It all comes down to fundamentals: “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” go a long way toward establishing a respectful classroom climate. That's pretty easy to understand.
But taking social skills to the next level requires that a tone of respect permeate your classroom in both words and deeds.
Teachers (as always) set the tone
As with the teaching of all other classroom values, this begins with you. Teacher-student relationships form a foundation for learning respect, and children who learn to act respectfully toward adults will also act more respectfully toward each other.
Classroom routines are built upon repetition, and routines of respect must be practiced in three areas:
- not interrupting
- tone of voice
- choice of words
Let's look more closely at each one.
This is huge. This can be very difficult for kids to learn, but nothing is more important for establishing a respectful classroom climate.
Think of conversations between many of the adults that you know; what it really boils down to is two people who can't wait for the other person to stop talking so they can say what is on their own mind.
Here's how to handle different scenarios.
➤ If a student interrupts while you are teaching or speaking to the class, say:
“Excuse me Diana, I wasn't asking for input. Please hold your comment until I am done.”
➤ If a student interrupts while you are speaking to another adult, say:
“This is an adult conversation. Go back to what you were doing until we are finished.”
The words, “adult conversation” is their cue to leave and not stand by waiting (and listening). On the other hand, if it is OK for them to stand by, let them know that.
➤ If a student interrupts while you are speaking to another child, say:
“I'm helping Andreaz first, please wait.”
“It's not polite to interrupt; please wait until I'm done.”
➤ If a student interrupts while another student is speaking to the class, say:
“Let's respectfully listen to Kristina. You can have a turn when she's done.”
The exception to these scenarios is the “bathroom emergency.” Let your kids know up front that if they have a true emergency and need to interrupt, they can say, “I'm sorry, it's an emergency.” It's still interrupting, but at least it is done politely.
Classroom meetings: a perfect place to practice
Classroom meetings are a good place for kids to practice not interrupting each other. When each student has a turn to speak, other children can begin to appreciate the value of listening to another person's input and ideas from start to finish.
This does more than just foster a respectful classroom climate; it reinforces student-to-student relationships as well.
Moderating tone of voice
Tone of voice can be a tricky area, for what sounds fine to one person can sound a little testy to someone more sensitive. We are not looking to create meek children who never speak, so for our purposes, it is enough to focus on loudness of voice rather than the nuances of tone when teaching respect.
Model how to speak, even when speaking with emotion and intensity, without shouting. Raising your voice a little is fine, but a teacher should never truly shout at her kids unless it is a safety issue, as in:
“Stop! That will burn you!”
… projected across the room during a classroom cooking session. If you save your “loud voice” for those situations, you can bet that you'll get immediate attention when it really matters.
But 99% of the time, use your “inside voice” and insist that the kids do the same. When making a correction to loudness, it is usually most effective to do more than just remind; ask the offending student to repeat what was said at an appropriate level to reinforce your expectations.
Choosing nice words
Elementary kids are pretty straightforward in their speech and not generally capable of disrespect based on a turn of phrase, so word choice comes down to use of inappropriate words.
Words like, “stupid,” “dumb,” or “retarded” have absolutely no place in your classroom.
These words can be very hurtful. Use of them should result in an apology to an individual and/or the entire class by the offending student.
A word about cultural expectations regarding word choices. Different ethnic groups and regions have differing expectations, particularly regarding honorifics. For example, if the norm in your area is the use of “sir” and “ma'am,” then you should enforce this custom when teaching respect.
Teaching politeness to students
Politeness can have a dramatic impact on a student's ability to “play nice” and otherwise function in a close-knit classroom community. Fortunately, anyone can learn to be polite.
Even the most cranky person, either child or adult, can learn to be polite. Why? It's simple: politeness is a habit that relies on just a few key words. I bet you can guess which ones I'm talking about:
- thank you
- excuse me
No surprises there, huh? But the most effective types of communication in the classroom often start with such simple phrases.
As I said, anyone can learn to be polite… just picture the meanest person you can, such as your uptight neighbor who hates your cat or the “you're not getting a refund” person on the customer assistance line. If they use “please” and “thank you” (and maybe a couple “have a nice day's”), you'll end up complaining bitterly about them but will also say:
“Well, they were polite, but they were still mean!”
If a few magic words can paint a veneer of civility on the meanest people you can think of, then imagine what they can do for those sweet kids in your class!
Video tips: teaching students politeness
Challenges to teaching social skills
Here are two of the challenges you will face:
1. Home life
Families place varying degrees of importance on politeness and working together. Frankly, some parents don't even insist on “please” and “thank you” from their children, let alone some of the other niceties. (And “please” and “thank you” are the basics of social skills worldwide, no matter your nationality or culture.)
This can certainly challenge a teacher's classroom management philosophy of polite interaction!
Some children arrive at school completely well-trained in social skills… based upon the expectations in their parents' home country. Many of these kids are speaking English as a second language and have difficulty appreciating nuances of American phrases and idioms (e.g. “getting your ducks in a row” = “getting organized.”)
This, of course, is not a show-stopper. As noted above, politeness is a habit and anyone can learn it. Just be aware that it may not be reinforced at home, so for some kids it may take a bit longer.
Setting the respect and politeness example
As with any skill taught at school, politeness and other social skills are first modeled and reinforced at the group level, and second tailored at the individual level as needed. Enough cannot be said of the importance of your example when reinforcing these social skills.
Always thank a student who fulfills a request; use “please” and “excuse me” repeatedly throughout the day.
To make your point obvious, ratchet up your politeness about one notch above everyday normal. Try for a touch more formal than you'd be around regular family – maybe the level you'd use around strangers… or meeting your in-laws for the first time!
The next step is to insist on polite behavior from the kids. Pause and point out missing “pleases,” etc. whether they are in conversation with you or with each other.
Daily classroom politeness practice
When guests are expected in your room, have the kids practice how to ask questions. If they are receiving gifts, such as free books from a local charity, give them the exact words and behaviors to use to express their thanks:
“Thank you so much for the book. I really like to read about frogs!”
Praise them lavishly afterward for their stellar performances.
Asking to use the restroom is another area where I insist on proper form:
“May I use the restroom please?”
… is the way they must ask. If I hear:
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
… I let them know that I'm sure they can go there, but that isn't how we ask!
Thanking lunch helpers that serve their food is a great way for kids to practice being gracious. I also make sure they thank classroom workers for doing their jobs, especially paper-passers, even when they hand out worksheets – I love it when kids learn to thank each other for giving them work to do!
Respect and politeness grease the wheels of civilized society and orderly classrooms. They are fairly simple to instill, very effective at establishing a foundation for the ideal classroom climate and go a long way toward making your job a lot more enjoyable!