What I Learned While Teaching 2nd Graders How to Communicate

Have you ever been in a situation were you wanted to say no, but you said yes instead? Like a friend offered you a drink or a smoke, but you aren’t really into that sort of thing, but they pressured you into it anyway.

Did you try saying no? Maybe you made up excuses not to, like “Oh I’m not very thirsty right now,” or maybe you recited some fact about how harmful cigarettes are for your health. Did the person respond by putting you down or bullying you into saying yes? I know I have.

I can specifically remember a time when I went with a group of friends to the bars here in Bloomington. I had reached my limit with drinking and knew I was done for the evening, but one of my friends still wanted to take shots with me.

I started making up excuses like, ‘I don’t have any more money to spend’. She replied with, “I can pay for it!”

I quickly tried to come up with another excuse, “Oh, I just took a shot with another person. So I need some time.” But again she quickly responded, “Come on, for me?”

I told her nicely that I just didn’t want to drink anymore. She replied with, “So you’re a quitter?” At which point I gave in because I was tired of fighting it.

All of these are ineffective communication skills that the evidence based practice Say It Straight tries to correct. Say It Straight teaches people how to recognize these ineffective ways and transform them to say what we mean, while still being respectful.

Recently, I became an intern for the Aldrich Project – a substance abuse initiative through the IU School of Nursing – through my major, psychology, at Indiana University. I was trained in Say It Straight and now, after receiving training, I think back to that night at the bar with my friends (and future nights at the bars) and how it would have gone differently if I had known.

Part of my internship with the Aldrich project included implementing Say It Straight with at Paragon Elementary School in Martinsville, Ind. Fresh out of training, I walked into Paragon, with the nursing students by my side, to teach a bunch of 2nd graders. The class had about 15 kids from the ages six to eight.

They were all hyper, restless, and eager to learn.

I was nervous, excited, and ready to spread my knowledge.

A note from one of the students after we finished the training.

Over the next 6 weeks, we grew to know the kids. Not in so many words, but we knew which kids were excited about the role-playing, the one that liked to tell stories, the boy who always talked about his older brothers, the girl who loved to raise her hand for things but then would get very shy, and the ones we could not get to participate for anything except candy.

Say It Straight has many interactive parts that all fit together to make it an effective program, but the favorite part for this rowdy bunch was role-playing.

We would create scenarios for the kids to play out. The kids would come up with stage names that ranged from names they wished they could have had to famous people they knew. Some of the names were Elsa and Anna from frozen, Jason Bourne for the guys, and Ash for the Pokémon lovers.

Role-playing was my favorite activity for a different reason.

This was the time each week the kids challenged us, as the trainers, to come up with scenarios that would allow them to apply the communication skills we learned about.

We didn’t want to explicitly use drugs or alcohol because they were young and we didn’t want to be the first to introduce them to these substances. So, instead we had to think of more subtle ways to get our point across.

We taught them how to say no to friends taking their toys or how to say no to peers that wanted to copy their homework. We used scenarios about friends pressuring them into not wearing a helmet, staying up past their bedtime, or eating more candy than their parents said they could.

One week, the nursing students I was working with came up with the great idea to create a scenario about Pokémon. We had been having a hard time reaching a few of the boys in the class. As soon as we told them the scenario, “You just got a new deck of Pokémon cards and your friend wants to borrow them, but you know that they lose their stuff all the time.”

We didn’t even get the whole scenario out before hands shot up in the air, including the boys who didn’t participate, had a hard time getting to interact with us. It was a very proud moment for us implementers. They both did wonderfully and used the ineffective communication skills as we asked. Then, they did an even better job at using say it straight to say no.

Another thank you note from a student at Paragon. 

As I saw them progress, so did I.

I learned the best way to reach out to kids and what they like.

I learned how to make learning material that they would otherwise be bored in, interesting.

I gained confidence in my ability to stand up in front of an unpredictable group and keep on task. By the end of our time with Paragon, they could tell us about say it straight and when to use it in their sleep.

Even though we are not explicitly teaching them how to say no to substance abuse, we are teaching them skills that will help them face these challenges in the future when they are offered a cigarette, joint or mixed drink.

Which hopefully won’t be anytime soon.

Watch Emily’s video about her experience here!

Emily Johns is an intern with the Aldrich project and a senior studying psychology at Indiana University.




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