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Emphasizing What Students Can Do, Instead Of What They “Can’t”


A couple of years ago, I read a short piece by classroom management author Marvin Marshall about the importance of emphasizing to students what they could do, as opposed to what they couldn’t do.

That perspective has had a strong influence on how I act in a number of classroom situations. For example, if a student asks to go the restroom, but I the timing is not right for our lesson, I’ll respond, “Yes, you can. I just need to have you wait for a few minutes” instead of just saying, “No.” Or I’ll start off field trip instructions by saying what students can do, instead of what they can’t.

I think it communicates a more positive tone.

In addition, some research has claimed that people are more likely to do something you don’t want them to do if you specifically tell them not to do so.

Today, I learned that telling people what they can’t do is called an “avoidant instruction.” A new study found mixed results from giving them, but I think this statement from the researcher saying that people can:

“…minimise their biasing influence by emphasising to participants what is to be achieved while neglecting to specify what should be avoided.”

In other words, he thinks it’s better to emphasize what you want them to do, as opposed to what you don’t want them to do.

Makes sense to me.

What about you?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I like this approach. Everyone, kids included like to explore their limits. Describing available options gives them the freedom to explore, which they will do anyway, in a positive attitudinal frame. This, I believe, is one of the reasons that kids like gaming so much: they are told what they can do and, operating with those tools, proceed to discover — and learn. This is, I am convinced, one of the reasons that, in spite of a requirement for reading and library inquiry, young people are so positive about our free, evidence- and reasoning-based educational science game, DSI.

  2. Great post, great advice. Now take it to a broader level. Since NCLB and the rise of data-DRIVEN “reform,” educational systems have been completely focused on failures and remediation. Remediation, of course, is easier and cheaper than doing the job right i.e. building on strenghts. Think of how the total focus on failure has polluted our educational systems.

    Also, I love your spam protector. It is much easier for a Baby Boomer with bifocals. if I can’t read a letter, I can read the context. In other words, your spam protector builds on what I can do, not what I can’t

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