I-Messages & The Assertiveness Line

Teach your students a strategy for being assertive when problems come up with friends and family. Then have students practice the skill regularly.

This is a strategy that is sometimes useful in dealing with problems that come up with friends and family, people who are likely to care about our feelings.



Begin by writing "I-message" on the board. Explain that today the students will learn what an I-message is and how to construct one.
An I-message is a way to be strong without being mean (that is, assertive) when you are angry or upset or disappointed with something another person has done. The formula for an I-message is as follows:
I feel _________________________________ (say your feeling)
when you _____________________________ (describe the action)
because _______________________________ (say why the action connects to
your feeling)
The "I-message" is different from a "You-message." In a "You-message," you attack the other person, make judgments about him or her, sometimes even call the person names.
For example, say the class is picking partners for an activity. You pick John, who wants to work with his best friend instead of with you. He lets you know by pouting and mumbling, "aaw!" You say, "You want to work with him? Fine! You're too stupid to work with me, anyway!"
Ask the class: How do you think John might feel about being called stupid? Will he be more or less likely to choose you as a partner in the future?
In this situation, what would an "I-message" be? Elicit possible "I-messages" from the students. (For example: "I feel disappointed when you always want to work with your best friend because I never get to spend time with you.")
I-Messages can also be used to express positive feelings. (For example, "I'm excited that you are coming because we always have so much fun on your visits.") Encourage your students to share other examples.
What are your comments about I-messages and You-messages? Can you see using an I-message the next time you feel upset and think of calling somebody a name? Why? Why not?

Create the Routine

Once you have introduced the structure of an I-message, you can have children practice it before challenging times of the day, such as lunch, recess or gym. These are times of the day when strong emotions can take over and interfere with clear expression. Because our days are usually over-packed with teaching and learning, it is important to really plan this activity into your schedule. Allowing yourself and the students 5-10 minutes for this routine may prevent future problems that could take much more time to solve.
As you have the class line up for leaving the room, practice using I-messages. Create two lines with the children facing each other. Explain that all the children in one line will be Child A and all the children in the other line will be Child B. Ask them to pretend that Child A and Child B were playing at recess. Child A runs off without saying anything to Child B and begins to play with someone else. Then say, "Does everybody understand the situation? Okay. When I say 'Go,' everybody who is pretending to be Child B will use an I-message to say to Child A. When I say 'Freeze,' stop immediately and get quiet. No touching the other person." You may want to practice the freeze command with the children several times to show them that you expect them to stop immediately and get completely quiet.
Say, "Go!" Let the action run for a minute or so. Then stop the action. Ask, what happened in your pairs? How did Child B respond to Child A? After hearing from several pairs, remind them that the I-message is a tool that they can use to let others know how they are feeling without being mean.
Once your students become skillful with using I-Messages, you might explore with them what it means to "be strong," "be mean," or "give in." After briefly discussing what they know of these words, share with them these definitions:
Strong = being nice and respecting the other person while standing up firmly for yourself.
Mean = doing something to hurt another person (their body or their feelings) or using force or threats to make somebody do something they don't want to do.
Giving in = going along with what someone wants you to do even though you'd rather do something else.
Elicit examples of each of the behaviors for the children. You may also use the words assertive, aggressive, and submissive depending on age-appropriateness. Practice the assertiveness line with other situations that the students encounter daily. Encourage them to discover ways of being strong without being mean.
Continue the routine with situations that your class is currently struggling with. Here are some examples of times when it might be helpful to be "strong" or assertive:
  • A friend borrows your game and returns it to you with pieces missing.
  • You share something with a friend on the condition that the friend not tell anyone else. Soon everyone in your class knows about it.
  • You feel your parents blame you unfairly for things your brother does.
Amy Martin is a teacher in the New York City public schools.
We welcome your thoughts and suggestions about these activities! Please email us at: info@morningsidecenter.org.