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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, February 04 2019

The Impact of Language on the Behaviour Of Students with Behaviour or Emotional Disabilities.

The ability to effectively communicate with students is the hallmark of a great teacher.   Personal communication, because of its emotional content is at the heart of building good relationships.  The feeling of the message is just as important as the content.

It is believed that in any face to face interaction, 7% of the emotional meaning of a message is expressed with the words; 38% of the emotional component is communicated via the tone of the voice while more than half, 55%, is conveyed through facial expressions and body language

Children who have severe behaviour, or emotional, disabilities have, as a major characteristic, an extreme disability to understand, or read non-verbal cues.  This incapacity is known as dysemia.  In particular they have a hypersensitivity to negative social cues and are almost oblivious to positive messages.  Teachers, who deal with these students, need to understand that what they may consider to be a small correction will be interpreted as a major rejection; legitimate negative feedback becomes a perceived attack. 

On top of this difficulty in providing correction when students act in an inappropriate way, is that these students will also minimize, or misinterpret any positive stimulus provided by the teacher’s attempt to build a positive self-image for that student.  The value of positive reinforcement as an aid to learning is also diminished. 

The truth is, these students do not easily comprehend the intended objective of any message.  This disability creates problems at the very source of relationships and that is our communication.  What the teacher believes she is ‘saying’ and what the student ‘hears’ is very likely to be confused.

Students with this disability have a compounding feature, a propensity to be overwhelmed by the emotional content of any incoming stimulus.  If they perceive the situation they are faced with as being fearful the initiation of their protective behaviour reduces their capacity to make sound, rational decisions about their behaviour.

From the figures cited above it can be seen that our body language and facial expressions provides the bulk of the emotional content of our communication.  On the surface, this may appear to be an easy area to rectify; the teacher just needs to present herself in a warm, friendly manner.  However, these students, with their developed hypersensitivity to emotional stimulus are not ‘easily fooled’.  Teachers cannot fake their approach to these students.  Not only will they misread the emotional content, they will also identify magnify the negative component in the message.

So how do we communicate with students with emotional and behaviour disabilities?  First, we need to re-evaluate our attitude to these children.  They are hard to like; their disability is usually expressed in ways that others find offensive.  When their behaviour ‘hurts us’ that pain will be reflected in the very non-verbal cues, those we need to regulate.  

Teachers need to use very strong boundaries, understanding they are not really the cause of the dysfunctional behaviour it is a reflection of their history and finally they need to confirm a genuine affection for these children.

How the teacher moves around the classroom should also be considered.  These children are easily ‘spooked’ and it is a good technique to marginally slow down their movements and make that movement predictable, they know where we are going.  This relaxed movement allows the students to mirror this stress-free posture.

Proximity, that is moving close to a student who is misbehaving is often cited as an effective behaviour management strategy.  By standing close to the troubling student the teacher is effectively entering that child’s boundary and they will become aware there is a potential threat and they will change their behaviour. 

For students with severe behaviour problems boundaries are a troubled area.  For some, the definition of ‘proximity’ is marginal but they are hypersensitive to any perceived threat. It is important to never move that close to the student that you really are invading their personal space.

As over a third of the emotional meaning of any message is conveyed in the teacher’s tone of voice, like body language, the teacher cannot fake a caring and friendly quality in their speech; they must be genuine.  In a sense, the adjustment made in the movement is mirrored in how the teacher talks. It is important for the teacher’s voice to be no more than moderately paced and almost monotonic.  Any quick fired talk, or a voice that fluctuates across the vocal range, will emotionally confuse these students.

Experienced teachers often use the technique of deliberately lowering their voice to calm a noisy class down.  Others make quiet, shhhh sound to evoke a sense of calm in the classroom.  This latter practice may arouse childhood memories of a mother’s nurturing.  We understand that this is not as likely for the abused child but when the rest of the class settles, so does the emotional excitement for the damaged child.

As stated, the words in the message makes up only 7% of the emotional content.  However, even if we get the body language, the facial expressions and the tone in our voice right the substance of the words are important.  The words will communicate the lesson content but they also direct the student’s attention, critical for students with severe behaviours.   The manner instructions are delivered is an effective method of behaviour management. 

The thinking process of students who are struggling to control their behaviour is at best confused.  Giving clear, concise and short instructions direct the student’s attention and conveys what they are expected to do.

An effective instruction includes the following features:

  • Start with a verb, it is direct instruction – ‘Go to page three’!
  • Keep sentences short; less than five words to avoid confusion.
  • Limit instructions to short pauses while you continue to scan the class.
  • Give direct instruction only when you are starting ‘have to’ tasks.  If you are offering optional tasks you give the students choice.
  • Questions are excellent for engaging attention or starting a discussion but when you want them to start a class use direct instruction.
  • Use thanks rather than please at the end on an instruction.  Saying ‘thanks’ conveys the sense you assume they will complete the task. 
  • Use the word ‘now’ if the class is becoming distracted, this is like the starter’s pistol at the beginning of a race.
  • Give instructions in a firm, calm and measured manner. 
  • Wait ten seconds after the instruction is complete.  Resist the temptation to fill the gap of silence.

Just as you go to work in your ‘teacher’s uniform’, dressed as a professional, clean and well-groomed, at work you bring your teacher’s voice!  For example, I may use ‘colorful’ language when I’m out with my close friends but I will not swear in some social settings; I refrain from telling jokes at a funeral.  What you say must be what the students expect from a teacher.

If I see a student is upset I mirror their expression in an attempt to support them.  This mirroring, matching their body language and tone conveys a message that I am in tune with their feelings.  Unconsciously, they get the message that I respect how they feel and I am there to support them.  Once they become more settled, I would continue to reflect their improved emotional state.

When I am discussing an issue with students I often say ‘you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion’.  Of course, I want them to listen to what I’m saying.  You must give the student that same respect.  You don’t have to agree with them but by acknowledging you have listened, you can understand their point of view and a mutually acceptable outcome is more likely to be achieved.

To demonstrate your respect for what they say, start your replies to their statements with phrases like:

  • I appreciate
  • I recognize
  • I acknowledge
  • I understand
  • I respect

Finally, whenever you are in a dispute with a student avoid the word BUT; such as ‘your ideas are good BUT they would not achieve anything’; using ‘but’ indicates you completely disregard the ‘ideas’.  Of course, they might be wrong, however when you ignore their point of view you reject them.  We know that rejection is significant stressor for any person.  Always remember, if you want the students to get control of their behaviour you have to get their arousal down to manageable levels.  On top of this the student may have information that will help resolve the situation.

Students with behaviour, or emotional disabilities are at the mercy of their emotions.  If teachers can develop their communication skills to a level that minimizes the risk of driving these students into emotional overload, they will go a long way towards the effective management of their classroom.

Posted by: AT 07:02 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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