SEL Tip: Be Naturally Assertive     

June 5, 2018

In communicating with students, focus on the behavior you want to see and encourage, not the off-task or disruptive behavior you want to stop.

To be happy and effective in the world, we need ways to express what we want and need, set limits respectfully, and stand up for ourselves and others.  Assertiveness allows us to do all this. There are different ways to be assertive (that is, to be strong without being mean). One especially  important skill for teachers to master is what we call the “natural  assertive message.”  

The natural assertive message is a simple, straightforward statement of how  you’d like the other person to be or what you want them to do.  A teacher  may use a natural assertive message to give directions in class: “Take out  your notebooks” or “Pick one of the problems on page 35 to work on with our  partner.” “Raise your hand to let me know if you have questions” or “When  you’re done with the assignment, turn to one of the problems on the board  for extra credit.”      

A natural assertive message may also be used to redirect a student who is  off task or disruptive: “I’d like you to quietly turn to problems 1-5” or  “Please return to your seat and get to work.” “I need everyone’s attention  so I can talk you through the next steps of this assignment” or “Let’s turn  our volume down to a whisper, so that people can hear themselves think.”     

Note how the focus in all of these examples is on the behavior we want to  see and encourage, not the off-task or disruptive behavior. There is a  difference between “Stop talking with your neighbor right this minute” and  “Please wrap up your conversation and get back to work.”    

Sound them out.  Do you sense the difference?     

You're probably able, much of the time, to find positive ways to redirect  student behavior. But what about the times when you've found yourself  focused on the behavior you don’t want to see? Record some of your negative  messages in a chart like the one below.  Next, think of ways to transform  each of these negative messages into positive ones, and record them as well.


  Negative focus / comment   

  Positive focus / comment

  “Stop talking to your neighbor.”



  “Don’t run in the hallway.”    



  “Quit playing games on your                   computer.” 




Focusing on what we don’t want often brings with it a level of stress and  frustration, which we communicate to our students, affecting instruction. If  instead we focus on the behaviors we want to see in our classrooms, we can  lower our stress and frustration, so that we’re more able to provide  instruction in an assertive manner.

The most effective strategy is to teach into the behaviors we want to see  from the start of the school year, problem-solve them as needed, and  emphasize them over time with students who are on or off task, by either  acknowledging or reiterating in a firm, calm and respectful manner,  behaviors that are acceptable in the classroom setting.      

If this is our approach, our students will come to know the classroom  expectations and how to meet them.  As a result, we'll be more likely to  keep our stress levels and blood pressure down – which means we are more  likely to be heard by students who most need our reminders and redirection.

After all, no one likes to be told something in frustration.