The Significance of Congruent Communication in Effective Classroom Management DAVE F. BROWN To a surprising degree, how you communicate deter- studies class this evening. The teacher, however, assigns mines your effectiveness as a teacher. Relationships are students an activity to do at home that will take at least built on communication and easily destroyed by it. (Charles 2000, 48–49) forty-five minutes. She leans her head back in disgust and shouts, “This class really sucks!”Y oung adolescence is a challenging time. The social and emotional growth processes among studentsat this stage present even the most secure adolescent Most reasonable adults would never respond in the manner that these students have. Yet, middle level teachers are subjected to these comments daily andwith daily dilemmas that create stress and anxiety. Mid- often respond in a punitive manner. Punishing thesedle school students are not likely to search for an adult students, however, is not a wise teacher reaction.to resolve their social dilemmas; yet, unsure of what Walsh (2004) provides information about cognitivethey are feeling or experiencing, adolescents may not developmental processes that explains why young ado-choose to discuss their feelings with peers either. The lescents say these sorts of things. “One of the circuitsresultant confusion about how to act or what to say involved in emotional regulation . . . is still being myeli-often leads to inappropriate actions and harsh words nated (developing) during adolescence, a fact thatspoken to the nearest adult that day: their teachers. accounts for the lightning-quick flashes of anger that you Imagine the following scenarios that might occur any see . . .” (37). Middle level teachers must understand thatday in the life of a middle school teacher. their students will regularly make ill-mannered com- 1. A sixth grade student cannot get her locker open in ments. These social mistakes are a part of young adoles-time and is late to class. When she finally arrives the cents’ growth as they experiment in searching for theirteacher sarcastically responds, “Let me guess. You forgot own identity. The way that educators react to these fre-where my classroom is.” The other students laugh, and quent miscues impacts their relationships with studentsthe late student turns red with embarrassment but and their students’ willingness to cooperate. Overly puni-manages to respond, “Who’d want to remember where tive actions exacerbate negative feelings between stu-this class is?” dents and teachers. 2. Two seventh grade boys are jokingly sparring in The ability for people to trust one another is criticalthe hallway. One hits the other a little too hard, and to maintaining any respectful relationship. Trust isthey begin chasing one another through the halls. As required in a marriage, a collegial working relationship,one nears the door of his classroom, he trips and falls or the relationship between children and parents. Theon the floor and loudly swears, “You’re an ass!” in front same level of trust must be developed between stu-of a teacher. dents—all students—and their teacher. Trust begins to 3. An eighth grader is exhausted after spending the develop when teachers establish appropriate means ofprevious evening completing three hours of homework communicating with each student. Effective communi-that she finished at eleven o’clock. She anticipates that cation is the basis of developing an environment ofthere will not be as much homework for her social mutual respect between students and teachers. The Dave F. Brown is a professor in the College of Education at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He also conducts research with young adolescents on developmental issues including identity development and cognitive growth. 12
Vol. 79, No. 1 Congruent Communication 13more congruent the communication is between stu- adults. Young adolescents experience daily social chal-dents and teachers, the more likely students are to lenges such as peer relationship struggles, bullying, thebecome willing participants in the learning process, issue of male/female relationships, and fights with par-and the more likely it is that the teacher can maintain ents over their increasing need for independencea comfortable classroom management environment. (Knowles and Brown 2000). Many young adolescents experience low self-esteem, have a sense of egocentrism,What is Congruent Communication? are emotionally sensitive, and are frequently impulsive The idea of teachers reflecting on what they say to in their actions and words (Walsh 2004).students is not a recent suggestion for effective teach- These attributes are most likely to occur during theing. Ginott (1971) explained three decades ago that school day; therefore, teachers must respond to these“Congruent communication is a style of speaking that outbursts in a professional manner that diffuses stu-does not attack others, but instead remains harmo- dents’ emotions and indicates their willingness to gen-nious with feelings being experienced” (cited in uinely help students. Teachers need to offer time, eitherCharles 1999, 57). More specifically, middle level formally or informally, to listen to young adolescentsteachers can communicate congruently with young in large group, small group, and individual settings.adolescents by: Active listening involves the following actions: • Using active listening techniques; • Frequent eye contact • Demonstrating body language and facial expres- • Body positioning facing studentssions that match verbal messages; • Avoid passive listening (such as grading papers or • Avoiding traditional communication roadblocks; reading while listening) • Responding with empathy to students’ anxiety and • Acknowledge responses such as nodding or say-frustration; ing, “I see” • Using culturally responsive communication • Rephrasing the student’s comments when she orprocesses. he is finished • Not interrupting the student while she or he is Many teachers may believe that these actions are speaking (adapted from Charles 1999, 52)insignificant to successfully managing students, yet theways that teachers respond both verbally and nonver- Effective middle level teachers spend the first or lastbally are the initial signs that students use to determine five minutes of class engaging students in conversationswhether they will cooperate with teachers. about their lives, interests, and families. They initiate dis- cussions with individual students about nonacademicActive Listening and Body Language issues when not teaching. Some middle schools imple- Ladson-Billings listed these responses from a group ment advisory sessions for the distinct purpose ofof eighth graders she interviewed when she asked them encouraging the development of close bonds betweenwhat they liked about their teacher: students and one adult through small group meetings She listens to us! (Brown 2001). These conversations can diffuse the anxi- She respects us! ety among young adolescents, and the simple activities previously discussed are actually critical to