SETTING LIMITS, SAYING NO COURTEOUSLY, AND ‘CAN I GO TO... ?’

From howls of protest when their teachers make unpopular decisions to endless debates about possible answers on a test, many students are used to getting their own way if they nag loudly enough. Setting reasonable limits, learning how to refuse student demands courteously, and managing persistent requests to leave the classroom are all crucial parts of an effective classroom management plan that can reduce boundary testing and convey to students that you care enough to have high standards for their behavior.

One way to create a positive discipline climate is to remove as much of the emotion from the situation as you can when students are argumentative. It’s not always easy to resist when students appear ready to argue endlessly, but those teachers who can take a calm and straightforward approach will find it much easier to deal with student misbehavior. When you are aware that your decisions will be tested, it will be easier for you to remain firm in your resolve to provide a safe and productive learning environment for all students.

Although it is sometimes difficult, resist the temptation to be a pushover when you set limits for students. Many teachers give in more frequently than they should. It’s very easy to allow students “just one more chance” out of kindness. In the long run, this often fails as students continually struggle to gain their own way.

Adopt the stance that although you are kind, you are also a teacher who means what you say. Calmly project a matter-of-fact attitude whenever you relay the enforcement of an unpopular decision, and you will find that setting limits and abiding by them is not as difficult as it seems.

You should be careful not only to be fair, but also to make sure your students perceive your decisions as being fair. Make it a point to pre-empt student challenges by letting your students know you intend to be fair to everyone in the class when you make decisions that affect the entire group.

Learn to Refuse Student Requests Courteously

One of the most useful skills that any educator can develop is the ability to refuse a student’s request without causing offense. Although it may seem impossible considering the constant demands on a teacher’s attention, this is not as difficult as it appears. Instead of abruptly refusing, try one of the statements or questions that follow. Each is designed to deny a student request in a pleasant, nonconfrontational way that preserves the student’s dignity. Remember to keep your tone neutral, pleasant and as matter-of-fact as possible.

  • Can you tell me why that would not work?
  • Let me think about that for a little while.
  • Let’s talk about that after class.
  • Let’s try to finish this first.
  • Are you sure that’s wise?
  • I don’t think that is the best decision because...  
  • Are you sure that’s a wise choice?
  • Could you give me a moment to think about it?
  • Can this wait?
  • What are the pros and cons involved in your request?
  • How are you planning to do that?
  • Would you ask me again in a moment?
  • Have you finished your assignment?
  • How will that help you achieve your goal?
  • Why don’t you give that some more thought?
  • Why are you asking?
  • What is our class rule (policy, procedure) about that?

Avoiding the “Can I Go, to... ?” Syndrome

One of the most frequent classroom situations that requires the establishment of reasonable limits, plenty of teacher patience, and courteous refusals involves students requesting to leave the room. This request is not a problem until it becomes obvious that students are using it just to escape boredom, are not going where they have permission to be, ask to leave the room too often, or are out of class for too long. Many teachers also note that the problem seems to be contagious—as soon as one student leaves the room, several others will make the same request.

There are many proactive ways to set limits regarding restroom breaks, depending on the age and maturity of your students. One easy way to reduce requests to leave is to build in plenty of opportunities for wiggle breaks, conversation, and student movement during each class period. Paying attention to the times when students tend to be restless will make it easier for you to take a compassionate stance while still maintaining an orderly classroom.

You should also establish the procedures for student requests to leave the classroom and teach those procedures to your students. Begin by discussing the issue with colleagues to get a sense of the standard procedures in your school. The more united you can be as a faculty in dealing with the issue of restroom breaks, the easier it will be to manage at the classroom level.

Some teachers find that setting a reasonable number of requests (usually three or four) per grading period works while others prefer to handle each request individually. Be sure to have a sign-out sheet or some other way of recording the names of students who leave the room so that you can keep track of who has left the classroom.

If you have a student who persistently requests to leave or who insists that every request is an emergency, check with your school nurse or phone home to discuss the problem with the student’s parents or guardians. Because of the possible negative consequences, do not refuse to let a student who requests to leave to use the restroom, unless you have explicit directions from an administrator to do so. The possible negative consequences of such a refusal make it necessary to involve other adults so that the needs of the student are met.