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December 17, 2021

Avoiding Common Classroom Management Missteps

Teachers should be cultivators—not managers—of their classroom environments. 

Classroom Management
School Culture
The 1st grade students were sitting in a circle around the teacher on the carpet, reading about the different kinds of bird beaks. Every student, that is, except Samuel, who was pacing in front of the door. He folded his arms and twisted his mouth into a grimace, clearly looking for the perfect opportunity to make a run for it. Spotting him, the teacher looked in his direction and said, “You have until the count of three to make a better choice.”  
“No,” Samuel responded. “You make a better choice and move my clip back up.” He was referring to the system the teacher used to “manage” classroom behavior; students would move a clip with their names up or down on a chart, based on good behavior or misbehavior. The teacher looked at me, the observing instructional coach, with exasperation written all over her face. Later, she told me, “I just don’t know what to do. They don’t listen. And I can’t seem to get anything done.”  
In my various roles over the years as a teacher leader, new teacher mentor, coach, and assistant principal, this statement—I just don’t know what to do—has been an all-too-familiar cry. When teachers feel frustrated and overwhelmed by students who seem to be “out of control,” they try multiple approaches to “manage” behavior, from charts and point systems to notes and treasure boxes and everything in between. But what if the issue lies more in our approach?  

What Is Classroom “Management”?

The term “classroom management” refers to the strategies a teacher has in place to ensure an environment in which students can effectively learn. Traditionally, this involves teaching expectations, routines, and procedures early in the school year (Lester, Allanson, & Notar, 2017). Research suggests that carefully constructed routines significantly affect social and emotional development and reduce distracting behaviors (Ostrosky, Jung, & Hemmeter, 2003). The absence of structure has been associated with negative behavioral, social, and academic outcomes (Whisman & Hammer, 2014). In addition, when teachers struggle to effectively manage classroom behaviors, they report higher levels of stress and lower levels of job satisfaction (Kwok, 2018).  
In my experience, there are two extremes of classroom management. At the one end is the teacher who appears to have no control over the classroom culture, which typically manifests as students talking while the teacher is (and therefore unable to hear instruction or directions) or students off-task during work time. This indicates that control has shifted to the students. At the other end is the overly controlled classroom, with a rigid set of rules and procedures. The power rests solely with the teacher, who is unwavering in how, when, and why they offer consequences. Both extremes are the result of a power imbalance, and the assumption is that the power needs to be in the teacher’s favor for effective classroom management.   

How Did We Get Here?

Only about half of all U.S. teacher education programs have a course on effective strategies for managing classroom behaviors (NCTQ, 2020). Though this is up from 23 percent in 2013, only 14 percent of current programs require candidates to model and practice these strategies in clinical situations (NCTQ, 2020). This means that a large number of teachers enter the profession unprepared to effectively cultivate a culture of learning.
While more districts now offer professional development on relationship-centered and trauma-informed approaches to classroom management, not all teachers attend these sessions or have the support they need to go from theory to practice. Thus, teachers may turn to more traditional strategies (clip charts, notes home, time-outs, treasure boxes, discipline cards). The problem with these practices is that they fail to take into consideration the differences in how and why students behave the way they do. 
As students readjust to in-person learning, at a time when the pandemic is still changing our country, it is important that we remain sensitive to the vast differences in students’ experiences and their varying degrees of trauma. There should be a focus on student/teacher relationships, with teachers as cultivators—not managers—of their classroom environments. I’d like to share common management missteps and suggest how teachers can move from classroom “manager” to “cultivator.”   

Reimagining Classroom Expectations

Classroom culture is, in my opinion, one of the most crucial components of educational practice—the one that must be in place before all other practices can work. A culture where students are aware of what is expected from them, both academically and behaviorally, and where they feel safe, supported, and part of a community, is necessary for high academic achievement.  

