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September 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 1

Are We Teaching Care or Control?

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Instead of assigning blame to students and their families, educators must understand challenging behavior as a “collective public health reality.”

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Classroom ManagementSchool Culture
Are We Teaching Care or Control? Header Image
Credit: SolStock / iStock

CHALLENGE: Schools are struggling with student behavior issues.

We are starting yet another new school year in the context of a dangerous world, and we are doing so in the absence of many of our colleagues. Each year is accompanied by an outflux of educators too beleaguered, disillusioned, and unwell to continue raising our children in schools without the material supports, investments, services, infrastructures, and systems that give us a fighting chance of doing so in ways that are reasonable, humane, or healthy. The extraordinary level of continued, deliberate divestment from public schooling puts a palpable squeeze on educators. This is not to mention the growing public challenges to their professionalism and discretion. All this together engenders a degree of chronic rage, stress, and anxiety that makes teaching increasingly unsustainable.
Under these conditions, I think we can admit that none of us is really behaving our best.
Though teachers often recognize the structural reasons for their own lack of well-being, they often struggle to apply this same analysis to the conditions of their students. Many teachers cite student behavior as their main reason for leaving the profession. The kids are out of control, and instead of taking responsibility, their parents blame us as teachers. This is a surface-level observation of a problem with deep, tangled, social, emotional, and political roots.
We are absolutely seeing more troubling and serious behaviors than in the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are seeing them more frequently and consistently, in large swaths of classrooms and schools. There is no question that these disruptions make our attempts at teaching (at least in traditional ways) nearly impossible. Indeed, manufactured fear over "learning loss" puts even more pressure on teachers to barrel through absurd amounts of academic content despite multiple indications that our children and teens actually need us to slow down, take a collective deep breath, register the dangerous world in which we live, and imagine school as a place in which we might advance healing instead of additional harm.

A Public Health Reality

Bad behaviors reflect social problems. They are natural, reasonable responses to chronic stress and anxiety, social and political divestment, depression and disillusionment, and the lack of consent inherent in compulsory schooling. Children are at the whim of adults, but as they look around, they see ample evidence of our failures to create a world worthy of them. Are young people expected to bear witness to these legitimate sources of grave anxiety—climate change, gun violence, legislation that violates the protections of the most vulnerable—and not behave badly, while still unquestioningly trusting adults to somehow keep them safe?

Children’s behavior in school is absolutely related to the social and political realities outside of school. They are impacted materially and emotionally by the world around them.

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Many teachers instinctively dismiss the idea that the everyday behavior showing up in schools could be tied to the dangerous world in which we live. But if the two have nothing to do with each other, how do we explain the undeniable uptick in difficult behaviors after our return from pandemic closures? Children's behavior in school is absolutely related to the social and political realities outside of school. They are impacted materially and emotionally by the world around them.
Therefore, we must understand challenging behavior as a collective public health reality instead of assigning blame solely to individual young people and their families. Many educators don't like to hear this. They think I am making excuses for inexcusable behaviors. But many adults are in fact asking children to regulate their emotions, to unquestionably comply with directives they find coercive and nonsensical, and to do the work of school regardless of their own faltering wellness.
Teachers are leaving schools to spare themselves from chronic harm, but we sometimes fail to register that the avoidant, disruptive, and distracting behaviors of young people are often an effort to seek the same refuge and relief.
Our only hope of improved circumstances is for children and adults to work together instead of against one another, and to concentrate our joint efforts on making school a place in which we might practice the safe world we want and need instead of the dangerous world we have now.

Classroom Management as Curriculum

How educators use their power and authority is a series of lessons our children learn through witnessing. Young people watch how we respond to challenging behaviors—and they are not interested in how effectively and efficiently we squash them. They are observing how we regulate our own emotions in anger and under stress. They are searching for how values are communicated, how needs are recognized and responded to, how and whether healthy communication takes place.
What do we want them to see? What do we want them to learn from us?
We know how to name objectives in our academic content areas and how to plan backwards to build the skills and understandings required to reach them. Educators can approach behavior management in the same way. Helping students learn how to be safe and thoughtful in a shared community requires explicit skill-building and alignment on some clear, shared values.

