Getting your tone right

Gita Krenek

Someone once said, “Speech was given to man to hide his thoughts.” While this may be a rather extreme view, there are indeed some people who – possibly in an attempt to spare one’s feelings – beat around the bush and allude to things so obliquely that you are never quite sure what their point is. On the other hand, there are people who are direct to the point of bluntness, and in so doing, tread on a lot of toes.

The way we say something can be just as important as what we say. How we speak to children, therefore, has a large effect on the degree of co-operation or enthusiasm we manage to elicit.

Here is an interesting experiment. Stand somewhere rather private (you don’t want people to think you are losing your marbles). Put your hand on your throat and say something in exactly the same way that you would if you were standing in front of your class. Does your throat vibrate? Now do the same thing with your hand on your upper chest. Does it vibrate this time?

The feeling engendered in the listener by the ‘throat voice’ is quite different from that engendered by the ‘chest voice’. The ‘throat voice’ is the voice of the sergent-major drilling his troops. The ‘chest voice’ is that of someone who accepts you for who you are. The ‘throat voice’ targets; the ‘chest voice’ includes.

This no doubt explains why, when I am feeling bossy and (unconsciously) talking with my ‘throat voice’, my pupils comply without engagement, and take every opportunity to drift off task or play up when my back is turned. Whereas when I am feeling mellow and relaxed, and speak with my ‘chest voice’, the pupils are ‘with me’ and willingly go along with what I want them to do.

As well as the kind of voice we use, our choice of words – how we express ourselves – is important. A child who is bombarded with commands, soon begins to feel powerless. He may need to regain some feeling of ‘power’, i.e., make himself/herself feel more important, by putting others down. This could be in the form of subtle comments or mean actions, or full scale bullying.

Often, the tone of a class as a whole is a good indication of how the teacher conveys his/her message. Are the children supportive of each other, inclusive, and peaceful, or are they always niggling each other, putting others down, jostling for superiority? If the latter is the case, maybe the teacher should listen to himself/herself as he/she talks to the class, and reflect on whether his/her method of delivery is a bossy ‘disempowering’ one.

Here are some ideas for modifying the way we talk to our pupils, so that they are ‘with us’ rather than obedient (if reluctant) servants.
teacher-&-studentsPhoto:Sakti Prasanna Mohanty; Courtesy: DAV Public School

1) Giving instructions

  • Remember that children will imitate your approach. If you are very authoritarian and just order them about, they will be just as stubborn with you.
  • Give instructions appropriate to age.
    3-6 years: do not usually respond well to “You have to do what I tell you”. Better to avoid confrontation, go around the issue.
    7-12 years: At this age they have a sense of justice and like firm rules (especially ones they have helped draft). Expect that they will do what you say. “When I ask you to …….., I expect you to do it.”
  • Little children may not understand exactly what you mean by “listen”. But they will probably understand “When I am talking, you don’t talk.” Add “listen” after that, so they get to understand what you mean when you say “listen”.
  • Try and word it so that they feel they want to co-operate, rather than issue a command. The younger the child, the more she/he wants to feel part of the group and do what everyone else does.
    – “This is the way we do it at preschool/at this school….”
    – “Now we are going to …”
    – “Everyone is …..”
    – “Let’s…” “Shall we…?” “Can we…?”
    – “I would like you to…”
    – “Can I ask you to ….?”
    – “You need to ….”
    Example: I once took part in a teachers’ training for games. Instead of saying “Make a circle”, the instructor asked, looking around at us all: “Can we make a circle?” I at once felt like shouting enthusiastically: “Yes! Yes! I can help make a circle!!” I was amazed at the difference in my feelings – normally I comply with instructions but with a little taste of resentment at being ordered about.
  • Give a reason for your request.
  • Singing can be heard over chatting. So when it’s tidy up time, rather than shouting out “OK everyone, it’s time to tidy up”, you can just start singing the tidy up song, starting to tidy up yourself, and they will learn to follow. (This works best with younger children who are still in the strongly imitative phase).
  • Instead of yelling ‘Be quiet now’, have a signal for quiet (hand up/clapping rhythm) which is always the same. Or pull them in/get their attention and focus with a verse or song, especially with movement or a clapping rhythm. Have it always the same, so it becomes a habit that they know.
  • “I fold my hands that I may be
    From all my work and play set free.
    I ……………………” (in the language of your classroom of course – make up something that has rhythm and rhyme)

    OR: (hold out hands, palms up)
    Open them, shut them, give a little clap
    Open them, shut them, put them in your lap