Management Misstep #1: A Focus on Rules and Procedures 

One of the biggest classroom management mistakes is focusing on rules rather than relationships. In this set-up, students are expected to “obey” certain conditions or receive a consequence if they don’t. This militant says the classroom belongs to the teacher and makes it a challenge for students to remember everything they need to avoid doing (Deci & Ryan, 2016). More recently, the trend has been for teachers to develop three to five value-focused “rules” (i.e. Be Respectful, Be Prepared). Though easier to remember, because any number of behaviors could fall under “be respectful” or “be prepared,” and because students’ understanding of these values can differ depending on background, culture, and experience, students may find themselves unintentionally in violation.  

Teacher as Cultivator: Establishing Collaborative Norms 

It is important that students have a clear understanding of what we expect of them, and why. One way to do this is to work as a class to create a series of “norms” for how everyone will “behave” when together. These are different than rules because they are collaborative rather than a list of demands made by the “authority figure.” Specifically, norms represent an agreement among all community members about how they will treat one another. I find it works best when the norm begins with “We will …”, when the class comes up with no more than 3-5 norms, and when the norm is well-defined.  
One teacher I work with begins with three charts of paper, each with a relationship written at the top: student to student, teacher to student, and student to teacher. The teacher starts the process by including his or her non-negotiables (for example, “we will respect one another”) and then opens a class brainstorming session. The class then votes on their top 5 norms and defines clearly what each norm looks like in action. To further solidify commitment, students can sign the bottom of the page. Because students have a sense of shared ownership in the creation of classroom expectations, they are more likely to invest in them. In addition, by supporting student autonomy rather than just telling students what not to do, we promote intrinsic motivation, which supports academic growth (Deci & Ryan, 2016). 

Management Misstep #2: A Focus on Praise or Rewards 

When a teacher offers praise for “good behavior,” especially relationally (“I love how John is sitting quietly waiting for directions”), there are invariably students who receive less praise than others. The problem with a focus on praise is that it assumes a student can control their behavior, or that their misbehavior is intentional.
Moreover, the absence of praise for students who have not yet learned the skills to control their behavior, who do not know what they have done wrong, or who are acting out because of unresolved trauma—rather than a desire to be defiant or disrespectful—does not change the behavior, which completely defeats the purpose of a classroom management system. Another problem comes when students begin to look to the teacher to determine whether a behavior is worthy of merit, or when students are only motivated to act a certain way because they are expecting a reward (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). 

Teacher as Cultivator: Positive Reinforcement  

Unlike praise, positive reinforcement acknowledges desired behaviors. There is a difference, for example, between saying “I love how John is sitting quietly waiting for directions” (praising John and attaching a teacher feeling) and “John is sitting with his eyes on me” (reinforcing John’s behavior and simultaneously reinforcing the expectation for those not quite there yet).
The goal here is to acknowledge everyone equally without singling out those not complying by name (for example, saying, “I’m waiting on one person” instead of “Sam, your eyes should be on me). The advantage of this approach is that student/teacher relationships are not determined by the degree of reinforcement a student receives. It also allows for an immediate change in unwanted behaviors. 
When using positive reinforcement, teachers need to first provide clear directions that include a cue to begin (when I say, “go”), what to do, and how to do it (quietly, without talking, within a certain time), and then narrate behaviors to ensure everyone knows what to do. 

Management Misstep #3: A Focus on Punishment Rather than Correction 

My state uses the RTI2-B (Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior) framework, which promotes problem-solving approaches and focuses on teaching appropriate behaviors as opposed to punishing inappropriate ones. However, despite this emphasis for behavior support over the last decade, it has been my observation, both as a traveling instructional coach and as an assistant principal, that many teachers in K-2 classrooms still rely on traditional, punishment focused approaches (time out, moving clips, pulling cards, sending notes home, taking away behavior points). Based on my conversations with them, this is usually because these approaches are familiar and because teachers are afraid to try something new. 
The problem with this approach is that it assumes all students are deterred by the same “punishment.” Over the years, I’ve noticed that different students are deterred by different things, which renders a centralized punishment system useless. Moreover, these approaches rely on shame and embarrassment as a means of control, which can damage a child’s self-esteem (McIntosh, Sugai, Simonsen, 2020). Most significant, this type of management assumes a student knows what they have done “wrong,” which may not always be the case (Romi, Lewis, & Salkovsky, 2015).  

