Positive and effective classroom behavior can sometimes seem out of reach to a teacher who is struggling every day.
She just can't figure out how to get from here to there: here being challenged, confronted and worn down daily, there being a room where she just gets to teach. Is that so much to ask?!
(And, to be clear, it's never just a “bad batch of kids.”)
As with any journey, we start with preparation and then go at it one step at a time. But first let's talk about your school's main disciplinarian: your principal. Any classroom behavior plan will eventually include him, so let's review the field guide to this particular species of admin.
Inside the mind of a principal
One of the biggest frustrations a teacher can face is never knowing where the “go-to-the-office” line is, let alone what kind of behavior it takes to cross it.
When does a principal expect a poor behavior choice to be escalated to the office, and when does he expect the teacher to handle something in the room?
When is it OK to ask for help, and when will struggles with classroom behavior management be considered a sign of weakness?
Here's the thing, though: Many principals are uncomfortable drawing a line.
They're human, and humans in general like to avoid conflict. Lines mean conflict… as soon as one is drawn, sure enough a student will step over it and that means dealing with parents and suspensions and all sorts of discipline items that the principal would really rather not address.
Enforcing a line is sure-fire way to spend a lot of time doing unpleasant tasks. So keeping things hazy gives principals some wiggle room to avoid conflict in certain situations. This may help them on a case-by-case basis, but long-term, problems snowball as kids figure out just how much they can get away with.
There's only so much you can do to encourage a building's staff or principal to create or adopt a rational building-wide discipline plan. Who I'm concerned about is you… and you can be successful even without strong support from the office.
Positive classroom behavior management is possible for every teacher. Which brings us to the first step…
Setting expectations and anticipating issues
Sometimes it seems like every third sentence I speak during the day is to set an expectation. Early in the year, these expectations are heavily weighted toward behavior until students get used to the routine. Expectations create a feedback loop.
… you are reacting to issues that arise. In practice, it sounds like a constant chorus of “stop that!”
… you are reminding students that you already established the proper behavior, they aren't meeting it and here comes the consequence. Calm, deliberate, effective.
After a few days with your class, you'll be able to start anticipating the issues that will arise in different situations. You'll know:
- That Teandra is obsessed with the pencil sharpener and can't line up near it
- How much frustration Sammi can stand in math before she snaps
- Whether Denis has taken the prescribed medication that allows him to work calmly in a group
Anticipation allows you to set expectations that address inevitable behavior issues and, when necessary, intervene before a situation heads in the entirely wrong direction. It's a delicate balance sometimes: when to steer clear of a situation that will end in trouble, and when to set an expectation around that situation to help a child learn self-control.
It all comes down to accountability
Ultimately, one of the major goals of teaching (and parenting) a child from pre-school to graduation is to create an adult who understands that:
- Life offers endless choices
- They must make choices every day
- Some choices will be right
- Some choices will be wrong
- But no matter what, they are accountable for the choices they make
As a teacher involved with an effective classroom behavior plan, you are critical in getting this accountability piece through their heads. For most of a child's life, they experience consequences that are enforced upon them by others, including you.
Eventually, a teacher will begin to see children internalize this lesson and hold themselves accountable for choices. Better yet, you'll see children learning to understand that consequences follow bad choices, so it's best to make the proper choice up front.
This only comes in glimpses, especially in the lower grades. But your work is so important, and it all makes an impact in both the short- and long-term as you help our children grow into responsible, self-controlled, disciplined adults.
Video tips: holding students responsible for their actions
Our ultimate goal in any classroom discipline plan is to have students take responsibility for their own actions and control their own behavior without constant adult oversight.
Let's face facts, though: there's a reason why every nation on earth has police officers and some sort of court system.
Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that any class will ever be totally self-governing (I'd be out of a job!), but let's also do everything we can to move our students in that direction as far as we can.
Here are some daily interactions that will enhance your classroom discipline plan and help students with their self-management.
Enforce accountable language
When a student says:
“My paper ripped”
… have her restate it properly:
“I ripped my paper.”
Make her say it out loud. Many kids really don't like to do this, but it is the first step in keeping them from becoming disingenuous politicians in the future (“Some mistakes were made…”).
Ask for apologies to inanimate objects
Have kids apologize to classroom furniture and equipment that they “hurt,” as in:
“I'm sorry projector, I shouldn't have yanked on your cord.”
Most kids find this a little funny so they are willing to do it. Meanwhile, they are practicing an apology, which makes it a little easier when they need to say:
“I'm sorry Janita, I shouldn't have grabbed all the markers for myself.”
Apologizing is a key part of respect, but it is very hard for many kids (and adults) to do.
Applaud honesty whenever you hear it
…especially if it is uttered in the face of consequences:
“I'm sorry Mrs. Smith, I was the one who took Jon's eraser.”
“Thank you for your honesty, Cass. What are our expectations? How are you going to fix this?”
In addition your ongoing daily efforts, we can set up a small system that helps kids reflect on their behavior choices, and even carries a bit of a “reward.”
