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September 1996 | Volume 38 | Number 6
Managing Today's Classroom
What makes the difference between a classroom that runs smoothly and one that is out of control? As the new school year begins, this question will be on the minds of many teachers—new teachers, especially.
Each September, teachers face the perennial challenge of maintaining an orderly classroom. They must make sure students are "on task" and learning. They must find ways to keep behavior problems to a minimum. And they must decide how to deal with those discipline problems that inevitably arise. Of course, there is no simple recipe.
To help teachers and principals get off to a good start this year, Education Update interviewed a number of experts on classroom management. Here's a summary of their advice.
Classroom management poses bigger challenges today than in the past, most experts agree. "There's no question that it's tougher today for teachers," says Pete DeSisto, director of the Cooperative Discipline Foundation in Easley, S.C. In the past, most students "agreed to be controlled" by the teacher, he says. Today, students are more likely to challenge a teacher's authority. Students' role models from sports and movies promote confrontation, not obedience, he notes.
Traditional approaches to classroom management based on rewards and punishments are proving less effective today, experts find. For some students, the home environment is far more hostile than the classroom, says Phillip Riner of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, so relying on punishments to control these students is like "trying to put out a fire with a squirt gun." Moreover, if teachers rely on punishments, students weigh the cost of misbehavior. For a particular student, it might be "worth it" to beat up Mary, despite the punishment that follows. Students in such an environment "never develop an ownership of the social responsibility involved," Riner says.
This last point is central to the beliefs of many experts: Authoritarian approaches may get students to comply, but they don't help students develop self-discipline and responsibility. When teachers rely on punishment and praise, they "leave kids at the lowest level of development," says Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It!: Giving Your Child the Gift of Inner Discipline. Students' behavior is guided by the question: "What's in it for me?"
Given these considerations, many teachers are seeking new approaches to classroom management that not only work better but also teach better lessons. These teachers hope to instill an intrinsic motivation to do the right thing, so students will behave in a socially responsible way because they want to—not out of fear.
Establishing rules is one area where teachers can help students build a commitment to being good classroom citizens. When students help determine classroom rules, they take ownership of them, many experts contend.
By contrast, "telling students your rules—using the first week to show who's in charge—is a way of getting kids to see themselves as either automatons or rebels," says Alfie Kohn, author of Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community.
If a teacher imposes rules unilaterally, the rules "don't belong to those kids, and the kids won't feel a necessity for them," says Rheta DeVries of the University of Northern Iowa. Instead, teachers should "involve children in setting the limits, in creating the rules by which they're going to live," she recommends.
To do this, the teacher can gather students together to discuss "what kind of class do we want this to be?" Or, the teacher can wait until a problem arises, so that rule making "stems from efforts to solve real problems." For example, if too many students are crowded into an activity center, the teacher could ask, "Do we need guidelines for using centers?" The class should discuss the need for such a rule: How will it help us? "It's important for children themselves to propose rules," DeVries says.
Unlike a coercive approach, where the teacher "regulates" children by telling them what to do, this cooperative approach encourages children to be self-regulating and helps them develop "autonomous morality," DeVries says. Children also learn "perspective taking" from hearing others' points of view, and learn to think about their relation to the group as a whole.
Teachers should involve students in determining rules and the consequences for breaking them, agrees Richard Curwin, coauthor of Discipline with Dignity. Teachers should ask, "What do we want the class to stand for?" he suggests. From students' responses—"no hurt feelings," for example—the class can derive rules, such as "no insults and put-downs." Students are "more likely to follow their own rules," Curwin says.
Teachers have many options for involving students in rule making, says H. Jerome Freiberg of the University of Houston. A teacher could post five or six rules, then ask students to develop them more fully and sign the poster. Or, a teacher could hold up a blank sheet of paper and say, "These are the rules of the classroom—our rules," then work with students to develop them. (Students' rules will be "almost identical" to adults' own list, he predicts.) Another alternative is for students to create a classroom Constitution or Magna Charta (see Freiberg's article in this month's Educational Leadership).
Coloroso holds a slightly different view. She believes teachers should uphold four classroom rules in the early grades: be on time; be prepared; do your assignments; and respect your own and others' life space. On the other hand, students can help with setting guidelines—addressing issues such as where to sit, when to raise hands, and whether hats may be worn—because "the teacher doesn't have a lot of investment in these," Coloroso says.
Teachers can also build students' commitment to social responsibility by rejecting punishments in favor of "logical consequences" for misbehavior, experts say. The latter are closely related to the infraction and often include an element of making restitution. Unlike punishments, which are intended to make children suffer, logical consequences give children who are at fault a sense of how to improve, and help them regain their dignity and self-respect, experts maintain.
