The Word ‘no’ is a no-no! - Simon Bentley, Specialist Teacher Consultant

Recently, I was talking to a young, adult friend and I noticed that she flinched when the word ‘no’ was used in talking about a general issue. Later, when choosing chocolates from a box I said, “No, I don’t like that one,” and she flinched again. I asked her if the word ‘no’ contained a historical significance for her. She thought for a moment and said, “Yes, you’re right. I don’t like it. I’ve never liked it. It worries me”.

This gave me a new perspective on the previously non-committal advice I have given to nursery staff about avoiding the word ‘no’ when working with children (particularly those who demonstrate the more challenging behaviour). It would appear that not only is ‘no’ a word which contains an implicit confrontation (which will adrenalise a lot of children), but it can be a physical trigger which some children are powerless to resist and which creates feelings of insecurity, anxiety, fear or anger.

We should only ever use the word ‘no’ with children in situations where a longer phrase would not reach their ears, or their understanding, quickly enough. Some children with special needs - especially cognitive needs – might just need to hear “No!” before heading out through an open window or dropping a brick onto the head of another child. Otherwise, this word could be construed to be an example of ineffective practice, or of adult power-play (unconscious or otherwise) over a child.

Since the very idea of creating oppositional situations is antithetical to good practice, we should all try and remove the word ‘no’ from our teaching vocabulary and replace it with words or phrases which are more likely to encourage compliance, calmness and respect. Examples I have heard being used to positive effect include:

  • Hold on a minute!
  • Hang on!
  • We can do that again later, but first we are going to do this
  • Come here!
  • Look at this!
  • You’re going to love this!
  • Listen a minute
  • Let me help you
  • Stop that (possibly a little too close to ‘no’ for comfort…but not quite as antagonistic)!

Of course, there are many other variations on this theme, and don’t forget the usefulness of non-verbal discipline: the frown, the pause in speaking, the adopting of different tones of voice, the beckoning gesture…and, of course, the smile – generally most effective before the need to put a break on unwanted behaviour!

What my young friend taught me is that we underestimate the behavioural responses to this simple word at our peril. “No” must be a no-no when we are working with children!

- Simon Bentley, Specialist Teacher Consultant