How Not to Teach Kids

I’m no professional teacher. But I do teach, both as part of my job (training people on instruments), as volunteering (science outreach is fun!), and as part of a hobby in my martial arts.  I’m also fairly sure I am what’s called “twice exceptional” – a person who is gifted in one area and delayed in another. I won’t say all twice exceptional kids are like I was, but I’m fairly sure that a lot of what is true of kids like me is true of kids in general: Namely, bore kids silly, and they act accordingly. Treat them poorly, and they resist injustice.

From my experience growing up for what worked and what didn’t, I feel I can put together a list of what not to do, based on my experiences:

  • Do not force a kid to solve problems or do things in a way that does not work for them. If they’ve grasped a way to do it, great! Let them do it that way. Don’t force them to do it some other way so that you can get the curriculum requirement of however many different ways of doing something. The point of those requirements is so that kids who learn differently get ways of solving problems and explanations that suit their learning style. It’s rather counter-productive to tell a kid, “I know you already had the explanation that suited your learning style and you already have a way of solving this problem that works well for you, but I’m going to make you learn this other way that does not suit your learning style and abilities… because.” That’s a recipe for frustration on the kid’s part. From hir point of view, “I already know how to do this. Why are you making me do it another way that’s harder?”
  • The answer to boredom and the acting out that goes along with it isn’t punishment, it’s more engaging work. Speaking from experience as someone with a nonexistent boredom threshold: I could be teacher’s pet or holy terror, and it all depended on whether or not the teacher kept stuff interesting. In my experience teaching martial arts and science outreach stuff, this is true of kids in general. If a kid is misbehaving, at least 90% of the time, you’re not making things interesting enough. The remaining 10ish%, maybe the kid’s in a bad mood, sick, or didn’t get enough sleep. But most of the time, it’s the adult’s fault for boring the kid.
  • Do not write kids off as “bad” because they’re acting out. Kids do not act out without a reason. As stated above, in my experience, they’re acting out because you’re boring them silly about 90% of the time. If changing things up doesn’t help, time to see if the kid was up too late last night, missed breakfast, or has something else going on. One girl who had been written off as an “attitude problem” by her teachers I had in my martial arts class was actually hard-of-hearing. She wasn’t ignoring instructions, she wasn’t receiving them. Then, when she was punished for not following instructions she didn’t hear in the first place, she was reacting to the unfairness of being punished for something out of her control. Automagically, once the adults in her life quit treating her as a problem kid and started to accommodate her disability, the “oppositional” and “problem” behavior disappeared. The other reason you shouldn’t label kids bad is because that sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy of label kid as bad -> treat kid as bad -> kid perceives correctly they’re being treated more harshly than their peers -> kid resists unfair treatment -> adult receives confirmation that kid is bad.
  • Some kids have shorter attention spans than others. Trying to keep kids with short attention spans on task when they’ve lost interest is fighting a losing battle. Both you and the kid will be miserable. Better to have a set of related things to work on, so that when you notice kids with shorter attention spans starting to get distracted, you can set them to something else. “Doing the same thing for too long can get boring. So how ’bout we change it up? You can do _____ instead.” So, if a kid is getting distracted from a history worksheet, give them a book or a writing assignment.
  • Under no circumstances should a kid effectively be punished for finishing quickly. This means: If a kid finishes quickly, give them something to do that they find interesting or enjoy. Don’t make them work on stuff they hate for finishing early. That punishes quick work. Especially, don’t make them sit there quietly for twenty minutes or a half hour with an empty desk and nothing to do. Speaking as an adult: I, as an adult, can’t sit quietly and still for a half hour with nothing to do. I fidget, I pace, I make stuff to do. I don’t sit around like an ornamental doll, and neither do any other adults I know. Demanding of a child what I can’t do as an adult is just plain not fair. And, ignoring that, effectively giving the kid a time out for finishing their work quickly? Not cool. Way to discourage learning and mastery.