For example, a logical consequence for a child who accidentally breaks an object at a museum while on a field trip might be to replace the object, apologize to the museum, and write a letter to his teacher explaining how he will handle his hands and feet on future field trips, Coloroso suggests.
Although a consequence may feel unpleasant, it teaches the child to make better choices, says Allen Mendler, coauthor of Discipline with Dignity. A punishment, such as putting a child in "time out" for five minutes, is "just a sentence," he says. The teacher should ask the child in "time out" to come up with a plan for doing better in the future.
The same principle applies to older children. "I don't believe in detention," says Anne Wescott Dodd of Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Instead, students should be required to spend time doing homework or discussing their disruptive behavior, she recommends. Students should use this time for problem solving—to consider what they could have done differently and how they can avoid the problem next time.
Some experts, like Alfie Kohn, believe consequences are merely disguised versions of punishments, and have the same negative effects on children. "To contrive some sort of conceptual link between the punishment and the crime may be satisfying to the adult, but in most cases it probably makes very little difference to the child," Kohn writes in Beyond Discipline. "The child's (understandable) anger and desire to retaliate come from the fact that someone is deliberately making her suffer."
Many other experts, however, see a genuine distinction between punishments and consequences. According to Nancy Martin of the University of Texas at San Antonio, punishments make children feel worse, foster resentment and anger, and don't teach children what to do. Consequences, by contrast, don't attack the child; they help the child feel "I'm not a bad person"; and they have a teaching component. Consequences help produce a "win-win situation," Martin says.
Whether consequences are a form of punishment is not the only area of disagreement among experts, however. Some experts challenge the premise that punishment is always counterproductive.
Punishments do have a place in the classroom, believes Edmund Emmer of the University of Texas at Austin. Despite teachers' efforts to prevent problems, students will still engage in some inappropriate behaviors—infringing on others' rights, for example—that call for punishment "to stop the situation from becoming intolerable." (He recommends taking away a privilege, rather than inflicting something unpleasant on the student.)
But Emmer also cautions educators against a tendency to overuse punishment, rather than considering ways to restructure the classroom. If teachers rely on punishment, they "lose the positive aspect of classroom management," he says.
Perhaps the biggest classroom-management challenge teachers face is deciding how to respond when a student breaks the rules.
The most important thing, says Robert Weiner, assistant superintendent for curriculum for the Manalapan-Englishtown (N.J.) Regional Schools, is for teachers to be consistent, so they will have credibility. If consequences for misbehavior have been spelled out, "always follow through," he says. "That works miracles."
DeSisto agrees that consequences should be applied consistently. But teachers should let children choose, by saying (for example): "Bill, you can work on the assignment or go to time out.' You decide." If the student is "into power," he is less likely to get angry and "escalate" the situation, because he has been given a choice.
Teachers sometimes fall into traps because they think they must wrest control from disruptive students, DeSisto says. In these situations, teachers should "disengage." They need to find a graceful exit from the conflict and deal with it later, on their own terms. Often, if teachers impose consequences when feelings are at fever pitch, the conflict just escalates, he says. "Teachers need to model that we don't solve problems when we're angry."
For minor off-task behavior, teachers can use prompting—such as eye contact, a friendly touch, or walking closer—to give the student a chance to says "oops" and change her behavior, Riner says. If the student does "self-correct," the teacher should thank her.
If a student is "red in the face, with smoke coming out of his ears," however, the situation has reached the "challenge state," Emmer says—a high-stakes, public confrontation. "Teachers dread that," he notes. "Their credibility is on the line." Teachers need to defuse such situations and avoid a power struggle, he says. The teacher should suggest that the student cool off (or, she might have to remove the student from the classroom for a while). Later, the teacher should speak with the student privately and "be clear about what's acceptable."
When interventions are necessary, Mendler says, teachers should discipline in private, in a nonthreatening way. They should get close to the student, make eye contact, and whisper. Let the student know the behavior is unacceptable, he says, but also suggest a way to improve. The teacher might say, for example, "I'd like to get you to stop without embarrassing you in front of the class. What are some gestures I could use to help you remind yourself?"
Often, a student can tell the teacher how he should behave, but he doesn't know how to do it, Curwin notes. Teachers settle for "naming" of the appropriate behavior, then get disgusted when the student misbehaves again. Teachers may need to teach disruptive students skills they lack, he says. Students may need to practice "expressing anger without hitting," for example.
One common response to misbehavior, the so-called accounting approach where teachers put check marks by students' names or drop marbles into a jar to tally their infractions, is criticized by some experts. Mendler faults this approach because it doesn't teach responsibility. Moreover, if the system is too predictable, a student might think: Consequences 1 through 4—who cares? "You can undermine your own system if you're that exacting and specific," he warns.
