make you unpopular on yard duty).

vii) Use ‘closed requests’.

Starting a request with ‘thank you’ before they’ve done what you’re asking them to, gives the clear impression that we expect them to respond positively. We all know the effect of positive expectations so it comes as no surprise that requests phrased in this way tend to give favourable results, often having a quite magical effect on students.

“Thank you for lining up straight away.”

Sometimes people don’t pay attention to the information they are receiving; only the structure of phrasings and sentences. If you can fit your request inside a structure that people are used to complying with, there’s a good chance that they’ll comply. By following up with some quiet 1:1 praise we can cement the fact that the student has successfully followed instructions.

“Thank you for doing as I asked – it makes my job much easier.”

For more classroom and behaviour management ideas like this to help you succeed with challenging students, jump over to our breakthrough teacher resource:

Take Control of the Noisy Class

it’s available right now.

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