The idea is for teachers and students to agree on a model of radical inclusion, to unwaveringly believe that there is no such thing as a throwaway person.

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The idea is for teachers and students to agree on a model of radical inclusion, to unwaveringly believe that there is no such thing as a throwaway person, that nobody deserves an unnecessary or disproportionate dose of suffering, and that our future depends on us taking collective responsibility for protecting it. These are not ways of being that can simply be enforced through rewards, punishments, or incessant reminders. We need new ways of relating to one another, and we need classrooms to be places in which we might struggle together to practice them.

Transformative Behavior Standards

To that end, I would suggest five shifts in how educators approach the work of building communities inside (and outside) of classrooms and schools. My hope is for us, as a collective of educators committed to freedom, to experiment with the idea that each of these pillars may serve as a standard—a learning target and goal—and that we may dream together in our local contexts ways to learn, teach, and model these shared standards.

1. We protect each other: Away from teacher authority, toward community responsibility

The traditional model in classrooms posits that the adult is in charge, responding to incidents of transgression and setting the terms for consequences. But schools are increasingly finding this model insufficient for producing even basic cooperation and safety.
We might consider that, in the first place, current levels of anxiety are now uniquely high among both adults and young people. People experiencing high levels of anxiety often seek relief in control; if they can control circumstances, they can quell their worries and fears. In schools, this can lead to teacher-student dynamics that are rife with conflict, challenges, and power struggles. An alternate response would be to proactively share power and responsibility for classroom wellness, transitioning away from control and toward collective protection.
The following definitions of freedom—framed as responsibilities, and not just rights—guide my school-based work with educators.
For young children: We protect everyone's bodies and feelings, and we protect the planet.
For older children and teens: We move and act in ways that reduce harm and protect the well-being of all people and of our planet.
Mutual protection as a shared standard for behavior, and a response to high anxiety, has several goals. First, it implies that people are accountable to one another and to the planet—not to any single authority figure. Knowing that we have some power to impact and change our immediate conditions reduces anxious feelings of abstract and imminent danger. Second, it suggests that since we are all capable of hurting each other, we are all responsible for protecting each other. Third, it doesn't conflate safety with rule following; instead, it names a standard that requires deep teaching and learning around harm, inclusion, care, and sustainability.
The educator's job is to create structures, processes, and protocols that support young people in working together to address the problems of community that naturally and predictably come up in classroom life. How will we respond when someone, including a teacher, is annoying us? How will we notice if a member of our community is feeling left out? What will we do if one of our classmates exhibits a consistent struggle to manage their anger? Instead of treating these as individual behaviors requiring the teacher's attention alone, these should be understood as normal and expected public health problems requiring the classroom community's attention, debate, analyses, and problem solving. When we attempt to solve these problems unilaterally, we rob young people of the opportunity to try out ways of solving them together. We benefit from their ability to be in mindful, thoughtful relationship with others who are experiencing difficulties.

2. We keep us safe: Away from rules and policing, toward mindful teaching and learning

To reduce our reliance on strategies of policing, we can present desirable behaviors to students as things that require slow and deliberate teaching and learning rather than quick-fix enforcement and punishments.
For example, consider the difference between the messaging in Figures 1 and 2. The poster shown in Figure 1 expresses directives toward control of the body, which requires policing to enforce and reinforce. The poster presented in Figure 2, by contrast, encourages minding oneself and one's own body, which requires slow teaching and lots of practice.
Are We Teaching Care or Control? Figure 1-2
Subtle shifts in language make a difference. With older children, for example, "No gum allowed" might be shifted to, "Mind how what you eat and drink in class impacts others." A sign that absolutely prohibits food in the library may instead say, "Please help us love and care for this special place." Instead of a rule that can (and likely will) be directly challenged and then result in an inevitable power struggle, this nudge toward mindfulness requires thoughtfulness, discussion, and community practice.
The mantra "we keep us safe"—often used in abolitionist theory in relation to reducing the power and influence of policing and prisons—is useful in all contexts of coercion and control, including school. Encouraging young people to rely on one another, in addition to adults, to maintain safety requires self-accountability and responsibility, and knowledge of models of restorative and transformative justice, harm reduction, and repair. These approaches to classroom management not only distribute the responsibility for creating and maintaining a safe space, but also prepare young people for a world in which our reliance on policing is replaced by mutual care and collective protection.

