As you have seen in my other pages on classroom discipline, particularly in these case studies, desk separation can be a critical component of changing behavior if it is used correctly.
Humans are social animals who are constantly influenced by those around them. This is particularly true of elementary children who are much more likely to lack the self-control and judgment of older kids and adults.
Creating an island
Removal from the social groups of your classroom, no matter what that grouping looks like, is an effective consequence for a few reasons:
- The poor classroom behavior is likely interfering with the learning of other students and must be stopped quickly.
- It decreases the likelihood of continued misbehavior. Students are less likely to misbehave loudly than they are to misbehave sneakily in whispers to nearby seatmates.
- Kids don't like to be separated from the group. They stand out and they miss out on the perceived fun of group interaction
Desk separation causes a form of “cafeteria syndrome.” You know, when you enter the building cafeteria by yourself and feel distinctly uncomfortable when you can't find a table of friends with an open seat.
Humans like to run in packs and don't like to be separated from their peers. This can be a very strong inducement for a student to alter his behavior in order to rejoin the pack.
And that is the goal: for the student to be part of a social group. Temporarily moving a student desk to accomplish this must be done correctly to be effective.
Keep desk separation positive
First, while a moving a desk is a direct consequence of misbehavior, it is not presented in a punitive way; it is explained to the student as a positive that will help them:
“Stephan, I noticed that you are not getting your work done because you are so busy with Erica and Jeff. So I'm going to put your desk over here where you can get your work done without distractions.”
“Julie, you keep talking when I'm teaching and that is keeping other kids from hearing my instructions, and I know you are not hearing them either. Sitting away from the group will help everyone understand the lessons better.”
And they need to know just what they have to do to get back to their group:
“When you show me you can meet expectations independently, we can move your desk back.”
Finally, add some encouragement:
“You can figure this out! You are a big second-grader now.”
Of course, they are well aware of the expectations because you have been clearly stating them, as outlined on this page.
Location, location, location
Now, where do we put the student? The one place you absolutely do not put them is isolated in the back of the room. Our goal is to change their behavior, and that can't be done if they are out of your sphere of influence, abandoned at the back of the room.
Don't place them too far away from the group; if your room is large enough to really separate them, you might find that distance causes an outspoken student to magnify her behavior so she is still heard and seen.
While I have moved student desks right up next to my own, this is not critical for classroom management. They just need to be easily accessible so that you can quickly intervene to correct continuing misbehavior.
The next step, if they need even more assistance in concentrating, is to turn them to face away from the group, again with an appropriate explanation about how this will help them focus.
Here's a boy sitting in that separated desk shown on the floor plan above.
He's definitely in the middle of things… not removed from the classroom community at all. This young man asked to be separated to help him focus on learning, and ended up no more than five feet away from other kids and had a front row seat for all of my teaching.
Ensure the island has benefits
If you can arrange it, give the island some positive aspects, even if they are unstated. For example:
- The boy above just had to turn in his seat when the class gathered on the floor for instruction. This helped him save a little face since he always had a front-row seat and didn't have to sit on the floor.
- Another boy who ended up next to my desk for several weeks discovered that I enjoyed brief conversations about topics that interested him, such as art. Always do what you can to work on teacher-student relationships.
Note: The child is only separated from the others when all are in their seats; they still need to be included in group work (such as working on spelling words with a partner) as much as possible. Of course, you carefully choose the partner and praise them for the ability to meet expectations as often as you can.
Video tips: Classroom desk arrangements for best behavior
Rejoining the group
When you have seen improvement in behavior, ask the student if she is ready to try it again. If not, respect that choice. If so, reinforce:
“OK, Maria, you've shown me you can meet expectations so let's see how you do at a table group. But be ready to move back if you need more time to practice.”
Sometimes a classroom discipline plan demands a few sessions of island status. And sometimes, as in cases where a child (often one with a diagnosis) simply cannot leave others alone, the status may last for months or all year.
NOTE: If you do find that a child must be separated long-term for the learning or safety of others, your obligation to work with them more attentively increases.