A Teaching Aside
I have been thinking a lot lately about how as a teacher I can best approach the problem of managing behavior in a classroom full of diverse students. The problem, when stated simply, is that each student is going to respond differently to the methods that teachers use in the classroom.
What I have come to understand is that there is no secret ingredient! There is no magic bullet that will help all students achieve success. This post is a summary of my thought processes on the topic, at this point in time. It is also a narrative of my personal growth as a teacher during the school term.
The evolution of my classroom behavioral management system
At the beginning of the year, I did not have an explicit behavioral management plan. My intended approach was to pull disruptive students out of class briefly to discuss their poor choices on a case by case basis. This did not work particularly well, at least not at the beginning of the school year. However, I have been able to return to this behavioral management plan with much success. There are many reasons why I struggled at the beginning of the school year with classroom management: (1) I had little to no confidence as a new teacher, (2) the students and I didn’t know each other well enough to have a trusting relationship in which we could discuss behaviors and (3) what is most likely is that the students only knew how to be compliant and lacked self-regulation. Best of all, working with students on a case by case basis to help them develop their own self-confidence, places my relationship with these kids as a mentor or guide to help them grow and develop. My students don’t view me as a tyrant that they have to rebel against.
Much like my kids, in the beginning I was a bit stubborn and refused to post the explicit class rules omnipresently on the board, I only had them on a SMARTBoard for review every morning. I also maintained a fairly rigid schedule, but I did not have it posted. Eventually, I figured out that this was a mistake on my part, because part of developing the trust with my kids involved being absolutely clear and consistent about my expectations and daily activities.
I was fortunate enough early in the year to have access to a seasoned teacher trainer for a month of intensive in class training. My trainer taught me a lot of things: there is a place for rules posted on the board, there is a place for an if-then consequence chart, there is a place for an explicitly posted schedule, even if it costs whiteboard space. I also picked up a number of behavioral management techniques to help the students with more challenging behaviors.
During this time with this trainer, my classroom started using a token reward system. In this case, it was a simple contingency. When the students were on task, they received tokens that were put into a cup and tallied at the end of the day. There was a standard treasure chest system put in place. When they earned 50 tokens, that had the option to pick from the treasure box.
The problem with this system was that it was not at all salient. The token chart at the back of the room was only really noticed for 1-2 minutes total all day and tokens were clearly not affecting behavior. There was also a flaw in this system, during the previous year the teacher before me had used a response cost system that involved “taking tokens”. When this was applied to the token reward system (i.e., tokens could be given as well as taken), it violated the student’s sense of fairness. As one can imagine, this did not really work. Behaviors improved briefly, but when the token reward system was used correctly (rewards could be given but never taken), it failed miserably.
The next step was to try the response cost system that was in place the year before (the teacher trainer I was working with had given this system to the previous year’s teacher, so we gave it a shot). This system was a bit more complicated. Each student began the day with 5 tokens. They were given 1 warning for poor behavioral choices, and then they lost one of their tokens for each offense. With each token came 1/5 of recess that they had to sit out. To counteract this “negative” system, there was still a token system, but it was not noticed by the students.
This system could be said to have worked, at least at a superficial level. Behavior of the students overall was compliant. However, the students with more challenging behaviors were losing 3 tokens on a daily basis for very similar reasons. And worse, the nature of these challenging behaviors actually were worsening. Since it did not work and was actually resulting in consistent punishment for only a few students this system was abandoned. It should be noted that any reward / punishment system that results in the same behaviors being punished over and over and over and over is a failed system and should be abandoned immediately.
My replacement for this response cost system was what I called unabashed positivity. I decided to pull out the Class Dojo account that I had started but had never used. I thought this would be helpful because I, as the teacher, had absolute control over the system and could make it exclusively positive. No more getting into a power struggle-which you will inevitably lose-with these kids and in your frustration and anger just punishing these kids, just because. I set up the unabashed positivity Class Dojo chart up on the SMARTBoard and set apart a time to do dojos every day. I also had my phone with me at all times so I could yell out to whom I was giving dojos and why, the the students could hear the tone that I had just given them a dojo point. I can say, it worked. But it was exhausting. I had to constantly pull up dojos on my phone to show the students how many they had. I also had students trying to bully other students with a lesser number of dojos and poke fun at them. Not cool at all. I needed to come up with something else that would work better.
My replacement system is where I am now. I now just write on the board, “We need [number] dojos this week for iPad on Thursday” and I list the student initials down in a table so I can jot down tally marks for dojos each day. I also sweetened the pot for the students to give a goal at the bottom that if the class as a whole received a certain number of dojo points they would get iPad time on Thursday and Friday. This goal was also about a 10% greater number of dojos than the personal goals. This works!.
I also now have, for consistency, my 5 class rules on the board at all times, 4 under the heading “Keys to Success” and the other under “Daily Focus” rotating daily. I also have an explicit schedule on the board where I can annotate specifically at which points dojo points can be earned and how many. I have students now making sure I have everything labelled correctly on my schedule and have even asked for multiple daily focus-so they are paying attention and even liking it!
