A little small talk makes a big difference

Bonnie L. MacCartney
Posted on September 1, 1999

I was sitting in the school office being interviewed for the position of school bus driver when the question finally emerged: “Why do you want to drive a school bus?” I knew it would come and I knew the right words to say. “Because I love children,” I dutifully replied. The position was mine. I didn’t love children, matter of fact, didn’t even like them, but I needed the job. I had previously driven a school bus for about 18 years at a different location, and managing children, I felt, was the biggest drawback to the job. Needless to say, I was not very good at it. I decided I needed to try something different. I thought about it in the days before my new run would begin. In the past, no matter how much I yelled, screamed, threatened or shook my finger in the kids’ faces, I could never make them behave.

I’ll just pretend to like them
Let’s face it, once they were behind those high-backed seats, they could pretty much do what they pleased. Seat slashing and graffiti were common. I decided that I would try my very hardest to pretend that I liked the kids. Maybe, just maybe, if they thought that I liked them, they would behave better. On the afternoon of my first day, I launched my plan. Instead of sitting in the driver’s seat while the children boarded the bus from the school, I walked up and down the aisles and talked to the children. I heard many whispers — “Someone’s in trouble” and “What did we do wrong?” I stopped at each child and commented on how nice new backpacks were, how pretty hair was, how cool new sneakers looked. I asked the kids their teachers’ names. They were so shy that I thought maybe it wasn’t going to work. I was going to try anyway. I continued my new plan throughout the week. By the end of the first week, the kids were comfortable with me and were asking questions back. By the end of the second week, I would pull up in front of the school, open the door and place myself in a seat in the middle of the bus. I would be swamped with children. “Bonnie, look what I made; see my new book; look what my teacher gave me.” They clamored for my attention. When the time came for me to get behind the wheel and drive, I would say, “OK, down to business,” and lo and behold, I would be rewarded with a very quiet, well-behaved busload of children. They wanted to be good for me. Pretending that I liked them seemed to be working. Then the day came when I was in a terrible mood. I almost called in sick but didn’t want to use the sick day. I decided that I would just go and get my run over with. I pulled up in front of the school in a very foul mood. My first student boarded, and started chatting. With a heavy sigh, I got out of my seat, positioning myself in the middle of the bus. As the bus quickly filled, I was once again surrounded by the children. Before I knew it, the time came to drive. “OK, down to business” I said. As I pulled out of the school, I found myself smiling and humming, my bad mood all but forgotten.

. . . I really do like them
It was then I realized that not only did I like these children, but I had come to love them. I looked into my mirror at the well-behaved group of children that I had come to care for, and realized that a huge change had taken place. Not so much in them, but in me. I have come to the conclusion that the best way to get children to be good on the school bus is to make them want to be good for you. Although I stumbled on this very human approach by circumstance, it is guaranteed to work. There are some guidelines and responsibilities that go hand in hand with gaining children’s respect and trust.

  • Get out of your seat and visit with the children. Ask about their day. Ask if they have a pet. Ask if they like to swim. Ask anything. Don’t be discouraged if they are wary of you at first. They may have experienced many years of only seeing their bus driver stand up if they were to be reprimanded. Don’t give up. By the end of week two they will start to accept you.
  • Compliment individual children on good safe bus riding. “Mary, you really stayed in your seat last night,” or “Joe, your crossing skills are excellent.” Catching them and commenting on them being good is very important. Let the whole bus know that you think they are the best busload of kids at the whole school.
  • Believe it or not, it is very important to be strict. While driving, if any unacceptable behavior is noticed, stop it verbally. The next morning, keep the child on the bus and talk to them about it. Be very careful. Once you make friends with a child, words like “I am disappointed in you” can be devastating. When you finish talking to the student make sure that they know that you still like them. Words like “you are one of my favorite kids” are magic.
  • Don’t take it all away. If a behavior problem is not corrected, assign a seat. I assign a front seat up against the window. I assign the seat for two days, first offense, three days second offense, and four days maximum. A child with a permanent assigned seat doesn’t have much to lose. If your district policy demands assigned seats, then give the children the privilege of choosing them themselves.
  • Don’t tattle. Don’t write children up or send them to the principal for minor problems. By taking care of the things that you can, the children learn to trust you and have the confidence in the fact that you are in control.
  • Model the behavior you desire. We all have bad days. If you “blow up” make sure that the very next day you apologize. Children learn from our example. Always be kind. You will be surprised how kindness will spread. Don’t allow children to hurt each other’s feelings. The children in my care have become very important to me. My job is now satisfying, fun, and rewarding. Give it a try. Get out of your seat and pretend to like the kids. The change will start with you but rest assured, it won’t end there!

    Bonnie L. MacCartney is a school bus driver instructor for the state of New York.

    Related Topics: behavior management

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