The Language of Command

Here’s an experiment for you, as a parent or teacher:

Put 4 pieces of masking tape on your arms.  Spend an entire day with a pen in your hand and make a tally mark for every type of sentence you say to children.  

Label the masking tape:

  • Directive statements (Commands)
  • Questions
  • Social niceties (Hello, How are you?)
  • Informational statements

Results of this experiment show 80% of the language adults use with children is in the form of command.

Think about it.  Put it away.  Get dressed.  Stop talking.  Line up.  Don’t hit.  Sit down.

There are some pretty big problems with this, as Tom “Teacher Tom” Hobson described in the podcast, Speaking to Children So They Can Think on Fairy Dust Teaching.  

Teacher Tom views the purpose of education in a democracy as creating good citizens.  Citizens who will stand up for what they believe in, speak up when others disagree, get along with each other, and challenge and question.  Vital skills in our current democracy.  

Commands give children two options — obey or disobey.  The natural human reaction to being told what to do is to push back.  So by giving kids commands, it is like we are inviting children to disobey.  Disobedience often leads to punishment, which we know has little effect.  Obedience creates reactive children, not thinking children.  Obedient people in a democratic society, are dangerous, Teacher Tom explained, because they let others do thinking and make decisions for them.

If children are living in a world where adults are bossing them around 80% of the time, that leaves them very little time to think for themselves.  It doesn’t sound like very much fun either, not a world I’d like to live in.

So, what can we do?

We’ve formed habits with the ways we talk to children, some not so great.  But we  know habits can be changed.  I’ve found being conscious of the language of command has made me think before I speak to children.  A simple rephrase from directive to informative has been one of the biggest small steps I’ve made with my teaching.

Here’s how it looks:

Command:  Clean up.  Put your folders away.  Throw your garbage away.

Informative:  It’s time to clean up.  The folders go in the bin.  The garbage can is by the sink.

Command:  Line up, get in line, walk.

Informative:  It’s time to line up.  It’s safe to walk in the hallway.  

Command:  Quiet, stop talking, shh.

Informative:  It’s a quiet work time.  We agreed that one friend talks at a time during meeting.  I can’t hear ______ because other friends are talking.  

When these don’t work?  Tom Drummond, early childhood expert, developed the descriptive cue sequence as a tool for speaking informatively so children can think.  If success isn’t found with an early step, move on to the next step.  Over time, you should find that you don’t need to do this as often.

  1. Give cue:  verbal “it’s time to ____,” visual (chart or sign), or auditory (song, bell). It’s time to line up. 
  2. No help:  Wait 10-15 seconds.  Look for appropriate behavior and reward it verbally (describing behavior) or non-verbally (thumbs up, smile).  I see 8 friends that lined up. Here come 3 more friends.  
  3. Describe what needs to be done without directing it.  Name facts — what needs to be done, where things are/go.  6 friends are not in line.  When it’s time to line up, we put our things away.    
  4. Model desired behavior by doing some of it yourself.  Name what you are doing.  Watch how I put away my things and line up.  
  5. Direct behavior with a clear, simple direction.  Please get in line. 
  6. Set a contingency.  The next activity depends on the completion of a task (“When you ____, you can _____,”).  When you line up, you can go to outdoor play.  

Moving from directive to informative statements not only improved our daily routines, it made me feel better about my teaching.  I didn’t find myself nagging or threatening or raising my voice (AKA I’m bigger and louder than you and that gives me more power).

I highly encourage you to check out Teacher Tom’s blog.  He’s written many posts on speaking to children and thousands of others.

For more brilliant information on speaking with children, head to Tom Drummond’s website, specifically this article (but you’ll probably want to read them all).

Watch for the Summer and Winter conferences with Fairy Dust Teaching.  You’ll get lifetime access to videos with incredible leaders in education, like the one with Teacher Tom that inspired this post.

Our language with children becomes their language.  The more we use the language of punishment (if you ___, I will ____) and the language of command (stop/don’t ____), the more our children will use that language in their interactions.  How many times have you heard, “If you don’t _____ I’m not going to invite you to my birthday party!” and “Stop chasing me!” instead of “I feel scared when I am chased,”?

If our classrooms are mini democracies and our students good citizens, we must be good leaders.  A leader of punishment and command does not belong in a democratic society.


7 thoughts on “The Language of Command

  1. Hi Kelsey, I read your post, and it was so well written. It was such a good message for both teachers and parents. You are such an excellent writer!! Love, Mom

    Sent from my iPhone



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