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December 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 4

Creating the Safe and Calm Classroom

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Teachers working with our most vulnerable students need specific guidance and practices on classroom management, not vague suggestions.

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Classroom ManagementInstructional StrategiesEquity
Creating the Safe and Calm Classroom - Header
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As educators, we ask our students, every day, to take a step into the unknown. By asking them to learn, we are asking them to be uncomfortable.
To do this uncomfortable thing called learning, students must feel safe. To do this uncomfortable thing called learning, students must be calm. The need for safety and calm is even greater among students who have experienced significant trauma, and students who live in generational poverty tend to have a higher level of trauma than other students (Collins et al., 2010).
Of course, effective behavioral management strategies that focus on safety and calm are not just a way of working with students who live in poverty—they should be used with all students. However, students who have experienced high levels of trauma (who are often coming from generational poverty) need these procedures and strategies most desperately.

To feel safe and calm, students need to feel that they belong and know that a teacher will always be there to support them.

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To feel safe and calm, students need to feel that they belong and know that a teacher will always be there to support them. Teachers must provide a clear pathway to the expected, normative behaviors of their classrooms, and students need to see that those behaviors are functional for themselves and others. Students need to be gently guided toward positive behaviors when they start to experiment with behaviors that will stop themselves and others from remaining safe and calm. Finally, when students cannot be gently guided toward positive behaviors, they must be taught the behaviors necessary to keep themselves and others safe and calm without losing instructional time.
Who will teach these behaviors? A teacher who is—you guessed it—safe and calm.

The Tragic Ambiguity of Traditional Discipline

Traditional discipline—the means of creating positive environments and eliciting positive behaviors from students that's put forward by current teacher-preparation programs—merely suggests five important areas of focus for teachers. The National Council on Teacher Quality's 2013 report on teacher-preparation programs, "Teacher Prep Review," calls them the Big Five: (1) The teaching of class rules, (2) The building of structures and routines, (3) The use of praise to reinforce positive behaviors, (4) The use of consistent consequences, and (5) The use of engaging lesson plans and activities (Greenberg, McKee, & Walsh, 2013).
However, there are no explicit or systematic means of teaching pre-service teachers—or any other educators—how to use any of these Big Five suggestions (Greenberg et al., 2013). Many teacher training programs suggest that pre-service teachers find their own "classroom management philosophy" instead of teaching any specific procedures or strategies that would actually help to manage a classroom. Schools, educators, students, and their families across the country are the victims of this colossal failure to properly train our educators. School administrators, already too busy, often struggle to fill the gap in teachers' training.
For students who have experienced little or no trauma, these general suggestions, though incomplete and not very effective, can still be just effective enough in guiding teachers to create positive classroom environments. In general, healthy students who come from relatively safe and calm homes can be relatively successful in their learning, even if their teachers have had no explicit and systematic training on implementing the fundamentals of classroom management. Even in a classroom that is not as calm and safe as it could be, these students can often "keep their heads down" and persevere in less than optimal, or less than acceptable, circumstances.

For teachers serving students living in generational poverty, the traditional way of using discipline is completely ineffective.

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For teachers serving students living in generational poverty, however, the traditional way of using discipline, without specific procedures and strategies, is completely ineffective. In fact, it has plunged schools that serve students with high levels of trauma into chaos. In the absence of effective strategies and procedures, educators of students who have a greater need for safety and calm often resort to yelling, intimidation, threats, coercion, or bribes. These tactics make the students with the highest need to feel safe and calm feel the least safe and calm.
Tragically, this disconnect can lead educators to feel hopeless about their ability to help some students, often those living in poverty or having some level of trauma. Educators can feel a terrible sense of frustration about being able to teach and serve our most vulnerable students because they have never been taught usable and effective procedures and strategies for doing so. They may feel that they are bad, insensitive, or mean if they are unsuccessful in making their students feel safe and calm. Yet students struggle in this way not because of some kind of moral failing of teachers, but because the tools of traditional discipline are profoundly incomplete.
Compounding these problems is a host of societal factors that has concentrated people living in generational poverty into certain schools or certain school districts—lack of opportunity, low-income housing developments, redlining, and our history of racial oppression, just to name a few. In schools and classrooms serving high-poverty communities, the students tend to have a much higher than average level of trauma. When traditional discipline is used in these underserved districts and schools, it will often create the chaotic behavior that some attribute, even in the context of historical inequalities, to some kind of "lack of character" or other classist and/or racist sentiments about these students and their families.