This system eliminates the problem of students comparing themselves to others because they realize they have a personal goal to fixate upon: a highly preferred reward. As such, they did not feel the need to define themselves as “better” or “worse” than anyone else. Dojo points were not a reward in themselves, but they were a contract for later in the week. Also, these points are omnipresent in the classroom, which means I do not have to take time out of helping students to show another student how many points they have. Now, the students work to be on task so they can get these dojo points. They know how many they need to earn, and they even voluntarily do math (including regrouping) to figure out how many they have to earn to get iPad time. Most importantly, because the students are in their desks trying to earn dojos, they were primed and ready for schoolwork. The amount of work the students are completing has gone up dramatically, and general behavioral problems have gone way down (basically to floor).
When using an exclusively positive behavioral class management system it can sometimes be tough to deal with problem behaviors. In the case of my classroom, these behaviors are now centrally dealt with by me. By and large students get briefly invited to come into a private place and discuss their choices. The reason I chose this approach was that it allows me to specifically work with each student to help them explain to me why they chose the behaviors they did. In doing this, I learned a lot about what makes these different students tick. The exact same behaviors serve different purposes across students. Learning about my students this way has helped me to identify the points when they are about to start down the path toward a poor decision, and I can help them cut it off-usually by warning them of the consequences of their choices if they continue making bad ones.
Other students, however, need a slightly more authoritative approach. They are clearly still learning how to self-regulate. So I have to provide some of that regulation externally. For those students, I have to specifically tell them what will happen if they make a bad choice, and be very quick to provide that consequence when the student misbehaves. Once the punishment is over, I work with the students to develop self management skills and to pinpoint when they made a mistake or poor choice. Hopefully, with time they will no longer need external punishers to motivate self-regulation.
My philosophy on behavioral management
My approach to managing troublesome behaviors in class is one of education. All kids need to be taught how to self-regulate and many students lack the necessary skills. Self-regulation skills develop through explicit training from 3 to 11 years. In many of my students, they have never been taught about self-regulation and have never been given a chance to stumble and learn. As such, it is not that my students are intentionally causing trouble, but rather they do not really yet understand they have the ability not to rebel. Over the last few months, I have spent a significant amount of time “warning” students of consequences if they make bad choices. What I have found during these interventions with students is that they have not yet considered the consequences of their actions. In fact, more times than not, my reading their behavior is a step faster than theirs. Because I am catching them before they acted, I am actually saving them a lot of frustration in having to deal with losing some privilege because they did something dumb and impulsive.
Overall, I go out of my way to not punish students. It is a very rare occurrence when I hold someone in from recess for longer than 1-2 minutes to have a quick chat about their behavioral choices to prevent them from losing control on the playground. I do not use explicit time outs from the rest of the class in a punitive way unless it is absolutely necessary (it has not happened yet, but I cannot rule it out). I do not threaten to call parents to ensure punishment at home. In short, I do not threaten or punish kids. Yet they comply with my requests, because in the end this system places all the control with the students, thus empowering them to act appropriately. I trust my students to make the right decisions and it’s been amazing to see their self-confidence grow exponentially over this school year. That doesn’t mean I don’t expect they’ll make a mistake now and then, but that’s part of the process.
The last important point of my philosophy is that I do not focus on short term compliance. I want the students to try, fail, get back up, and eventually learn the strategies and skills they can use throughout their life. If students have a hard time controlling themselves, I am actually not entirely interested in that they comply right now, but rather that they start making progress. If it takes them 6 months to finally understand and fix their behavior, they fixed their behavior. That’s all that matters. I have a tendency in my class to tolerate a bit more noise and a greater number of mistakes as I provide pre-warnings for problematical behaviors. This is not to say I do not care that the students are not as compliant as they should be, I work to keep them under control, but rather it means I understand that learning is a process-and that behavioral and emotional control can be learned, and this is a process.
Where am I now and where to the future
I have tried a number of systems to get control of the troublesome behaviors in my class. I actually ended up where I began, but I am more confident in handling my students and providing them helpful feedback. I also think through the course of the year my students have learned they can trust me and that I am out to help, not punish, them. My system of using my behavioral expertise to read students and develop a specific plan for each student seems to work for me, so it will definitely be a starting point for me next year.
For future years, I have a plan my students proposed to me. They wanted a sort of “dojo dollar” system like a class economy. They wanted me to give actual paper dojos that they can then use to “rent” access to preferred items. They asked, how much it would cost in this system to play Angry Birds instead of the educational games I provide? How much would it cost to go outside with the yoga balls we have as chairs and bounce on the grass looking at flowers? How much would it cost to play with bona fide legos? Moving forward, I think my direction will be to use this type of system. It allows me to teach responsibility (you have to keep track of your own dojo dollars to pay later, if you lose them, too bad). It allows me to teach the practical value of money and that you pay for goods and services. They have to use math to count and calculate what they want to do with their dojo dollars to get the best bang for their buck. And best of all, it is private. Each student knows how much they have, because they can count it. It is not up on the board. It is not taunting them and others.
The most rewarding part of this learning process of classroom management is that I have seen, quiet, meek students who lived in fear of misbehaving, let their personalities out to air. I’ve also been able to watch students with energetic behaviors, learn to stop before they speak or do something inappropriate. I can’t say enough how tremendously proud I am of my students.