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© 2020 by Aaron Daffern Consulting

  • Aaron Daffern

Take CHARGE Day 8: Say what you mean and mean what you say

Updated: Jan 21

(To read Day 7, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)

Take CHARGE of the Moment







Taking charge of the moment is meant to guide teachers through difficult interactions with students who are non-compliant, emotionally unstable, or both. Day 6 and Day 7 examined how to attune to children's emotional states to help them "feel felt" and to gauge which brain state they were operating in: survival, emotional, or executive.

Day 9 and Day 10 will focus on the types of commands, options, or questions that work best for students depending on their brain state. Before jumping into those, however, we need to take a slight detour and spend today talking about talking. How we say something to students will either reinforce or undermine the message we are trying to send them.

First, take a moment to think about the non-verbals we send students when we speak with them in moments of crisis. Before children decide whether or not to comply with a command, they will read our facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures. We increase the chances that they will obey if we appear confident and in control, sound sure of ourselves, and truly believe they can be successful.

If our verbals and non-verbals contradict, students will believe the non-verbals every time. Be conscious of the intent behind your communication. When you are frustrated by a student and feel that he is taking up too much of your time with his nonsense, he'll get that message whether you intend him to or not. If a student is so out of control that she frightens you, your non-verbals will give that away as well.

Don't underestimate how powerful a firm tone of voice can be as you initiate a conversation about the behavior you're wanting to change. In general, there are three main types of voice tone that teachers use, either knowingly or unknowingly, when disciplining students: passive, aggressive, or firm. Passivity invites aggression, aggression begets aggression, and firmness dissipates aggression.


Some teachers adopt a passive tone when talking to students. Shying away from conflict, they are unsure of themselves and their authority in the classroom. The goal of passivity is to please others. Passive people give their power to children as they try to manipulate them to behave.

A passive teacher questions the child about his or her behavior. After a flare up, the scolding begins with a common refrain. "Why did you do that? What were thinking? Do you know that you could have hurt someone?" The problem with questions, however, is questions don't give usable information.

Additionally, sometimes teachers phrase commands in the form of questions like, "Can you please sit down?" Confusing commands and requests presents two problems. First, the child must figure it out. Is it a question that has more than one answer (e.g., If I say no, can I refuse to sit down?) or is it a poorly-worded command? Second, people who grow up with this type of language eventually stop hearing choices. Cloaking commands in the structure of questions is confusing and ultimately self-defeating.

So how can you know whether or not you are a passive teacher when it comes to discipline? Keep reading to see if any of the following statements describe your interactions with students.

A passive teacher asks the child to accomplish an intermediate but nonspecific task. "Can you start cleaning up, please?" (Cleaning up is broad and hard to define.)

A passive teacher gives children choices when there are none. "Would you like to join the class outside or be left behind?"

A passive teacher does not follow through on consequences and will adjust events to accommodate the child's emotions. "Okay, you have one more chance. Don't make me regret it." (You told the child he had one more chance three minutes ago.)

A passive teacher gives power away to the child, putting the child in charge. "Look what you've made me do!"

A passive teacher holds the child responsible for his anger and out-of-control behavior. "You make me so frustrated!"

A passive teacher may ignore a situation completely in hopes that the unacceptable behavior will magically disappear. "I know you're not kicking your partner's chair. That would not be good if you were." (The child is clearly kicking and moving the partner's chair, you just hope it'll stop on its own.)


At the other end of the spectrum is aggression. This type of communication aims to win by overpowering students. While it sometimes brings the short term results desired by teachers, namely the cessation of misbehavior, it does so in the wrong way. Rather than treating students with respect and empowering them to regulate themselves, it strips power away from them.

Aggressive discipline is a zero-sum game. There is one winner and one loser in the discipline struggle and the teacher does everything in her power to be the former. This creates an imbalance of power that always lurks beneath the surface. While sometimes aggression seems to reduce or eliminate misbehavior, it ultimately leads to rebellion. No one likes to continually feel powerless.

