Some portion of student noncompliance is caused not by defiance but by incompetence: by students’ misunderstanding a direction, not knowing how to follow it, or tuning out in a moment of benign distraction. Recognizing this means giving directions to students in a way that provides clear and useful guidance – enough of it to allow any student who wanted to do as asked to do so easily. Teachers spend a lot of time defining the behavior we want by the negative: “Don’t get distracted.” “Stop fooling around.” “That behavior was inappropriate.” These commands are vague, inefficient, and unclear. They force students to guess what you want them to do.
Effective directions are not just specific; they involve, when possible, clear, actionable tasks that any students know how to do. If I tell my student to pay attention, he may or may not know how to do that, but if I tell him to put his feet under his desk, I have asked him to do something no student can misunderstand or not know how to do. Always try to describe observable actions: things that you can plainly see students do.