The 4 C’s to delivering bad news in the classroom.

She burst into tears over an “A”.

Let me write that again in case you missed it…


Given, she had been trying very hard in the class and we had made some serious progress, I thought she was going to be happy.

It was pre-algebra and Sissy (not her real name, but let’s go with that) could not even ad and subtract negatives when she started.

Then she finally made above a “B” on a quiz. I was proud of her.

“Good job Sissy!” I said with enthusiasm.

She looked at the paper. Hit her desk and gave an audible sigh. I was confused, but the show must go on. I continued with class. Seconds later, Sissy’s face turned red, and her brow furrowed. Then she burst into tears. When I asked her why, she said through anger and tears that she wanted a 100.

If that is the reaction I get out of students by delivering good news, you can see why I would be nervous about delivering bad news.

The Problem

Whether its detention, a low grade, or simply corrective feedback on a project, I hate giving bad news to students.

But that is the exact problem. I have always seen that kind of feedback as “bad news” when really without it, the students will live a lie. Without corrective feedback, students will become one of those viral videos on YouTube of people who thought they were talented, and then get ridiculed on national television.

In Michelle Gielan’s “Broadcasting Happiness: The Science of Igniting and Sustaining Positive Change,” Gielan gives four steps to delivering bad news using positive psychology.

This is gold for educators:

Step 1: Build Social Capital- If you want to deliver bad news (or a bad grade or corrective feedback) you’ll want to have a reservoir of social investments built up in the student. In other words, you’ll want to have deposited large amounts of positive interactions with the student (which builds trust) before making a withdrawal or delivering the news. This doesn’t have to be complicated or time consuming interactions. These are the social investments that I have seen work in the past:

  • High fives
  • Remembering the students name
  • Noticing something that the student does
  • Asking questions about the students interests
  • Telling a joke
  • A smile

All these things add up over time so that when you deliver the “bad news” the student trusts you enough to know that you are giving the news in their best interest.

Step 2: Give context- When delivering the bad news, offer a context as to why this bad news is actually good for the student or for the community. I remember in one of my classes I told my students that if I gave my them a bad grade it was because I strongly believed in their potential. If I held them to low standards that would be an insult. By keeping them accountable to high standards, I was expressing how much I believed in their abilities. To remind them of this, every time I handed them a paper with a low grade, they had to look me in the eye, firmly shake my hand, and say “Thank you for keeping me accountable.” It was a risk, but it worked! The students didn’t take the bad news so heavily and were more proud when they made a better grade the next time.

Step 3: Express Compassion- When delivering the bad news, you need to know that even if the student looks “okay”, there is probably a lot of emotion happening underneath. Compassion actually means “to suffer with.” When delivering the bad news, empathize with and acknowledge what the student is feeling, and that it makes sense to feel that way. Simply by talking about how they feel, the student will start to feel better and will process the correction better.

Step 4: Stay committed- Let the student know that they are not alone. You are dedicated to helping them raise their grade or address their behavior. It’s very easy as teachers to simply give a detention slip or a bad grade and walk away thinking: “They deserve it.” However, delivering the news is only half the battle for teachers. The rest is following up with the student to help them improve. Let them know they are not alone. I remember in one class, when the students acted out of control, I would make them do wall sits. Just to show them that they were not alone, I would do the wall sits with them. Not only did it change the feel of the activity from torture to correction, I got a work out in in the middle of the day!

“Bad news” doesn’t have to be bad. It is necessary to help our students grow into contributing citizens and world changers. It’s all in the delivery.

What about you? How do you deliver bad news?

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If you are breathing, you are an educator.

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