    OR: Let’s make a circle
    A quiet little circle
    Let’s make a circle
    Quiet as can be
    (in your language – getting softer and softer)

  • Reduce verbiage! “One picture is worth a thousand words”. The younger the child, the less they take things in through words, and the more through seeing something done. Use the power of imitation!!!
    Example: Every day, at the end of free play time, preschoolers would throw all their dolls, soft toys and cloths in a heap on the shelf. Then the children would lie down in the room for a rest. During this time, a volunteer would carefully make a little display of the toys and fold the dolls’ blankets. After four or five days, the children began to do this themselves without being prompted.
  • Model respectful language. Use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Insist that children use respectful speech. Teach/show them how to do this. E.g., don’t allow them to demand your attention.
    Example: One girl always shouts out “Dada!! Dada!!” when she has finished her Self Learning Activity. She can do this for 10 minutes, whether the teacher is in the room or not. Another teacher showed the class how to go up to the teacher and whisper in his ear “Dada, I am finished. Can you come please?” A few days later, the girl was observed to do exactly that.
  • Teach children the language for asking for things, rather than just snatching something from another child; also the language for “No, sorry, you can’t have it, I am using it now. You can have it when I’m finished.” What kind of language do you use when you want a child to give you something?
  • Don’t use put-downs (“You are a naughty boy” “You are always untidy”). Put-downs just make the child feel worthless. He will probably live up to the (negative) expectations you are putting on him.
  • Don’t shout, speak calmly and quietly. Again, children will imitate you. The more quietly you speak, the quieter they will become as they strive to hear what you are saying. On the other hand, if you continue to raise your voice as background buzz becomes louder, the buzz will simply become louder also.
  • Model good listening by really listening to what they tell you. Acknowledge their words with feedback to show you were listening carefully.
    Example: “Thank you for sharing that”. “That is very interesting.” “That’s a good idea”. “That must make you feel very happy.” “Gosh, I wish I had a little calf like you.”

2) If they are doing something you don’t want them to do:

  • Use positive ways of saying things rather than negative. “Don’t…” is an invitation for them to do it anyway and see what you are going to do about it. For example:
    “Don’t talk” becomes “button your lips”
    “Don’t disturb” becomes “Look at me/Put your hands on your knees/fold your arms”
    “Don’t throw sand over the fence” becomes “The sand stays in the sandpit.”
  • Make them aware of what they are doing – often children don’t have the objectivity to realize.
    Example: If they are in the habit of all shouting out answers or opinions at the same time, get two people in front of the class and tell them to both speak different things at the same time. Can anyone understand properly?
  • Establish the appropriate place for something, if you don’t want them to do it where they are.
    Example: If two boys are playing rough-and-tumble: “You can do that outside in free play time, but not in here.”
  • Make it a choice: If someone is playing ball inside “You can either play ball outside, or you can do something else inside. You choose.” Or: “You can sit quietly with us, or you can go over there and look at a book/sit and think about your actions.” This helps them ‘save face’, as well as makes them feel they are independent by making the decision themselves. Instead of feeling resentful at being ordered not to do something, they have made a positive decision to co-operate.
  • Make them think. Ask questions. “What are you doing?” “Why are you doing that?” “Can’t you see she’s not finished? Do you think she can work with you crowding her?” “What are these blocks doing here? Is this where they go? What can you do about it?” (If they left their bag on the ground):“Did you forget to do something?”

The language of team work
I had a very interesting experience the other day. I was taking 14 pupils from classes 3-5 for physical education. I divided them into two teams. Then I asked them to form three subgroups within each team. Group A did not listen, and made one group of four boys and one group of three girls. In Group B, one boy at once took charge, and started loudly issuing commands without consulting the others. (“He’s not giving us a say”, grumbled one unfortunate). My first reaction was: “Golly, he sounds just like a teacher.” Then the reality of my thought sank in. Is this what we teachers sound like? Is this the way we teach the children to be good future citizens? As if to confirm my thought, my assistant went over to Group A and began arbitrarily making the teams: “You two are one group. You three will be the second group and you two are the third.”

I believe that as educators, we must think beyond our own class situation and what is the easiest way to get what we want. We have a responsibility to give the children the tools they will need for their future life outside school. That includes especially the language needed to discuss, to include, to invite opinions, to negotiate, to work together, to solve, to resolve ………. And the only way the children will carry this within them is if we as teachers lead by example and practice what we preach.

The author has taught English to school children in Austria and Ecuador and to young adults in India. At present she is working as a volunteer in a small NGO-run primary school for rural children in the foothills of the Himalayas. She can be reached at

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