Listen to this post as a podcast:
I’ll start right away by admitting I have done my fair share of yelling. As a middle school teacher, I wasn’t too bad—I probably had one good yell per week. As a parent, though? Ugh. Much more. So I know the struggle.
And I know a lot of you struggle, too: Even if you’re a great teacher, even if you’re a swell person most days, sometimes it all gets to be too much and you just snap.
I remember the teacher in the room next to me one year, a person I completely adored. This teacher had a perfectly fine relationship with our students, but once or twice a week…Hooo-WEE! I could hear it through the walls, often accompanied by the slam of the classroom door, and it turned my blood to ice. If my students and I happened to be doing something quiet, we would all kind of freeze up listening to it. It never lasted long, but I always felt bad for my colleague during those moments. I knew a switch had been tripped and it wasn’t this person’s normal way of dealing with students.
And if this person was anything like me, they probably felt pretty awful when it was all over. Once the moment has passed and I have had my little tantrum, I’m ashamed of the spectacle I have made. Losing control is not a proud moment for anyone. But I have gotten a lot better in recent years, and I want to share what has worked for me, along with some research and ideas from other people who have cut way back on their yelling.
Understand Why You Need to Stop Yelling
Kicking the yelling habit will be more likely if you have a good basic understanding of why it’s an ineffective way to solve classroom discipline problems.
It’s Crappy Role-Modeling
Even if we accomplish nothing else in a school day, the least we can do is demonstrate a respectable level of self-control. Part of our job is to show students how to handle anger, stress, and conflict in a healthy and productive way. We can’t just tell them to do that. We have to show them. And yelling is definitely not showing them healthy, productive stress management.
It Trains Students to Ignore Your Regular Voice
When your go-to strategy for handling negative situations is yelling, students ultimately tune out all of your other voice levels. A little bit of yelling becomes more yelling, which can then become louder and more frequent yelling. A regular diet of this can make students immune to even the garden-variety yelling, so you have to keep upping the volume and intensity to get their attention. It’s a horrible, slippery slope.
Students Are Less Likely to Respect You
When adolescents are raised by authoritarian parents—whose methods are punitive, coercive, and often include yelling—they are less likely to view their parents as legitimate authority figures than kids whose parents have different styles, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Adolescence (Trinkner, Cohn, Rebellon, & Van Gundy). Because parenting and teaching involve similar skill sets, it’s reasonable to assume students who have authoritarian teachers feel the same way about them. The obedience you might get from yelling might look like respect, but that behavior probably doesn’t match their true feelings for you.
It May Contribute to Bullying
The way students treat one another has become a major concern for educators in recent years. We tend to look at programs that aim to change student behavior and attitudes, but our own conduct may be a contributing factor: A 2010 study found that classrooms where the teacher used an authoritarian style—using punishment and coercion to influence student behavior—created an environment where bullying behavior between students was more likely to develop (Allen). “Bullying doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” write the authors. “A host of factors contribute to its existence, and one of them is how teachers manage their classrooms and respond to inappropriate student behavior.”
It Creates Anxiety for Everyone
I don’t think any research is needed to back this one up. When you yell in anger, it changes the feeling in the room; not just for the kid you’re yelling at, but for everyone within earshot. That includes the teachers and students in nearby classrooms. Just a quick glance at your handy Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will tell you that the need for safety comes way, way before the desire to satisfy any kind of cognitive or creative interests. Therefore, if your students are preoccupied by an awful, tense feeling in the room, they’re much less able to do quality academic work.
Prevent the Yells Before They Start
The most effective way to combat yelling is to catch it early. These techniques will help you avoid the conditions that will make yelling more likely.
Know Your Triggers
Not everyone yells for the same reasons, so it’s important to learn what triggers you, then notice the early warning signs. Like I mentioned above, yelling has been one of my biggest parenting struggles, and eleven years in, I have grown acutely aware of the things that set me off: sticky surfaces, excessive noise, and kids getting all up in my grill when they want my attention. I flail around just to make it all go away. It’s not pretty. On good days, though, I am able to notice the first glimmers of irritation caused by these things, kind of face them as soon as they turn up, and make a mental note not to let them build to a big yelling outburst. So just start paying attention to the things that set you off, and see if you can catch these feelings in their early stages.
