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September 1, 2018

A Healthy Ecosystem for Classroom Management

Teachers must provide structure while helping students develop autonomy, awareness, and self-regulation skills.

Classroom Management

Because teaching and learning are natural processes, we can better understand them when we consider comparisons in the natural world. A classroom is an ecosystem, much like the natural ecosystems that define the world around us, and the survival of any ecosystem depends on the constant transfer of energy between organisms. Plants, the primary producers of energy on Earth, harness energy from the sun. Consumers then proliferate the flow of this energy through an ecosystem, keeping it alive and thriving. Any natural ecosystem depends on these primary producers; without them, there would be no way to harness the sun's energy. A classroom should be no different. In a healthy classroom ecosystem, students are the primary producers of education, the people that build the classroom environment and keep it alive.

Too often, however, classrooms aren't healthy ecosystems that allow children to serve as the primary producers of their own education. Instead, students become passive consumers of educational experiences. This is typically the case with classroom management practices, too. Students are "managed" solely by external authorities instead of building an internal sense of authority and learning to manage themselves through self-awareness, self-regulation, and intrinsic motivation. This lack of agency chips away at learners' agency and autonomy.

Teachers can and should take a more student-empowering approach to classroom management by building students' self-awareness, explicitly teaching strategies for self-regulation, and leveraging kids' natural intrinsic motivation—the energy source of a student-driven classroom ecosystem. By doing so, we increase the chances that students will manage themselves.

Balancing Autonomy and Authority

However, we must remember that this shift in classroom management dynamics is a balancing act. Children simply cannot bear the entire responsibility of managing themselves, as many misguided models for student-driven learning suggest. It's not developmentally appropriate. In a healthy classroom ecosystem, educators must balance learner autonomy and adult authority, both of which work together to allow students to be the primary producers of educational experiences, keeping the classroom ecosystem thriving.

John Dewey argued that students are able to construct knowledge autonomously by accessing their agency and exercising autonomy, garnering support from peers and educators when necessary (Dewey, 1938). Effective classroom management strives to enable students to make responsible decisions for themselves so that they may access their agency and exercise autonomy while learning.

In modern progressive education, encouraging agency and autonomy is often mistaken for lax boundaries and permissiveness. We mistakenly subscribe to the notion that for students to be autonomous, they must be allowed to do what they please. Instead, operating with autonomy means making responsible decisions within agreed-upon constraints. It may seem counterintuitive, but to build agency and autonomy, students need boundaries and structure. Structure is, after all, safe and healing for children. Chaos is problematic and at times, even traumatic.

In Dewey's eyes, educators are in a position to establish those constraints because of their understanding of what makes certain experiences more beneficial to development than others. The life experience we bring makes it possible for us to become authoritative figures in the classroom and model making good choices for learning.

So we must temper learner agency and autonomy with structures that help cultivate awareness around what good decision making looks like, sounds like, and feels like. These structures provide the healing characteristic that all classroom management practices need, while making space for learners to flex their autonomy muscles.

Cultivating Awareness and Self-Regulation

When I refer to awareness, I'm referring specifically to a few different types of awareness, including internal physical and emotional awareness as well as an awareness of one's external environment and the people in it. It's important to cultivate awareness in all these areas because responsible, autonomous decision making is dependent on a child's ability to notice what's within and around them. The problem is, awareness is difficult to quantify in a classroom setting. It's nearly impossible to witness awareness because as educators, we are dependent on external behaviors to help us infer the degree to which a student is aware of her surroundings. But that doesn't mean it's hopeless to try to develop awareness in our students. It simply means we have to trust the process and wait patiently while self-awareness sprouts and swells within them.

The following strategies help cultivate students' awareness of classroom expectations while also teaching them a bit about themselves.

