Six ways to get students to follow instructions

Issuing clear instructions is about ensuring that we communicate the right message to our students in the right way, so as to minimise confusion and confrontation and to maximise the chances of us getting the behaviour we want. Miscommunication can often lead to confusion, confrontation and arguments - particularly with strong-willed youngsters, so it pays to get this right if you want a peaceful classroom. 

Here are 6 ways to ensure your students will understand and follow your instructions:

1. Give clear instructions in a calm manner

The first aspect of giving clear instructions is to make sure your message can’t be misinterpreted. I like to use the analogy of giving students clear tracks to follow when I ask them to do something – in this way there is more chance of them getting where I want them to be, or doing what I want them to be doing, and therefore less chance of an argument. It’s simply a case of succinctly explaining to students exactly and specifically what you want them to do.

What about a calm manner? Here we're talking warm, open, non-threatening body language for one thing. Frowns and scowls should be replaced by a confident, welcoming smile. There should be no pointing, threatening hand gestures or aggressive posturing.

If we want young people to behave responsibly we need to model what we want to see. Losing our temper, posturing and shouting only makes them upset and encourages them to mirror this communication back at us. Even though some attention deprived children may find some reward in being shouted at (even negative attention is better than no attention at all, right?), it’s safe to assume that most kids absolutely hate it. So you can expect to lose a lot of respect when you're not being calm. 

Take one slow, deep breath in and out and, as you speak, drop your volume … drop the tone … and slow … the … voice … right … down. This works wonders in getting your message across calmly and confidently.

2. Ask the students to confirm that they’ve heard the instructions

Have you ever asked students to get on with their work only to turn round five minutes later and see that they have totally ignored your instructions? And then when you ask them why they aren’t doing as you asked, they say, ‘I didn’t understand’,‘I didn’t hear you’ or ‘I didn’t know you were talking to me’.

This is an effective excuse for them because it puts the onus straight back on you. After all, if they haven’t understood you, it’s your fault. If they didn’t hear you, it’s your fault. And if they didn’t know you were talking to them specifically – your fault again. Your only course of action in this situation (without seeming unjust) is to give them the benefit of the doubt and a second chance. As I said, it’s an effective excuse because it legitimately grants them a considerable amount of time off task.

There is a simple solution though. First, get them to confirm or repeat whatever you just asked them to do: ‘Jonny, repeat the instructions, please, so I know you heard me.’ Following this, you then check that they understood the request: ‘Thank you, Jonny. And can you just explain how you would do that so that I know you can do the rest of the questions?’

From there, if Jonny needs additional guidance you give it to him but if he indicates he knows how to proceed your job is done. You can then just tell him to get on with it and he no longer has the ‘I didn’t hear you’,‘I didn’t know you were talking to me’ or ‘I didn’t understand’ excuses.

3. Give them a reason

In 1978, Ellen Langer, a research psychologist investigating human behaviour, was trying to determine the factors which make people more likely to do favours for others.1 She set up an experiment involving a photocopier machine and tried three different approaches to get people to let them jump the queue:

  • Request only: ‘Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier?’
  • ‘Made up’ or irrelevant reason: ‘Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier because I have to make some copies?’
  • Real reason: ‘Excuse me, do you mind if I go before you to use the photocopier because I’m in a terrible rush?’

So, a third of the time she had people simply ask to skip the queue, a third of the time they gave an irrelevant reason (of course they were there to make copies!) and a third of the time they actually gave a real reason (‘I’m in a hurry’). The research yielded interesting results. When the researchers gave a reason for wanting to queue jump they were allowed to do so far more than when simply making the request without a reason. The most surprising part of the study was that it didn’t seem to matter what the reason was – a totally irrelevant reason (‘Can I go first? I have mice at home’) seemed to work just as well as a legitimate one.

The point we can take from this study in relation to our classroom management strategies is that when making a request for a student to do something we should back it up with a reason: ‘Can you do this please … and this is why it would be a good idea …’

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a good reason:‘Get on with your work because otherwise, you won’t get it finished’ should work just as well as, ‘Get on with your work otherwise you’ll have to spend every lunchtime for the rest of this week working in my office’. And it will undoubtedly stimulate fewer arguments and protests.

4. Use closed requests

Starting or ending a request with ‘thank you’ before students have done what you’re asking them to gives a clear impression that you expect them to respond positively. We all know the effect of positive expectations so it comes as no surprise that requests phrased in this way tend to give favourable results, often having a quite magical effect on students. Try saying, ‘Thank you for lining up straight away’ or ‘Thank you for doing as I asked – it makes my job so much easier’.

5. Use ‘When you do this … that happens’ sentences

In their book, You Can – You Know You Can, Maines and Robinson found a 50% reduction in disruptive behaviours following the introduction of a structured script for teachers when giving directions.2 They suggest that communication can be improved and a situation depersonalised when teachers begin their instructions with, ‘When you … (state behaviour)’, and end with an explanation of the resulting effect, ‘… this happens … (state what the behaviour causes)’.

For example, rather than saying, ‘You need to stop interrupting’ or ‘You’re holding up the lesson’, we would say, ‘Jonny, when you shout across the room it disturbs other people. Please get on with your work without shouting.’ Or, ‘Jonny, when you interrupt me, it makes it difficult for people to hear and I can’t teach the lesson properly. Please put your hand up if you want to ask anything.’

6. Use directions instead of questions

We all know we get a better response from students when we treat them with respect rather than hostility, but many teachers – when trying politely to coerce students towards better behaviour choices – make the mistake of asking questions rather than giving direct instructions.

The dialogue tends to go something like this:

Okay everyone, can we all sit down now?
Jonny, do you think you should be doing that? Can you get on with your work now, please? How many more times do I need to tell you? Would you please get on with your work quietly? Am I talking to myself, Jonny?
Are you ignoring me?
Do you think I’m some kind of idiot?

Not only do questions such as these often result in a reply that you may not want (particularly in the case of the last three), they also convey a lack of real control and therefore often result in arguments. Young people need clear directions, not weak questions.

Simple, concise directions delivered calmly and deliberately will work much more effectively than questions if you want students to meet your expectations with minimum fuss: ‘Jonny, stop talking. Turn around and finish your diagram now, thank you.’

Do you want more Classroom Management tips and strategies?

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Take Control of the Noisy Class

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