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Yeah? OK? Or how to improve children’s understanding and behaviour. With help from Georgie Fame, Roxy Music and a talking sheep!

Date posted: Sunday 2nd March 2014

No need to ask me if everything is OK
I got my answer, the only thing I can say
I say yeh yeh, that’s what I say, I say yeh yeh
That’s what I say, yeh yehYeh Yeh Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames 1965
Yeah Yeah Black Sheep

Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames: Yeh Yeh (whatever?)

It was 1965 and 18-year-old Georgie Fame was at the top of the hit parade with his smash hit ‘Yeh Yeh’. Meanwhile eight-year-old Michael Jones was in a trance watching Georgie grooving away on Ready Steady Go! Three thoughts were uppermost in my mind at the time: how groovy it must be to have parents called Mr and Mrs Fame, who in turn were groovy and swinging enough to call their son Georgie. But how come they allowed him to say, ‘Yeh Yeh’? Because whenever I said ‘yeah’ within my parents’ hearing I would be roundly told off and threatened with elocution lessons. (It was only recently that I discovered that Georgie Fame was actually born Clive Powell, in Leigh Lancashire, and had his name changed under duress by his manager.)

Even in those days I was a highly rebellious character, kicking against the straightjacket of middle class repression. So I’d hang out in the park with my gang of friends and say ‘Yeah!’ and ‘Okay!’ loudly whenever an adult walked by. I couldn’t quite catch all the words to Georgie’s song, but got snatches of verses like

My baby loves me, she gets me feeling so fine
And when she loves me, she lets me know that she’s mine
And when she kisses, I feel the fire get hot
She never misses, she gives me all that she’s got

I say yeh yeh

That sounded a bit soppy (and why, when you kiss a girl, should the fire in the room suddenly get hotter?) But hey, I was an aspiring cool cat, so I’d go around the playground singing that verse at the top of my lungs. A dinner lady once asked me if I had any idea what I was singing, to which I naturally shouted at her, ‘Yeah, yeah, Okay?!!’ before running off.

Ten years later I was working in a residential centre for young people with learning difficulties near Rhyl, North Wales. My day job was to lead a group of young men, doing various jobs throughout the centre’s enormous grounds. This could be anything from clearing ditches, planting trees or even shovelling tons of coal into the cellar for the boiler. My crew had a range of additional learning needs, and I spent a lot of my time keeping them on-task, showing them how to use shovels and stressing the importance of working together to ‘get the job done’. There was always a lot of friendly ‘banter’ between us, but one of the lads, Maurice, never got involved in the jokes and messing around with wordplay. He was a good worker, though didn’t like to get his hands dirty. He liked jobs like weeding (as long as he could wear gloves) and if you told him to weed a large flowerbed you could guarantee that it would be totally weedless (and flowerless if you didn’t keep a close eye on him) by the end of the day. Maurice didn’t have much to say for himself, unless you got him onto his favourite subjects: public transport timetables in the Watford area and the chart positions and lyrics of hit singles, from 1964 to the present day. Asperger’s syndrome was not really recognised as an entity until around 1981, but looking back on it I’d say that that was probably Maurice’s problem.

But Maurice didn’t have any problems when he was around me. I have an abiding interest in 1970s pop and rock, and enjoy gardening, so Maurice and I had a lot in common and therefore plenty to talk about. I’m not big on rail and bus timetables, but was willing to listen to Maurice expounding the virtues of the route from Watford to Bushy if it meant that he could sing for us (with pretty much perfect pitch) those great songs where you couldn’t quite make out their lyrics. His favourites were Virginia Plain by Roxy Music and, to my great pleasure, Yeh Yeh, by my one-time hero and role model Georgie Fame.

Roxy Music: You’re so sheer; you’re so chic-teenage rebel of the week

At the time I was still a social rebel and therefore said ‘yeah’ instead of ‘yes’ whenever I could. I used to add ‘OK?’ to the end of instructions; e.g. ‘It’s time for us to get back to work now. OK? Yeah?’ I could never understand why the lads would look confused and stay where they were, until I cajoled them with mildly threatening language like, ‘I’ve just told everyone to get going. OK? Yeah?’ or ‘Would you mind getting a move on? OK? Yeah?’ or, ‘I’d prefer it if you didn’t just sit there. OK? Yeah?’ or even, ‘Let’s get a move on, shall we? OK?’

One of my colleagues, who at the time was studying psychology and linguistics, pointed out how well Maurice and I were communicating together. So much so that Maurice, who had what I would have described as an ‘upper crust’ accent and advanced vocabulary, was beginning to sound like me. I wasn’t aware of it, but his accent had become more like mine (‘Home Counties’) and was now saying ‘yeah?’ and ‘OK?’ at the end of practically every sentence. He had even adopted some of my mannerisms, like the way I pushed my glasses up my nose with my forefinger and scratched my beard when I was thinking about something: even though Maurice didn’t wear glasses or have a beard himself.

I mention all of this because I’m interested in how to improve the way I communicate with young children. I was lucky that my team of youngsters weren’t more confused by the way I talked. Looking back on it, I can see that the reason they seemed never to do as they were told straight away was because they didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. By adding, ‘OK?’ and ‘Yeah?’ to the end of an instruction, I was turning it into a question. So if I said, ‘It’s time for you to stop weeding now Maurice. OK?’ I was effectively asking him if he thought it was a good idea to stop. Because he loved weeding so much, he would just carry on, until I got annoyed with him.

