A simple rule to prevent and avoid escalating conflicts with students - always start what you say with "Please" or "I"


I had a rule as a teacher that served me well. When you’re going to say something a student may won’t like hearing, always start what you say with “I” or “Please”. 


Most of us probably grew up hearing that “Please” is the “magic word” when trying to get what you want from others. It’s not foolproof by any means, but there’s a lot of truth to that title. It appeals to that side of human beings that wants to help others and please them, and it doesn’t trigger that side that resents being told what to do and having others try to control them.


The idea of starting what I say to student with “I” came from reading the book TET, or Teacher Effectiveness Training in the late ‘70’s. They talked about YOU messages and I Messages. YOU messages are what teachers too often use in speaking to students. They are what most people typically use when talking to each other, especially when angry. YOU Messages include orders, threats, sarcasm, ridicule, lecturing, moralizing, put-downs, and name-calling. They are also called “solution messages” because they try to take away peoples’ right to choose what to do, i.e. “Sit down and be quiet”. No one like others doing that to them, so YOU Messages invite needless, futile and counterproductive power struggles.

Some students are prone to have the mistaken goals of power and control to begin with, and YOU Messages are a way teachers can “bait” them without intending to or realizing it. These students are like large mouth basses when it comes to such “bait”, and quickly take the “bait” and get “hooked”.

People usually point their finger at others when using YOU Messages. No one likes that either. YOU Messages are aggressive instead of assertive, and will feel that way to others. For all these reasons, YOU Messages more often than not seem like threats to others. It’s why people often react with fight or flight, and more often than not the former. Students are likely to become the equivalent of “rattlesnakes” in response – coil, rattle, get threatening and perhaps even strike out. YOU Messages can be like poking a real rattler with a stick.


I Messages simply give information - like what we don’t like, and what we want others to do. That information can also include how we feel, acknowledging the students thoughts and feelings, even apologies of some sort. But I Messages leave it up to others as to what they want to do about the information they get. We can still warn them of potential consequences for their behavior, i.e. “If you continue to do that, I am going to ask you to go to the office”. However, the students still retains the choice as to what he/she want to do.

We really can’t and don’t control what students do. Some teachers think they can and do, and talk and act as if they do. But they don’t, and doing that just invites some students to be defiant just to prove teachers can’t and don’t control them. I Messages accept that we don’t, and let the student know you’re not trying to. Of course, students can’t control what we choose to do either. So they have a choice – do what we ask or suffer the consequences.

Ideally, if there is any finger pointing, it’s at ourselves instead of others. For all these reasons, I Messages are usually received much better than YOU Messages. They are the best way to assert yourself with others, including your students.


Here’s the catch. You have to be in the right emotional place to be able to use I Messages. Most people have all kinds of cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” from practicing and rehearsing the way they think, feel, say and do things many times in the past. These “ruts” make their thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. That can be a good thing in many ways, but it can also cause people to keep making the same mistakes, regardless of how badly what they think, feel, say and do turns out for them.

Most people have “ruts” for HOT THOUGHTS that make them go ballistic quickly, and for using YOU Messages when they do get angry. So in order to give themselves any chance of actually using I Messages or the magic word “Please….”, they have to keep their emotional thermostat turned down to simple FRUSTRATION, IRRITATION and ANNOYANCE. If they turn it up to ANGER, they will probably automatically resort to the same YOU Message they’ve always used in the past when angry. YOU Messages are often HOT THOUGHTS simply said out loud.


Anger is emotional nitroglycerin. It’s half of our fight or flight response to deal with threats to us. It makes us react to life, and makes us less response-able, or able to respond in the best possible ways. E-motion is energy to move. If we were truly threatened in some way, we’d want as much energy to move as possible, and we’d want to react. As they say, he who hesitates could be lost. The problem is, and always has been, that people can needlessly perceive threats where they don’t exist, or magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality. They can do that simply by the way they choose to look at things before, while and after things happen. It’s why we call the thoughts they have HOT THOUGHTS.


There are two basic ways to learn to keep your emotional thermostat turned down, and turn it down quickly should it go up. One is to learn the “tools” that are part of Teacher ESP or Effectiveness and Stress Prevention. You can read about them at:


The “tools” are part of the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life.  The four most important include for controlling our emotional thermostat are:

1)  Learning to have Unconditional Self and Other Acceptance (USA and UOA)

2)  Developing an internal locus of control

3)  Learning to recognize irrational thinking in ourselves

4)  Learning how to correct that irrational thinking, and having that become automatic


Unconditional Other Acceptance means we choose to look at what students do as being understandable given that they’re human, kids on top of it, and what they’ve been through in their lives so far. That doesn’t mean we have to like, agree with, or tolerate what they do. It just helps temper our emotional responses by choosing to look at what they do this way.

