Nonverbal Classroom Management: How to Tame Your Feral Cats - Michael Grinder & Associates

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Nonverbal Classroom Management: How to Tame Your Feral Cats

I’ve discussed before how people are like dogs and cats. A dog comes when it is called. A cat has an answering machine – they may get back to you … if they don’t get a better offer. 

Students can be cats and dogs (or both, depending on the situation or the grade level.) Usually, the lower grades have more dogs than cats. As we move into the secondary level, the number of cat students increases. 

Now, our post-pandemic classrooms are filled with cats and some of them are feral. So I’m declaring this school year calendar, “The Year of the Cat.”

How do you keep the dogs happy – while taming the feral cats in the classroom?

The strategy is that you form and maintain relationships in the following manner:

Please the Dog
Tease the Cat 

We know that classroom management techniques don’t work without building relationships. 

How does this work?

As educators, may I suggest that you operate from your cat? Operating from your cat means that caring between you and your student is one-way. We care for the students, and we’re fine if they don’t care for or like us.

How does this specifically work with your dog and cat students?

  • Your dog students welcome any and all attention teachers offer. 
  • Your cat students decide if you are worthy enough to have a relationship with them.  In other words, we have to get the cats to choose us. 

So, we please our dog students by finding out what they want and giving it to them. 

And we tease our cat students by intriguing them with something they want and making them work to get it. 

Here are some specific ways to work with your cat and dog students:

Creating a curriculum? Insert a tease for your cat students.

For example, imagine you’ve had the students fill out a card listing their favorite toys, sports teams, TV shows, and musical groups. 

If a dog student starts to fade from being attentive, you could mention one of their favorite things. When you do, they’ll immediately look at you…and you can look back at them with a big smile. 

However, doing this dog strategy with a cat student will backfire – so you need to change up your nonverbals. 

If your cat students are starting to lose attention, you’d still mention their thing. But, as the cat gets intrigued (turns and looks in your direction), you wouldn’t look at the cat.  

In fact, you’d move away from the cat’s side of the room. Your cat student will visually chase you (following you with his eyes), as they track your movements. 

Try different ways to greet students at the door.

Different nonverbal strategies will appeal to your dog students. 

For instance, pretend there are four students about to enter your classroom. You greet all of them with eye contact, a smile, and good morning. The first three students are dogs – they return your warmth. The fourth pupil is a cat, who doesn’t respond in kind. 

The next day, you set your goal to make a connection with the cat. You not only greet the cat at the door – you walk the student all the way to their chair…making full eye contact and talking pleasantries.

A dog student would love the extra attention. Meanwhile back in feline-ville, the cat can’t stand your niceness. If this is middle school, some of them will even say, “GET A. LIFE!” 

How do you greet your cat students? Look down, and with a placid, quiet voice, say, ‘morning.’ Now, the cat has no social pressure to respond. 

Dog and cat students accept compliments differently.

Very differently.

Imagine you wanted to compliment a dog student on their shoes. The best way is to make eye contact, look at their feet, and say “I sure like those shoes. Are they new?” Whereas, the cat would find such interactions too intense. 

As counter-intuitive as it seems – walking by a cat student, while looking at their shoes and with a flat voice saying something like, “Red shoes,” is the best way to compliment a cat. The key is to KEEP moving and make the cat chase you. While you want to avoid confusing a dog – confusing is a fine strategy for a cat. 

While you can have A PHILOSOPHY that works for most dogs – we need philosophIES for cats. Each cat warrants separate individual approaches.

Why conceding the elephant is a smart cat student strategy.

Cats have high esteem and believe that they are superior to others – including the teacher. Plus, the cat believes they have an edge that others fear.  If the teacher reveals the cat’s perceived dominance, the cat’s “edge” secret is exposed – and there is no longer a fear threat.

Or, in other words, the elephant is out in the room and the cat’s trump card is played (sorry about mixing metaphors).

Here’s what I mean about getting the elephant out with your cat students:

Physical example: One petite middle school teacher very calmly looked the larger, truculent student in the eye and whispered, “We both know that you are strong enough to throw me across the room.” The teacher paused and added, “Not now, but a month from now, would you be proud if you did that?”

Hierarchical example: (in a parent conference): “We both know that you could go directly to my principal with this complaint.” The educator paused and added, “Of course, the school policy is that the parent and teacher have to attempt to resolve before the administration is involved.”

Social example: “We both know you have your own social media account… and can write degrading comments about your classmates.” After a pause, the educator quietly added. “Beware of the school district policy regarding bullying.” 

Academic example: “We both know that you could resist and not do your work.” Then, the teacher says in a calm and collected voice, “Take a moment. I like you being in my class. Think about it – make sure you decide how you want to spend your time.”

By conceding the elephant, you can connect more easily with your cat students and help them from going feral.

In today’s classroom, the concept of dogs and cats reveals new insights for the post-pandemic classrooms. I’d like to end this post by sharing a quick story:

An educational consultant distributed a Q-tip to each teacher.

He then opened his coat and revealed a t-shirt.  

Above the picture of the Q-tip is the wording Quit Taking It Personally. 

At the bottom of the graphic is the upside Quietly Take It Professionally.  

What perfect advice for the academic year of the cat.

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