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  • by Blaine Helwig

Handling a Student’s ‘Silent Treatment’ with Student Empowerment

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

When a child ignores an adult’s questioning using ‘the silent treatment’ and successfully avoids consequence or accountability for their actions, it is a classic example of a learned behavior. The student’s avoidance tactic has undoubtedly worked in the past with his or her parents and most likely with other teachers and administrators. Thus, it is a skill that a student has practiced to mastery levels; however, the best thing about an undesirable 'learned behavior' is that it can be unlearned with effective methodology and repeated effort.

As seasoned educators know all too well, if a student is successful in avoiding accountability, it is highly likely that a child’s inappropriate behavior will occur again and again. The behavior must be addressed and handled appropriately to extinguish a reoccurrence. Normally, a student learns that by ignoring an adult’s direct questioning, time is on their side, and they can patiently wait-out the situation. The student is not in a hurry – they can afford to wait, but the educator usually cannot. A teacher and a principal definitely have other responsibilities. Consequently, the educator must reverse the roles and put time on their side with both efficiency and effectiveness, but they must do it by empowering the student to choose NOT to engage in that avoidance behavior.

Typical Administrative Scenario (1)

The campus administrator is summoned to the classroom to talk to a student about their behavior. As the principal arrives, the child is sitting at their desk. When the administrator tries to talk with the child, there is no response - silence. The child refuses to answer.

Assuming the child is willing to accompany the principal to the office, there is an effective means to prevent this behavior from reoccurring in similar situations. However, it takes at least one iteration for the student to realize noncompliance options are limited – as illustrated in following typical principal-student dialogue:

Principal: In a calm and deliberate tone of voice, “Hey, what is going on?”

Student: - Silence for 30 seconds. Eyes downturned and no visible sign of emotional distress.

Principal: “I can see you are upset today. What is happening?”

Student: - Silence. 30 more seconds.

Principal: “C’mon, let’s go and chat about this.” (The principal and student walk to the office or a quiet supervised setting.)

Principal: Once at the office, if the child continues not to respond, then the principal must put time on their side. In a calm and deliberate voice, the principal can state, “My friend, I am going to give you the choice on what you want to do today. I am going to count to five, out loud. You can choose to do this [Choice 1] or [Choice 2] before I reach the number 5. But, if you do not choose before I reach the number 5, I will make the choice for you."

Note: The child is choosing not to choose; they are empowered. The principal has defined both choices (e.g. only two choices – not more!) that are viable, equitable and consistent with established school rules of student conduct and expectations. For example, choice one (1) may be that the child apologize to the teacher and complete their assigned work; whereas, choice two (2) may be for the child to remain in the office and complete their work and call their parent to talk about what happened. It is imperative that the second choice be more consequential to the student than the first choice. In the ensuing conversation with the parent, the child chose to come to the office by refusing to complete the assigned task and respond to the teacher and/or the principal. Finally, the child chose to remain in the office by not selecting one of the two choices!

The campus administrator begins the count – calmly and slowly – to the number 5. In twelve (12) years as an urban Title 1 elementary campus administrator, I can’t recall a student breaking their silence and selecting one of the two available choices. Why? Their nonresponsive behavior has worked for them in similar situations in the past.

If the child refuses to respond even when the principal selects option number 2, then allow the student to sit quietly in the office, silently. Again, it is the student’s choice; it is a process - a learning process for the student. The student must come to understand that they cannot emotionally affect the teacher or the administrator with this type of passive approach. Of course, it is a waiting game, but now time is in the administrator’s corner. The child is in a safe place and choosing to be mute of their own accord. In this case, a student must realize that their choice and conduct only impacts them. If the administrator remains calm and unemotional, the wait is usually not long. Why? The child is not getting the desirable outcome that they want. Their classroom task they chose not to complete and other work they are missing sitting in the office must still be completed. The absolute beauty about undesirable learned behaviors is that they can be UNLEARNED! Today, the student is realizing that past success does not equate to present and future success.

It is highly recommended to address this 'battle' at this opportunity to win the 'war' in the near future. The common mistakes is for the teacher/administrator to become emotional or 'give-in' to the child. If that happens, fully expect the child's undesirable behavior to become entrenched, and that the prescribed described remedy above will take much longer to become effective. Why? The child 'won' in their mind before with that 'technique' with the principal/teacher; consequently, it is highly likely they will wait for a similar outcome. Finally, this is an educator's cost of doing business with children. School is not solely about academics. We are also assisting and guiding children's learning with life lessons and proper social and emotional behavior. Note: I have never had a child or parent upset with handling a situation as described above. Why? The student chose their initial behavior, and furthermore, the educator empowered the child to chose their own consequence.

Generally speaking, if the principal is called in the future to address the same child, it is highly likely the student will attempt the same silent response technique. Simply, repeat the above dialogue. In twelve years, I have never reached the number 5 in my count twice with the same child. The student learns that the administrator will select the least desirable of the two possible choices. However, when the child selects the first choice to return to the classroom and complete his or her work, the administrator must convey to the student and eliminate the possibility of any further noncompliance once the child returns to the classroom. A typical administrative (calm and unemotional) statement to the student may be as follows, “'Student’s name', by choosing to return to your classroom and complete your work, you are giving me your word that is what you are going to do. If you do not and I have to come back to the classroom, you no longer get to choose – only I do. My friend, are you choosing to do your work as your teacher expects?”

Student Refuses to Leave the Classroom with the Administrator - Scenario (2)

If the student refuses to leave the classroom, then it is recommended the teacher take his or her class to the library and remove the child’s audience. At that point after the class has left the classroom, the student invariably chooses to leave with the administrator. If not, it is also highly recommended that the administrator telephone for additional personnel support (e.g. counselor or another administrator) for safety reasons. [I strongly recommend to never be alone in the classroom without another adult in these situations - always have another adult to corroborate events if the situation becomes difficult.] Furthermore, it is imperative that the administrator not threaten the child with consequences. The administrator’s goal is to build trust and persuade the student to calmly walk to the office with them. In doing so, the principal empowers the child to choose to come to the office. Again, the principal also puts time on his or her side in this silent ‘tug-of war’ contest – with the ultimate objective to curb and extinguish this behavior in the future.

Once at the office, the principal can attempt another communicative exchange with the student. If the child responds, Done - Game Over! An equitable consequence and the child is ready to go back to the classroom with the additional caveat that the student is choosing to do the assigned task. However, if the student elects to not engage in the classroom activities once they have returned to the classroom, then there is an appropriate and equitable consequence – as described above in bold and italicized print.

Final Thoughts

A student’s passive behavior when questioned is most definitely not a new occurrence in the public schools. It is a learned behavioral response from past encounters with adults. Students learn to patiently wait until an adult tires and relents – successfully avoiding completing a task or facing a consequence. However, a teacher or principal’s approach in effectively addressing this behavior can easily change that dynamic.

When the principal offers only two choices, the child no longer controls the situation or time. The student is guided to make the best choice for them which is also the desirable outcome for the teacher, administrator and the student's parents. It is also advisable that the administrator visit the classroom 20 to 30 minutes later to ensure that the child is doing well. This opportune meeting also should include a quick kudo if the student is properly engaged in the task at hand. The positive interaction furthers the building of a trustful relationship between the student and the administrator.

However, it is important to note in this entire process that the child is positively empowered to choose the outcome. Most importantly, in the future, a student is incentivized to actively avoid conduct that results in a telephone call to the principal – since the outcome of that action is not desirable to the student. Instead, students will invariably elect to NOT engage in the ‘silent treatment’ tactic and complete the assigned task in accordance with their teacher's learning and behavioral expectations.


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