These 6 Words Can Instantly Disarm a Stubborn Student

It invites them to de-center themselves and choose compassion.

Teacher talking to student about impact vs. intent

As a teacher, I was used to my middle schoolers doing something boneheaded. We all do from time to time. If they took responsibility and made amends, I was cool as a cucumber.

But when they messed up and then doubled-down that they weren’t in the wrong, whew—I would see red. 😤

No matter what age a student is when being stubborn, it’s hard to not jump to one of these classic responses:

  • Shaming (“Why would you say something like that?”)
  • Blaming (“Look, you made her cry.”)
  • Negating their experience (“You’re actually going to try to tell me you didn’t mean anything bad by ‘Your face looks weird’?”)
  • Immediate consequence (“Nope. No excuses. You have a lunch detention.”)

After years of working on my own responses to student mistakes, I began using a phrase with them in tricky emotional situations. It’s a gentle way to get students to de-center their own experience and consider the way their words or actions impacted someone else. And bonus: It helped me stay calm, too.

“Impact sometimes matters more than intent.”

I love this phrase because it doesn’t invalidate the feelings or motivations of my students. It doesn’t demoralize or shame them. It simply asks them to momentarily drop their defenses and consider another person’s perspective. With this phrase, they are invited to choose compassion themselves instead of having it forced on them.

How to use this phrase:

  1. First, establish privacy. Both the person who was hurt and the person doing the offending need privacy for this talk. I would check on the student whose feelings were hurt first, sending them to the bathroom or other private space if they needed time to collect themselves. Then I would start my discussion with the offending student in the hallway or in a quiet corner of the class.
  2. Validate what the student says their intentions were. They might lie through their teeth about what their intentions were, but most of the time that doesn’t actually matter for your role as a teacher. “I believe you.” “I don’t think you meant to hurt his feelings.” “I trust you when you say you didn’t know what that word meant.” This is often the part where you will see them visibly deescalate.
  3. Remind them in an age-appropriate way that impact matters. Secondary students can understand “Impact matters more than intent,” but elementary students might need some help. “What you wanted to happen and what happened are different.” “You didn’t mean to hurt Sergio’s feelings, but he is sad anyway.”
  4. Invite them to consider that impact from another perspective. I usually start this question with “Can you see how … ?” “Can you see how your question may have sounded mean to her?” “If your math teacher didn’t know the context of your conversation, can you see how what they overheard would have been worrisome?”
  5. Ask the student what should be done to make it right. Here’s where you ask the student how we make this right. Use your best teacher judgment to determine whether an in-person apology or a written apology is more appropriate, and when an additional consequence or opportunity for further reflection might be necessary.
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Here’s what this phrase looks like in four different classroom situations.

When they hurt another student’s feelings:

Student: “But I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings! I thought it was cool that her haircut looks like a helmet.”

Me: “I don’t think you were trying to hurt her feelings. But impact matters more than intent. Her feelings were hurt even though you didn’t mean to hurt her. Can you see how your comment might have made her feel different in a not-so-good way? How do you think you could make it right?”

When they make a bad choice:

Student: “That was a giant flower I drew at the district chalk art festival, not a wiener.”

Me: “I know you’re a good kid. And it’s not up to me do determine what the flower actually looks like. But even if you didn’t mean for it to look that way, think about our art teacher, who had no idea what was happening until she was surrounded by angry parents. Do you think you should apologize for the impact of what happened? How can you make it right?”

When they say something inappropriate to someone who isn’t a student:

Student: “But how was asking what kind of car the symphony conductor drives an inappropriate question?”

Me: “It’s not an inappropriate question in itself, and I believe that your interest was genuine. But the impact of your question matters more than the intent behind it. Can you see how asking that question after he’d just shared about his experience overcoming adversity in becoming a world-famous conductor might make it seem like you either weren’t listening or had no interest in anything he’d said? Do you think you should send him an email clarifying that his talk meant a lot to you, or do you have another idea?”

When they say something inappropriate to me:

Student: “But your stomach does look like it has five babies in it! I didn’t mean it in a nasty way.”

Me: “I don’t think you meant it in a nasty way. I know you and I know you have a good heart. And my one-baby pregnant belly is gigantic! But I want to prepare you for how that kind of comment might hurt the feelings of other people you might encounter—and potentially limit opportunities for you. The impact of your comment can matter more than your intent behind it. Can you see why pointing out that someone’s body looks way different than you think it should might make them feel embarrassed? What ideas do you have for avoiding making a comment like this in the future?”

In my experience, if I want any kind of meaningful change from the student doing the offending, they need to first believe that I believe them. They need my gentleness and compassion. They need to know that the person guiding them is a person who believes in their goodness, even though they messed up. This phrase helps them reflect on a single choice, not on their personhood.

Also, half of these student situations were real. I will leave you to guess which was which.

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Learn about how one teacher uses this phrase about impact vs. intent to manage student conflict and invite students to choose compassion.