Teacher as Cultivator: Encouraging Reflection and Change 

A restorative approach to classroom cultivation provides a framework for students to understand what they did wrong and why they did it and come up with a plan to do better next time. A reflection sheet, which can be adapted for all grade levels, is my favorite tool. I like to recommend this strategy when a student is struggling to meet the classroom norms, even after a “warning” or reminder. Teachers can give a sheet to students following a behavior incident that asks students to explain what happened, how they were feeling when it happened, why it was inappropriate, and how they can do better next time (see sheet examples for 1st grade; for 3rd to 5th grade; and for middle school and high school). Younger students can color a picture, write responses, or explain orally to the teacher. The key to this strategy’s success is meeting individually and privately with the student at their desk or the teacher’s desk to talk about what happened and hit the “reset” button, so that the student knows they are resuming regular classroom activities with a clean slate. The privacy also prevents students from feeling singled out or embarrassed.  

Management Misstep #4: Assuming All Students Are the Same

Student background, culture, and previous school experience all play a role in determining how and why students behave (or misbehave) the way they do. By ignoring these important dimensions of student identity, teachers find themselves “attempting to manage fragmented, disconnected, and incomplete students” (Milner & Tenore, 2010, p. 567). A universal application of rules and consequences “alienate[s] and marginalize[s] some students, while privileging others” (Weinstein, Curran, & Tomlinson-Clarke, 2003, p. 270).  

Teacher as Cultivator: A Focus on Relationships 

In a classroom where strong teacher/student relationships exist, there is usually little need for rewards and consequences. Students follow expectations because they feel a sense of collective responsibility and know that their teacher cares about them. When off-task behavior does happen, students are either able to self-correct or the teacher understands why the behavior happened and is quickly able to deal with it.  
I often recommend the following strategies to strengthen student/teacher relationships:  
  • "2 x 10": Spend two minutes a day for 10 consecutive days getting to know each student on a rotating basis)  
  • Morning Meetings and Closing Circles: Take the first and final 20 minutes of each day to establish community, get to know one another, and address key issues and conflicts occurring in the school, community, or world  
  • Intentional Time: Eat lunch with students or play a game together at recess
Being deliberate about building relationships with students helps them know that we love and care about them, regardless of what happens in the classroom. 

The Steps in Practice

When a student fails a test or doesn’t understand something we have taught, we differentiate, reteach, and try to figure out why. If the goal of classroom management is to ensure an environment where students can learn, we need to be cultivators. After all, providing students with the strategies to interact with the world they live in remains the reason for why we do what we do. 

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2016). Optimizing students’ motivation in the era of testing and pressure: A self-determination theory perspective. In Building Autonomous Learners (pp. 9– 29). Springer  

Kwok, A. (2018). Classroom Management Actions of Beginning Urban Teachers. Urban Education 54(3), 339-367. 

Lester, R. Allanson, P., & Notar, C. (2017). Routines are the foundation of classroom management. Education 137(4), 398-412 

McIntosh, K., Sugai, G., & Simonsen, B. (February, 2020). “Ditch the Clip! Why Clip Charts Are Not a PBIS Practice and What to Do Instead.” Center on PBIS, University of Oregon. 

Milner, H. R., & Tenore, F. B. (2010). Classroom management in diverse classrooms. Urban Education, 45(5), 560–603.  

NQTE (2020). “Classroom Management.” Research Brief.  

Ostrosky, M. M., Jung, E. Y., Hemmeter, M. L. (2003). “Helping children make transitions between activities.” What Works, Brief 4, Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. 

Romi, S., Lewis, R., & Salkovsky, M. (2015). “Exclusion as a way of promoting student responsibility: Does the kind of misbehavior matter?” The Journal of Educational Research, 108(4), 306–317.  

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. S. (2000). “Expectancy–value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68–81.  

Weinstein, C., Curran, M., & Tomlinson-Clarke, S. (2003). Culturally responsive classroom management: Awareness into action. Theory Into Practice, 42(4), 269-276. 

Whisman, A. & Hammer, P. C. (2014). “The association between school discipline and mathematics performance: A case for positive discipline approaches.” Charleston, WV: West Virginia Department of Education, Division of Teaching and Learning, Office of Research.

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