How to Say “No” Tactfully to Your Students


If you are like most teachers, you spend your school days being bombarded by a relentless stream of requests from students who want to go to the restroom, the office, a locker, the clinic, or to call home, open a window, shut a window, sharpen pencils, charge a cell phone, and hear the directions just one more time.

The sheer volume of student requests in the course of an ordinary school day can cause even the best classroom management plans to go awry if they are not managed carefully and with deliberate thought about the consequence of your responses.

Very little is simple in any classroom, and that certainly includes student requests. Managing these entreaties tactfully requires that teachers make swift decisions not only about whether the request is a reasonable one, but also how our response will affect the other students in the class as well as the student making it.

Just think–if you were to run out of patience and snap at even one or two students a day, soon the atmosphere in your class will turn toxic. Students should be able to ask questions and make requests without being intimidated by the dread of a teacher’s brusque (or worse) reply. The old adage that there is no such thing as a dumb question really should hold true in most cases in most classrooms.

Imagine that a student has asked you a silly question. (Maybe it is one that you have gone over and over and thought it was settled.) Imagine that you huffily snap out a quick reply. From your point of view, your impatience may possibly justify your answer and your tone. From your student’s point of view, however, you have just misused your adult power to embarrass, to humiliate, to shut down any further questions no matter if they are legitimate ones or not.

One of the most useful skills that any teacher can develop is the ability to refuse a student’s request without causing offense. Although it may seem impossible, this is not as difficult as it appears.

Taking a deep breath before replying to what seems to be a silly question helps. Taking two deep breaths will also help because you have a split second delay that will allow you to think about what you are going to say.

Instead of abruptly refusing, try one of the statements or questions below. Each one is designed to deny a student request in a pleasant, non-confrontational way that preserves the student’s dignity.

1. Are you sure that’s your best choice right now?

2. Let me think about that for a little while.

3. Could you give me a moment?

4. Why don’t you give that some more thought?

5. Let’s finish this first.

6. What do you think?

7. How will that help you achieve your goal?

8. Can this wait?

9. What are the pros and cons involved in your request?

10. How will you accomplish that?

11. Can you tell me what that would not work?

12. Would you ask me again in a moment?

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