Do Regular Check-Ins with Yourself
One reason I yell is because I’ve gotten out of touch with how I’m feeling. I let some kind of resentment, a frustration from earlier in the day or maybe even hunger build up past the point where I could control it in a rational manner. If this sounds familiar to you, start building regular self-checks into your daily schedule. On a regular basis—maybe once an hour on the hour—take a moment to just notice how you’re feeling, both physically and emotionally. Rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 in both mood and physical comfort, and if you find you’re heading below a 5 on either scale, do something to remedy that before you sink down closer to 1, where your lizard brain is far more likely to take over and turn you into a big jerk.
In her Psychology Today article 10 Steps to Stop Yelling, Dr. Laura Markham uses the term “kindling” to describe the “resentments you start to pile up when you’re having a bad day. Once you have enough kindling, a firestorm is inevitable.” The only way to prevent that firestorm is to recognize when a pile of kindling is growing in a certain situation or against a particular person, and do something about it before lighting the match: Have a calm conversation with someone about the problem while you have your head on straight. You’ll thank yourself later.
Examine Your Thoughts, Then Revise Them
Chances are good that the root of your yelling is coming from a set of beliefs you keep repeating to yourself. You just may not be aware of them. Here’s an example. One thing that sets me off with my own kids is when I tell them to clean up a room and they’re all:
If I were to look carefully at my thoughts in those moments, I think I would see something like this: They don’t respect me. Look at how they just keep doing exactly what they’re doing, as if they didn’t even hear me. Kids who actually respect their parents would get up immediately. They would follow instructions immediately. But they don’t even take me seriously. I’LL SHOW THEM!! GRRAAAAAH!!
The same happened with my students. In my first few years of teaching, I had a colleague (let’s call him George) who would regularly stop by my classroom to reprimand my students if they were misbehaving. The kids would straighten up, he’d head out, and everything would be taken care of. Except I was basically humiliated. I felt weak and ineffective and embarrassed. And within the next 60 seconds I would be yelling at my kids over some small infraction. My ego had been bruised and I felt like all the other teachers thought I was a pushover. I’d show them. I’D SHOW EVERYONE! GRAAAAHH!!
The American Psychological Association recommends we control our anger with something called cognitive restructuring: “Simply put, this means changing the way you think. When you’re angry, your thinking can get very exaggerated and overly dramatic. Try replacing these thoughts with more rational ones. For instance, instead of telling yourself, ‘oh, it’s awful, it’s terrible, everything’s ruined,’ tell yourself, ‘it’s frustrating, and it’s understandable that I’m upset about it, but it’s not the end of the world and getting angry is not going to fix it anyhow.'” I have personally found this to be an incredibly powerful way to diffuse my own anger.
So think about the things you tell yourself that lead you to yell. Are you regularly ruminating over how disrespectful students are these days? Are you furious about the impossible pressures placed on you by standardized testing? Do you believe certain students make it their mission to sneak, lie, and cheat their way through life? Do you resent the fact that you’re having to teach students whose learning or language needs go beyond your training? Sit with those thoughts and feelings a while. Listen to them long enough to be very clear on the scripts they’re playing in your head. Then see what you can do about rewriting them. For more examples of how cognitive restructuring can work for teachers, read my review of Angela Watson’s book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What.
Watch the Multitasking
This one is from my own personal experience: When I am attempting to do something that requires concentration and one of my kids needs my attention, I am way more likely to snap at them. It’s tempting to try to squeeze two tasks into one space—say, entering grades into your gradebook while your students read silently. But suppose your gradebook software freezes, you realize that the last ten grades you entered just disappeared, and right then, you notice that one of your students is kicking the desk of the girl in front of him, and it’s bothering her. You’re already stressed by the gradebook situation, and now Bart Simpson over there is causing problems. Are you going to handle this well? Are you going to quietly go over and tell him to stop, then deliver a consequence calmly if he does it again? I seriously doubt it.
