Why Won’t the Kids Listen? Simple Steps for Reframing Classroom Management

by Dr. Angela Searcy

children covering their ears and not listening

When I began as a teacher over 30 years ago, I just expected my students to follow my direction.

Point blank.

They should come to school knowing how to act. Not only that, they should be as respectful as I was to Sister Mary Rita in 1975 and if they didn’t comply, Ms. Angela would “help them.”

teacher with preschool students at meal table 1990
Dr. Searcy with her early childhood students in 1990!

Push Past It

But as the phrase, “You’re not listening” became the most popular tune in my classroom, I learned a new way to push past those pesky issues of non-compliance.

I compiled all the lessons I learned over the years my book Push Past It! A Positive Approach to Challenging Classroom Behaviors.

I’d like to take you on a little book tasting.

Yes, a book tasting (almost as good as a wine or cheese tasting)!

Below you will get a “taste” of lessons I’ve learned through evidence-based research, trial and error, and years of experience as a teacher, therapist, college professor, and educational consultant. And, of course, my lived experience as a mom of four children, including two with disabilities, also shaped my understanding about children’s behaviors.

Push Past It! book by Dr. Angela Searcy

Name It

Name all the feelings you have when students don’t follow directions or engage in activities. Yes, I am starting with you!

Behavior is like a bike. A tandem bike. Children are co-regulators and as a result adult emotions work in tandem with child emotions. 

Don’t be shy, this is like Vegas (what happens there stays there)! I promise this is just between us. When I talk with families, home child providers, therapist and educators words like “frustrated” “tired” “overwhelmed” and “disrespected” seem to pop up frequently in this phase of the process.

Explain it

Now list why you feel that way. I often felt disrespected when children were not compliant. Before we start to understand the meaning behind a child’s behavior we must first start with the meaning behind our behaviors.

Tame it

After getting out of the classroom and taking a few deep breaths I often realized it was not 1975 and it was up to me to understand what children’s behavior might mean and to support their development.

Those deep breaths lowered my stress and helped me active my prefrontal cortex or thinking brain. Research  shows short moments of mindfulness can help us access our thinking brain and allow us to respond to challenging behaviors in effective ways.

Reframe it!

Once I’ve activated the problem solving part of my brain, I can reframe thoughts like, “Why are you behaving as if this is all brand-new? You were just here yesterday!” by relating them to research showing that to preschoolers each day is brand-new.

“How young children store information is different from how older children and adults do it, and because young children react more slowly, they need more time to process directions. So instead of thinking that children just aren’t listening, allow them extra processing time, and focus on reinforcing their understanding and supporting their listening skills.” (Searcy, 2019).

teacher in a wheelchair reading a book with child outside

Need more ideas?

  • When children are non-compliant change the activity instead of the child. Don’t want to write with your hands—how about your feet? Roll the dice and change the order of the activity. Embed the child’s interests into the activity. Let them do it “their way.”
  • Connections help children follow directions. Instead of saying “go wash your hands” try “do you want to make bubbles?” Connect with children using fun with bubbles or quiet marching to the next activity. Won’t clean up? Use a “clean up puppet” to get children engaged in the fun!
  • Lower your voice-yelling can release chemicals in the brain that inhibit memory and attention. Calm voices help children focus enough to listen.
  • Have realistic expectations! When I present to adults, I have to repeat directions several times.
  • Phrase your directions in a positive way. Instead of “stop talking,” say, “let’s focus and listen.” Tell children what to do rather than what not to do.
  • When children don’t follow directions -it is time to change how you give directions. Pair visuals, sign language, and demonstrations with your words. Words disappear after you say them, but visuals help children process your words after they have been spoken. Here are some examples below from the Discovery Source!
Classroom Visual Display Kit from The Discovery Source

Braithwaite, R. (2001). Managing aggression. Routledge.

Searcy, A. (2019) Push Past It! A Positive Approach to Challenging Classroom Behaviors: Beltsville, Maryland, Gryphon House, Inc

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