3. We recognize big feelings: Away from suppression, toward healthy expression

The regulation of emotions does not mean we remain calm at all times. Rather, being emotionally regulated means exercising an appropriate emotional response to the situation at hand. We can and must provide young people opportunities to practice the healthy expression of overwhelming, big feelings, rather than policing or punishing their unhealthy expressions. Recognizing big feelings in our bodies, being able to name the source and triggers, and modulating our response and expression so as not to cause harm, are extremely challenging skills that—again—require practice, support, and learning.

We cannot learn what is not taught, modeled, or practiced.

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These social-emotional skills are too often marginalized in favor of academic content or leveraged toward compliance instead of well-being. So, it should be no surprise that young people struggle to exercise them. We cannot learn what is not taught, modeled, or practiced.
I suggest we prioritize, above all, the well-being of young people, because we have ample evidence that our young people are struggling with record levels of stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and depression. Expressions of these very reasonable mental health responses to a dangerous world must not be suppressed but, rather, practiced in community in a caring and loving environment. To raise a public capable of healthy relationships characterized by mutual protection and safety, the social-emotional lives of all people in schools must be central—for educators and students alike.

4. We repair harm: Away from punishment, toward accountability

Punishment and accountability are not synonymous. Two important understandings about the nature of accountability can shift how we approach the distinction.
First, it is impossible for any person to hold another accountable. Accountability is a multistep process. It requires naming and admitting to what we did, identifying who was harmed and how, making repair, and recognizing the patterns and habits that may lead us to repeat the harm. These are incredibly challenging skills and abilities, and nobody can be forced to exercise them, especially if they have never been practiced. Rather than "hold people accountable," we must teach, model, and practice self-accountability: naming and repairing the ruptures we cause.
Second, punishment is incompatible with self-accountability. Punishment incentivizes lying; if I know I will be punished for what I've done, the only sensible thing to do is to avoid taking responsibility through denial, lies, and excuses. Therefore, the very first step in any accountability process—naming what we've done and admitting to it—is already made highly unlikely through the use of punishment. Approaches that prioritize repair over punishment are not "soft." They are sensible and pragmatic because they are more likely to reduce harm and bad behaviors in the long run. There is ample evidence that punishment (including incarceration) may indeed increase the probability of repeated bad behaviors, because punishment increases overall harm and trauma instead of reducing it. Shame, tears, guilt, fear, and exclusion are not motivating levers for improved behavior. They are more rupture than repair—and they are a poor model of how to use power in a community.

5. We practice care: Away from control, toward freedom

Care is not charity or kindness. Care is the deeply fraught, complex, abolitionist, political work of protecting one another and the planet, meeting everyone's needs in balance with the collective good, and keeping our communities safe without the use of policing.
Freedom requires care because freedom is not just a right—it is also a responsibility. Freedom means getting to be our whole selves, in community with other whole selves, without any threat to or assault on our well-being. Freedom means an experience of daily life in which each of us is fully seen and affirmed, treated with unconditional dignity and care, and embraced as an invaluable person of immeasurable worth. Freedom, then, sets an incredibly high standard for community life. It requires that every member of the collective work toward the goals of protection, safety, and unconditional care for all people and for the natural world.
In schools and classrooms, we can offer ourselves and our young people the chance to try out the skills and dispositions required by freedom. Freedom does not mean we each get to do whatever we want; that is a definition advanced by those who wish to sanction harm. Freedom instead means exercising our choices and engaging in behaviors that advance and protect the common good. Freedom requires a lifetime of practice that must start in early childhood and permeate every institution, policy, and decision—especially in the context of schooling, where we are tasked with raising a public for democratic life and a sustainable planet.
In short, if classroom management is a curriculum, let us begin this new school year wondering explicitly about what we'd like to teach. Let us design classroom life as an opportunity to responsibly practice freedom instead of doubling down on the failed strategy of control.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Take a walk around your school and look at the messaging on posters and bulletin boards. Do they emphasize rule following or care and self-accountability?