I'm not a fan of an elaborate, scripted point system. In my approach, I don't assign points – the kids assign themselves points based on their perception of their own behavior. Here's how it works:
Twice a day I go down the list of kids and ask them how many points they earned for the last three hours (half of the day) with a maximum of ten points possible.
There… that's it! That's all there is to it. Sounds pretty simple doesn't it? It needs to be simple for the kids to relate to it. Of course, there a few more guidelines for making it as effective as possible.
First of all, the whole point of points is simply to give the kids something concrete by which to gauge their behavior while they self-assess. They could just say:
“I wasn't very good this morning.”
…but it wouldn't have the same impact. It just kills them to not get a perfect ten, so saying:
“I got eight points because I kept blurting out answers.”
…has much more impact.
Being the referee
Of course, you are managing this process as part of your classroom behavior plan. If someone is a bit forgetful of the kind of morning they had, it's time for your “teacher look,” or a pointed reminder:
“Hmm, think about it and I'll come back to you.”
Sometimes students honestly forget and you will have to say:
“I'm not sure you were on task for white board math.”
You may also find situations where a student takes too many points, too few, or more than you think they should based on what you observed. Be sure to ask them to tell you why. In general, you will usually know the behavior behind the points.
As the arbiter of the process, you can exercise your discretion to keep the process motivational:
- Offer a half point back for honesty.
- Offer to give someone eleven points for outstanding behavior.
Just don't overdo it – make this a rare occurrence. Discipline in the classroom is not about the kids vying to earn points from you. It's about earning points for themselves and feeling good about it.
Whatever process you do, make the rules fit your room. And avoid a process where you assign points for bad behavior – that is the wrong kind of motivation.
Keep it simple
So… what to do with all of these points being assessed? Your inclination might be to track them every day and add them all up for monthly totals and do something with them, such as give a prize for anyone over ‘x' points.
Resist the temptation. It is a lot of work and it makes the process high-stakes. Suddenly it becomes all about getting something, which leads to playing the game however they can to get the highest points they can, rather than a simple process of self-reflection and a fresh start after every session.
Separate from the point system outlined above, I do hand out “bonus tickets” for great work or attitudes or kindness as well. That's all they are: a piece of colored paper. No redemption value of any sort. No tracking. No collecting yellow tickets to exchange for a blue one or any other scheme.
The kids love getting them though. Why? Because they are handed out by their favorite teacher!
Avoid extrinsic rewards (candy, especially). The kids don't need them to be happy, engaged learners. And you don't need them for an effective classroom behavior plan. All kids would much, much rather get their teacher's approval than a piece of candy any day.
Knowing your kids as unique individuals
Knowing your kids also means knowing how individual students will react in certain situations. Some personalities will conflict if seated next to each other; some kids have particular trouble walking in line or playing fair at recess; etc. A large part of managing behavior is structuring situations so as to avoid generating problems in the first place.
This is not to say that you should go to extraordinary lengths to create the perfect situation to please every student who may potentially misbehave; that's impossible, and kids need to learn to control themselves (with your help) in a variety of situations.
However, there is no point in waving a red flag in front of a bull, so to speak! If a fight ensues every time Alleedra lines up behind Kelly, then you need to stop that situation before it ever gets started.
Working with diagnosed challenges
Always keep your diagnosed, behaviorally-challenged kids in mind. Once you've experienced Sam when his parents forgot to give him his prescription medication, you should be able to quickly redirect him to a more successful path when it occurs in the future.
Likewise, if you are working with Aspergers or Autistic students, understanding the triggers that upset them will go a long way toward making their school experience calm and enjoyable even on difficult days.
Classroom behavior management works best when it is subtle and proactive rather reactive.
Some kids have to move. The kids who are on what I would call the “ADHD spectrum” (meaning they may or may not be medicated) may have a need to physically move their bodies that they simply cannot suppress – nor should they or they won't be able to focus.
Work with them to express this need without endangering themselves or disturbing the learning of other students. Examples:
Samantha simply could not sit still and was constantly tipping her chair back and falling over. My solution was to give her a very low desk (from 1st grade) to sit on. This allowed her to fidget or sit curled up without the danger of tipping.
Cyril needed to pace. I worked out an acceptable short path for him to follow that minimized distractions to other students. After the rest of the class got used to it, they barely noticed his movement.
Consistency is your friend
Somewhere deep down inside, nearly all students crave predictable structure, whether they acknowledge that fact or not. A set daily/weekly classroom routine helps them feel stable.
Much of a school day is already structured for you by recess, lunch, etc. Do your part to keep your instructional blocks regular.
I post my daily schedule on the whiteboard. Just like adult attendees at a day-long seminar, kids like to know what is coming up next. Subconsciously, they can mentally prepare for transitions between events (and they can remind you when you forget the time!).
Classroom discipline always improves when a teacher anticipates classroom behavior management problem areas and sets his class up to be successful with a consistent classroom routine.