By Stephanie Dolgoff (for Parenting — check out
As I sat on a teeny-tiny chair reading to Vivian in her kindergarten classroom, I noticed her teacher, Debbie, do something that made my jaw drop. “David called me ‘liar liar pants on fire!’ and he didn’t stop!” one boy reported to Debbie. Debbie took David’s hand and said, “Come over here and help me make sure I have enough milk for snack.”

That’s why Debbie is Debbie and I’m a mess. In one simple move, she removed him from the conflict, distracted him from the joy of teasing, gave him attention he obviously needed (but not the kind of negative attention he may be used to), and made him feel like a useful part of the class, rather than a fringe kid who only gets noticed when he razzes others. That would never have occurred to me.

Debbie is clearly not the only teacher who has a few brilliant tricks up her sleeve — techniques that she’s learned over the years to keep her whole class engaged, paying attention, and (for the most part) behaving for seven hours, five days a week. I knew I had a thing or 20 to learn. Following: teacher tricks you can steal to keep your guys on the straight and narrow.

Give them a do-over

“If I see two kids pushing in line, I might say, ‘Pao and Tommy, please make a different choice,'” says Michelle Mertes, a first-grade teacher in Wausau, WI. “Kids typically know what they’re doing wrong, and using this technique gives them the chance to change their choices and make me proud.” Which, she says, kids really want to do, despite their occasional in-your-face behavior. “Seeing a disappointed adult is more powerful than being yelled at,” she says. If they don’t come up with a better choice, of course, then it’s time to take away a privilege, like the chance to sit next to a friend.

Add a dollop of guilt

“If a kid is doing something ridiculous, look at her like you’re disgusted or make her feel a little guilty,” says Alison Frank, a kindergarten/first-grade teacher in Encinitas, CA. Let’s say your child is fondling every piece of fruit in the grocery. “It’s probably better to say ‘I hope you don’t have a cold coming on — now someone is going to buy that and your germs will be all over it,’ rather than ‘Don’t touch that.'” This gives her both a good reason to stop and a chance to think about how her action affects others.


Like a security guard tailing a shoplifter may deter the crime, sometimes just standing near a kid who is breaking the rules will curtail the behavior — you may not even need to stop what you’re doing or say anything. Elaine Smith, a third-grade teacher in West Bloomfield, MI, says that while she’s teaching, she’ll simply drift over to where the kid is goofing around, and perhaps come up behind him and place her hands on his desk. The mom equivalent might be to make your presence known by peeking into your child’s room or lurking in the hallway or peering over his shoulder while you’re on the phone (and he’s doodling instead of doing homework). If he knows you’re onto him, he may stop.

Get on your knees

Not to beg, but to look the child square in the eye. “Women tend to stand up when talking to kids, whereas men tend to kneel down and get eye-to-eye,” points out Nick Ferreira, a former teacher who is now an education adviser at Child Center New York, a nonprofit child and family support organization in New York City. “Getting down to their level changes it from a huge scary interaction to a direct conversation,” he says.

Channel their “superpower”

When a child repeatedly acts out in a particular way, find the positive in it and help her use this “power” for good, not for evil. Christine Herring, a third-grade teacher from Monroeville, PA, recalls one girl who was ¿ber-bossy, which caused her classmates to reject her — and led her to misbehave. “I told her, ‘You know, you have a strong personality, and someday you could be President. But the problem is, to be President, people have to like you. Your friends don’t like it when you’re bossy. So think of yourself as a President-in-training, and start really working on respecting your classmates, listening to them, and knowing when to use your bossiness.'” Once Herring had helped the girl understand the best times to use her strong leadership ability, like when organizing a game, things went more smoothly.

If your child can’t sit still, his superpower might be “energy,” which you can direct him to use at the right time and place (for the fastest cleanup on record, maybe, or when he’s out in the yard). If she’s a cutup and disturbs other diners in the restaurant with her Hannah Montana medleys, praise her ability to make people laugh, but give her an outlet where her superpower will be appreciated — a musical-theater class, for instance, or an evening performance for you and your husband. If she breaks into song at the wrong time, you can say, “You’re not using your superpower correctly,” says Herring. “They start to get it after a while.”

