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In the secondary school setting, well-developed communication skills are an essential component of effective classroom management. They enable teachers to develop mutually respectful reciprocal interactions with students that serve to augment classroom experiences and outcomes. Various features and methods of communication may be used to enhance interpersonal exchanges, promote effective problem-solving and expedite conflict resolution. These are the vital building blocks that serve to build trust and understanding. Moreover, the many factors involved in effective communication assist greatly in facilitating warm reciprocal student/teacher relationships and productive learning environments which in turn, foster positive behaviour and learning outcomes. (Arthur-Kelly, Lyons, Butterfield & Gordon, 2003)
Many secondary school students perceive this time period to be especially challenging. Developmentally, such students are experiencing considerable upheaval as they begin to negotiate the maze to emotional, social, physical and cognitive maturity. The secondary school years are further complicated as adolescents begin to consolidate their sense of identity, strive for greater autonomy and freedom and their social networks expand. These momentous changes may cause many students to flounder and struggle both behaviourally and academically. Fortunately, through the use of effective interpersonal communication techniques teachers are able to build respectful, reciprocal relationships that bolster secondary students throughout this tumultuous journey. (Martin, 2010)
Interpersonal communication is a complex practice that involves transmitting and receiving messages. Spoken words are used to convey meaning but the often overlooked non-verbal components of communication are of equal importance and comprise at least 50% of message content. Such components include eye contact, paralinguistics, positioning and posture, facial expressions, gestures, proximity and touch, personal appearance and
communication setting. These factors have enormous potential to interfere with and distort the meaning of intended messages. As such, it is of paramount importance that teachers avoid making rushed interpretations of student non-verbal behaviour and also pay attention to the congruence of their own non-verbal communication. Actions tend to speak louder than words so incongruous non-verbal communication has the potential to seriously undermine message integrity and cause student confusion. (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003) As stated by Charles (2000, pp. 48-49) "To a surprising degree, how you communicate determines your effectiveness as a teacher. Relationships are built on communication and easily destroyed by it."
Because so much of communication has the potential to be misunderstood it is essential for teachers to employ strategies that minimise the chance of this occurring. One particularly effective method is the use of active listening (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003). Active listening is not merely hearing but a much more purposeful action that involves being attentive, endeavouring to understand communicated concerns and emotions, clarifying through appropriate questioning and supporting problem solving (Weinstein, 2007). During active listening, the recipient of the message interprets what has been said and accurately reflects this back to check understanding of the speaker's concerns and associated feelings. This process enables the speaker to feel acknowledged, supported and confident that they have been understood. It encourages the speaker to continue expressing, clarifying and garnering support to work through issues constructively (Geldard & Geldard, 2007). By using the active listening technique, teachers send a strong message to students that they genuinely care. Congruently, caring, and especially student perception of such, is an important prerequisite for establishing the healthy relationships that promote positive behaviour and academic outcomes (DeSantis King, Huebner, Suldo & Valois, 2006).
Several other communication processes may also be used to enhance the active listening process and to convey genuine concern and caring to students. These include making appropriate eye contact by altering posture to match the level of the speakers, using congruent facial expressions, employing minimal verbal cues and persevering with active listening until the speaker feels ready to conclude (Weinstein, 2007). Open questioning is also important. This involves the formulation of questions that require more than a negative or affirmative response. Such questioning is particularly useful to bring to light previously unconsidered issues and also to clarify information. Additionally, it is an effective way of encouraging ongoing conversation (Geldard & Geldard, 2007).
The combination of the abovementioned strategies effectively facilitate clear expression and enhance listening accuracy during conversations. In secondary classroom situations, however, it is often necessary to ensure that interference whilst conveying messages is eliminated as efficiently as possible. In these situations, assertive communication is an asset (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003). During assertive communication, the rights of both the speaker and the listeners are upheld, thus reducing interference. This method of communicating is neither passive nor aggressive. Rather, communicating assertively means expressing messages in a no-nonsense manner that is straightforward, honest and inoffensive (Mohan, McGregor, Saunders & Archee, 2008).
