Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Why Nagging Kids Backfires

A 22-year-old new teacher learns a lesson in patience.
What can you do when correcting kids just doesn't work? (Photo: Rubberball/Nicole Hill)
Jan 15, 2013

Each week, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.

As humans we hate being corrected. And six year olds get corrected a lot. They are constantly making mistakes, because they are still learning how to act, how to treat others, and how to control themselves. Corrections become nagging rants to a kid, who hears the same thing again and again and again. However, the alternative, to redirect misbehavior by praising good behavior, is easier said than done.

The way to actually get them to act right is to get them to choose to act right. Which means you must encourage good behavior through positive reinforcement (I like to think of this as tricking them into acting right).

The most effective way to improve behavior is by highlighting positive behavior, describing the behavior, and allowing for students to make their own corrections. For example, if I say, “Jason’s eyes are on me and his hands are folded on the desk. Kymya is showing me she’s ready to go by sitting still in her chair with her pencil out.” Then like magic, Tyler, who’s chatting and wiggling in his chair, will be reminded of what he is supposed to do. When Tyler does this, I acknowledge it and allow him to get recognition for doing something right. Plus there’s the added bonus of the self-fulfilling prophecy: The more you tell him he’s doing the right thing, the more he believes he has good behavior, and the more good choices he will make.

Makes sense, right? It makes classroom management sound like a piece of cake. But like most parts of teaching, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

More: Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Finally, I’m Out of Survival Mode

As an optimist, I thought being positive would be the easiest thing for me to do in the classroom. But, I’ve found it’s incredibly difficult not to correct every misbehavior in my classroom.

If I’m calm, I think they have to know they are making mistakes. If I’m already angry, then I just think they’ve got to stop, now! And so I correct them. Sometimes patiently, sometimes sternly, and if it’s the end of a long day sometimes admittedly through yelling. But this way just does not work.

I know the alternative sets me up for failure, but I’m still human and I spend all day with my students. By nature, they frustrate me and that makes being eternally positive a challenge. When they do something wrong I want to correct them. I also care about them deeply, and want to see them grow into better people.

I seek to create “teaching moments” where students are corrected and learn the lessons of life. However, not every moment can be a teaching moment because students need to learn to read, write, add, and subtract. I’m learning that I need to let some teaching moments go, in order to most effectively teach my students their curriculum. And I’m hoping that practice in positivity will not only make perfect, but it will also make me more patient.

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