A Better Way for the "Big Five"

If the ambiguity of traditional discipline is problematic for all students, and catastrophic for students living in generational poverty, the explicit specificity of behavioral leadership strategies and procedures is the answer teachers have been seeking for decades. Behavioral leadership strategies, which allow students to suggest classroom policies and lead classroom initiatives, are not only created for teachers, they were created by teachers. Over the course of 20 years, these strategies and procedures were observed, used, improved upon, practiced, improved, practiced more, and refined until they were effective enough to be included in my book The Classroom Behavior Manual: How to Build Relationships, Share Control, and Teach Positive Behaviors (ASCD, 2022).
The cure for the ambiguity of the Big Five suggestions is the specificity and explicit instruction of behavioral leadership:

A Student-Centered and Effective Way to Create Rules

Instead of just stating that teachers should create class rules, behavioral leadership teaches teachers how students can come up with their own rule or rules, turn it (them) into a Class Constitution, and say that constitution as a class pledge, complete with a student-created physical pledge "salute." What's more, the team-building recitation of this student-created, student-prompted, and student-led pledge builds ownership of the classroom for all students.

Explicitly Taught Routines for Building Relationships and Sharing Control

Instead of simply stating that routines are important and suggesting that teachers have routines and procedures in the classroom, behavioral leadership explicitly teaches educators how every single moment of the school day can take place in accordance with specific procedures designed to make sure students are the ones managing their classrooms and that teachers are building relationships and giving students ownership of their rooms. Without this instruction, teachers tend to only have anemic routines for mundane procedures like taking attendance and handing out papers.
With behavioral leadership, teachers no longer manage their own classroom: the students do. Teachers are taught how the students themselves will prompt their own classmates for quiet, or to clean up, or to line up, or to transition to the next activity. Students are charged with guiding their classmates through the hallway and holding their peers accountable for improper transitions. To build relationships and share ownership of the classroom, teachers learn an array of procedures. They learn to expertly place students on teams that the students themselves will name and be responsible for managing, allowing students to create class rules, a handshake, and a class pledge.
Perhaps most important, all student independent work is done through a procedure called Real-World Workshop. This creates a situation where the procedure itself trains students to work hard because, just like in the real world, when students are done with the work that's required, they get to do activities that may be more enjoyable. The use of Real-World Workshop means teachers no longer have to convince or bribe students to do work.
Furthermore, the procedures are not just for classrooms. Behavioral leadership schools have procedures for building relationships, sharing control, and holding students accountable throughout the school day. Every student will get three ESPN greetings (Eye contact, Smile, appropriate Physical contact, and the hearing of their Name) before they enter their classroom, from staff members who have been thoughtfully positioned in common areas to build relationships and monitor students.
These behavioral leadership procedures in both classrooms and common areas make it possible for teachers to build relationships with students and teach academic lessons instead of managing the school.

Strategic Noticing to Reinforce Positive Behaviors

One of the Big Five suggestions is to use praise, which is on the right track but is not best practice, especially when working with students who have experienced significant trauma. These students tend to have greater self-esteem and trust issues than the average student. So, when a teacher says, "This work is so great!" a student suffering from trauma issues will tend to think, "No it isn't. The things I do are terrible. What do you want from me?" and the positive behavior will not be reinforced. The behavior may even get worse because these students are often uncomfortable with praise or don't like to be judged (Kohn, 2001).
What is best practice for reinforcing positive behavior is the behavioral leadership strategy of strategic noticing. Strategic noticing builds relationships because it only involves simultaneously giving attention and saying something that is demonstrably true. It's simple:
"I noticed you working hard."
"I noticed that you are indenting."
"I noticed that you are working cooperatively."
Students may find these phrases to be odd, but they will still reinforce positive behaviors!

