Communication in the Classroom:
Teaching Social Skills of Politeness


Effective communication in the classroom often relies on social cues between teacher and students, and between individual students as well.

Teaching politeness is the first step in teaching social skills that can have a dramatic impact on a student's ability to "play nice" and otherwise function in a close-knit classroom community.

Politeness is King

Anyone can learn to be polite.

Even the most cranky person, either child or adult, can learn to be polite. Why? It's simple...politeness can be a habit that relies on just a few key words and actions. I cover the actions in teaching respect. So let's talk about the words here. And I'd bet you can guess which ones we are talking about:

  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Excuse me

Thank you sign on highway illustrates teaching respect

No surprises there, huh? But the most effective types of communication in the classroom often start with such simple phrases.

As I said, anyone can learn to be polite...just picture the meanest person you can, such as your uptight neighbor who hates your cat or the "you're not getting a refund" person on the customer assistance line...if they use "please" and "thank you" (and maybe a couple "have a nice day's"), you'll end up complaining bitterly about them but will also say:

"Well, they were polite, but they were still mean!"

If a few magic words can paint a veneer of civility on the meanest people you can think of, then imagine what they can do for those sweet kids in your class!

Cultural challenges to teaching social skills

Here are two of the challenges you will face:

  • Home life.

Families place varying degrees of importance on teaching social skills of politeness and working together. Frankly, some parents don't even insist on "please" and "thank you" from their children, let alone some of the other niceties. (And "please" and "thank you" are the basics of social skills worldwide, no matter your nationality or culture.)

This can certainly challenge a teacher's classroom management philosophy of polite interaction.

  • Culture.

Some children arrive at school completely well-trained in social skills...based upon the expectations in their parents' home country. Many of these kids are speaking English as a second language and have difficulty appreciating nuances of American phrases and idioms (e.g. "getting your ducks in a row" = "getting organized.")

These, of course, are not show-stoppers. As noted above, politeness is a habit an anyone can learn it. Just be aware that it may not be reinforced at home, so for some kids it may take a bit longer.

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Communication in the classroom: setting the example

As with any skill taught at school, politeness and other social skills are modeled and reinforced at the group level and tailored at the individual level as needed. Enough cannot be said of the importance of your example when reinforcing skill that affect communication in the classroom.

TIP: Act the way you want the kids to act and you will be half way there.

Thank you on post-it note illustrates teaching social skills

Always thank a student who fulfills a request; use "please" and "excuse me" repeatedly throughout the day. To make your point obvious, ratchet up your politeness about one notch above everyday normal. Try for a touch more formal than you'd be around regular family - maybe the level you'd use around strangers...or meeting your in-laws for the first time!

The next step is to insist on polite behavior from the kids. Pause and point out missing "pleases," etc. whether they are in conversation with you or with each other.

Teaching social skills takes practice, practice, practice

When guests are expected in your room, have the kids practice how to ask questions. If they are receiving gifts, such as free books from a local charity, give them the exact words and behaviors to use to express their thanks:

"Thank you so much for the book. I really like to read about _______."

Praise them lavishly afterward for their stellar performances. Asking to use the restroom is one area where I insist on proper form:

"May I use the restroom please?"

...is the way they must ask; if I hear:

"Can I go to the bathroom?"

...I let them know that I'm sure they can go there, but that isn't how we ask!

Thanking lunch helpers that serve their food is a great way for kids to practice being gracious. I also make sure they thank classroom workers for doing their jobs, especially paper-passers, even when they hand out worksheets - I love it when kids learn to thank each other for giving them work to do!

The handshake seals the deal

I think that a good, firm handshake while looking someone in the eye puts the absolute stamp of sincerity on "thank you." Look at the "thanks for the book" scenario above. Now, picture it with a small child saying it while reaching up to firmly shake the hand of the adult.

This simply knocks adults over...no extra words, just one extra action. They are not accustomed to a child behaving with such sincerity.

Practicing the habit of sincerity can lead to real sincerity in the end. And the handshake is the go-to move for this.

  • Firm grip (not crushing, not wimpy)
  • Look 'em in the eyes
  • Two pumps and release

TIP: Kids love practicing handshakes with each other. They feel so grown up!

Politeness, which enables effective communication in the classroom, is so important in many ways; it greases the wheels of civilized society and orderly classrooms. It's simple to instill, very effective at establishing a foundation for the ideal classroom climate and goes a long way toward teaching respect.


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