building She lets us express our opinions! She looks us in the eye when she talks to us! cooperative relationships between students and teachers. She smiles at us! Roadblocks to Effective Communication She speaks to us when she sees us in the hall or inthe cafeteria! (1994, 68) Teachers often inadvertently discourage communica- tion with young adolescents by using traditional These responses reveal a great deal about young ado- responses to their impulsive behaviors and comments.lescents’ need for teachers to listen to them. Students’ Englander described some of the communication road-recognition of how teachers respond to them nonver- blocks that teachers are apt to use:bally is also quite obvious in these comments. Youngadolescents need to speak to adults, and adults must • Ordering: “Sit down and stop asking that absurdactively listen to them when this need exists. McCarthy question.”noted that children “(H)ave spent at least a decade as lis- • Moralizing: “Life isn’t supposed to be fair.”teners in most situations. During adolescence they want • Interpreting: “I know what you’re feeling. Youand need the chance to share their feelings and ideas . . .” don’t have to tell me.”(1999, 4–5). Teachers may falsely believe that their stu- • Reassuring: “I’m sure you’ll forget the entire inci-dents aren’t interested in speaking to them; however, dent by tomorrow.”there are many developmental aspects of young adoles- • Questioning: “Did you screw something upcence that create a need for students to speak to caring again?” (1986, 64)
14 The Clearing House September/October 2005 On the surface, some of these responses appear to be • “I see you do not have a pencil again. What canthe responsible behavior of caring adults. These road- you do to solve this problem? Do you need my help inblocks, unfortunately, send a clear message to young getting supplies?”adolescents: “This person isn’t interested in hearing • “I need to speak to you after class about somewhat I think, believe, or feel.” Englander called these missing homework assignments.”comments “low respect” responses in which the person • “Swearing is a common response to being embar-who uses them dominates the conversation by asking rassed; however, it offends me and possibly others asquestions and giving advice, while trying to impose his well. Plus, it is not acceptable behavior in a publicor her own values and solutions (1986, 79). forum such as school. Can you think of something else The alternative to these traditional responses is to say when you are angry that is not so disrespectful?”“empathetic listening” (Charles 2000, 52). Charles • “I am quite disappointed with those of you in thisdescribed this as “getting inside the heads” of the stu- class who have continued to ignore my requests todents: “You make yourself aware not just of their complete homework. It is time we held a class meetingwords, but of their deeper hopes, fears, realities, and to discuss some solutions to this problem since thisdifficulties. The way to do this is to listen within the involves so many of you and it means so much to me.”student’s frame of reference as child or adolescent These responses may not sound natural to many edu-rather than from your frame of reference as adult cators because they diminish the traditional role thatteacher”; perhaps best described as “(T)he student’s teachers play in reacting punitively to students’ behaviorsperception of reality” (52). instead of seeking solutions in a mutually respectful An advantage of listening rather than judging is that manner. Yet teachers who ignore these empatheticstudents begin to understand that they are responsible responses are likely to create more problems, rather thanfor reflecting on their behavior and resolving it them- find permanent solutions to their difficulties.selves, rather than having teachers solve their problems.This leads to the process of students developing an Culturally Responsive Communicationinternal locus of control; that is, they begin to perceive Most teachers in American schools are Caucasians ofthat they are responsible for their behavior, not some- European American descent (Ladson-Billings 2001).one else. This realization can encourage social growth as The way that most teachers speak to students, therefore,students begin internally reviewing how their actions is based on the narrow perspective that students willaffect others. This reflective process begins with teachers respond in similar ways to the conversational style thatlistening to students, rather than lecturing them. Empa- these Caucasian teachers heard as children. Assumingthetic listening sends this message to students: “I under- that culturally and ethnically diverse and low socioeco-stand what you are experiencing, and I know how much nomic students will respond appropriately to yourthis means to you.” Young adolescents are much more communication style can create a number of manage-likely to cooperate when they recognize that teachers ment difficulties for Caucasian educators working inare actually hearing what they are saying. diverse communities.Genuine, Empathetic Responses An example of the confusion that often occurs for diverse students is teachers’ use of a common phrase at Teachers who are interested in creating caring rela- the beginning of class such as, “It is about time we gettionships with students use genuine, empathetic started.” For most teachers, this comment implies thatresponses to their concerns. Effective communication students should sit at their desks, take out their assign-that alleviates class behavior difficulties begins with ments, and wait quietly for the teacher to begin speak-initiating conversations with students privately rather ing. This is not a very direct way of saying what onethan in front of peers. Many middle level teachers cre- expects students to do at this moment, yet most subur-ate their own management nightmares by initiating ban students will immediately react to this request.power struggles or arguments with students in front of Heath (1983) reported that children from working classan entire class. They all begin with simple sarcastic families had difficulty following these types of indirectcomments by teachers such as the one mentioned ear- requests because their parents were much more explicitlier in describing the student who was late for class: in what they expected their children to do.“Let me guess. You forgot where my classroom is.” A more authoritative request is required with many Here are a few responses, most that should be said low socioeconomic students if teachers expect them toin private, that demonstrate that teachers care about respond appropriately. Many teachers begin to losestudents: patience with students who do not respond immediate- • “I noticed you are late again. Is there anything I ly to their requests. Teachers who react punitively in thiscan do to help you get here on time? It means a lot to situation create an adversarial relationship with studentsme to have you here when class begins.” who are confused about the teacher’s expectations.
