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Are You Over-Instructing?

Are You Over-Instructing?

Ever notice how many instructions you give to your kids each day?

No, I mean, really notice?

Neither had I.

Then one day I was at home with my toddler and my Mum, and Mum mentioned that perhaps toddler was being defiant because all we’d done all day was tell him to do things. Eat your breakfast; drink your water; no, don’t drop  your spoon on the floor again; put your bowl on the bench; don’t throw that ball inside; pet the kitten like this; go to the toilet; pack away those toys. And when he wasn’t doing something quite right, we’d correct him. We’d show him exactly how to do something, or I’d get frustrated that I was repeating myself and he wasn’t doing exactly what I said exactly when I said it. Then the tantrums started, because he’s 2 years old and wanted to do things his way and we weren’t letting him.

“You can’t just have instructions all day,” Mum said.

*ding ding ding* *lightbulb moment*

Of course my toddler was playing up! He was sick and tired of being instructed to do things, of being corrected, of being shown exactly what to do. I wasn’t giving him enough opportunities to self-regulate, to explore, to make mistakes and try again. And I know why I do it too – it’s just so much easier to tell and show them exactly what to do and how to do it. It’s quicker, it involves less mess, and more often than not it’s safety-related. But it also restricts and stifles.

Later that day I sat and thought about how that relates to my teaching. This year I’ve been mostly out of the classroom on maternity leave, but thinking back to last year – was I over-instructing? Could that explain certain behaviours I was seeing in certain students?

It absolutely stands to reason that some of the students were misbehaving because they were sick and tired of being told exactly what to do and how to do it. Of course, many of those instructions were probably necessary, but how many could have been re-worded, or left out all together?

We usually don’t know what’s happened earlier in the day, or even that morning at home. Perhaps a parent hounded them all morning about how they were doing everything wrong, then they get to their first part of the day and aren’t doing things quick enough, then they get to morning tea and the other students are telling them what and how to play, or how to interact. Then they arrive at your lesson, emotionally and mentally wrung out, without even realising why, and here you are *telling* them exactly what to do. Again. More instructions, more corrections. So they snap – refuse to get a pen out, put their head on the desk, throw a piece of eraser across the room, say something nasty to another student. And how do you respond to this misbehaviour? By giving more instructions of course!

I teach high school science and math. It’s a very fine line between allowing students freedom to do things, and instructing them how to do it. Obviously direct instruction is necessary, and so is student-lead work. But I wonder if I have been leaning more toward over-instructing because of the ease. When you have a room full of rowdy teenagers, are tired because of your pregnancy, and also have a toddler at home, the easy way out seems to win more often than not. So giving instructions rather than allowing more freedom probably happened more than it should.

Of course a lot of it is safety-related in science, particularly with regard to experiments. It’s a lot quicker and easier to tell the students what to do. And yes, sometimes I even have to resort to literally telling a 15 year old to open their book, pick up a pen, and write something down. But perhaps there are avenues I can explore to allow for less instruction during the lessons, and I wonder how that would affect student behaviours.

(I don’t mean the 5-E model, or other pedagogical methods.)

Perhaps I can act a bit more like a therapist and be more questioning rather than more instructional, and it could relate to the content as well as to the behaviours – *why* did you do that thing that way? What other way could you do it? What would that outcome possibly look like? What can we do with this information? How could you set up this experiment, given the result we are looking for?  How does that outcome make you feel? What’s going to happen if you throw that piece of eraser again?

Perhaps I can start an activity, and then effectively sit back and see what they do. Remind myself to allow the mistakes to happen, to not over-correct. To not over-instruct. To do this I’m going to need to be more intentional with my planning so there is more time within the lesson. I realise that’s probably the second big sticking point – we never have enough time to cover all the content we’re meant to cover. But I’m sure I can find work-arounds.

Now I’d like to encourage you to do a teensy bit of self-reflection. Do you over-instruct? Think about your classroom routine – how do the students enter the room? What do you do at the beginning of the lesson? How do you go through the motions of whatever it is you need to accomplish for the lesson? Are you inadvertently stifling and restricting your students? What can you do to make sure you don’t just have instructions all day?

Because let’s face it, we all hate being constantly told what to do as adults, and our kids are absolutely no different.


Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys sharing the real and human teacher life, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine.

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