The Problem With Yelling

Dear Dr. Hurd,
I’m a substitute teacher and I go from school to school. When kids see a sub they think it is a free day. I know there are ways to defuse situations but I’m having a problem with voice and tone control.

In fact, I may be asked not to come back to a school because they claim I was heard yelling for a half hour to 27 very unruly 5 year-olds.

What can I do to change my behavior and learn voice and emotion control? I’m not a great lover of kids. It’s a job.

Dr. Hurd replies:

The problem with yelling is that it does nothing to foster respect. Cognitively, you have to replace yelling with strength. Tell yourself, ‘Strength is good. But yelling isn’t strength.’

Unfortunately, most schools today don’t believe in strength. Nor do many parents. Take a close look at parents out in public. You’ll see many of them asking their children to make decisions — about what to order in a restaurant, or what to buy in a store — that the kids are not even old enough to have an opinion about.

Somewhere along the way, most parents internalized the idea that kids must have their way, even if they’re not yet old or bright enough to know what that is. This attitude leads children to run wild because nobody is taking the lead or telling them what to do. And when parents run out of patience after employing such a senseless strategy, they yell. Just like you. The kids are used to it, and don’t think anything of it. That’s why it’s not working.

And then there are the schools. I assume you work in a public school system. It’s important to remember that public schools don’t exist to actually teach children. They’re a local and federal entitlement, and with younger children especially, nothing more than a babysitting service. Your boss is not going to lose his job if kids graduate not having learned anything.

He’s going to lose his job only if he offends some kid or parent, usually the most obnoxious of them.

Perhaps you’re yelling at these kids out of frustration because you believe that they’re there to learn. But they don’t know that, and neither do the people who run the school.

Can five-year-olds learn? Absolutely. Ask any Montessori teacher, who teaches kids of even average intelligence how to speak a foreign language at the age of four. Not so in public schools or kindergarten. They’re there to be baby-sat, and your job is to baby sit them and do nothing to offend anyone — a tall order these days!

If you’re yelling for half an hour, then you’ve already lost control. Yelling is a sign of that, just as physical abuse would be. Think of ways to restrain them without yelling.

For example, can you make the most unruly one sit in the corner? Or go to the principal’s office? Or do something embarrassing that won’t get you into trouble, but might lead other kids to laugh at him so he’ll calm down? Or perhaps distract him with something to do?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. But spend your quiet hours thinking of strategies that might work with one child or another. And then try them. Keep a record of what works, and under what circumstances. Treat it as a research project. At least you won’t be yelling. You might or might not find effective ways to guide these unruly kids, but at least you won’t lose your job.

Voice control isn’t as hard as you think. Simply pay attention to your voice. The problem is that when you let yourself get angry and frustrated, you stop paying attention. That’s why you have to find something else to focus on, other than just being angry.

You have to remember that these kids are just being kids. Most of them are not getting any leadership — and probably even less discipline — from their parents. The school officials have no incentive to do anything other than hold onto their jobs and benefits, as the teacher’s unions pretty much guarantee no matter what.

It’s not realistic to expect yourself to successfully and consistently control these children. Focus instead on how to respond to them, and how to not lose control of your voice, yourself — or your job.


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