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Stop Your Kids from Whining in 3 Easy Steps

17 Jul

no_whining (Photo credit: frotzed2)

In my last post, I wrote about an amazingly resilient student of mine. I also mentioned a student who would complain about anything (literally: she once stopped class to announce to me, sniffling, “My nose itches!”)

This sparked a great discussion in the comments section, and I thought that I would share some tactics that I’ve recently discovered for preventing whining in the classroom, and for bringing out the resilient, adorable darling within every kid:

Step 1. Clearly define “whining” with your kids. In my book, whining is:

  • Asking me to solve a problem that you could have solved yourself. (For example: the floor is sticky here! Well, go get a napkin and clean it up. I am not your maid.)
  • Complaining about a problem that cannot be solved. (For example: Maria doesn’t like me! I’m sorry that’s the case, hon, but I can’t make her like you, and you have to learn to accept the fact that not everybody will always like you. Other examples: I’m tired, I’m hungry, it’s hot. I can’t give you a bed, feed you, or change the weather in the middle of class. Sorry.)
  • Comparing yourself to another kid. For example: But you let Billy do a special project yesterday–so I should get to do one, too!  or You got me in trouble for this, but you didn’t get mad at Anthony! This is the toughest one to swallow, especially with younger kids who are obsessed with fairnessbut I can’t always catch every classroom misdemeanor, and to be a good teacher, you sometimes have to accommodate individual needs. This means that kids who are falling behind might get more attention than kids who are doing fine. Kids who are ahead of the game might get to do special enrichment projects. Sometimes, kids get away with breaking a rule because I don’t see the infraction. Is this fair? No. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Your students need to accept this. 
  • Pouting because you didn’t get what you wanted. (For example: our team lost the game because Lucy wasn’t fast enough! or I don’t want to practice multiplication today!) Too bad, kiddo. Unless it is either physically injuring you or seriously hindering your ability to learn, you’ve got to learn how to handle being in situations that you don’t like, sometimes. It’s a valuable life skill.

Step 2. Outlaw whining–and have consequences to back it up. This worked wonders with my itchy-nosed student–I told her that the next time she pouted and stopped participating in class, I would ask her to leave. She tested the waters once, but when I pointed out that she was pouting, and that this meant she would have to leave the class if she kept it up, she pulled herself together and joined right in. We haven’t had a problem with her since, and it’s been great to watch her apply her newly discovered energy to some really wonderful, creative work!

Step 3.  Offer constructive ways for students to share their needs and opinions. Whining is about attention–kids who are whiners just want you to listen to them. So give them attention for creating solutions and offering suggestions! Here are some tools that work well:

  • Class Comment Box. Offer students a place to put complaints and suggestions after class is over; this way, it doesn’t disrupt your work, but you still get to see what kids are thinking and adjust to their needs.
  • Individual Conferences. If you check in with your students individually, it will help clear the air of any serious problems and develop the trust that will allow them to accept your decisions even when they don’t like them.

Do you have any tactics for preventing whining? Please share them!


You Won’t Believe What This Kid Did

10 Jul

Right now, I’m teaching summer writing classes at a Boys and Girls Club. I have a 9-year-old girl in my class whose house burned down in February. She escaped the fire by throwing  a TV through a stuck window, but not everyone in the house was so lucky. Her stepfather died that night, and her mother only barely survived (she just came home from the burn unit, more than four months later.) After the fire, my student couldn’t go stay with her father or her brothers because they are all in jail. She currently lives with her older sister and three “ratchety” cousins (her words, not mine). She has every excuse in the world to be sullen, disengaged, and badly behaved.

But here’s the thing: she isn’t. Not even a little bit. Last week, she missed a class because she was out of town. Here is what she did when she got back:

She voluntarily left lunchtime–a prime time for social fun–half an hour early so that she could come to my class, find out what she had missed, and catch up before the next class started.

I didn’t ask her to do this. No one would have. It’s a casual summer course, and any adult would be willing to cut her some slack. But she didn’t want slack. She just showed up, sat down, and asked me for the assignments from the week before. Consider my mind officially blown.

Just for comparison: there’s another student in my class who came up to me one afternoon, sniffling and pouting, to complain, “My nose itches!” (No, I’m not making this up.)

Why is it, do you think, that some students are so much more self-directed and resilient than others? How can we teach all kids to be as incredible as this one student of mine? I’d love to hear your ideas!

The Most Important Thing We’re Not Teaching Our Students

9 May

Last week, the CRCT (a local standardized test) swooped down upon the Chatham County Public School System. With its intimidating blank answer sheets and telegraphic “STOP DO NOT TURN THE PAGE UNTIL INSTRUCTED STOP” commands, it bullied students through a battery of tests on math, reading, social studies, and science.

Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These tests try to cover all the bases of a good education. Though we can debate till the cows come home whether or not standardized tests measure student achievement in these areas reliably (I, myself, am still forming my opinion on this topic), there is no arguing the fact that these tests completely fail to measure one extremely important element of a child’s education: emotional intelligence.

Though we may be teaching our students basic academic skills, are we teaching them the emotional intelligence they need to use those skills thoughtfully? How can we tell?

Studies show that students who demonstrate emotional intelligence (which includes being aware of, understanding, and managing one’s own emotions and the emotions of others) are far less likely to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. They are also more likely to become successful leaders and entrepreneurs.

Writing teachers are in a unique position to teach this skill; studies show that reading and writing increase emotional awareness and help students to put themselves in others’ shoes (see this New York Times article for more details). So why isn’t this kind of emotional growth just as big of a focus in schools as the ability to comprehend a scientific passage on toads? Why don’t we try to measure this, too?

There are lots of interesting “EQ” (emotional IQ) tests available to educators, and I am thinking of using them in my classroom to assess my own students’ emotional growth over the course of the year.

What do you think? Should we give our students “EQ” tests? What are some other ways that we can measure the effect that we have on our students’ abilities to handle their emotions?

Put Your Lesson Where Your Mouth Is

23 Mar

When you are planning a writing assignment for your students, how do you know if it will work?


Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What are the odds that you will have to yank the words out of your students like so many rotten teeth, and what are the chances that your assignment will ignite your students like little rockets of creativity?

If you are like me, you have had both of these experiences. You dread the former, and you chase after the latter like the Holy Grail. But what if I told you that you could take all the guesswork out of this process? What if you could know for sure–every time–what will work for your students and what won’t?

Well, you can. Here’s the trick: do it yourself first.

I actually stole this trick from my colleagues John Powers and Kim Reilly during a class that we co-taught, and it completely changed the way that I teach. Every time we planned a lesson, we wrote the assignment ourselves first. It became instantly apparent to us when we had a great writing prompt, and when we had a writing prompt that was too boring, too abstract, or too prone to cliche–not to mention the fact that these exercises made us better writers, better examples to our students, and thus better teachers. (Plus, your students are far more likely to get excited about a prompt when they see that you found it interesting and worthwhile enough to do it yourself.)

Try it yourself and let me know how it works for you!