The Importance of Consistency
“No Means No”
How do you say “no” and make it stick? We would do well to take a lesson from my mom.
My mom meant business. She had been an elementary teacher for many years, and a very good one, no doubt. But I could be as willful as any other little kid and could wheedle with the best of them. My mom referred to any such arguing or wheedling as “yammering.”
Early in life, I learned two iron-clad rules from my mom.
Rule #1 – No means no.
Rule #2 – I am not going to stand here and listen to your yammering.
Years later I found myself supervising graduate students in family therapy at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Half of our clients were parents who were “at their wit’s end” with their kids’ “brat” behavior. These children would wheedle endlessly, and when the parents said “no,” they would whine and fuss and tantrum until they got their way.
These parents just couldn’t bring themselves to say “no” and make it stick. They had difficulty being consistent. The nickname for these parents around the clinic was “weenies.”
Consistency is a word that everyone knows but few people really understand. One of my weenie parents said, “But, Dr. Jones, I think we are being pretty consistent.” When I told this to my colleagues, we had a big laugh. We had a bigger laugh when one of my other weenie parents said, “But, Dr. Jones, I think we are consistent most of the time.”
What weenies fail to understand about consistency is that it does not permit degrees. You are either consistent, or you are inconsistent. There is nothing in between. There is no such thing as “very consistent” or “extremely consistent.”
What if my mother, instead of being consistent, had been pretty consistent. Four out of five times, no meant no. But, one out of five times she “cracked.” Maybe she had a good excuse – she was busy or stressed or distracted. In a moment of weakness, she blurted,
“All right! Here, you can have it! Just go outside, and leave me alone! I’m tired of listening to your yammering!”
If my mother had cracked, she would have taught me the following lessons:
“When the going gets tough, the tough get yammering.”
“If at first you don’t succeed, yammer, yammer again.”
“Never give up! Today might be your lucky day.”
The irony of consistency is that the closer you come to being consistent before you fail, the worse off you are. If the parent cracks easily, the child does not need to be a world-class yammerer in order to succeed. But, if the parent does not crack easily, the child must learn to play hardball.
Discipline Before Instruction
One of your basic jobs in the classroom will be to set limits on student disruptions – to say “no” to typical, everyday “goofing off.” We will focus on the most common disruption, “talking to neighbors.”
Imagine yourself in class as students work at their seats. According to your classroom rules in this format, “talking to neighbors” clearly represents goofing off. As you help a student, you look up to see two students on the far side of the room chatting away instead of working.
Let’s deal with your priorities before we consider your actions. In the classroom, the following priority must govern your decision making at all times:
Discipline comes before instruction.
It is not optional. It is a cornerstone of effective management.
Placing discipline before instruction is something that most teachers would readily accept. After all, it’s only logical. Does this make sense?
“If students are goofing off, they are certainly not doing your lesson.”
How about this?
“Get your rules and routines straight at the beginning of the semester. If you don’t, you’ll be chasing after those kids for the next eighteen weeks."
Indeed, most teachers would agree, at least at a logical level, that discipline should come before instruction. Why, then, do so few teachers act that way.
The Moment Of Truth
Beware! Weenieism can be far more subtle in the classroom than it is at home.
Let’s imagine, for example, that you are helping a student, Robert, with a complex piece of work like a geometry proof. He is lost somewhere in the middle of the proof among the theorems and axioms and corollaries.
You have been working with Robert for a couple of minutes, and you are nearing closure. Given another twenty seconds, Robert will be able to progress on his own.
At this moment out of the corner of your eye you catch two students on the far side of the room talking instead of working. It is not a big disruption. It isn’t even bothering other students nearby.
Now, be utterly candid with yourself as you imagine what to do next.
Do you want to abort the teaching interaction in which you have invested several minutes and in which you are nearing closure?
Do you want to finish helping Robert before you deal with the problem?
During training, a roomful of experienced teachers will respond in unison, “Finish helping Robert.”
Of course you want to finish helping Robert! After all, you have made an emotional investment and an intellectual investment as well as an investment of time. You are so close to completion. Robert almost has it.
Consequently, most teachers will return to helping Robert. In the “moment of truth” most teachers will choose instruction over discipline.
The Students’ Perspective
Now, let’s look at this situation from the students’ perspective. It is the beginning of the school year, and they are trying to figure out who you are.
