Negotiations:  Let’s Make a Deal

It wasn’t until I had a class of twenty-four gifted children in front of me to live with – for a whole school year – that I realized that “negotiating” was so much a part of a LOT of gifted children. I’d been a teacher in gen-ed classrooms for over ten years, but thisgroup was a whole new experience. I remember pondering the following classifications of “negotiators:”

  • The ones who were doing it to match wits;
  • Those who were testing authority – they wanted to be in charge;
  • Those who were indirect, using smiles and charm, trying to see if they could get their way or finagle something;
  • Those who thought of it as a game of bargaining, making a deal.

I found my way through this by using two techniques – one from previous classroom experience and one from my children at home.
At home I just made a rule:  if you are going to argue, it will get worse. An example might be bedtime at 8:00:
“Can I stay up until 8:30?”
“ No.” Whining or bargaining…
“OK, you can stay up until 7:30 then.”
More whining. “7:00 it is!”
Or 

“Can I have another piece of cake?” 
“Yes, tomorrow.“ Pleading. 
“OK, I guess you don’t want any cake!”

This was a simple, known and natural consequence.  I would never do this for a reasonable request or a true need. Requests with purpose and explanation were perfectly acceptable.  My home children and students quickly learned how to tell the difference.

After 15 years at home with my own children, I re-entered teaching one October with a patched-together first grade classroom. I had never taught first grade, and this was a challenging bunch.  In over my head, there was a teacher next door was disgustingly good at teaching first grade.  I so wanted to hate her.  Mrs. McGuffin was kind enough to give me a couple of tips, and one of them was a positive gem.  She said, “Whenever you are not getting what you want from the kids, build in more structure.”  Well, the truth was I was nevergetting what I wanted from these little darlings.  I could not get them to listen to a three-minute story.  I was a great reader and young children love stories. How could this not be working? Using Mrs. McGuffin’s advice, I put tape on the floor where I wanted them to gather when I read to them, thinking that if they put their fannies inside the boundary all would be well. It was not.  So the next day I put 26 Xs of tape on the floor and thought if each child were sitting on an X, all would be well.  Alas, it was not.  The following day each X had a student name on it.  I instructed them to find their name on an X and sit on it.  Like flipping a switch, it worked.  I loved Mrs. McGuffin!

In that first classroom of gifted students, it wasn’t just daily routines that needed an inordinate amount of structure. It was also assignments.  I typically gave a mundane writing assignment the first week of school to ascertain everything from penmanship to spelling to vocabulary.  It was expected to take half an hour.  So I gave my class this assignment:  Tell me how to brush my teeth.  Simple, right?  Half the class was done in five minutes, while a good portion hadn’t finished by the end of the day!  There were cataloguesof ways to brush one’s teeth – complete with illustrations.  Even simple assignments needed structure, and in this case, there needed to be minimum and maximum lengths.

Another corollary to these strategies is to limit choices.  I know I am far less stressed with a couple of choices than with a myriad of them. There’s a time and place for complexity and multiplicity of choices – it just isn’t all the time.

There was a side benefit of each of these “accommodations.” Each of them served to dial down anxiety.  When routines were in place, expectations clear, natural consequences understood, and choices limited, we all managed better – both children and this adult.