Other experts also warn against rigidity and even question the "be consistent" advice. Sometimes teachers get "locked into logical consequences," Coloroso says. A teacher needs to use his "head, heart, and intuition" in determining how to handle student infractions, she believes.
"Teachers have rules, but there are 101 reasons for being late to class," Dodd says. "Was the student threatened by a bully and hiding in the bathroom?" Teachers need to find out why a student broke the rules, then decide their response.
"Never assume; talk to kids," Dodd says. Ask, "Why was your paper late?" "Why didn't you take a makeup test?" Have students write explanations, she suggests. In explaining why they didn't do a reading assignment, students will often say, "I'll read it by (date)," without prompting from the teacher. "When kids don't live up to your expectations, don't treat it as a crime but as a problem to be solved," Dodd says. "The search for solutions begins with getting more information, often from students."
Teachers should not overreact, Dodd adds. If a student uses profanity, for example, the teacher should ask her, "If you had a job and said that in front of a customer, what would happen?" Most likely, the student will say she'd be fired. Then the teacher could say, "Well, this classroom is like a workplace—we have standards for language." By taking this low-key approach, "you haven't made a big deal out of it, but you've made your point," Dodd says.
It's a truism among educators that a small minority of students cause the vast majority of classroom disruptions. What can teachers do about students who are repeat offenders?
Teachers may have to devise ways to "insulate" classroom activities from some students' destructive behaviors, Emmer says—by individualizing, for example. Beyond that, he emphasizes that with a child who's very disruptive, "don't try to solve the problem on your own!" Refer the child to a counselor or school psychologist. And address the problem as quickly as you can: "Don't wait till you're at your wits' end and trapped in a cycle of hostility," he cautions.
When dealing with a student who's a challenge, "prepare yourself," says DeSisto. Develop a strategy, so you're working from a plan. To address the problems posed by "tough customers," educators need to work as a group, he says. "Everyone needs to be on the same page, so the child gets a consistent message" from adults.
Realize that repeat offenders "will press your buttons," says Mendler. "You'll carry anger and resentment toward them because they make teaching difficult." Teachers should try preventive strategies, he suggests, such as welcoming the student each day or elevating the student's status by making comments such as "Sam's really good at that."
Like all people, disruptive students want dignity and respect, Mendler says. If a teacher undermines that, she will turn students off, and they'll "come back after" her, he warns. "This happens with some regularity with kids who are difficult."
Mendler proposes four goals for avoiding power struggles. Teachers should ask themselves: Can I find a response that (1) preserves the student's dignity?; (2) doesn't make me look like a milquetoast?; (3) keeps the student in class?; and (4) models a good way of resolving conflict? Teachers talk about conflict resolution skills—and moments when they themselves are "being aggressed against" provide opportunities to "walk the talk."
Experts agree that classroom management is much easier when students find the curriculum engaging and relevant.
"If you're giving kids interesting work, that takes care of a lot of discipline problems in and of itself," Weiner says. Enjoyable and relevant work is "a great management technique." The more students can control their own activities, the more ownership they feel, the fewer discipline problems will arise, he adds.
"What you teach has to be exciting; that's a fundamental concept," says Sandy McNiven, who teaches 4th grade at Fort River Elementary School in Amherst, Mass. If lessons are hands-on—if students have opportunities to do, make, create, share, talk—then discipline problems will be fewer, he says.
Mendler adds a caveat, however. "Kids need to develop frustration tolerance," he maintains, and not every moment of the school day can be "fun and stimulating." Acquiring the language of a subject, for example, is not exciting. "Teachers run the risk of going overboard," he believes, if they continually adjust the system, rather than expecting youngsters to learn impulse control and delayed gratification. The need to adapt should be "shared" by teacher and students, he says.
Too often, teachers take a "Lone Ranger" approach to classroom management, experts say. "Discipline is sort of a taboo subject," DeSisto says. "Teachers don't collaborate on it." Instead, teachers should be helping each other—by observing or videotaping one another's classrooms, for example. "We all could benefit from other people's feedback," he points out.
Historically, teachers did not receive formal training in classroom management, Martin says. Teachers learned on the job. As a result, they have tended to perpetuate the same practices, which are not necessarily the best ones.
Educators who want to find better alternatives to control and compliance need to consider the social curriculum, says Bruce Smith of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. What effect do educators have on children's behavior and values, he wonders, when they teach children to be competitive, exclude children who are different, imply that authority shouldn't be questioned, and tell children to behave responsibly so as to avoid punishment? "We need to think deeply about this," he urges.
