How to give instructions so that pupils will listen

It can drive even the most experienced teachers mad when a pupil refuses to follow instructions or refuses to change their behaviour after being asked to. It could be because the pupil hasn’t heard you, doesn’t want to hear you and is pretending they haven’t, or they have blatantly heard you and don’t want to comply. Either way, following these seven tips will maximise your chances of getting co-operation from your pupils.

1) Eye contact

Making eye contact before giving an instruction ensures that you have their attention. Maintain eye contact until compliance.

2) Use ‘I’ statements

In most conflicts people use ‘you’ statements, for example “you are being inconsiderate”. ‘You’ statements are often subjective judgements that incite blame, and in most cases result in the other person becoming defensive or having a ‘flight or fight’ response. In defence, the other person might say “no I’m not!” and the dispute continues.

‘I’ statements are facts about ourselves that are indisputable for example “I feel upset and need some consideration”, or “I would like you to sit down and continue with your work so I can carry on teaching, thank you”. Unlike ‘you’ statements, ‘I’ statements don’t provoke dispute because a pupil isn’t likely to say ‘no you’re not upset’. They often connect your feelings, needs and intentions and it can incite empathy.

3) Say what behaviour you want (not what behaviour you want them to stop)

Instead of saying “stop talking” say “I want you to sit in silence and look this way so I know you are listening, thank you”. I use the analogy of a wife asking her husband to stop working so much. He then quits his job and takes up golf full time and the wife doesn’t see any more of him! Telling someone what you don’t want doesn’t necessarily tell them what you do want. You could tell a pupil to stop talking and they comply but start tapping their pen or writing notes to their friend.

4) Avoid ambiguous terms like quietly, properly, sensibly respectfully.

These terms are subjective and may mean something different to different people. It is also difficult for the pupils to establish if they have complied or not. Instead of saying ‘quietly’ say ‘use your 30cm voice’ where no one should be able to hear you outside of 30cm. If some can hear you outside of 30cm it is an objective fact and the pupils hasn’t complied.

5)Give a reason why.

An experiment was conducted where some asked if they could jump the queue to use the photocopier. The first time they just asked. The second time they gave a reason why they wanted to jump the queue but the reason didn’t give anyone any information that they didn’t know already. They said ‘please can I jump the queue because I need to make some copies’. The third time they gave a more insightful reason and said ‘…because I have a lesson in 2 minutes’.

The experiment identified that giving a reason, significantly improved the chances of compliance. It also showed that it didn’t matter whether the reason was something the obviously already new or an insightful reason, compliance wasn’t significantly affected. Therefore no matter how obvious you think the reason is, always give one. For example instead of saying “sit on your chair properly” say “sit on the chair with all four legs on the ground so I know you are safe, thank you”.

The reason you give is either going to be for their wellbeing, for your wellbeing or the wellbeing of the other pupils in the class.

6) ‘Thank you’ instead’ of ‘please’

Saying “Please can you do your work”, is disempowering for the teacher because it sounds like you are pleading. Saying ‘I would like you to do your work because I care about your education, thank you’, implies that compliance is a given and all there is left to do is say thank you.

7) Turn instructions into questions.

Instead of saying ‘stop talking’ which can be easily dismissed, try asking a question like “how do you think you’re talking might be affecting me and the rest of the class?”. This not only makes the pupil active in the process which ensures that they have heard and understood you, it also develops empathy and consideration within the group.