It's 4:05 p.m., and the gym at a Colorado K–6 elementary school is still full of students. At first glance, it looks like any other after-school program. A group of students is playing basketball on the far side of the room, others are getting a jump-start on homework, and a few more are working at the craft table.
But a closer look reveals that some students are on a mission. Whistles around their necks, a handful of 6th graders are circulating in the room, verifying that the other students are acting in accordance with the school's policy to be "safe, respectful, and responsible." Violations are met with a whistle and a peer-to-peer discussion.
This novel approach to managing student behavior is part of the school's culture of accountability, in which everyone, from the principal on down, is expected to model and encourage appropriate behavior. It also reflects a growing body of research that suggests that the best approaches to behavior management don't simply zero in on problems after they occur but proactively enlist everyone in the school to establish and reinforce clear expectations for student behavior.
The Administrator's Role: Creating an Oasis of Safety
A few years ago, our colleagues at McREL surveyed several hundred teachers, approximately half from beat-the-odds schools (high-performing schools with high percentages of students in poverty) and the other half from a comparison group of low-performing schools. The most striking differences between these two groups weren't necessarily pedagogical; teachers in the beat-the-odds schools were no more likely than their counterparts in lower-performing institutions to report being engaged in professional development, differentiating instruction, or using assessment data to guide instruction (McREL, 2005). Rather, the "secret sauce" of the beat-the-odds schools appeared to be their ability to create and reinforce cultures of high expectations for student learning and behavior (Goodwin, 2009).
Research has found that developing a consistent, schoolwide approach to behavior expectations does more than just reduce behavior problems; it can also lead to higher student achievement. A recent study of charter schools, for example, found positive correlations between behavior policy components and achievement in math, ranging from 0.12 for parent- or student-signed responsibility agreements to .21 for zero-tolerance policies for potentially dangerous behaviors. Schoolwide behavioral standards and disciplinary policies had a statistically significant 0.15 effect size on student achievement (Furgeson et al., 2011).
The key to any schoolwide approach, however, is ensuring its consistent application across all classroom settings. And that's where teachers come in.
The Teacher's Role: Establishing a Positive Classroom Culture
Research suggests that teachers' positive relationships with students (as demonstrated through such characteristics as empathy and warmth) lead to higher engagement, fewer resistant behaviors, and improved achievement (Cornelius-White, 2007). Marzano (2000) found that teacher mind-set had a significant influence on ensuring order in the classroom: Teacher withitness (the ability to be aware of everything going on in the classroom and to quickly head off problem behavior) had an effect size of 1.42, leading to a 42 percent decrease in classroom disruptions.
In addition, researchers have found that teacher assumptions about student development and behavior play a key role in determining the overall tenor of the classroom. For example, if teachers believe that students need to be controlled rather than guided, they're more likely to implement discipline strategies that rely primarily on punishment or coercion (Allen, 2010). Such strategies can create a frustrating cycle of misbehavior–punishment–misbehavior. Instead, research suggests a balanced approach. In a meta-analysis of studies of disciplinary techniques, Stage and Quiroz (1997) found that reinforcement alone more effectively decreases disruptions than punishment alone, but that a combination of punishment and reinforcement decreased disruptions the most. In short, teachers need to not only provide appropriate consequences when students do things wrong, but also catch students doing things right.
The Student's Role: Providing Peer Support
Researchers have confirmed what parents and teachers have long known: As children grow older, they often become more concerned about impressing their peers than pleasing authority figures. Indeed, in about 4th grade, students become more likely to seek guidance from peers than parents or teachers, which may contribute to the often-observed "4th grade slump" (Goodwin, 2011).
A seminal study of a behavior management program found that children as young as kindergartners are capable of positively influencing their peers (Smith & Fowler, 1984). It examined the use of a peer-administered token system in which teachers and students separately monitored and corrected problem behavior for a specific group of students. When students with behavior problems participated appropriately in classroom activities, such as clean-up time, they earned tokens that they could trade in for outdoor activities like Frisbee and softball. Before the token system, the identified students violated classroom policies during 36 to 62 percent of the observed periods. When teachers implemented the system, student misbehavior declined markedly, to only 12 to 23 percent of the observed periods. And when other students implemented the token system, disruption rates plummeted still further, with disruptive behavior occurring in just 1 to 11 percent of the observed periods.
A number of other studies have focused on cross-age peer mentoring, in which an older student (typically a high schooler) mentors an elementary or middle school student. Such approaches appear to tap into younger students' tendency to hero-worship those just a few years older; the older students' relative proximity in age to their mentees lends them more credibility than adults (Frieman & Frieman, 2000).
Cross-age mentoring benefits both mentees and mentors. For mentees, benefits include more connectedness to their peers and school, feelings of competence, academic achievement, and prosocial behavior; mentors report improved connectedness to school, self-esteem, empathy, conflict-resolution skills, and student-parent relationships (Garringer & MacRae, 2008).
Everyone Plays a Part
Research suggests that students who challenge us require a mix of supports. School leaders need to establish a consistent, orderly schoolwide climate. Teachers need to employ positive behavior management techniques in their own classrooms. Finally, one of the most striking—and perhaps most often overlooked—findings is that student behavior can be improved by creating a positive peer culture, as the kids in our Colorado after-school program demonstrate.
Allen, K. P. (2010). Classroom management, bullying, and teacher practices. The Professional Educator, 34(1), 1–15.
Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-centered teacher-student relationships are effective: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113–143.
Frieman, M., & Frieman, B. (2000, April). Reducing harassment in elementary classrooms using high school mentors. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Association for Childhood Education International, Baltimore, MD. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED439797)
Furgeson, J., Gill, B., Haimson, J., Killewald, A., McCullough, M., Nichols-Barrer, I., et al. (2011). Charter-school management organizations: Diverse strategies and diverse student impacts. Princeton, NJ: Mathematics Policy Research and Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Garringer, M., & MacRae, P. (2008). Building effective peer mentoring programs in schools: An introductory guide. Folsom, CA: Mentoring Resource Center.
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Goodwin, B. (2011). Don't wait until 4th grade to address the slump. Educational Leadership, 68(7), 88–89.
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Smith, L. K. C., & Fowler, S. A. (1984). Positive peer pressure: The effects of peer monitoring on children's disruptive behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 2(17), 213–227.
Stage, S. A., & Quiroz, D. R. (1997). A meta-analysis of interventions to decrease disruptive classroom behavior in public education settings. School Psychology Review, 26(3), 333–368.