"We get lost in the idea of the perfect classroom with no misbehavior," Smith says. "I don't think that should be the goal." More important than perfect orderliness, he believes, are values such as compassion, charity, and empathy. Adults tend to return kindness, he notes. "Kids do that, too."
"Being kind and compassionate won't get rid of behavior problems," Smith acknowledges, "but that's the way we should approach life."
Teachers can use conflict resolution techniques as an alternative to punishment, says Barbara Porro, author of Talk It Out: Conflict Resolution in the Elementary Classroom, who taught for 14 years before becoming an education consultant. "When you have a problem with a student's behavior, you don't need to be punitive," she says. "You need to find a solution."
Porro recommends following a six-step process for resolving teacher-student conflicts. (Students can use the same process to resolve conflicts with their peers.) The process needs to be "simple enough that we remember it when we feel like strangling the kid," Porro says.
The first thing teachers need to do when a conflict with a student arises is to "cool off" before responding in a knee-jerk way, Porro advises. When calm enough, the teacher should sit down with the student (privately) and explain why the student's behavior is unacceptable, using an "I statement" such as, "I find it difficult to teach when you get out of your seat and walk around the room." The teacher should use nonjudgmental language so as not to put the student on the defensive.
Then the teacher should ask the student, "What's going on for you?" and really listen to what the student says. ("We hardly ever do this when disciplining," Porro notes.) The student might respond with a litany of reasons why he needs to leave his seat: to sharpen his pencil, to go to the bathroom, to get a drink, to get art supplies, to ask someone a question, and so on.
At this point in the process, the teacher should restate the problem in terms of what both parties need: "What can we do so that you get the things you need without walking around and disturbing the rest of us?" Casting the problem in nonblaming terms sends the message: "We're on the same side—it's not me against you; it's us against the problem."
Next, the teacher and student should brainstorm as many possible solutions as they can. Then, after discussing the alternatives, they should choose the idea(s) they both like best. In this case, they might decide that the student can make one emergency visit to his cubby and to the bathroom, drink included, each day.
Last, the teacher and student should make a concrete plan to help ensure that the chosen idea will work. For example, the student could make a reminder sign and tape it to his desk. The teacher should also establish a backup plan or consequence that lets the child know what will happen if the plan fails and the problem recurs. The teacher might say, "If you forget our plan and get out of your seat tomorrow, I want you to take your work next door."
Although she advises against using punishment, Porro does endorse using logical consequences "when children are not able or willing to take responsibility for solving their problems." Students must know the limits of acceptable behavior, she says, and they must realize that, if necessary, the teacher is prepared to take control. Otherwise, the system has no "teeth." Unless the teacher can maintain a safe and respectful environment, Porro emphasizes, the classroom can easily become a "torture chamber" for everyone.
By their actions, principals can help or hinder good classroom management.
Principals need to give new teachers support by assigning them mentor teachers and providing them training in classroom management before the year begins, advises Edmund Emmer of the University of Texas at Austin. Principals also need to supervise struggling teachers, he says, and work with the staff as a whole to develop "a schoolwide sense of community" and "an atmosphere of respect."
Classroom management "has to be discussed openly and up front" with staff members and parents, says Durinda Yates, principal of White Oak Middle School in Silver Spring, Md. "Don't assume others share your expectations." Principals need to convey that the teacher's role in "behavior management and discipline" is as important as her role in academics, she says.
Principals also need to help set "schoolwide parameters" so children are not sent mixed messages, Yates says. Teachers can undermine each other and confuse children if "it's okay to run by Ms. Ward but not Ms. Katz," for example. Such inconsistency "makes a bad guy out of the teacher who's addressing the issue, when the other teacher is really at fault," Yates says.
Principals also need to collaborate with parents of problem students, Yates says. She says to parents, "Let's work as partners"—let's help each other by upholding common expectations. Parents "really buy into that," she has found, because they hear support for their child; the school is not trying to make their child "the bad guy." This collaborative approach "takes a lot of time initially, but it's like an investment. What happens is, the problems diminish," Yates reports.
Principals can spearhead development of a schoolwide code of conduct, suggests Pete DeSisto of the Cooperative Discipline Foundation. The code should state five or six rules in positive terms, he recommends. The rules should address big issues, such as safety, the classroom environment, respect, and responsibility. For example, a rule might be, "I will treat people and property with respect." (Being overly specific gives kids "wiggle room" to evade responsibility, DeSisto cautions.) Educators should teach students what the code means, and make it part of the school's daily life by having students recite it and by putting it on the school stationery, for example. A code of conduct represents "the school standing for something," he says. "It pulls the school together."
These books, all published by ASCD, can offer further guidance on classroom- management issues:
Copyright © 1996 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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