Illegal Word Busts

Third grade teacher Mary Fullenwider had a problem. Not a life or death problem. Not a critical problem. Not even a new problem. Just a nagging, reoccurring, frustrating problem. Her problem was that she had a handful of eight-year-old students who repeatedly interrupted class discussions by blurting out spontaneous comments.

Her students weren't attention-seeking youngsters whose comments were rude, humorous, or disrespectful. In fact, their intentions were positive: to share a thought or ask a question about the topic under discussion. It was just that these students spoke up without being called on, disrupting the flow of conversation and frustrating other students who were waiting patiently with their hands up.

Mary tried talking to the entire class about the problem and asking for their cooperation. The problem persisted. She attempted to ignore the outbursts. Only a minor improvement resulted. Finally she decided to go to plan C.

"I decided to confront the behavior every time I heard it," she said. "I designed a confrontation message that identified the student and the behavior, made it clear that the behavior violated our classroom procedures, and described the behavior that was appropriate.

"I knew I had to be consistent or it wouldn't work. I memorized the statement so I would be ready to use it exactly as I intended. When Roland interrupted the next morning, I immediately implemented my plan.

"'Roland, that is an Illegal Word Burst," I said. 'It doesn't match our picture of polite conversation. In our class we raise our hands and wait to be called on. That way, we have time to think before we speak, and everyone has the same opportunity to share."

Roland sat there a bit stunned. He wasn't sure what to do, but he didn't interrupt again until midway through the afternoon. Then I gave him my confrontation message again, almost word for word as I had said it earlier that morning. Same result.

Now, only a few weeks into the school year, Roland and two of his classmates have made considerable progress in remembering to raise their hands. They know what is expected in this third-grade classroom and realize their only hope of sharing in class is to follow the procedures.

Mary's confrontation message worked because she was constant with it. She used it every time she heard an Illegal Word Burst. No exceptions. Her students quickly got the message that this issue mattered to their teacher. Because of her consistency and determination, their behavior changed to match her expectations.