How to Give Directions So Your Students Actually Follow Them (The First Time)
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Giving clear directions is actually a bit of an art form. It’s a lot more complicated than we think, and sometimes, it isn’t until we’re in front of a group of students that we are reminded that every single word we say counts.
Much of the time (despite what it might feel like), our students are actually trying to listen. Here's the thing:
What I learned early on is that most of the problems I had in my classroom when it came to students not listening were much more often due to my inability to communicate clearly than it was about my students not being willing or able to listen.
So today, I’m going to walk you through what worked for me every time so I no longer had students asking that question, “What am I supposed to do?” or “What are we doing next?” They simply had no excuse because I had finally done my job.
As is so often the case, success with giving directions that our students will actually follow begins with us learning to do our job better.
Let's talk about 8 ways we can improve our ability to give directions:
Be sure you’ve taught your students what “listening” looks like.
One of our class rules that I teach my students at the beginning of each school year is to “Listen to the speaker.” In our classroom, the speaker might be me, it might be another student, or it might be a guest in our classroom. My students know that the speaker has the floor, and we spend a lot of time in the first couple of weeks of school practicing & modeling what it looks like and feels like to “listen to the speaker” at the beginning of the year.
So, what does “Listen to the Speaker” look like and sound like?
In my classroom, it means staying seated and keeping eye contact, keeping your hands to yourself, not talking to a neighbor, and not playing with someone’s shoes or fiddling.
We do role plays where I invite one of my students to come to the front of the group and tell me about their favorite movie or their favorite book. And then, I start doing all of the things that someone who isn't really listening does... I start fidgeting or looking away or waving at another student or talking to someone else right when they’re in the middle of a sentence.
My students usually find this hilarious because they can see how inappropriate it is and, it gets their attention because they know it isn't a kind thing to do.
We make a list of all of the things we need to do when we are a good listener, and then we make a point of practicing that skill. Each time someone is not being a good listener, we stop what we are doing and I point to our poster that illustrates what a good listener looks like and sounds like, and we continue to practice that skill.
So, if you haven’t already clarified and modeled and practiced what you mean by being a good listener, I would start there. Next...
Get clear about exactly what it is you want your students to do.
This might sound so simple, but we need to think things through BEFORE we start talking.
Too many times, I would start giving directions and then realize, mid-way through, that I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of the workflow.
I would say things like, “Okay, let me think about this – um… when you get to your desks, I want you to open your writing folder and then, wait, what did we do the last time? Okay, yes, so let’s go ahead and continue our stories about our field trip to the animal shelter.”
Where is the direction in that?
Getting super clear about the next three steps that you want your students to take and communicating exactly how they know they have been successful in that step before they can move on to the next one is so important.
So, for example, after giving a five-minute mini-lesson on using descriptive language and I want them to apply what they've learned to their stories about their field trip to the animal shelter, my students' next steps might be:
1. Open your writing folder and make your edits from yesterday.
2. Using descriptive writing, write 3 complete sentences.
3. Show Mrs. Friesen.
4. Work on your science project.
Write each step on the board.
Use simple language and write your directions the same way you say it. Also, be sure to elaborate on what each step means if there is a possibility for any confusion.
Many children also are visual learners who like to see the words or pictures in front them as visual cues for what to do next. There are a lot of distractions in your classroom at any given time, so having a visual reminder of what to do next will really help your students to keep moving in the right direction.
Only give 3-5 directions MAX.
Depending on where you teach, following 3-step oral and written directions was one of our curriculum goals in 2nd grade when I taught in Alberta, Canada. After your students have finished 3 or 4 steps, call your students back so you can give more instructions. Usually my last step is something that will keep my student busy until I’m ready to move on with the rest of the class, which in this example is a science activity that they needed to complete.
Hint: if it isn’t clear to you what your students should be doing, it won’t be clear to them, either.
Have them repeat your instructions back to you.
