Preserve Student Dignity: Give ‘em an out

Aaron Lanou


How often has it happened that you called on a student and she didn’t know the answer? There’s that awkward few seconds when you and all the other students are waiting for a response, and she just can’t find the words.

When a student doesn’t know the answer, the last thing you want is for her to feel embarrassed or humiliated. Though teachers sometimes fall into the trap of thinking “catching” an unprepared student will teach them to be prepared, the reality is they’re made to feel uncomfortable and angry. And this can be even harder for students with ASD who have challenges with flexibility and perfectionism. Even if the student “should know” the answer, you’ve got to give ’em an out.

The next time a student is struggling to answer, try one of these responses:

  • “Do you want to call on someone else for help?” Let them choose a peer to help them answer the question.
  • “I’ll give you another couple minutes and come back to you.” Then really give them some time, and circle back later to ensure they understand.
  • “It’s OK to say ‘I’m not sure.’” Allow them to say they don’t know. Reinforce that this is ok and part of the process of learning. This is often hard for autistic students, but an important idea to encourage and support.

Even better, make a proactive plan to avoid these stuck moments in the first place. A couple of ideas:

  • Provide wait time: Pose a question, and then wait for at least ten seconds before calling on anyone for a response. Tell students to take the time to form an answer, so everyone can feel more prepared. This is an important approach for students with ASD, many of whom have slower language processing. Read more on our Wait Time post.
  • Prime students for when you will call on them: Avoid cold-calling to catch students. Instead say, “Keisha, I’ll be coming to you for a response next.” This will give her time to be prepared.
  • Teach students a get-unstuck strategy: Early in the school year, teach students explicit strategies for moments like these. For example, encourage them by saying, “It’s ok if you don’t know an answer to a question I ask. When you’re stuck, you can either ask for another minute, ask to look at your notes, or ask me to rephrase the question.”

All of these approaches can help preserve students’ dignity in the classroom, and help students save face. This reduces the likelihood that students feel embarrassed—and embarrassed students do not volunteer to participate. Send the message to the whole class that it’s safe to try, and you’re likely to get much more participation.

For more helpful insight into the dangers of embarrassing students, see Cult of Pedagogy’s post, Is humiliation part of your teaching toolbox?