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Part I: The A.C.T. Strategy. How one educator helped me change the course of my life while in prison

Part 1 of 3The A.C.T. Strategy:

Suspension, juvenile detention centers and prison. All of these things and more are possibilities for kids these days. I know, because I’ve been there myself. Bad habits, self destructive behavior as a teenager led to four hard years in a correctional facility, and during that time I spent nearly every day feeling like I had completely destroyed my chances of having a life. It’s a harsh, empty feeling and one that nobody should have to go through.

I turned my life around, however. It wasn’t easy, but I was finally released from prison after what felt like an eternity. The first months after getting out were rough. Jail doesn’t exactly prepare a young person for a role as a model citizen, after all. But today I’ve moved into a management position at a highly successful company and spend much of my free time as a youth mentor and professional speaker, trying to help at-risk kids avoid life altering mistakes and start taking the steps towards a better future right now.

The big change for me wasn’t some miracle lottery win or some other kind of amazing incident like they show in the movies. No, my change came down to two men. A teacher named Charles Lyles, and me.

While volunteering in schools, I’ve noticed that most teachers really do want to reach students, to form connections, help guide them, teach them what they need to know to succeed. But the problem is that many educators are looked upon to do more than simply deliver the lesson plan, and don’t have the time to go the extra mile, many can’t relate to some students, and others grow so frustrated with the challenges facing them that they simply give up. Every school has students that may be considered "unreachable" or "unteachable". But by using these 3 keys, teachers can get through to their students and really start to make a difference in their lives. It could be the saving grace for numerous children out there. No child is impossible to reach, I believe it can be done using the same methods that Mr. Lyles used to help me transform my life. I call it, The A.C.T. Strategy.

Step One: Ask Questions

It may sound like common sense, but the fact is that many teachers fail to ask the questions they need to ask. Often, teachers simply assume that they know what a child’s problem is or that the kid in question won’t be willing to talk to them. Others assume that just by asking simple questions, they’re breaking through a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed. Essentially, this is a huge mistake that needs to be completely rethought. You have to know the problem, gain insight to a child’s life, and learn all that you can in order to figure out what is holding one back in the classroom.

Just a small bit of paying attention can take you a long way towards finding the questions you need to ask. If a student is always chaperoned to parent teacher conferences by their grandmother or a much older sibling, for instance, the obvious question is simply to ask where the child’s parents are. It may be some what uncomfortable, but it could lead you to find out that the child doesn’t have active biological parents in their life. A kid growing up being raised by a grandparent may not be able to get the help with their homework that a parent could provide. This could cause a student to struggle with their schoolwork or to grow so frustrated that they give up completely.

By just asking the question of where a child’s parents are, you may unlock the door that is keeping them from learning. You could setup tutoring, spend extra time with the student, or take numerous other steps that will help the student get the help they need with their school work. Instead, many teachers just assume that a student is lazy, unwilling to learn, or a problem child when the truth could be that their home life is having a negative impact on their ability to learn effectively.

Asking questions can be hard. That’s why following this simple three level formula could be so worthwhile. It simplifies the process and helps you start asking a student more about their issues.

Level One Question: Yes or No?

Asking yes or no questions is a great way to get a dialogue started, to feel out a student, or to just open the lines of communication. Students are more likely to answer these questions since they don’t require an in depth explanation from the student. They can answer yes or no, or they can elaborate. These don’t have to be related to school at all, and in fact it’s usually better if they don’t since you’re just opening up the communication lines.

Example: Is that a new shirt? Did you get a haircut? Questions like this seem trivial, but in fact they’re helping a student realize that you’re interested in them. Even if the child answers in a negative fashion, still try to frame your response positively. If a child says "No, I’ve had this shirt for 100 years!", you can respond with a positive response like "That’s awesome! My kids never take care of their clothes like that."

Level Two Question: Open Ended Questions

These questions are the next step, and they get a dialogue going. They’re direct questions that encourage deeper responses from kids.Think of them as the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions.

Example: "How do you take care of your shoes so well? What did you use to style your hair? It looks amazing!"

Another thing to consider is to ask questions that will set up later interaction with the student, to keep the dialogue moving forward.

Example: "What team do you play against tonight? or "What movie are you going to watch this weekend?" The next questions will be later, and include things like "How did you do in the game? or What did you think of the movie?" When things go bad, such as a lost game, always remember to use positive encouragement to keep them motivated. And even if things go well, positive reinforcement is still important. Just a simple "Good job!" is often enough to keep a kid thinking highly of themselves. Basically, these questions are designed to lead to a more relaxed, comfortable level of communication with the student before you start asking the next level of questions.

Level Three Question: Personal Questions

Finally, these are the questions you’ve been working towards asking. They’re usually more difficult to ask the student, but are the important ones. By asking level one and level two questions you should be able to work into these questions a bit more easily, though you shouldn’t expect it to be a simple conversation.

These questions should focus on the actual issue at hand and will be personal in nature.

Example: Is it okay if I ask why you live with your grandfather?" , or "I’m worried about your grades. Is there something going on I can help with?" or "Would it be okay to talk to a mentor to help you with your problem?"

These questions need to go beyond just asking what the problem could be. You need to actually discuss solutions as well. Just finding out that a student’s parents are going through a divorce and that the separation is the reason for a drop in grades isn’t enough. You need to suggest some possible solutions to the problem and work with the student to move through their issues.

Part ll coming soon.

Ian J. Humphrey is a motivational speaker whose life was turned around by an educator while serving a prison sentence as a teenager. Today he shares what that educator did differently in his professional development talks. If you want to know more about him, please visit his website

He is available for Keynote presentations, workshops and breakout sessions.

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