The end goal of classroom discipline is to create students who can hold themselves accountable for their choices. A successful program will constantly emphasize self-reflection on behavior in order to build this capacity to self-monitor and self-correct.
It's not an easy task, so it must be taken one step at a time.
To put this in perspective, think of the steps that must be taken to complete one of the major circles of life: the path from being an infant to becoming the parent of an infant.
The circle of life
A helpless infant is the epitome of selfishness, at least in the sense that absolutely everything is provided for him and nothing is expected in return.
At the other end of the spectrum is the parent who is willing to undergo great sacrifices in money, personal time and emotional commitment to take care of an infant 24 hours a day.
There are thousands of little steps between complete selfishness and unconditional giving. Your students are somewhere along that continuum, no longer completely self-centered but nowhere near the eventual altruistic ideal.
It is one of your jobs as a teacher to move them forward as much as you can… and in the process achieve the kind of classroom management that makes teaching and learning much more effective and rewarding.
As with so many other classroom behavior management tasks, we begin at the individual level.
Individual classroom discipline steps
Most teachers do pretty well with explaining their expectations. The follow-up step, holding children accountable, is where they let their discipline plan start to unravel.
The key is to establish a consistent response pattern to poor classroom behavior choices. This means a response pattern that you implement automatically – but kindly – without having to think through an appropriate reaction to every new situation.
In essence, the discipline response pattern becomes another classroom routine that everyone knows. Your words are tailored for each issue, but they are done within the context of an established protocol. This even works for substitute teachers.
The advantage for kids is that they become accustomed to this response pattern, and – most importantly – they understand where it can lead once it starts.
If it is administered fairly, once they understand that the pattern gives them multiple chances to correct their own behavior, they become more compliant in working through the classroom discipline process.
I use a “step aside” process and I highly recommend it. But first, a few reminders are in order.
It's not necessary to zap kids with consequences the moment they misbehave, unless you have set a very clear expectation that a specific misbehavior will result in a specific consequence. For example, the expectations about properly managing buckets of water that I set out for a buoyancy science lesson:
“If you don't follow the steps and play with the water, you will sit out for five minutes during the experiment.”
You just can't have water splashing around the classroom!
However, most of our misbehavior situations are not that cut-and-dried. Therefore, it is usually appropriate to help students exert their own self-control as a first step by issuing reminders… as long as you don't overdo it.
It is quite common to issue a reminder to your group immediately before they undertake an activity they haven’t been practicing for very long:
“What are my expectations for transitioning from math to spelling?”
This sort of pre-reminder is usually quite effective in eliminating problems. You’ll need to issue these reminders less and less as classroom routines become more ingrained.
It's most common that individual children will start to slide down the slippery slope of misbehavior on their own, while the rest of the class is generally doing okay with an activity. Your reminders to follow expectations may take different forms, depending upon the situation and the child:
- A look. Never underestimate the power of a teacher’s look! You might want to practice your “look” in a mirror – you’ll be using it a lot. My students called my look “The Eye.”
- Silence. Going from talking to dead silence in the middle of a sentence will get immediate attention from your class. Every kid who's paying attention will then follow your “look” to the offender, whereupon those group norms will take over, and they will help you get the wayward sheep back into the flock.
- A touch. Tapping a student’s desk as you walk by without even breaking your flow of speaking can help redirect in a subtle way that doesn't distract the rest of the class.
- Removal. In the same casual way, you can wander by a student and remove a classroom tool that has become a toy, such as a marker, a personal whiteboard, or even a pencil. Your point will be abundantly clear, so that you can return the item within a minute and the student can continue working.
And, so far, we haven't said a word!
The point here is that you don't have to go all black-and-white on consequences; you have a full range of options available to you in the form of reminders that, in actuality, are little tiny consequences for misbehavior.
Of course, if you find yourself constantly issuing the same reminder to the same kids, the incidents will cumulatively add up to the need for a more significant consequence, which I’ll cover in a moment.
And then we come to speaking. This is as simple as calling a child by name and asking them if they are meeting your expectations. (Remember, we always use questions to encourage self-reflection.)
Next, you ask them what your expectations are. The act of having the child restate your expectations will help them control their own behavior.
And if a reminder doesn't work? It's time for the next level of consequences.
Using a “step-aside” process
Your response begins with a key phrase that the kids recognize immediately as a disciplinary trigger. I use:
“Tansy, please step aside.”
… but any phrase that indicates the student is to remove herself from what she is currently doing will work for your classroom discipline plan. Just don't use something that immediately communicates “naughty” to anyone listening, such as “go to the corner” or “go to the chair.” We are not into shaming!
A child only has to be removed from the activity of the group by a few feet (literally) to feel separated so there is no need to overdo this.
Model steps for complete understanding
Model this process starting on day one of school:
Step 1: Misbehaving child is asked to step aside from the activity.
