Mar 19

'That's Not Appropriate!'

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Mar 19, 2013

Recently I have had several animated conversations with teachers and soon-to-be-teachers about this phrase (and versions of it). Since it has been rattling around in my head, I've decided to tackle it here. "That's not appropriate," is one of those common teacher phrases that can become like breathing. It's language I know I used my first few years teaching with some regularity. It’s an easy phrase. Succinct. Not too harsh. And as a bonus, it sometimes even leads to the behavior stopping.

There is an endless list of behaviors that most of us could agree are not conducive to a collaborative and safe classroom environment. Many of these occur with some predictable frequency. So, as one teacher recently asked me, “what’s the problem with ‘not appropriate’?” I have three problems really. The first is it's subjective.

It’s Subjective

When we say something is “not appropriate,” we almost always mean not appropriate in a particular context, according to a particular individual. Behavior that might be inappropriate in one environment (singing during math class) might be perfectly appropriate in another (singing during music). Most behavior has to be understood within its context. Even aggressive behaviors might be functional for some kids in certain contexts. Then there is the matter of appropriate according to whom? Side conversations that the science teacher calls inappropriate might be tolerated or even encouraged by the English teacher. What one individual interprets as humorous, another might interpret as offensive. There are of course behaviors that the majority would agree are not appropriate in almost any school context, overt teasing comes to mind, which leads to my second reason for not liking the phrase.

It’s Non-Educative

“That’s not appropriate” does not give students any useful information about why the behavior is problematic. We just can’t assume that all kids know this information. Often very short explanations will do. For example:

  • I’m going to ask you to stop singing because right now it’s making it hard for others to concentrate. 
  • That language is not allowed in this classroom because it makes some people feel unsafe. 
  • Those noises are making your friends really silly right now; please stop. 
  • I know that Ms. Johnson allows side conversations, but in the class I ask you to wait until turn and talk time. Different teachers sometimes have different rules. 

Students need to know how their behaviors impact themselves and others, and how they match or don’t match the social norms and rules of the classroom. Kids who struggle with their behaviors are often the ones who have trouble intuiting these norms. This said, I’d grant you that there isn’t always time for a longer explanation, leading to my third and last reason for not liking the phrase.

It’s Not Actionable

“That’s not appropriate” doesn’t give students any information about what they should be doing instead. It’s usually an implied “please stop.” My feeling is if it means, “Please stop,” then say, “Please stop.” I see nothing wrong with that directive. At the very least it gives students a direct clue about what they should do. Even better than requesting that the behavior stop would be to add explicit prompts about what a student could do instead:

  • If you need my attention, you can raise your hand; I’ll try to be right there. 
  • If you are bored, why don't you add an illustration to your story? 
  • If you need to say something to Camilla, please wait until we have a break; that’s in only 5 minutes. 
  • If you really need to share that joke, wait until after school. I think most grown-ups in school are not going to like that language. 

Hopefully I’ve laid out a convincing case for, at the very least, being reflective about using this phrase in classrooms (and at home I should add, pointing a finger squarely at myself).

If you find yourself using replacement language, write in and share your story. Are there other catch phrases you’re working to reimagine?

tagged behavior, communication, language, self-reflection
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