Sometimes Humor is the Best Way to Correct Behavior

So, one of your hard to teach student has just acted up in class again. Or maybe he isn't acting out, but just won't do the assignment or get into the lesson.

What do you do?

You've got to do something fast, before that student's behavior starts affecting the rest of the class…

Just as helping students save face can be a powerful tool in reaching hard to teach students, so is the use of humor. Several of the students in the underachievers study said they preferred teachers who used humor. Humor builds and preserves relationships. In fact, I often find that humor works better than many other strategies, especially when trying to correct student behavior.

I had a student named James, who was the kind of student who was always inappropriate, but in funny ways, and I was always trying to get the class back on task after his antics while trying not to laugh uproariously! I really enjoyed him and I wished I didn’t have to teach the whole class while he was there! I just wished I could have him one on one and help him learn whatever I could, and then deal with the rest of the class separately.

I prayed for those days James was absent. But, of course, he never was.

One day James was driving me crazy and I finally had to send him out in the hall. I followed him out, wondering what I could possibly say to James that he had not heard a thousand times before. He got dressed down in the hall regularly: I’d be walking in the hall, and there would be James with another teacher, and I would say to myself, “Oops! He did it again!” Clearly the traditional scolding wasn’t changing James’ behavior.

I had to think about what my goal was. Was it to punish and chastise James for being a pain (which clearly had a track record of not working)? Or was it to get him to settle down so I could teach the class?

Out in the hall, I closed the door and maneuvered so that James’s back was to the door, so I could see the class through the narrow window. I wasn’t sure how to get what I needed, but, on a whim, decided to try humor. My intuitive response to James was, “Do you want to play a trick on the rest of the class?”

This was not what he was expecting, and, although he wasn't really sure where this was going, said he would, albeit a bit hesitantly.

I whispered, “I’m going to start yelling and screaming at you about your behavior and I want you to throw yourself up against the door.” Given his facial expression, he was now a willing coconspirator, without reservation!

As I yelled, “James, I’ve had enough of you!!!” he’d throw himself against the door. Boom!!! Boom!!

Then I'd yell, “I’m trying to teach the whole class and I can’t do that while you’re in there fooling around!!!” Boom!!! Boom!! Boom!

And this continued for a couple more rounds.

Well, he was the consummate actor and kept up the show as we returned to the room, staggering, like he’d taken an awful beating! Hamming it up all the way. I just went in with a straight face and went right back to teaching as if nothing had ever happened. The whole class was on its best behavior, playing along, seeing the whole event as the hoax it was, but now playing the properly cowed students!

This approach was a bit of a risk, and it only worked because I knew James and my other students well (and they knew me). I knew what was likely to work with James and what wasn't; there were certainly other students that I would never dream of doing something like this with.

But it did seem to be exactly the right move with James. The change in him was great, at least for a couple weeks (Only a couple of weeks!?, you say… What was the last intervention you did with a hard to teach student that lasted more than 5 minutes, let alone a couple of weeks!?!). I had to hardly speak to James about his behavior at all. We’d just see each other and laugh. But I got want I wanted: James to be settled enough that I could teach the class. As his old ways started to creep back into class, I would look at him sternly and ask, “Do you want more of the same!?” and he'd laugh and playfully protest, “No! No!” and he'd settle down for a couple more days.

Since then, I've figured it works out better for me (and the whole class) if I do whatever I need to to get the behavior I want (from any student, not just James), even if it doesn’t include punishment. There’s no doubt James knew what was right and what was wrong. There is no doubt that James' behavior warranted punishment or a scolding. There’s no doubt that James knew that he was disrupting the class. But it turned out I didn’t need to yell, or scold, or punish him. Besides! None of those worked when other teachers did them!

What I got was something much more useful: we ended up being allies.

By using humor, I could work much better with James (and much more importantly, James would work with me!). Over time, I got much more of the behavior I wanted from James! And this lesson helped me get much more of the behavior I wanted from my other hard to teach students, too.


About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.
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