Change “go” to “come”

Next time you find yourself desperately trying to get your child to do something (like sit down for dinner), try saying “Come with me to the table so you can sit down,” instead of “Go sit down at the table,” suggests Joan Rice, a third-grade teacher in South Milwaukee, WI, and coauthor of What Kindergarten Teachers Know. “It almost immediately changes the tone from one of confrontation to one of cooperation,” she says. Plus, you can take him by the hand and move him where you want him.

Be assertive

Saying “Okay, today we’re going to clean out the garage” works better than “Well, I was thinking maybe today…” Stand up straight as you let them know what’s going to happen, says Maribeth Boelts, a former preschool teacher who now writes children’s books in Cedar Falls, IA. There will be no doubting who’s in charge. Still, there’s no need to be a drill sergeant. “I think kids need a cheerleader, so try to be optimistic, cheerful, and firm about what needs to happen next,” says Boelts.

Say their name first

“With kids who don’t listen the first time, say their name first, then what you want,” suggests Smith. “If you say ‘Make the bed, Suzie,’ she’s not going to hear anything before her name.” Standing nearby is also more effective than yelling across the room — it’s too easy to ignore you that way.

Let them swap chores

If you have more than one kid and it’s cleanup time, giving them the freedom to trade tasks can make them more likely to comply. “Something may feel like a lot of work to one kid but not to another,” says Carol Hock, a retired fourth-grade teacher in La Quinta, CA. Letting them switch gives the kids some sense of control, plus it shifts the conversation from Ugh, we’re doing chores to What chore do you want to do? “It makes it more interesting for them,” says Hock. “Everyone is jockeying to get what she wants, and the person who used to have the job is watching to make sure the other does it right.” If you have one child, you can have a three-way swap meet with your child and partner, or employ the technique when it’s cleanup time at a playdate.
HOW TO PREVENT MISBEHAVING (as much as is humanly possible)

Give them a piece of the rock

Frank assigns each kid a task that she’s good at, so she feels like an integral part of the classroom. “I had a kid last year who loved gardening, so it was his job to turn our garden soaker hose on and off every day. Then I’d thank him in a genuine way without making a big deal about it,” says Frank. “It really does make a difference because they’re not working for a specific reward — they’re working to maintain their self-esteem and the respect of the teacher.” You might try asking your child to be in charge of emptying the dishwasher, if she’s old enough, or to be the one who makes sure all the lights are out in the house before you leave.

Let them make the rules

It won’t be the inmates taking over the asylum — promise. In fact, their rules may well be more stringent than yours. “At the beginning of the year, we sit together and come up with the classroom expectations — what we expect of each other and ourselves,” says Hope Zettwoch, a fifth-grade teacher in Willington, CT. “Then we spend a lot of time discussing it. It helps them to have an investment in the rules.” My daughter Viv’s teacher actually has the kids make drawings depicting the rules, so they’re doing something positive to reinforce them.

Do a countdown to liftoff

Transitions (getting out the door, putting toys away before bathtime) are a bear for kids and adults. Boelts suggests a countdown. If you have to be out the door at 9:20, call cleanup time at 9:00. At 9:10, it’s pee and put-on-shoes time. At 9:15, everyone needs to have their coats on, etc. “You count backward with a schedule,” she says. That way, you’re sure to have allotted enough time, and the kids know what to expect.

Set up a take-a-break space

It can be any quiet, comfy area with no TV to which kids can excuse themselves when they’re feeling sad or overwhelmed, and where you can direct the kid when he’s misbehaving. In Zettwoch’s class, it’s a giant beanbag. “A child can choose to take a break, or you can tell him he needs to,” she says. The take-a-break space is not a time-out, emphasizes Zettwoch, because it’s not a punishment in itself (even if you’re the one who asks the child to go there). “In fact, I pick a time when everything is going fine to give each child a chance to sit there, so they know what it would feel like to take a break and that it’s not a punishment or a consequence.” (That said, if the behavior is repeated, Zettwoch would take away a privilege or implement a consequence she and the child had decided upon together.) The upside? You don’t have to drop what you’re doing or take attention away from another kid to have it out with the one who is drawing on the walls — he goes and takes a break — plus you can postpone the conversation for a few minutes until everyone (including you!) calms down.

Stephanie Dolgoff is Parenting’s editor-at-large. Check out her blog