➛ What would it look like if your school practiced Shalaby's five transformative behavior standards? How might teacher-student interactions change?

Try Behavior-Specific Praise

The research is clear: Giving students "behavior-specific" praise ("Cole, I like how you are facing forward and minding your space as you stand in line.") is a more effective strategy than offering general praise ("Great job, Cole!") in reinforcing positive behaviors and preventing challenging behaviors in classrooms.

In the following excerpt from "Encouraging Appropriate Behavior," published by Vanderbilt University's IRIS Center, researcher Christina Curran describes how teachers can effectively deliver behavior-specific praise in their classrooms. The key, she writes, is to acknowledge a student or group of students' behavior in "specific, observable, and measurable terms."

—Sarah McKibben

Deliver Effective Praise Statements

  • Provide behavior-specific praise to a student by saying the student's name and describing the behavior immediately after she performs it (e.g., "Joselle, thank you for cleaning up immediately when I rang the science bell.")

    • Tip: Be nonjudgmental.

      • Example: “Marcus, you really did a great job being prepared for class today by bringing your pencils and notebook.”

      • Non-Example: “Marcus, I’m glad you brought your supplies today like everyone else."

    • Tip: Be specific and include detail. Avoid global positive statements (e.g., great job, nice work).

      • Example: “Wow, Keesha! You used several descriptive terms in your paragraph to create a vivid setting.”

      • Non-Example: “Wow, Keesha! Great writing today!”

    • Tip: Highlight the student’s efforts and accomplishments.

      • Example: “Hector, I like how you used your notes to solve the multiplication problem, placing numbers in the appropriate columns and remembering to regroup the numbers above the 9.”

      • Non-Example: “Way to go in math today.”

    • Tip: Be sincere and credible. Make sure your tone and body language match the content of your message.

      • Example: Smiling, giving a high five: “I’m so proud to see that your reading scores have improved this quarter. It’s clear you have been working hard in class. Keep up the great work.”

      • Non-Example: Sarcastic tone: “Your reading scores finally improved this quarter.”

  • Deliver praise immediately and in close proximity. Be sure to circulate the room so you are prepared to "catch students being good."

Evaluate and Adjust Praise

  • Examine the quality, quantity, and impact of your use of praise. Consider asking yourself:

    • Is the praise specific?

    • Is the praise effective? Do the students seem to like the attention?

    • Do students maintain or improve the praised behavior?

    • Do I offer each student some form of praise every day?

    • Do I maintain a positive balance of positive and negative statements?

    • Is the praise I offer varied?

  • Consider video or audio taping a specific class time or learning activity so you can measure the quality and frequency of your behavior-specific praise statements. This can be particularly useful during a class time that is more problematic or with a specific student who is having difficulty. Count and record the instances and quality of your praise statements. Analyze the results and set goals for your use of behavior-specific praise.

  • Revise the type, delivery, or frequency of praise as needed based upon individual student responses or needs.

  • Use frequent praise when new behaviors and skills are taught. As the skill is mastered, gradually reduce the delivery of praise to a more intermittent schedule.

Carla Shalaby is a researcher on teaching and teacher education at the University of Michigan, leading the elementary school-based partnership work at The School at Marygrove, Detroit Public Schools Community District. Her work focuses on the critical role that children and teachers play in the ongoing struggle for justice. She is the author of Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School (The New Press, 2017).



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