Step 2: You leave the child for anywhere from 5 seconds to 60 seconds. You don't have to rush to deal with the issue; the punishment for the student is being removed from the activity and sometimes the student needs to feel this separation for a longer time period. Also, you may be in the middle of instructing.
But not too long! Seconds feel like minutes to young children, and minutes are like hours.
Step 3: You have a conversation with the student. Ask:
“Why did I ask you to step aside?”
“What are the expectations for this activity?”
“Are you ready to meet expectations?”
If they are having trouble taking responsibility for their actions or coming up with ways to fix it, give them a little more time.
Step 4: Finally, end with a cheerful:
“All right, let's get back to it.”
Video tips: using a step-aside process
The final step may also include a strong suggestion to apologize to someone. There are even times when the student owes you an apology for their behavior.
You should ask the student to provide one (either to yourself or another child), but you must do it in the right way to avoid setting up a head-to-head defiance situation. Saying:
“I want an apology”
“Please apologize to Jeffrey.”
… is likely to be met with refusal to give one. Think of how you react when you are angry from being called out on doing something wrong – the last thing you want to do is apologize to someone because you still have anger hormones surging around your bloodstream.
Give the student a little time to cool off and remember that they do like you (if you've been building your classroom community) and would rather not be on your bad side. For a better approach to this aspect of classroom discipline, try this:
“Natashia, please go sit at the back table. I'll accept an apology when you are ready to give one.”
Then let her think it through while she is sitting out a bit more of the classroom activity. It may take five minutes (which can be an eternity to a young person), but she'll give you an apology – even if it is a grudging one just to get back into the group.
I always accept the apology, reset expectations and get the student back to learning as quickly as possible.
Practicing on Inanimate Objects
If I have asked a student to step aside for intentionally dropping their chair or messing with my document camera, I will ask them to pat the inanimate object and apologize to it. This injects a note of humor into the situation but also helps them practice for making real apologies to people.
Escalating discipline issues and keeping track
You can create a very time-consuming and difficult-to-implement classroom behavior management system without really meaning to. That is what you will end up with if you decide to keep track of how many times kids are asked to step aside, and if you establish tiers of escalation, such as “Three time-outs and I send a note home, three more and you see the principal,” etc.
You'll know when a student is becoming a frequent flier and removal from the activity is not helping long-term. As long as you are fair, you can decide when to take the next step. This is not a corporation; you don't have to prove to Human Resources that you have given the prescribed warnings before taking action.
Is separation REALLY a consequence?
This gets back to the principle that effective discipline in the classroom cannot be separated from effective and engaging teaching – the kind of learning environment that the kids want to be part of. It is the removal from this environment, from the classroom community, that provides the motivation for them to self-correct in the future.
Taking a break
The next level of escalation for not meeting consequences is often a complete separation from your pack for a longer period of time. This should be a rarity and should be administered for short periods of time (use a timer) when the student needs a complete environmental shift to refocus.
It's very common in many schools that students can be sent to a different classroom when they need to take a break from poor behavior choices that they are having difficulty overcoming. It’s a good alternative to sending a student to the office, where they may get lost in the administrative shuffle and miss out on too much classroom instruction.
I've used this option on occasion when a student is having real difficulty controlling her emotions. Sending her off to another teacher with some work to accomplish (never expect the other teacher to provide this) for up to fifteen minutes can help defuse an otherwise escalating situation.
Kids tend to calm down in the other room because they are surrounded by a different environment and children with whom they are not all that familiar.
Also, keep your Special Education teacher in mind; if one of your challenging students has a behavior IEP, then it can be helpful for the student to go to the Special Education classroom to take a break if needed (and if this has been arranged in advance).
Regardless, when the child gets back to your room, be certain to have that brief, unemotional discussion about why they were separated and how they plan to fix their behavior in the future. Also, if apologies are needed, this the time for them to be presented. Do not make a spectacle of the return.
So: Classroom team in place; expectations all set; consequences modeled and implemented. End of behavior problems, right?
I have devoted tens of thousands of words to classroom management – web pages, blog posts, videos, social media posts, and answers to questions from followers. And I still keep hearing about unique situations that I haven’t addressed before.
I really do believe that the pointers I’ve explained so far will allow you to get on top of 90% of your behavior issues. For the other 10%, I highly recommend checking the other articles in the positive classroom discipline section.
Through experience, you’ll learn quickly how to best handle behavior in many different circumstances. In the meantime, don’t be hard on yourself if you have some rough spots or make a few mistakes. As I like to say, teachers get as many “do-overs” as they need to get it right!
A classroom discipline system cannot exist in a vacuum!
Don't expect this to work if it is all you do to maintain order and calmness in your classroom. It's part of the bigger picture of how you manage your room.
This process, carried out without exception no matter what activity is occurring, and done in the context of clear expectations and a tightly-knit, caring classroom community, will handle the majority of your daily discipline issues.
It is truly a classroom management plan that will work, year after year.