We all have them. The students who we struggle to connect with. Some of them are quiet, some seem to be in a bad mood, some are confrontational. How can we reach those challenging students and diffuse some of that classroom tension and stress before it even starts? There is a “new” (but old) way to connect with those students and as the adults in our classroom it is our responsibility to build connections with kids.
Does it seem like those challenging few students take up a disproportionate amount of your time and energy? If so, it’s because they DO. It may not the exact 80/20 of the Pareto Principle but it is most likely pretty close. With so many other challenges on your plate as a teacher taking this issue off could be one less cause for stress and time loss. (Let’s try to knock out as many as possible one at a time.
As many of you have discovered through firsthand experience the tools that teachers were given in college for managing a class full of students are often inadequate and not up to the task with today’s students. I am often seeking out solutions from outside the education world to test in my classroom. A technique that I started around the 2nd quarter this year with my most challenging students is standing at my classroom door as students enter and looking them in the face and saying hello and calling them by their first name as they enter EVERY day. I also try to call them by name during each period and as they exit at the end of the period. This sounds simple because it is but are you doing it now? With all your kids? It’s ok if you aren’t yet.
Where did I come up with this idea?
I do not recall ever hearing about the importance of calling a student by their first name in any teacher preparation class or education book but learned this from listening to the audio version of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” which is most likely thought of as being a book for those in the “business world.” I do also vaguely recall my sales trainers in a former life stressing the importance of using a customer’s first name early and often back when I worked in sales before teaching. I am fully aware that these kind of books seem corny to some people but if Warren Buffett finds value in Carnegie’s book then surely we teachers can as well.
One of the sections of Carnegie’s book mentions that “the sweetest sound to anyone’s ear—no matter what language it’s in—is their name.” After hearing this during my Sunday morning run, I quickly pulled out a sticky note and pen in my car once I reached the parking lot and decided to test this out on some students the next day. I was having a hard time connecting with some challenging students and would begin “Operation First Name” tomorrow morning. If this “secret” worked to sell things to adults would it still work with children? What could it hurt?
The next morning I made a list of a few students who could potentially benefit from this (a combination of students who were withdrawn and some who had behavior issues) type of contact and decided to begin during homeroom.
“Good morning ‘Rick,'” I said as one of the students entered. “How are you doing today ‘Lou,'” I said to the other. To make these students not feel like they were being singled out I spontaneously decided to address every student that entered the classroom by first name and with a greeting such as “Good morning” or “How are you doing today?”
As the students were entering I noticed that I needed to block the door a bit to slow them down from coming in 2-3 at a time and not being able to give each student the individual greeting I had decided to give. I needed to stand partially in the doorway and angle myself a bit to do this.
While I was greeting the students I noticed that this felt odd for some reason as I came to the realization that I had not been calling some students by the first name enough or conversing with them one on one nearly enough during class time. You most likely have students where you will feel as though you are talking to for the first time when doing this, this is ok. Better to start this relationship now than never at all. I also tried to call on these students by first name at least once per class period (I know this can be unreasonable for many teachers) and again address them by first name with a greeting such as “Enjoy the rest of your day” as they exited class.
After Day 1 I didn’t notice much change.
2 Weeks Later
Despite no immediate results from my I continued on and gradually began noticing that some of my students who almost never talked were greeting me as they entered before I could even say anything to them. This to me made the whole endeavor worth it even if no other progress took place.
Gradually as weeks and then months went by I felt a much stronger relationship between nearly all of my students and I believe the key was persistence. Some kids likely feel lost in the shuffle as they are not getting enough attention at home and at school and are those who “slip through the cracks.” I believe that giving these students that recognition, in a positive way, has filled that void for attention that so many kids have and reduced their need to seek out attention during class or in negative ways. It’s also helped them realize that at least one adult cares and by hearing their first name reminds them that they are a unique individual and important.
As the year has progressed a number of these students now seem to seek me out in the hallway to say hello (after being very difficult for me earlier in the year) and now ask me how my day is going and say hello. I doubt this would have ever happened through direct instruction of this social skill, however modeling it and practicing it with them has told them that it is ok and safe.
Call to Action
Calling students by their first name and greeting them personally as they enter and exit the room each day is not going to solve every single problem in your classroom and school but I hope that it can help you build deeper and more meaningful relationships with your students that you will thank yourself for later. Don’t just do this for one day, do this the rest of the school year. It gets easier, feels more natural and the benefits will grow.
Try this with your students and please leave a comment below. Share how it is working with your students, particularly your most challenging students.