Consequences

Without instruction on exactly how to create and apply consequences, teachers may tend to use punitive measures, which teaches nothing but blind obedience, or they may avoid using consequences altogether, which teaches students that there will be no consequences for bad behavior. The mere suggestion that teachers should have consequences for negative behaviors is perhaps worse than worthless advice without specific instruction. So how do educators create a consequence that teaches positive behaviors instead of a punishment that simply applies pain? And how do educators do this "teaching consequence" during a noninstructional time?
These kinds of consequences are called learning opportunities in behavioral leadership practice. Classroom learning opportunities can be done when students are struggling with a behavior in their classrooms and also in common areas (lunchrooms, hallways, etc.)
As a rule, behavioral leadership puts a premium on prevention. Only a slim minority of time and effort should be used to administer learning opportunities. A vast majority of teachers' energy should be spent using procedures and strategies for building relationships and sharing control (such as strategic noticing and procedures for student-led transitions). By focusing on prevention, these methods save the educator from having to do many learning opportunities in the first place.
Even so, in the behavioral leadership system, 42 gentle guidance interventions (GGIs) are recommended for use in getting students back on track when they experiment with small negative behaviors. Teachers trained to use GGIs can avoid behavioral explosions by using, for example, the Confused Eye: Making eye contact with a student and looking perplexed, implying "You are wonderful, but this behavior is less than wonderful." When the teacher then averts her gaze and walks away, it says to the student "… and I know you're going to stop doing that now."
Expert behavioral leadership educators can also use questions from a set of GGIs called The Question Matrix, such as "What should you do now?" or "What's next?" These questions assume intelligence, and walking away after asking them assumes cooperation. The same effect can happen when a teacher or principal walks by a group of students who are not on task, points to his temple, and says with a smile, "Think."
These GGIs are in stark contrast to the demands—such as, "Sit down," "Stop it," or "Get to work right now!"—that tend to be used in traditional classroom management. Such demands create power struggles that often lead to the use of consequences that take time and energy. This time and energy wouldn't need to be spent if GGIs and other preventive strategies and procedures were used consistently.

More Time to Plan Engaging Lessons

Teachers can have the best lesson plans in the world, but they are pretty much useless if their students are out of control in the classroom. This is why positive behavior management is so important; when classrooms are being expertly managed by students instead of teachers, those teachers have the time, energy, and mental bandwidth to create and deliver expertly crafted, engaging lessons. It is tremendously difficult for teachers to navigate the ambiguity of traditional discipline and deal with the disorder that it leads to while simultaneously creating engaging lessons.

Safer and Calmer Classrooms

If educators have the procedures and strategies necessary to build relationships, share control, and teach positive behaviors, they can be optimally effective with their students. With the most vulnerable students, the use of these strategies and procedures is of even greater importance. Learning behavioral leadership methods represents a tremendous opportunity for every educator to grow in their practice and learn ways of being more calm and effective.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Why do traditional methods of classroom management often fail with students affected by poverty?

➛ How can schools help fill any gaps new teachers might have in how to run an effective classroom?

Behavioral Leadership in Practice

When educators model and affirm positive behaviors in the classroom, even the most vulnerable students can feel safer, calmer, and better supported.

Behavioral Leadership in Practice
References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2014). Adverse childhood experiences and the lifelong consequences of trauma.

Collins, K., Connors, K., Davis, S., Donohue, A., Gardner, S., Goldblatt, E., et al. (2010). Understanding the impact of trauma and urban poverty on family systems: Risks, resilience, and interventions. Family-Informed Trauma Treatment Center.

Greenberg, J., McKee, A., & Walsh, K. (2013). Teacher prep review: A review of the nation's teacher preparation programs. National Council on Teacher Quality.

Kohn, A. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying "Good job!" AlfieKohn.org

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