  • Hated/difficult-for-the-kid subjects should be a fact of scheduling, not a tool of discipline. The single, best way to make sure that a kid who dislikes or has trouble with a subject will resist any effort to help them master it is to make that subject into a punishment. Then, any effort at helping them with it will be met with outrage because the kid will feel as if they’re being punished when they haven’t done anything (often, my in-school suspensions would arise when my teacher gave me handwriting sheets to have me practice – but she also used them when I was misbehaving because she knew I hated handwriting. I’d tied handwriting sheets to punishment mentally, and so when I was given handwriting sheets in class for what seemed to me to be no reason, I’d explode. “Why?! I didn’t do anything! I shouldn’t have to do them because I didn’t do anything!” – and then I’d get sent to the office and to the isolation room for a week. Because my teacher tied something I have trouble with to punishment). I find it mind-boggling that there are professional teachers who don’t get this concept when I got it in third grade.  So, I repeat for emphasis: schedule help for difficult subjects at regular intervals and present it as extra help, never as punishment.
  • Do not expect a standard unreasonable for the child in question. Just because a kid is doing algebra in second grade doesn’t mean their handwriting should look like fine calligraphy by then. Don’t demand that because a kid is good in one area, they have to be equally good in everything. Likewise, don’t expect that because a kid has trouble in one area, they’ll have equal trouble everywhere. Neither of those situations are true. People have strengths and weaknesses, and some have disabilities. Just as it would be wrong to expect Stephen Hawking to be able to run the 100m dash at Olympic levels and judge him lazy for being unable to (since he’s so good at physics, he should be equally good at everything else), it is wrong to expect a kid should have equal mastery of – or difficulty with – all things.
  • That a kid is not performing to peer level does not mean they’re lazy. Most kids aren’t lazy. If a kid is resisting working on something and not performing at the level of their peers, it’s probably not that they’re not practicing enough, it’s probably that they’re either anxious about the work because it’s too hard for their current understanding or they’re bored and growing to dislike something they find too easy.
  • Do not use humiliation as a tool of punishment under any circumstances. Humiliation isn’t discipline, it’s emotional abuse.
  • Do not shame a kid for things they find difficult. Someone I know once told me a story of how they learned to hate math. This person has dyscalculia. Math is hard for hir. Xe told me that one day, hir teacher was impatient with the difficulty xe had with addition, and announced to the class, “We’re going to sit here until [name] completes a worksheet correctly.” It took hir five classes and made hir an object of ridicule to the class for the next year. Teachers, don’t do that. Ever. As with humiliation, shaming a kid for something they have difficulty with isn’t teaching, it’s emotional abuse.
  • Do not use real-world talk as an excuse for your own laziness and desire for unchallenged authority. By this I mean any variation on, “In the real world, you have to do stuff you don’t want to.” Why shouldn’t you use it? Well, leaving aside the fact that it’s lazy, it’s also often a lie. As an adult, in the real world, you don’t absolutely have to do anything you don’t want to unless cops or other armed people are involved. If you hate cleaning, you don’t clean because you have to, you clean because you want to live in a clean environment. In the real world, every decision is a cost-benefit analysis and there’s almost always a metaphorical carrot to choosing whichever thing you choose. If the kid is refusing to do something, that means that to them, the benefit of not doing it outweighs the cost of punishment. The answer to that mental calculus isn’t to get into a battle of wills. The battle of wills will make the choice of doing it come with a cost of feeling humiliated and pushed around, while refusing to do it will come with the benefit of feeling like they won the argument. Plus, nobody wants to feel pushed around.  If a kid typically doesn’t want to do something, offer them an incentive so they do want to do it (“When you’re done with your worksheet, you can take a book from the back to read,” is a great carrot for bookish kids). That way, the battle of wills is avoided, you get the kid’s cooperation, and the kid gets the reward when they’re done. Everyone’s happy. Plus, you’re modelling actual real-world interactions of negotiation and compromise, rather than making excuses for your own rigidity.

2 thoughts on “How Not to Teach Kids

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