The ‘Three Requests’ classroom management technique is a very effective way to keep your cool when dealing with difficult and challenging behaviour from students. In fact, it can help you with the most demanding students in the most frustrating, anxiety-filled situations. I have witnessed this technique play a major role in turning a student referral unit where I was working. In that place, the extremely damaged and challenging young people ran wild (and where the committed but powerless staff were in tears). Overnight, the place was transformed into a centre of excellence. It became a place where students came to lessons with smiles on their faces and enjoyed the opportunity to achieve. Needless to say, the staff also enjoyed the changes.
Having used this strategy over many years since then, I have found it to be a very effective method. This classroom management strategy can help gain compliance from very disobedient and challenging students. It can transform even those who display extreme and entrenched behaviour problems.
The best way of explaining this classroom management strategy is through an example. Let’s consider the following response to a student (our old friend Jonny). Jonny keeps getting out of his chair and walking around the room.
The teacher recognises that Jonny is agitated about something. She first tries the many preventive strategies she has at her disposal. She tries offering more support by asking him if anything is wrong. Or she offers him more help with his work. She then gives him a work target and offers him limited choices. The choice could be an alternative seat, or she praises other students in the room and so on.
But Jonny continues to get out of his chair, walk around the room and bother other students. It’s time for phase one of the three requests technique. The teacher says (in a very calm tone): ‘Jonny, you’re out of your chair. Please return to your seat and get on with your work.’ The teacher then turns away for a few moments to look at another student’s work. She gives Jonny time to follow her request without losing face in front of his friends.
Jonny continues to walk around the room. At this point, the teacher moves closer to him and repeats her instruction in a calm, non-confrontational manner. She says, ‘Jonny, I’m asking you for the second time to return to your seat.’ At this stage, it is crucial to maintain a calm voice. The teacher doesn’t need to raise her voice or get angry – she just lets the script do the work.
If Jonny complied at this point, the teacher would reinforce the fact that he had followed instructions. This could be done by immediately giving him some praise to reward his behaviour. The teacher wouldn’t berate or lecture him for not following her initial instructions. Additionally, she wouldn’t ignore the fact that he took a very positive step by changing his behaviour.
However, if Jonny didn’t do as he was asked at this stage, then the teacher would ensure she had his attention. She would then repeat the instructions one last time:‘Jonny, this is the third and final time I’m going to ask you to sit down and get on with your work.’
It’s important that the instruction is brief and direct, but again, the voice isn’t raised or accompanied by an emotional reaction of any sort. She doesn’t get drawn into debates, arguments or explanations. Jonny knows exactly what he has to do to avoid a consequence; there is no need to provide any further reasoning.
If Jonny finally managed to follow the request he would be praised as above. If he still persisted in behaving inappropriately, he would then be notified of the consequence. The teacher would say, ‘Jonny you were asked three times to sit down. You haven’t done as I said. You must (insert prearranged consequence).’
Some example results are:
‘Jonny, you were asked three times to sit down. You haven’t done as I said. Go to time out.’
‘Jonny, you haven’t followed instructions. Pack up your things and come and sit at one of the single desks at the front. Thank you.’
After issuing the consequence, the teacher would then look out for any demonstration of positive behaviour by Jonny. If there is any positive behaviour, the teacher will praise it. The approach must be to give attention to the right behaviour whenever possible. The goal is to apply this classroom management strategy in a calm, non-emotional way
Don’t use the technique for secondary behaviours. If it is overused, it will cause more problems than it solves. By secondary behaviours I mean smirks, comments made under the breath, the sighs and rolling eyes from students. The students could do these acts in response to a consequence you’ve just given them. Ignore them, don’t get drawn into an argument and certainly don’t start going through the script again.
This classroom management technique is best used with one consequence every time – and preferably one which can be applied directly. Immediate actions include moving to an isolated chair in the classroom, time out, withdrawal from an activity or similar. Once students know that the warnings always lead to the same outcome, the technique becomes extremely effective.
Don’t rush through the three stages. I’ve seen teachers scream: ‘First time, the second time, third time … time out!’ This is clearly wrong, as it gives the student no time to process each request. Don’t get angry if they ignore you the first time or even the second time. That’s the beauty of this technique – you don’t need to. Just let the script and the known consequence do the work for you.
You don’t have to use three warnings all the time. In other parts of this book, I have mentioned the need for just one warning when giving results of their actions. Don’t get too caught up in the details at this point, and adapt the script to suit your particular style or setting. I wouldn’t advocate giving more than three warnings in any case. Indeed, there is certainly an argument for adjusting the script to accommodate just one or two. The important thing is that your students are clear as to how many warnings there are and that you are consistent in applying them.