One such way of communicating is through the use of I statements. I statements are a practical method for allowing the speaker to convey their message and simultaneously make their needs known without impinging on the rights of others. They are often particularly valuable as they alert the listeners to the speaker's faith in their cooperation without any associated threatening connotations (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003). Assertive statements are generally stated in three parts, to describe specific behaviours, to outline feelings associated
with such behaviour and to illustrate the effects of such behaviour. They send a clear message to the recipient without risk of offense (Mohan et al., 2008). Spoken calmly, I messages operate to provide valid, comprehensive feedback to students about the effects of their behaviour in a respectful, non-intimidating way (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003).
Despite the demonstrated efficiency of communication processes such as active listening and assertive communication, in secondary classrooms, the potential for conflicts and unresolved problems remains ever-present. Because of the stress and anxiety that is often associated with the dramatic changes experienced by adolescents, that they may at times act with confusion as they try to articulate their thoughts and feelings. This may precipitate seemingly inappropriate words and actions that may need careful negotiation to decipher and resolve (Brown, 2005). Negotiation is a problem-solving communication skill that incorporates active listening and assertive behaviour. Essentially, negotiation involves using mutual respect and communication devoid of interference by such contaminants as high emotive states (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003).
In negotiation, six steps are used to facilitate problem-solving. The first step involves problem identification using I messages, open questioning and active listening. Step two necessitates the identification of possible problem-solving options. This is facilitated through the collaborative listing of suggestions which are freely expressed and are neither evaluated nor censored (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003). In step four, this process is refined as stakeholders are provided with the opportunity to delete any previously generated options that they find entirely unacceptable. Subsequently, in step five the adolescent selects their most favourable option which they believe is most likely to be successful and an agreement to implement this
is established. Step six completes the procedure and involves agreeing on a time period before the results of the solution are reviewed. During the review process, permanent
implementation may be decided upon or in the case of an unsatisfying outcome the negotiation procedure will be repeated (Arthur-Kelly et al., 2003).
Walsh (2004) alludes to the fact that during adolescence, emotional regulation is still undergoing development. This is one explanation for what appears to be ill-mannered, impulsive and angry behaviour that is periodically demonstrated by adolescents. Understanding by secondary teachers that adolescents will at times make social errors is extremely judicious and has enormous potential to be relationship building, setting the stage for cooperation (Brown, 2005). Consistent, considered action on the part of the secondary teacher leads to the building of trust that is integral to respectful relationships. Likewise, appropriate and effective communication builds mutual respect and is the foundation of all positive learning environments (Brown, 2005). All classroom learning occurs in the context of interpersonal interactions and this reciprocal arrangement wields a potent influence over the learning environment and associated student achievement. Effective communication between teachers and students has a reciprocal effect. Resultantly, it stands to reason that such interpersonal interactions are a vital component of positive classroom environment and associated enhanced behaviour and learning outcomes (Goh & Fraser, 2000).
Much research exists to support the notion that positive relationships between students and teachers enhances learning environments, leading to improved behaviour and favourable learning outcomes (den Brok, Levy, Brekelmans & Wubbels, 2006; Fraser & Walberg, 2005; Urdan, & Schoenfelder, 2006). More particularly, student motivation, learning and degree of compliance are predominantly shaped by their perception of their relationship with their teacher (den Brok, Levy, Brekelmans & Wubbels, 2006). During the turbid secondary school years students care a great deal about establishing positive relationships with their teachers and the level of support this provides. As such, they respond
with far greater enthusiasm, pronounced engagement and augmented effort, both behaviourally and academically, when they perceive that their teachers care about them (Urdan, & Schoenfelder, 2006). By using effective communication skills, teachers are equipped with the tools to impart this powerful belief in their students, thus leading to respectful reciprocal relationships, positive learning environments and associated behavioural and academic growth.