Non-Violent Communication: An Effective Way To Handle Difficult Students

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For some reason, I tend to get the admiration and respect of “difficult students.” Wait…I know the reason, because I follow the tenets explained in this website and forthcoming book.

At any rate, let me start by reminding you a basic premise of being a popular and great teacher: students are human beings. Difficult students have needs and desires just like you. They have bad days and ineffective ways of handling things, just like you. Nonetheless, kids like to test teachers, and sometimes their personalities or behavior can push us to our limits. As we know, screaming often doesn’t work. Sometimes, even traditional discipline (detention, etc) doesn’t work. What I am about to share may just work when nothing else does, and will build rapport, as opposed to break rapport (which traditional discipline can sometimes do). When a students is doing something you don’t like, instead of judging them and yelling, try this.

This solution is a way of communicating by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, called Non-Violent Communication. It is well worth reading Rosenberg’s books on the subject. I will cover this more later on through various posts, and more extensively in our upcoming book, but basically Rosenberg correctly asserts that people tend to respond when you make requests by expressing feelings and needs, instead of judging them. If Rosenberg can help gang members and warring tribes get along, his ideas can help you! Below I list the steps to expressing your own needs using NVC and avoiding judgment.

Step One: Begin the statement with an  observation instead of a judgement

Simply observe the behavior, rather than attaching any kind of judgement to it. For example, if a kid is talking while you are talking, you could say, “be quiet, you are being so disrespectful” (a judgment) or “quit being such a brat” (judgment). That is not observing, but making a value judgment. An observation would be like the two examples below.

Examples: “When you talk when I am talking…” “When you throw things…”

Step Two: Express Your Feelings

Next, share how you feel. It is important to share a feeling as opposed to saying “I feel like…” When we say “I feel like you aren’t…” we are using “I feel” as a synonym for “I think.” It is important to share your emotion, as shown below. Some emotions might be sad, happy, frustrated, angry, etc.

Examples: “Blake, when you talk when I am talking, I feel frustrated” or “It aggravates me when you talk when I am talking”

Step Three: Express What Need Is Not Being Met

We all have the same basic needs. Rosenberg lists the major ones as: sustenance (food, shelter, etc), safety, love, understanding, community, recreation, and one of the most important, autonomy. When we express how we feel, coupled with a need, we avoid judgment and indirect, passive nonsense (like “oh you should know how I feel”). You don’t have to say “I have a need for autonomy” but say it in a way that is age/culture-appropriate. I also prefer saying “I want…” as opposed to “I need” in many cases because it is closer to my natural way of expressing things.

Examples: “When you talk when I am talking, it frustrates me, because I want everyone in the class to hear the lesson (a need for community)” or “When you throw things I get worried for the safety of the class (need for safety)”

Step Four: Make a Request

Because you have not judged, and because you have shared your feelings, people are more likely to respond, students included. However, you need to make a request of them, so they know what action on their part will help meet your need. Keep the request related to the need, and find a way for everyone to get his or her needs met. Notice on the second example below, I inject a little humor as well. Again, remember that students have needs too. Most students are not out to “get you”; they just have needs themselves that may not be met, so most of them will actually comply with your requests if they trust and like you. NVC helps you show them you are genuine and not judging them. (In the future we will discuss using NVC to determine student needs, as opposed to simply expressing your own needs.)

Examples: “It frustrates me when you talk when I am talking, because I want the class to hear the lesson. Could you please save the conversation for after the lesson is over?” “When you throw things I get worried for the safety of other students, so could you wait until football practice starts to throw things?”

Try NVC sometime and see what happens! You may be amazed what happens when you move from judging and accusing to communicating genuinely.

About David Bennett

David Bennett is a teacher, author, and speaker. His articles receive over a million hits per year and have appeared in a variety of publications. He is co-owner of a communication company, and he also writes for The Popular Teen and other sites. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.