Is there any other subject besides classroom management that causes new teachers – and a fair number of experienced teachers – more headaches? Based on my experience, no.
It doesn't have to be that way. Management is very difficult if you are only relying on a series of tips and tricks to deal with particular situations. It becomes much easier, however, if you understand the philosophy and benefits of forming a close-knit classroom team.
The power of belonging
What is so great about a team-based approach to classroom management? Well, it helps to think about it from the perspective of a pack. And I mean “pack” as in pack of wolf cubs. I'm serious!
The key concept is that the members of your classroom want to belong to a pack, or group. All children desperately want to be part of a group. That desire to be a member of a group will have three very powerful influences on your classroom management:
1. The members of the group will internalize and emulate group norms.
In other words, if you have created a classroom team that is polite and respectful, the members of that team will be much more likely to be polite and respectful in order to remain members in good standing of the group. It is human nature that we conform to the norms established by a group to which we want to belong.
This fact alone will alleviate a lot of your classroom management headaches by diminishing the number of individual behavior problems.
2. The members of the group will enforce the norms of the group.
All people, including children, become uncomfortable with behavior that disrupts a group to which they belong and will often correct their peers for misbehavior. For example, If you have established that one of your group norms is to quietly transition between subjects without talking, then you will hear kids shushing those who feel like chattering – without you needing to say a thing.
That's one small example, but you get the point: the group will work to enforce ideal behavior so as not to “ruin it” for everyone.
3. The members of the group will dislike being separated from the group.
Humans especially like to be part of a group if the group is doing something fun!
Picture this: I was teaching a science lesson to a combined classroom (my students plus another class). Kids LOVE science, and this was a very hands-on session, involving experiments in buoyancy with “life boats” (cups of different sizes) loaded with “passengers” (metal washers) and tubs of water.
With over fifty kids, I knew that any misbehavior could get out of hand very quickly, and things could turn messy and unsafe. I set very strong expectations with my class about following proper scientific procedures exactly.
Within five minutes, two kids had received their one warning, repeated their offenses, and were on the sidelines, watching and taking notes for five minutes, as other kids got to test how many passengers could be loaded into the boats before sinking.
The rest of the class became model scientists after that. In spite of the temptation to go wild with the materials, they studiously implemented the scientific method and spoke very precisely, asking the right questions and using the proper terms.
The impact of separation
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the key to no-stress classroom behavior management. Separation from the group provides a very effective consequence for those students not following your expectations – without raising your voice, getting stressed out, or employing complicated reward-tracking systems.
If the group is a place where a child desperately wants to be (see below for how to make sure it is), then even sitting off to the side for one minute will cause them to alter their behavior quickly so as not to be an outsider.
Likewise, for the rare behavior that does rise to the level of a trip to the principal, it will not be so much the confrontation with administration that provides a consequence, but rather the complete removal from your classroom community for a period of time.
I simply can't stress this enough: a strong classroom community team must be your classroom management foundation.
Leader of the pack
So, why is a wolf pack an apt analogy? Because every pack has a leader who sets the norms for all the little wolf pups. And guess who the leader of the pack is in your classroom?
To start off, you are an authority figure simply because you are an adult in an elementary school. You must recognize and accept that you are automatically the leader of the pack and the person who gets to establish all behavior expectations.
You are also the person who has the ability to remove a member from the group and to reinstate that member back into the group. When misbehaving children understand this, you can work through all of your behavior management steps with a calm demeanor and without threats.
When the leader of the pack speaks, the wolves listen!
Of course, you are a benevolent leader. In other words, the members of your little pack will love you as their teacher and their leader and will want to maintain the cohesion of the group.
All humans want to belong
No matter how old we get, we never really escape elementary school.
Remember the trauma of getting picked for teams out on the playground? The desperate hope that you wouldn't be the last, unwanted person? As an adult, you still don't like the feeling that comes from a group of people going out to lunch and not inviting you.