Unconditional Self-Acceptance helps minimize shame, which can lead to anxiety and anger, the two halves of our fight or flight response. When teachers start to believe they’re not living up to the expectations of them as a teacher, which is easy to do, things students do become bigger threats to teachers than they really are or need to be.  Teachers are more likely to overreact emotionally with anger when this happens. So having UOA and USA can be very helpful in keeping our emotional thermostats turned down, and getting into and staying in the best emotional place to respond to situations we don’t like with I Messages, instead of reacting with YOU Messages.


Most teachers have an external locus of control. Like most other people walking the planet, they wrongly see what others say and do, and what happens as the cause of how they feel. This puts them at the seeming mercy of other people, including students, and what they say or do, and what happens. That typically results in teachers feeling worse than is necessary or helpful, and more importantly, missing opportunities to feel better. Seeing students as the cause of emotions they don’t like to have just gives them more reason to get angry with students. It makes teachers more likely to adopt the mistaken goals of power and control, and even revenge in dealing with students.

But it’s actually what we choose to think about what students and others say or do, and that happens that really determines or causes how we feel. Our thoughts about the events of our lives cause our feelings, not the events themselves. We all have a host of cognitive choices that we make all the time that really determine how we feel. These choices give us power and control over our emotional destiny. That can help us keep our FEEL thermostats turned down, and make us more response-able instead reacting or overreacting to what students say and do. It can make it easier to use “Please” or I Messages when we don’t like what students say and do.


The third step is important because thoughts always cause feelings, not events. We have a right to want whatever we want, including for students to do what we ask. The mistake all human beings make is to think that they NEED things they simply want, to treat their simple preferences as NECESSITIES, and to DEMAND what they simply desire. For example, teachers often think and even say out loud “Students should be more respectful”, “They have to follow the rules” or “They can’t talk to me that way”.

This creates a bigger gap than between our expectations and what students do when they don’t do what we want them to. The bigger the gap between expectations and reality, the more emotion people generate. That’s the way teachers make themselves angry instead of just frustrated, irritated and annoyed. Making themselves angry in turn makes teachers more likely to use YOU Messages and be aggressive instead of being free to assert themselves with I Messages.

By thinking they NEED for students to behave, and demanding that they do, teachers are more likely to think it’s AWFUL when students don’t, and tell themselves they CAN’T STAND what students do. They are also more likely to LABEL AND DAMN students. YOU Messages often include name calling, put downs and criticism. That’s what LABELING AND DAMNING is.


As long as teachers continue to think such thoughts, they will continue to make themselves angry and be inclined to use YOU Messages in dealing with students. They will keep plugging into their cognitive “ruts” for having HOT THOUGHTS, their emotional “rut” for getting angry, and their behavioral “ruts” for using YOU Messages. Once we create ruts, we can’t get rid of them. We can only make new ones and hope they can compete for use with our old ones.

Practicing disputing, questioning and challenging our HOT THOUGHTS can be a way to turn our emotional thermostat down and keep it there. With practice, such disputing, questioning and challenging becomes as automatic as grammar check is on a computer.


There’s another way to get to a better mental, and emotional place – a short cut of sorts. It’s called “putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be”. One version of this is to practice talking the way you want to think. (Another would be riding an elevator until you get over your fear of doing so) Once I became trained in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, I realized that getting in the habit of using I Messages or “Please” did more good than just being mechanically more sound and effective with students. It changed my mindset. It turned by cognitive thermostat down from NEED, NECESSITY and DEMAND to WANT, PREFERENCE and desire. I still got frustrated, irritated and annoyed, but not angry. That in made me less likely to plug into some of my own old “ruts” and use YOU Messages. It made it easier and more likely that I’d continue to use I Messages or “Please…” in dealing with students. Having “Please” and I Messages work well was also reinforcing.  


This technique comes from “Assertive Discipline” by Lee Canter. It was a video course that was popular among teachers in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. It simply means that if what you ask a student to do, or say to a student doesn’t have the desired effect, you simply repeat it one or more times. It often will work if you’re simply patient and persevere. At the very least, it’s a form of impulse control. By simply repeating what you originally said, you are less likely to plug into your old “ruts”, including HOT THOUGHTS, making yourself angry, and blurting out YOU Messages that are even less likely to work.


Practicing and rehearsing always using “I” or “Please” is a way to create new cognitive “ruts” for keeping your THINK, FEEL and DO thermostats turned down. Or for turning it down quickly should it go up, as it might very well do. We can’t ever get rid of our old “ruts”, and can always slip into them at any time. The only protection we have is creating new ones for thinking or looking thing in more helpful ways. Forcing yourself to always start what you say to students with “Please” or “I” is a way to do that.