The class just saw you make a choice. They saw you look up to observe two students goofing off, and then they saw you return to Robert.
From the students’ perspective, answer the following question:
“In this classroom, is discipline management on the front burner, or is discipline management on the back burner?”
You may as well make the following public announcement to the students:
“Class, do you remember what I said at the beginning of the school year about high standards and time-on-task. Well, as you know, talk is cheap.
“What you just saw was reality. As you may have noticed, when I have to choose between discipline and instruction, I will choose instruction. I find discipline management to be… oh, how can I say this… inconvenient. Consequently when I am busy with instruction, I will turn a blind eye to goofing off as long as it is not too bothersome.
“I would like for there to be no discipline problems, of course. But, as you can see, dealing with them is simply not worth my time. In spite of this, let me express my sincere hope that we will have an orderly and productive school year together.”
When you look up to see one of your rules being broken, you are on the horns of a dilemma. If you act, your rules become reality. If you fail to act, your rules are nothing but hot air.
This is your moment of truth. If you waffle, you become a “weenie.” A weenie is a magnet for brat behavior.
See and Then Act
Thinking when you should be acting is fatal. If the student has stepped over the line, you either do something about it or you “pull your punch.”
Thinking at this juncture produces dithering instead of doing. To eliminate dithering, don’t think. Discipline always come before instruction – period!
If you stop to think at this point, your thoughts will be rationalizations for staying with Robert. Here are some truly irrelevant thoughts that may come to mind.
How big is the disruption? This is irrelevant. When you see unacceptable behavior, you either deal with it or not. The disruption will typically be small – “talking to neighbors” in most cases.
How important is the assignment? This is also irrelevant. If the assignment were not important, you wouldn’t be teaching it in the first place.
Of course the problem is small. Of course the lesson is important. Of course discipline management is inconvenient. But you cannot turn a blind eye to disruptions. “No means no” every time, or it means less than nothing. Stop dithering and do your job, or quit kidding yourself and admit that you really are a weenie.
Don’t Consult Your Feelings
Discipline management is a game that you play out of your head, not out of your gut. Your boundaries coincide with your definition of unacceptable behavior. They have nothing to do with how you feel.
Feelings are inconstant by their very nature. You cannot respond, for example, because you feel yourself “losing your patience.” Your patience will be a function of:
How much sleep you got last night.
Whether you are upset about something else in your life like a sick child or a marital problem.
What some other kid in class did five minutes ago.
You must, therefore, have mental clarity as to where your behavioral boundaries lie. Without mental clarity you cannot have behavioral clarity.
You Make the Rules
I don’t make the rules for your classroom. You do. Different lesson formats have different rules.
But, green teachers often think of classroom rules as a kind of behavioral wish list. They make rules based upon what they want rather than upon what they can afford.
More experienced teachers know that each classroom rule comes with a high price tag attached. If you are to be consistent, you must respond every time you see a rule infraction. Consistency, therefore, requires that you adhere to the following “rule of rules:”
Never make a rule
that you are not willing to enforce
Enforcement will always be an intrusion that requires you to stop what you are doing. Before you make a rule, therefore, imagine yourself enforcing it – every time. Then, ask yourself, “Is it worth the price?”
Inconsistency and Harshness
Green teachers who have not yet raised a family have a particularly hard time taking consistency as seriously as they should. Their primary focus is usually relationship building. Rule enforcement tends to take a back seat.
Teachers who have raised a family know all about “infantile omnipotence.” They have learned to combine affection with firmness and consistency in order to create stable boundaries. For teachers who have little experience with this balancing act, the notion that boundaries cannot move, that there are no “degrees of consistency,” seems overly rigid.
Nevertheless, your ability to be nurturant will ultimately be a function of your ability to be consistent. For example, when you turn a “blind eye” to chit-chat, you allow “talking to neighbors” to self-reinforce. Don’t be surprised when the problem reoccurs – and reoccurs – and reoccurs. When you have finally “had it” and intervene, you will be attempting to suppress a behavior that you participated in building.
The management of behavior problems will follow one of two paths in any classroom:
If you are consistent,
you can use smaller and smaller
consequences to govern misbehavior.
But, if you are inconsistent,
you must use larger and larger
consequences to govern misbehavior.
In the final analysis, the price you pay for your own inconsistency is a reduction in your capacity to nurture.