Remember how uncomfortable you were walking into the grade school lunchroom, fervently hoping that you could find a place to sit so you wouldn't look like an unwanted loner?
Do you still feel that way when you walk into a cafeteria filled with groups of people talking and laughing? Of course you do. If you end up sitting alone, you might feel that you are being judged as unworthy of companionship.
Creating your classroom team
Knowing that our students feel this very acutely, our goal as team leaders is clear: we want every single child in our classroom to feel deep down in their hearts that we – their favorite teacher – have specifically and enthusiastically chosen them to be on our team.
How would you have felt as a child if, every time you walked into your classroom, your teacher smiled at you and greeted you and made it very clear that she was thrilled that you were present? Well I don't know about you, but it would have made me feel great – like school was my absolute favorite place to go every day because I knew that I belonged.
More importantly, I would have idolized the teacher who made me feel that way.
So, the process of forming a close-knit group is not particularly difficult if you understand your objective. It's made even easier by the fact that your students will take their cues from you; they will watch every move you make and listen to everything you say and imitate it.
Here are the basic pointers for creating your classroom team – your own little pack of close-knit followers.
“Please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” must be liberally sprinkled throughout your conversations. Remind your children to use them, too. Along with these polite words, practice polite actions, such as not interrupting. (This starts to cross the line a little bit into setting expectations.)
Smile a lot. Even if you're having a down day, act like your classroom is exactly where you want to be. It doesn’t hurt anything to let your kids know you are having a tough day… but, at the same time, you should let them know that being with them makes it better.
Notice every child
Although you are forming a group, always remember that it is made up of unique little individuals. And these individuals want their teacher to notice things:
- Their new shoes or coat or hairstyle
- That they are finishing a book that is hard for them
- That they remembered to start their sentences with a capital letter
They even want you to notice when they remember to be polite!
In short, they want to know that their leader cares enough about them to notice things. Noticing doesn't mean making a big deal; pointing to some new shoes and giving a thumbs-up or tapping on a properly punctuated sentence and winking is every bit as effective as saying something.
Allow nobody to be diminished in any way
Just as teachers should never use public shaming as a behavior management tool, you should never allow children to diminish each other.
This is poison to your group!
To have children feel unsafe in any way within your classroom (physically or emotionally) will eventually cause them to withdraw from wanting to belong. No labeling allowed by anyone, ever.
Student nicknames build relationships
From the very first day of school, I look for ways to build community in my classroom. As I outline in my first week of school articles, the most important technique I use is getting the kids to buy in to me as a very special teacher and a fun person who they want to follow all year long.
My goal, frankly, is to make the children into my little groupies. One of the most effective techniques that I have found for encouraging children to buy in to your teaching style is to give them a nickname.
Within the first month of school, every child in my classroom has at least one nickname. These nicknames are always cute and funny, and seek (sometimes) to call out a special feature of the child.
Here are some example nicknames I have used in the past:
- Little Tatiana became “Tater Tot”
- August was “Gus-Gus”
- Bailey was “Bee Sting” (because he's so sharp)
- Halley was “Hal-O-Rama”
Why is a nickname such a big deal? Because it demonstrates to the child that you are taking a special interest in him as an individual, that you care enough about who he is and his involvement in your classroom that you will take the time to come up with a special name.
Once everybody has their own special name, they start to feel like they're part of a club rather than just a classroom. They belong to a group where everyone has special names, and a leader who has taken the time to recognize them in a unique way.
This is a very simple technique, and one that I have found to be extremely effective over the course of many years.
Can student teachers form a classroom team?
Even if you are on your practicum and thus inheriting the team formed by the classroom teacher, you can still start forming your own pack the moment you walk into the room.
You simply start the process of picking children to belong on your team. Picking them just means following these common-sense steps to let them know you want to be associated with them.
It’s not a competition with your mentor teacher; unlike playground games, kids can belong to more than one classroom team at a time!