Picture this: My reading group is attentive and prepared for a discussion of a favorite novel, "What if Darry had called the police?" I ask. Jenny initiates a thoughtful reply but Eric interrupts: "That's crazy! Darry would never do that!" My first thought is that Eric, a recalcitrant student, is finally excited. But Jenny is silenced. Eric's outburst has squelched the discussion.

Several days later, I fill in for a teacher who has unexpectedly resigned. I anticipate a confused class, but during the morning meeting, the disruptions are constant. "Stop! You're bothering me," Kim blurts out. David complains loudly, "I can't see!" Julia cries, "Hi, Sheila" I call on Jerome, but Michael interjects, "Hey, I said that first." Brian pokes him and giggles, saying, "But that's not the right answer!" In both situations, I cover only a fraction of the material I've planned and the cooperative class spirit I'd hoped for is stifled. Yet I know I can't assume that children know how to participate productively. That's why I teach social and communication skills as an integral part of my curriculum.

To cure the blurt-outs in my classroom, I developed the following strategies.

1) Set expectations
Give children a sense of your vision for the tone of the classroom.

The strategy in action: In the case of the morning meeting, I began the next day by saying: "I know this is a hard time for you, but I want us to have meetings that are interesting and fun. To do that, we need what I call important participation. Can anyone tell me what they think I mean?" (With older children I might use the term honest discussions.)

For Eric, I scheduled a private conference. I acknowledged his input in the discussion and expressed my pride in his academic growth. Then I explained the importance of hearing other points of view and outlined my goals for the reading group. I also shared my own struggle to be more patient and not blurt out my ideas. I asked him to work on waiting, raising his hand, and listening to others.

2) Name and define the behaviors you want children to learn.
Then make sure you reinforce them!

The strategy in action: I ask students to help me define the terms important participation and honest discussions. I tell them the goal is to listen and speak so that we can learn from one another. Together we generate simple rules of respect for meetings: raising hands, not interrupting, not making put-downs.

3) Model appropriate and alternative behavior.
This is critical, so develop an arsenal of strategies.

The strategy in action: I ask, "If you have a good idea, how can you share it?" I have kids demonstrate how and when to raise one's hand without distracting others.

4) Set up routines such as wait times showing that self-control is important.
Provide as many alternatives to blurting out as possible and clue kids in to signals that help them know when, for example, to raise a hand.

The strategy in action: Sometimes I use signals. I'll say, "If you think you know the answer, show a "thumbs-up" or "Raise your hand if you also got that answer."

I often give older children a few minutes to write ideas down before responding out loud. This helps to reassure them that ideas won't be lost.

After students give a report, then ask: "Are there any questions or comments?" This reinforces involvement, not just for the presenter, but also for the audience.

5) Settle on predictable consequences for blurting out.
Display these prominently, so students can't claim to forget the rules.

The strategy in action: A simple reminder or redirection works well. When 6-year-old Jesse interrupted Mark's story about a new puppy, I pointed to the rules and said, "Show me, Jesse, how you are going to do your job as an audience for Mark's story." I also might ask if anyone can show Jesse how to sit still, listen, ask a question, or make a comment.

When a discussion gets heated, I interject, "Meeting rules, please!" I then follow up with something like, "If you wish to continue this discussion, you will have to show me that you can follow our meeting rules."

Time-out can be an appropriate consequence when students ignore the rules. Martin, age 9, has trouble following the quick patter of his peers, so he often repeats what someone has just said. On such an occasion, Carla blurted out, "Gosh, Martin, she just said that." I replied, "Time-out, Carla. Come back when you can follow meeting rules."

6) If communication breaks down, have children start over.
This will help children feel invested in the solution they devise.

The strategy in action: When I asked groups of sixth graders to plan dioramas of a Colonial village, members of one group were all talking at once. After several minutes -and a few reminders and interventions from me- I said, "I am going to send you all back to your seats. When you each have a plan for how you will be able to work productively, you may continue."

7) Pose a class challenge to be disruption free.
This strategy is particularly helpful when a class is very excitable.

The strategy in action: I challenge kids to get through a 30-minute lesson with no more than one disruption. To avoid backlashes against disruptive children ("You made us lose!"), I make sure students understand that this is a group endeavor. To help them meet and exceed the challenge, we record and graph types of interruptions beforehand. Kids are usually surprised at the number and variation of interruptions and at the realization that everyone blurts out.

Why Children Blurt Out Impulsively

Children learn to blurt out what's on their minds. Sometimes they learn to do so because we teach it, and sometimes they learn it because we fail to teach them how not to. If you know why it happens, you can better decide how to respond. The action will vary depending upon the root of the problem. Here are some causes for this behavior.

  • An individual history of impulsive behavior. Eric, who stifled Jenny's comments, had a history. He had worked with his teachers for many years to learn self-control, but it's still hard for him to hold his thoughts in his head.
  • Mixed responses from adults. For example, when the content of a child's answers are appropriate, do you overlook the fact that he called out? Do you reinforce blurting when the information is academically correct?
  • A symptom of stress. In these cases, it's important to uncover the root of the stress and address it.
  • Competition for attention. Sometimes children look for attention from us or their peers based on being the one with the fastest, funniest, or most correct answers.
  • Strong emotion. Frequently, children blurt out when they are angry, upset, or contentious. While it's important to validate these feelings, it's also imperative to make clear that certain behaviors are not acceptable.