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Dialogue—Communicating Disapproval with Students: A Spin-Off Piece in Response to On Becoming an Effective Praiser

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Amanda Fernandez

Empowering Learners


Fernandez shows deep thinking in her piece about how to appropriately convey disapproval to students.


Dialogue—Communicating Disapproval with Students: A Spin-Off Piece in Response to On Becoming an Effective Praiser

Though it is important to acknowledge students’ successes in the classroom, it is also important to express disapproval when inappropriate behavior takes place. This, however, is not always as easy and concrete a concept as administering compliments is in the event of “good” behavior. Confronting “bad” (or in the very lest, questionable) behavior requires tact and discussion. The way we address people—especially students--from a position of power such as that of the teacher, in many ways, shapes the way that individual perceives others in powerful standings, and the way they perceive themselves as an individual. While dialogue has potential to be a very empowering tool, it most often seems easier to utilize dialogue as an inhibiting tool.

In my recent field placement I noticed the teacher’s, Ms. T’s tendency to express her disapproval towards certain students’ behavior by imposing her opinion on their decisions and then explaining her the reasoning behind her opinions. For example, a student will decide to get up and look at books instead of doing their morning job. Ms. T immediately approaches this by reprimanding the student in a manner similar to the following; “ Jake! You are making a bad decision buddy! This is a warning. Sit down, now.” Here I see a couple of things. The educator hangs the illusion of an identity as a decision maker before the student but denies them an important learning opportunity of thinking critically about their decisions and why they make them.  Ms. T may be confusing her students as well—for following this incident, as another student blatantly lied to me about what he was supposed to be doing, Ms. T tells the student, “Don’t lie. You are being irresponsible!” What is this student to know about responsibility in regards to their actions, if Ms. T is constantly assigning a moral value to their behaviors and decisions to act in such ways? Interesting!

What if Ms. T were to engage in discussions with her students about the motives behind her student’s behavior, perhaps asking a, “Why did you decide to do that? Do you think that was a good idea? Why (Why not)?” before conveying her opinion and thoughts on the matter. By denying her students the ability to analyze their actions, she is also robbing them of opportunities to develop critical reasoning as well as inhibiting their roles as agents by inspiring conformity and compliance. This is a concept and fear shared by author and progressive education advocate, Alfie Kohn. In Beyond Discipline: from Compliance to Community, Kohn expresses the need for there to be dissonance b[AL1] etween students and “the rules” or authoritative people/systems, “because that is how children become thinkers—by making up their own minds about whether something makes sense and figuring out how to convince others” (Kohn 76).

 Kohn also presents the idea that students’ “objections” or the objecting reasons underlying their behaviors if discouraged or punished will not go away, but will be left unanswered and become life-long struggles as well as baggage with which students will contest with from within the system; “…to discourage (let alone punish) objections is to sacrifice the development of judgment to the imperative of conformity. Denying students a voice, however, does not make their objections disappear: it just sweeps them under the carpet where people will trip over them—that is, where they will make their presence felt in ways that are less productive than rational argument.” (Kohn 76) Dialogue means, empowerment, relief from these burdens and also a means for students to become not complacent but instead, “become active participants in their own social and ethical development.” (Kohn 76)

I assume that educators avoid having a respectful human dialogue with students, and especially young students because they assume that a) the child will not understand b) perhaps somewhere in their subconscious, they believe that the child does not deserve to have a say in a reaction to being called out c) they will thin out the thick barriers that enforce a fearful respect attitude towards the teacher and lose control over the students; “…the fact that a respectful dialogue may interfere with one’s attempt to control” (Kohn 76). However, there are advantages to breaking down these walls and engaging in human dialogue—you build a human relationship which enables communicating and hence community.

In the same way that students have an individual style of learning, each has their own style of receiving disapproval. By receiving I mean to say, each student responds to different expressions in different ways—and sometimes just by experimenting with one’s approach as an educator, at the expression, one can reach and communicate with the student more efficiently.  One student in Ms. T’s class, CJ, is notorious for being a chatty and distracted/distracting student. I’ve noticed that every time CJ acts out, Ms. T calls him out harshly and sends him away from the activity. CJ is usually obstinate towards the scolding and refuses to listen to take responsibility for his actions.  I decided that I would discreetly express disapproval positively. As contradicting as it sounds, this tactic was efficient in a way I never thought.

During their Poetry Month activity, CJ had some of his little sketches out instead of his work. Before Ms. T could notice and scold him in her usual fashion, I walked over and kneeled next to him (I think facing a student eye to eye is important too—conveys seriousness and demonstrates a real intent on behalf of the teacher to communicate whilst alleviating systematic power hierarchy at a physical level) and told him quietly, “Hey CJ, those are really nice drawings, but I don’t think it’s the time for that. Would you mind putting them away? You can probably work on them at recess anyway.”  He smiled; flattered by my compliment, and without whining he put them away. I think that my communication with him was clear—and didn’t force him into compliance but instead asked for compromise.

I also experienced a situation in which a student would not move over to make room for his peers. When he did move over (with my prompting) he was clearly upset at not having his way. The teacher saw that he was tearing up and demanded quite harshly that he wipe his tears and get over it. This response -- which stunts emotion and possibly also inhibits a student’s ability to grapple with the negative emotions associated with having made a mistake -- scandalized me. Not feeling good about a poor decision is part of the consequences that make a person not want to repeat the mistake—demanding that student shake-off their emotions has the same effect as imposing labels on decisions; an inability to grapple with emotions and reason why such emotions are being felt. Good point!

            In summation, there are some key things to remember when expressing disapproval;

1. Be frank. Both the student and the educator are humans and it is natural to disapprove of something and say so.

2. Remember to ask questions about the behavior, get some of the student’s opinions, value them and then offer your input.

3. Don’t try to cut the connections between the student’s behaviors and subsequent response emotions.

4. Address the student with respect—not from an elevated angle (physically and metaphorically)!














Kohn, Alfie. Beyond Discipline from Compliance to Community. Alexandria: Assn Supervn & Curr Dev, 2006. Print.

 [AL1]Good point, good word