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The Finger Trap Method: Getting Your Students to Do What You Want

January 10, 2018


I grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, during which time Chuck-E-Cheese was of roaring popularity. Roughly once or twice a year, my parents would submit themselves to it and bring us, whether for another child's birthday or just a sheer lapse in judgement. I remember earning tens and twenties of tickets playing whack-a-mole and impulsively wasting them on small trinkets at the prize counter. Among the rings and disposable Slinkys were the Chinese finger traps. If you don't know what I'm talking about or perhaps you don't remember, they are woven hollow tubes that you place your index fingers into, thus trapping your fingers inside until you can figure out how to get them out. I remember my sister getting one once, and I remember hating it immediately because I didn't understand it. How frustrating it was to get my fingers stuck; no matter how hard I pulled, I could not get them out! 

When I was a little older I at least accepted the concept; if you tug too quickly once your fingers are in the trap, you will only tighten it. However, if you make patient efforts to gently ease your fingers out, alternating between sides, you will eventually free yourself. My young mind found the object of the "game" to be a waste of time.

It was not until adulthood that I truly made the connection between the object and the deeper meaning behind it: harshness is not an effective means to success.

As a teacher, I want my students to do things. I spend the better half of my day telling children what to do. It's why they pay me.

Though I haven't taught long, it does not take a veteran to recognize that children rarely respond well to harshness. When we tug abruptly or harshly on our students (metaphorically speaking, of course) in order to get them to complete a task, several negative things can happen. However, when we allow them to take small steps toward a goal, use positive and kind language, and teach instead of preach, we're more likely to have a positive outcome. Let's explore the contrasting results in "tugging" and "easing."


Tugging is Negative

Tugging can negatively affect your relationship with the child, especially in the case of habitual negative speech. This seems elementary, but in the heat of the moment over-stressed and over-worked teachers often throw "relationship" out the window and let their emotions get the best of them. If this has ever been you, think of it this way: your moment of out-lashing in frustration may feel good for a moment, but it is like throwing money away; in contrast, easing effectively invests in the relationship. This will pay off in the long run, for if your student has a positive relationship with you, they are more likely to want to please you, therefore making them more likely to do whatever it is you want them to do.


Tugging Creates Stress for Children

Yes, we all know how stressed you are. That's adulthood, and that's teaching (unfortunately). However, you are developmentally capable of carrying the burdens of your job. Children simply aren't yet. And you might never admit this out loud or even to yourself, but sometimes teachers subconsciously blame children for their insurmountable workload. We know it's not their fault! But technically, we are doing it for them, so we associate the stress with the students. When we do this, it becomes very easy to allow our stress to flood our attitudes in the classroom.

I'll use a scenario to help:

Your curriculum coach or principal tells you in your grade-level meeting that you have to give a mid-year standardized test to check student progress. They tell you it will take all day for two days, and there will not be time for makeups after that so your students must finish in those two days. They also tell you the test must be given on the computer. You've already got it in your mind that you will not be able to teach anything on those days, because of the testing, and immediately you start thinking of Student A who takes double the time of the average student to complete anything, then of Student B who can't type his or her name, then of Student C who will finish halfway through the first day and drive you bonkers.

You're worried that they won't show any improvement from August, you're worried about some kids not finishing, you're worried about some students not taking their time. On test day, maybe the server goes down in the middle of the test. Maybe half of the computers are missing keys, or maybe you've got a new student and for whatever reason their log-in information is not working properly. Plenty of things can go wrong, and you're stressed and tense. You realize one of your students is slumped in his seat, playing with an eraser in the middle of the test. Be honest with yourself. On your worst day, are you tempted to tug?

You could most certainly snap and startle the child, putting fear into him in order to motivate him to work. After all, he doesn't really want to hear your yelling again! But how would things go if you decided to ease? Imagine yourself now, taking several deep breaths and leaning down next to the child, firmly but quietly reminding him to get back to work. How much better will the child perform on his test if he is not stressed out by you? I believe you can assume an answer to that.


Tugging Can Embarrass

My class is very bright and mature for 3rd grade, but they are all very close with one another because they have been in class together for several consecutive years. Therefore when I talk to one student, all others listen in as if I were making a class announcement! I have to remember to be discreet when correcting behavior in order to keep the child's dignity and self-esteem intact. This is no easy task with my kids, but there is a vast difference between tugging loudly and easing quietly. Perhaps you have a student with a bad habit of interrupting. Bless the child's heart; he's oldest at home and helps his mom out with his little sisters. He's the class clown with a keen sense of humor, and loves the attention. He'll interrupt you in the middle of your lessons with just about anything; a correction to what you said, a question (relevant or not), a comment (relevant or not), or maybe even an audible bodily function, heaven forbid. It happens often and you get to a point where you correct him with no resolve. What a strong temptation to tug!

You, the teacher, want to assert your authority as such, but this can be done through easing! Instead of embarrassing the child in front of the class by telling him "Don't interrupt! That is very rude!", try ignoring him or giving a nonverbal cue, but don't stop the lesson just to berate. If you must say something, tell him you will talk to him later on in a calm voice. Once you're done teaching and kids have been dismissed to do their own work, walk over to the child and ask him to come into the hallway or in a part of the classroom where students cannot see or hear you talking. Though the child won't express it, you'll have preserved as much of his self-esteem as possible while still taking a moment to correct him. Then, help him by praising him when he doesn't interrupt (even if it's just a 10 minute span of the day). This will ease the child right into understanding what you expect of him.


Tugging Versus Easing, For Your Own Sake

This method is helpful for your students and the overall success of your classroom, but how will it affect you?

Waiting to discuss issues with children in private moments also gives you both an opportunity to calm down and process what happened. Some children may be mature enough to think through their own actions prior to meeting with you privately, which will make the conversation go faster. You also need to calm down to remain diplomatic and professional. This sets a great example for your students regarding how to handle tough situations. 

Another positive effect of easing is self-improvement. If you practice patience with your kids, you are "exercising the patience muscle," making you stronger for other frustrating situations at work, in your marriage, with your family, in traffic, or anything. Like real exercise, it will make you sore at first, but with consistence you will see results worth working for. 

Easing, over long periods of time, builds unforgettably positive rapport with your students. Most kids will never forget their remarkable teachers (I'm sure you remember your best and worst!). What impression do you want to leave on them? 


Consider the wise investment it takes to ease before you impulsively tug. You and your students will be better off for it.


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