So choose your secondary tasks wisely. Sure, if your students are working quietly and you want to file a few papers, fine. Just make sure it’s an interruption-friendly task, something that doesn’t require a lot of concentration, because if you choose something complex, or something that could give you problems, you’re far more likely to see students as an annoying distraction.
When You Get that Yelling Feeling
If you’ve done everything you can to prevent the desire to yell from even coming up, and it starts coming up anyway, here are some approaches you can take to fight it face to face.
About six years into my life as a new parent, it suddenly dawned on me that one of the main reasons I yelled at my kids was because I didn’t have the energy to physically go to where they were. I was worn out and didn’t feel like getting up. Or I had my hands in the sink and a problem erupted somewhere, so instead of drying off and going to deal with it, I yelled. On her blog Lemon Lime Adventures, Dayna Abraham captured this epiphany perfectly in One Simple Tip to Help You Stop Yelling: “When the kids start to get ramped up, instead of yelling from across the room to settle down… I get closer. When the kids are starting to argue, instead of yelling above their voices to get along… I get closer. When the kids are ignoring my requests, instead of yelling my request louder… I get closer.” So one way to head off your yelling is to just physically move yourself to where they are. Not only will that proximity get their attention, it will make yelling basically unnecessary.
Instead of Loud and Ranty, Go for Quiet and Concise
When you get the urge to yell, make a conscious effort to go in the opposite direction: Speak much more softly, almost in a whisper. This can actually get students’ attention even more effectively than a yell. More importantly, it projects self-control. In a recent Periscope broadcast, special education teacher Amy Harris shared some important principles for dealing with explosive student behavior and staying calm in high-pressure classroom situations. “We are the adults in the situation. These are kids that we’re talking about, so we can’t try to get into a shouting match with them.” Harris also recommends using as few words as possible, rather than delivering a long lecture: “The more you limit your words, the less you’re going to get into a power struggle.”
Find a Replacement
If you’re mostly yelling to get the room quiet, look for an alternative. In her post 15 Creative & Respectful Ways to Quiet a Class, Angela Watson suggests countdowns, hand signals, and asking content-related questions to refocus students’ attention. Or check out Todd Finley’s 30 Techniques to Quiet a Noisy Class, which includes having the teacher just turn and write a message to the class on the board. My own go-to strategy when I really wanted to blow up was to grab a notebook and just start writing (a strategy I describe in this video). Repeating a mantra in your head, stepping outside your room, counting to ten…if you’ve made a commitment to not yell, you will find the trick that works for you.
Pretend You’re on Camera
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it might help someone else, so here goes: If nothing else works, and I feel that yell coming on, sometimes I’ll pretend I’m being filmed for a reality show. I ask myself if I’m behaving in a way I would be proud of later, and that can occasionally stop me in my tracks, despite the actual lack of a camera.
Track Your Progress
Success with dropping any kind of bad habit can be reinforced if you track your progress. My yelling with my own kids got so bad at one point, I actually had to set myself a concrete goal with a reward at the end of it: If I could be yell-free for two solid weeks, I would buy myself a nice new pair of boots. I made a “No Yelling” chart to check off each yell-free day, taped it to a kitchen cabinet, and showed it to my kids so they could keep me honest. Each time I blew it—which I did, twice—I had to start over with a new chart. After I finally got through two full weeks and I stopped tracking, I would occasionally slip back into my old yelling habit, but my awareness of it had grown significantly, and that’s what stuck.
Now I know that if I ever start getting really bad again, I can always work toward another new pair of boots. ♥
Allen, K. P. (2010). Classroom management, bullying, and teacher practices.The Professional Educator, 34(1), 1.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Controlling anger–before it controls you. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx
Trinkner, R., Cohn, E. S., Rebellon, C. J., & Van Gundy, K. (2012). Don’t trust anyone over 30: Parental legitimacy as a mediator between parenting style and changes in delinquent behavior over time. Journal of adolescence,35(1), 119-132.