My colleague pointed out to me that by using what she called tag questions like ‘OK?’ and ‘yeah?’ all the time, I was effectively turning an instruction into a question, which gave my gang the impression that they had a choice. So when I said, ‘It’s time for us to go. OK?’ I was giving the message, ‘I think it’s time for us to go. What do you think?’ They didn’t think it was anywhere near time to finish their tea break, so stayed put. They probably thought I was a bit of a pushover as well, because I seemed to be always asking their opinion about things instead of giving them direct instructions, which led them to mess me around.

It’s just the same with young children. I was once asked to observe a little girl in a preschool with a suspected language difficulty and ‘oppositional behaviour’. Grace loved being outside in the sandpit and always got upset when it was time to go indoors. I’d been playing outside all afternoon, and had got to know Grace and the staff a little bit, so volunteered to help Grace to stop playing and go inside for storytime. Five minutes before tidy up time I said, ‘Grace. It will soon be time to tidy up. Then it will be time to go indoors.’ To everyone’s surprise (and, if I’m honest, to my relief) Grace tidied up and went indoors.

At story time Grace was all over the place: calling out, running around and being generally disruptive. Later, when we talked about why the little girl had cooperated with me, and not with the staff, I explained that I had given clear instructions, while I had noticed that my colleagues always stuck the tag question ‘OK?’ on the end of everything they said. When Grace’s mum eventually came to pick her up from preschool (she was always late), Grace ran to the end of the room and started throwing toys around. Mum’s response was something like, ‘Come on Gracie darling, be a good girl for Mummy, otherwise the grown-ups will tell mummy off for being late again….. OK?’ At which point Grace started throwing even more toys all over the place.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? It’s no wonder Grace behaved the way she did for her mother. She’s getting no end of mixed messages from mummy:

Where to start? When mum and little Grace had gone, we discussed tag questions. I pointed out (in the most constructive way possible) that staff were giving Grace mixed messages and therefore reinforcing the negative behaviour she had developed at home. By adding ‘OK?’ to every instruction, they were triggering the habitual negative and attention -seeking behaviour that Grace had developed at home. So we all practiced using phrases that would give a clear message to all children about what was going to happen, as well as set Grace very clear boundaries.

So out of the window went all the accumulated bad habits of years of working with children: what I call Misplaced Good MannersConfusers and Tag Questions e.g.

Misplaced Good Manners

Would you mind?
Please could you?
I’d rather you didn’t do that.
Would you mind not doing that?
I’ll thank you not to do that.
Do you think that is a good idea?
When what we mean is, ‘Stop doing that and do this instead.’


Thank you! (When taking something off a child)
Sorry (When you don’t understand what a child is saying; meaning that a child shouldn’t do something; or apologising when you are telling children to stop doing something; e.g. ‘I’m sorry, but we have to go in and wash our hands. OK?’)
Excuse me! (When you don’t understand what has been said; when a child has done something wrong, like pushing another child; when you are taking something off them)
I don’t think so! (Used in a sarcastic way, to tell children to stop doing something that they shouldn’t be doing.)
I have heard all of these phrases being used frequently with babies and toddlers, with the assumption that it’s OK to talk to them like adults, as they can’t understand what you say to them anyway.

Tag Questions

Know what I mean?

Got that? Now I am not sitting in judgement of the way that nursery staff, teachers, teaching assistants and parents talk to children. Goodness knows I get myself in knots all the time when talking with groups of children, individuals with additional learning needs and children with challenging behaviour. We all do. However, when children are not behaving in the way we expect after we have given an instruction, the first thing to do is to check whether they have actually understood what we meant. This involves listening to how we talk and making an effort to give clear messages. Know what I mean?

And how to help Grace’s mother? Here are a few suggestions:

Any more that you can think of?

Even sheep are saying ‘yeah’. No wonder they can’t control their kids. (And is that parrot really swearing with a Lancashire accent?)

Take care out there


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3 responses to “Yeah? OK? Or how to improve children’s understanding and behaviour. With help from Georgie Fame, Roxy Music and a talking sheep!”

  1. Elly Foster says:

    Hi Michael

    That was so brilliant. I shall be noticing every word I say this week and kick myself under the desk when I hear myself saying the ‘wrong’ thing. I wonder how bruised my leg will be at the end of the week.


    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Elly
      I know I am most aware of what words I use when I am tutoring children individually , and explaining things like maths ideas. I have a tendency to say, ‘yeh?’ a lot. Sometimes it means ‘do you understand’ and sometimes it means nothing! This can be confusing. Secondary teachers do this a lot when explaining things, but rather than use it as a way of pausing to check that everyone has understood, they just go marching on!
      I’m not trying to make people paranoid, but it’s good to listen to ourselves sometimes when students/children are not understanding. people with Asperger’s get really confused by all the extra bits we add in to our language.
      Best wishes
      Hope you don’t give yourself too many bruises!

  2. Julie Barton says:


    In the U.S., teachers avoid saying “no” to young children. In fact, many parents specifically ask teachers not to say “no” to their children. So, we began saying “no,thank you” because it seemed a more polite and gentler way to communicate with young children. In my experience, the command worked briefly; however, the child usually repeated the behavior later in the day. At a training I attended recently, the presenter explained to us that a young child will interpret “no, thank you” as meaning “It’s okay to do it, just not right now.” What a revelation! I am trying to remove that phrase from my classroom vocabulary.


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