Assertiveness Training for Children

By Leah Davies, M.Ed.

Educators want children to be able to stand up for themselves and learn to interact well with their peers. Teaching them to be assertive and self-confident, as opposed to being aggressive or submission, contributes to their social and emotional development.

Children who are aggressive blame, name call, threaten or fight with their peers. They are combative because they often lack social skills. These children need to learn better ways to interact with others or they will continually have difficulty developing positive relationships(see Educator’s Guide to Bullying).

If children are submissive, they may become targets for bullies. These children need to be taught that it is okay to say “no” if a child or adult attempts to harm them with words or deeds. They need to be able to identify their feelings, learn how to express themselves, and believe that they have rights. The more children trust and value themselves, the more likely they will be able to avoid bullying.

How can educators help children learn to be assertive?

1. Teach the difference among aggressive, submissive and assertive remarks. For example:

  • Aggressive (being mean): “Give me that book or you’re going to get it!”
  • Submissive (being weak): “You can have my book. I don’t need it.”
  • Assertive (being strong): “I’m reading this book now. You may have it when I’m finished.”

2. Have them practice looking a bully in the eye and saying “No!” with a strong voice (see Teaching Children Refusal Skills). They could also state what they want. For example, “No, I want you to leave me alone,” or “No, I need to do my work.”

3. Explain that they have a choice of how to respond to another person’s comments or to situations (see Making Choices Activity).

4. Teach children how to ask for something (see 24 Ideas for Instilling Manners in Children). For example, “May I have that book when you’re finished?” and how to respond to requests in a polite manner, “You may have it after me.”

“I" Messages

Teach children that if they are physically threatened or feel afraid they need to tell an adult (see Tattling Versus Reporting). However, encourage them to work out other relationship problems themselves. Explain that the use of “I messages” helps children deal with their difficulties in an assertive way. It may be necessary to provide a lesson on identifying feelings (see Kelly Bear Feelings book) prior to teaching the following “I message” format:

  • I feel ... (state the feeling)
  • when you ... (describe the action)
  • because I ... (say why)

Optional last sentence: I want/need or would like you to ... (say what would make things better). For example, “I feel angry when you take my book without asking, because I don’t do that to you! I need you to stop taking my things.”

Explain that when children begin a statement with “I” rather than “You,” they are standing up for themselves and are being assertive rather than mean or aggressive. Tell them that sending an “I message” is a way to let others know how they feel. An “I message” does not judge, attack or cause annoyance like a “You message.”

Then, place the “I" message format on the board and have the children form “I" messages in response to some of the following situations:

  • A child is ignored at the lunch table. (“I feel sad when you won’t talk to me because I thought we were friends.”)
  • A child is told he/she must give up his snack or be beaten up. (“I feel angry when you threaten me because that’s not how we are supposed to act at school.”)
  • A child’s friend is pestering him. (I feel frustrated when you keep bothering me because I can’t get my work done.)
  • A child told a friend that his dad gets drunk a lot and the friend told all of the other children about it. (“I feel disappointed that you told people about my dad’s drinking because I thought I could trust you!”)
  • A child was purposely tripped and the other children laughed. (“I feel embarrassed when you laugh at me because nobody likes to be made fun of.”)

Examples with the optional last sentence:

  • A child is left out of play. (“I feel unhappy when you won’t let me play because I let you play when you ask. I want to play with you.”)
  • A child has been called a bad name. (“I feel mad when you call me that because I don’t call you or anyone else bad names. I need you to stop it!”)
  • A child loaned a classmate a mechanical pencil and he/she would not return it. (“I feel upset when you won’t return my pencil because I got it for my birthday and it’s special to me. I would like you to give it back.”)
  • A child is teased about being a slow learner. (I feel discouraged when you tease me about getting bad grades because I am trying to do my best. I want you to stop making fun of me!”)

Have two puppets demonstrate “You” and “I" messages. For example, if Sam told a lie about Todd cheating, a “You" message Todd might say is,“You are a stupid liar! I didn’t cheat!” Then have a puppet respond to the same situation with an “I" message. Todd could say, “I felt terrible when I heard that you said I cheated, because I would never tell a lie about you!” You could have the other puppet respond with, “I’m sorry I told that lie. I was just angry because you were playing with someone else. I’ll tell those kids you didn’t cheat.”

You may also want to divide the students into pairs and have them practice saying “I" messages concerning problem situations you have observed (see Finding Solutions Through Peer Mediation). Afterwards, state that an “I" message can be used to express positive feelings, as well. For example, “I am so excited about getting to play with you after school because we have a lot of fun together.”

Remind the children that being agreeable and letting other children have their way at times is also a needed skill. For example, if a child’s friend seems to want to talk about something important, the other child could put aside his/her thoughts and just listen. Being flexible is desirable since the “I feel... when you... because I...” format will not fit all situations. Being assertive rather than aggressive or submissive takes practice and effort. Helping children learn to make assertive, confident statements concerning their feelings and desires will enhance their peer relationships and help create a more positive classroom atmosphere.

Used by permission of the author, Leah Davies, and selected from the Kelly Bear website [], 6/07.

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