Vol. 79, No. 1 Congruent Communication 15 Delpit (1995) noted that many African American stu- school as each student studies the facial expressions,dents in urban environments expect the teacher to act tone of voice, body language, and comments thatwith great authority, rather than speaking less assertively. emanate from their teachers. Young adolescents areWhen teachers fail to use explicit requests, some African watching and deciding through these constant verbalAmerican students perceive them as being weak and and nonverbal messages whether this teacher caresundeserving of their respect. Again, an assertive style of about them personally. Most students choose tospeaking and an authoritative demeanor is required for engage in a mutually respectful relationship when theyteachers to maintain appropriate relationships with discover that their teacher does care about them, andmany students in diverse classrooms. demonstrates that through regular displays of empa- European American teachers who plan class discus- thetic listening and genuine concern. The result ofsions expect students to follow the rules of raising their being aware of and responding to students’ communi-hands and speaking one at a time. Gay (2000) cation needs is a classroom in which the opportunitiesexplained that many African American and Chicano for genuine academic growth are greatly increased.students prefer a more open discussion format inwhich students engage in a discussion using loud emo- Key words: congruent communication, adolescence, responsetional comments shouted while someone else is speak- REFERENCESing. In this conversational style known as “call-response,” many side conversations are occurring while Brown, D. F. 2001. The value of advisory sessions for urban young adolescents. Middle School Journal 32 (4): 14–22.students are also listening to the student who first ———. 2002. Becoming a successful urban teacher. Portsmouth, NH andspoke. Recognizing these emotional responses and per- Westerville, OH: Heinemann and National Middle School Association.mitting students to speak concurrently in these situa- Charles, C. M. 1999. Building classroom discipline. 6th ed. New York: Addison, Wesley, and Longman.tions is an appropriate response to this type of student ———. 2000. The synergetic classroom: Joyful teaching and gentle disci-engagement. Teachers can save time at the end of class pline. Reading, MA: Addison, Wesley, and Longman.to have students summarize the many opinions Delpit, L. 1995. Others people’s children: Cultural conflict in the class- room. New York: New Press.expressed, while focusing on the intended outcome for Englander, M. E. 1986. Strategies for classroom discipline. New York:the lesson during a later class. Praeger. Cultural responsiveness to different communication Gay, G. 2000. Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and prac- tice. New York: Teachers College Press.styles is required for teachers to maintain harmonious Ginott, H. 1971. Teacher and child. New York: Macmillan.relationships with their diverse students (Brown 2002). Heath, S. B. 1983. Ways with words. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityThese behaviors must be learned by teachers who enter Press. Knowles, T., and D. F. Brown. 2000. What every middle school teacherdiverse environments if they expect to establish an should know. Portsmouth, NH and Westerville, OH: Heinemanneffective learning climate. and National Middle School Association. Ladson-Billings, G. 1994. The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers ofConclusion African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ———. 2001. Crossing over to Canaan: The journey of new teachers in Managing students is not an exact science. It never diverse classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. McCarthy, A. R. 1999. Healthy teens: Facing the challenges of young lives.was, nor will it ever be, due to the nature of children 3rd ed. Birmingham, MI: Bridge Communications.and adolescents. It is clear, however, that building rela- Walsh, D. 2004. Why do they act that way: A survival guide to the ado-tionships with students begins on the first day of lescent brain for you and your teen. New York: Free Press.