Once you’ve given clear instructions and you’ve written them on the board, call on individual students to ask them what they’re supposed to do first. Ask questions about how they know if they’ve finished this first step. Then ask them what do they do next, until you’ve reviewed all of the steps. Also, ask them what is okay and what is not okay when they are completing each step.
Yes, this will take a bit of time in the beginning, but it’s pretty funny when your students start finishing your sentences. I would start saying things like, “And what do you do next?” and they would tell me, and then they’d start chorally saying, “Don’t interrupt other students when I am done my work,” and “Then work on my science project."
Hint: Call on the kiddos who likely weren’t listening, and ask more than one student to tell you what Step #1 is and what Step #2 is and so on. This will take more time in the beginning, but like anything, it will improve with practice and as long as YOU are consistent.
Three Before Me
You also may want to teach your students this very effective rule of “Three Before Me,” meaning that if, after all of that clear instruction, writing it down, and having students repeat back to you what they are supposed to do inside each step, they STILL don’t know what to do, teach them to ask three other students before coming you to ask for help.
It’s pretty funny because before too long, your students will get annoyed with those kids who are still not getting it and you’ll see them pointing to the board and telling them, “Look at #3. Do you see what it says? Let me show you. #3. It says to show your work to Mrs. Friesen.”
Use a magic word.
To ensure that everybody has heard you and that kids don’t get up until you’ve finished giving instructions, you might want to use a “magic word” to let your students know that it’s time to get started.
So, for example, you could say, “Nobody moves until I say “macaroni!” or whatever your magic word is. This is not only effective, but it’s also really fun for your kiddos. 😉
Remember that your students are just little and that this is a skill that needs practice.
Your students may only have 7, 8, 9, or 10 years on this planet. They are learning an important skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
Therefore, it is our job to give them scaffolded, repeated opportunities to learn this skill with compassion.
I’ll never forget one day during the first few weeks of school when one of my students, an adorable little boy with a mop of dark hair and big, brown eyes, just stopped and stood in the middle of the classroom looking dazed and confused.
I just laughed and asked him, “What are you supposed to be doing right now, sweetheart?”
His response: I don’t know.
“Okay, where can you find that information out?”
His response: I don’t know.
I pointed to the board. He suddenly brightened. “Oh yeah!” he said.
I then prompted, "And if there’s something you don’t understand, what can you do then?"
He smiled a huge smile and said, "Three before me!"
"I’m so proud of you, sweetheart. Well done," I said. "So, what’s your next step?" He looked over at the board to get his answer.
It just takes time. We throw so much at our students every day, and especially when we are new and still trying to figure out how we want things to go in our classroom, the way we do things in our classroom may not be as consistent as we’d like them to be. We haven’t figured it all out yet.
So, it’s important, as much as possible, not to get frustrated with our students, and instead, think of ways that we can become better at our craft. To think of ways that we can streamline how we give instructions in a clear and simple, step-by-step way that our students understand. And, to remember to have compassion for ourselves as we learn how to communicate with our students more effectively.
So if this has been a challenge for you, don’t start beating yourself up about it. You too are just learning, and it takes practice. Instead of putting more pressure on yourself to get everything right, just commit to working on this part of your craft as you practice the skills that will allow to become a master teacher.
Finally, I want to invite you to download my free Beginning Teacher's Classroom Management Starter Kit to help you to get clear about all of the routines and procedures you want to have in your classroom so you can get your classroom running as smooth as butter.
I hope that you have a wonderful week, and remember: just because you are a beginning elementary teacher, there is no need for you to struggle like one.
Dr. Lori Friesen | Beginning Teacher Mentor
Creator of the R.E.A.D.Y. for School Academy, Dr. Lori Friesen has mentored thousands of beginning teachers across the country through her workshops and courses. Host of the popular podcast, Beginning Teacher Talk, and creator of the innovative literacy program for 1st and 2nd grade, Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed, Dr. Lori is dedicated to serving educators and inspiring learners. Learn more at drlorifriesen.com and at howdogshelpkids.com.
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