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Addressing Students’ Behavior with I-Messages

My original background is in teaching: I’m a certified teacher in Dutch history and social sciences in secondary education. When I was getting my teaching degree, we had to do several internships. And boy, did I have my work cut out for me.

Most of my classes ware great and I could work well with them. But some groups of students were really hard and I dreaded teaching them. Yet, it was often just a few kids who caused the problems and who infected the others with being disruptive, insolent, or downright rude. But I was at a loss how to handle these kids.

Until the teacher who was supervising me, sat me down and explained a very simple technique called the I-message. Nope, this had nothing to do with Apple’s I-Message, since that didn’t even exist at the time!

It was a way of addressing behavior with kids in a non-threatening, yet personal manner that made them more receptive of your message. I won’t say I never had problems afterwards, but I did get a much better grip on some of the kids that caused the problems.

An I-message consists of four things:

  • A description of the behavior you want to address (1)
  • The effect of that behavior on you as speaker or leader (2)
  • How this makes you feel as speaker or leader (3)
  • What you want the other person to do instead (4)

Obviously, I-messages work in youth ministry as well and are a great way to address and correct students’ behavior. There are situations in which you need to address certain behavior, for instance when a student is being disruptive during a talk, or disrespectful in your small group. Our goal as youth leaders should always be to try and be as positive and constructive as possible when giving feedback. That’s where I-messages can contribute, because when done right, they were come across as non-threatening.

An I-message keeps it fairly neutral in describing the behavior and focuses on the results of the behavior in terms of consequences and feelings. It’s very important that you state the message in a non-threatening way. That means you have to make it about yourself and what the behavior is doing to you.

Often, when we’re confronting other, we focus on them (you-message), which makes the listener defensive, belligerent, and not inclined to change his or her behavior. That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid using words like never, always, every time, etc, because they are far from neutral and have a negative impact.

Let’s give a few examples of what I-messages look like and how to incorporate these four elements:

“Jack, I see you throwing peanuts at the other kids (1). It distracts me and makes me forget what I want to say to you and all the others (2). I don’t like that, because it makes me feel like I’m wasting a great opportunity to make a difference in your lives (3). I’d appreciate it if you would stop it (4).”

“Listen Mary, I’ve noticed you’re often late for small group (1). Because of that, I often have to repeat the first questions or reread the Bible verses so you can catch up (2). This frustrates me, because it’s a waste of time and the others lose interest and it’s hard to get them involved again (3). Could you try to be on time from now on? (4)”

“I overheard you talking to Ruth about something Ellen shared in small group last week (1). It made me uncomfortable, because it was meant to be private and we had agreed to keep it between us as a small group (2). It made me feel like I can’t trust you with personal things and I would really regret it if that were the case (3). Could we agree that you won’t do that again? (4)”

What’s important besides the words you choose is that your body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and other non-verbal communication support your message. They should also be non-threatening, and as positive and constructive as possible.

Obviously, I-Messages don’t always work. There are situations in which you simply have to be more confrontational (for instance when it’s a whole group that’s being a pain), or in which the other person is far too negative to listen. In that case, you’ll have to resort to other methods. But at least, you’ll have tried solving the problem in a constructive, non-threatening manner.

Do you ever use I-messages? How are your experiences?


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  1. […] ADDRESSING STUDENTS’ BEHAVIOR WITH I-MESSAGES Great blog post title. […]

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