Aggression breeds aggression. Many times teachers take a simple situation and blow it up by their aggressive language. Rather than submitting meekly, some students fight back, either verbally or physically. Taking a dominating approach to discipline is risky because it trades (hopeful) temporary compliance for long-term animosity.

In case you are wondering where you fall along the spectrum, here are some examples of aggressive discipline.

An aggressive teacher often makes things personal by using "you/me" statements. "You always interrupt me."

Aggressive teachers often speak for others and act as mind readers. They believe they know the intention of students based simply on their actions. "You want to disrupt my class, that's why you keep getting up."

Aggressive teachers use "always" and "never" as forms of attack. "You never turn in your work on time."

An aggressive teacher uses ultimatums and extremes to drive home his/her point. "If you don't like it, leave!"

Aggressive teachers are not open for discussion. They demand obedience and do not take questions even if they are valid. "This is not open for comments. I'm telling you how it's going to be."

Aggressive teachers refer often to their authority. "I am the teacher," or "I am the adult."


What remains, then, is the sweet spot. Located between passive and aggressive on a discipline continuum, firm teachers get what they want without degrading the students they interact with. Firmness respects that students make their own choices and cannot be coerced into compliance. Balancing that, however, are the realities of the classroom. Teachers need to get certain things done to be successful and will not allow disruptive students to continually derail their lessons.

In Conscious Discipline, Dr. Becky Bailey lays out a wonderful exercise for finding the right tone of voice to use with students. To find your firm tone, do the following: Look around the room you're in. Look up and say, "That is the ceiling." Look down and say, "That is the floor." In the same tone of voice, say, "Sit down and look at me." Your "no doubt" tone of voice ensures that your verbals match your non-verbals.

Firm teachers don't plead (passive) or argue (aggressive) with students. They don't give choices when none exist (passive) or hurl ultimatums (aggressive). In a calm and "no doubt" tone of voice, they simply describe what is and what will be. The sky is blue, Thanksgiving is on the fourth Thursday of November, and you will quickly take a seat.

The goal of firmness is clear communication that paints a picture of what teachers want others to do. Firmness has a tone of "no doubt" and comes from an intention of helping children be successful rather than making them behave. That is a key distinction that will be brought up again in Day 16 as we look at how to come into discipline situations with the right frame of mind.

Whereas aggressive discipline is a zero-sum game, where there is one winner and one loser, firmness approaches discipline from a win-win perspective. The teacher can communicate what needs to be done in a clear and concise manner without belittling the student. The tone of "no doubt" helps students through difficult times. It doesn't beg nor does it demand; instead, it describes what will be.

Here are some descriptions of firm discipline. See how many of them apply to you and your approach to classroom management.

Firm teachers vigilantly give children usable information by telling them what to do. This will be explored in more detail in tomorrow's post (Day 9).

Firm teachers notice children's behaviors and send the nonverbal message of "just do it."

Firmness allows us to express our needs, wants, and desires constructively, without devaluing the child's needs, wants, and desires.

Firmness is the medium through which we teach respect.

If we want students to respect us, their classmates, and the environment, using passive or aggressive discipline is counterproductive. Students learn respect by receiving it from teachers. Firm discipline, using a tone of "no doubt," communicates respect by holding high expectations for students and painting a clear picture as to how they can meet those expectations.

Next steps

Action: Practice the tone of "no doubt." Using either the prompts in the post above or similar ones, practice describing things that simply are and interspersing them with commands. For example, "I am a teacher. I live in a house. Fold your hands in your lap." Do this repeatedly until the commands you give use the same tone of "no doubt" as the facts you describe.

Reflection questions: Where does your discipline fall on the continuum? Is it the same for every student? Is it the same from year to year? If you've used passive or aggressive discipline in the past, how effective was it?


Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Bantam Books.

To read Day 9, click here.