Communicate—and Hold to—Boundaries from Day One

While teachers communicate a great deal through our actions, we also communicate a great deal through our inactions. Even on the first day of school, it's incredibly important to express clear boundaries and make sure you hold students to them. Of course, they will make mistakes. I'm not suggesting that you dole out harsh consequences in the first days of school. But it's important to set boundaries and let students know when they've crossed them. This lays the foundation for their self-awareness and internal awareness of classroom boundaries to grow. Neglecting to telegraph limits has the potential to send implicit messages that your boundaries may be crossed, allowing behaviors that will grow harder and harder to correct as the year goes on.

Build Expectations and Consequences Together

The organization Responsive Classroom (2000) preaches a philosophy of learner agency and autonomy when building classroom management practices. Responsive Classroom recommends building expectations together through procedures like having students generate examples of rules and then synthesize them into several all-encompassing rules, and using interactive modeling to demonstrate, practice, and provide feedback on routines. I take it a step further and also work with my students to generate consequences. We discuss and document the positive and negative consequences likely to follow both behaviors that meet our shared expectations and those that don't.

I use the terms expected and unexpected when labeling student behaviors. Too often, we label behaviors as good or bad when in reality, these behaviors are simply our students' best shot at getting what they need in the classroom. Our job isn't to label behaviors good or bad, but to teach students about the effects of these behaviors. Expected behaviors generally have a positive effect on people around us (saying something nice to a friend might make them feel good), whereas unexpected behaviors generally have negative effects on people (running through the classroom, for example, might cause an accident). We should assume that students want to contribute positively to the environment. By encouraging them to act in a way that's expected, we send a message that behavior is about contributing to a positive, healthy classroom. It's important to process these ideas with students, saying things like, "I wasn't expecting you to run through the classroom. When you do that, it makes me feel scared. Please try that transition again."

Generating consequences for every behavior can be cumbersome, so my students and I generate more general consequences, as shown in the thinking maps in Figure 1. Although we do develop ideas for expected behaviors, unexpected behaviors, and consequences as a class, my role is to help them synthesize many individual consequences into a few natural consequences that are easy to remember. This approach reframes the word consequence, letting children know that they have the power to make a positive or negative impact.1

Figure 1. Thinking Maps Showing Causes and Effects of Student Behaviors

These thinking maps explore causes and effects of unexpected and expected student behaviors. This visual helps my students and I discuss natural consequences for both kinds of behaviors.

Establish a Mindfulness Routine

A major part of my beginning-of-year routine is setting up a mindfulness practice. I teach the students how to sit mindfully with their legs crossed, their backs straight, and their hands "sleeping" in their laps. We discuss the things we notice about our bodies and surroundings when we reach a mindful place. For instance, we note the temperature in the room and the pace of our heartbeats. We practice gratitude or listen to far away sounds.

We also set a weekly intention—like showing kindness or seeking connection—that provides a scaffold for mindfulness practice. By faithfully practicing mindfulness, my students cultivate awareness within themselves, which supports their ability to self-regulate down the road. By the end of the year, each learner is able to set a unique intention and discuss that intention in morning meeting and closing circle. Take Ellie. Her main challenges throughout the year included emotional regulation and persistence in the face of challenging tasks.

"I'm setting an intention of staying calm today when I'm working on math," Ellie said one morning during our meeting. "I'm going to take deep breaths and try different strategies today if I'm not sure what to do."

"Thanks for sharing that," I replied. "It takes a lot of courage to share your intention, and now we know we can support you if you need it!"

Teach Emotional Awareness and Emotional Regulation

The ability to notice builds a foundation on which students can develop emotional awareness. Emotions are natural. Our responses to them are natural, too, no matter how maladaptive they may be. As Dewey (1938) said, "Education is a process of overcoming natural inclination and substituting in its place habits acquired under external pressure." By teaching an explicitly emotional curriculum, we help children adopt new habits of self-awareness and self-regulation that will—we hope—help them overcome their unhealthy natural responses to emotions they feel, giving them a greater capacity to manage themselves.

Changing habits begins with awareness. I use Kuypers's Zones of Regulation (2011) system—which categorizes emotions into four broad categories or zones, each designated by a color—to spur students' emotional awareness. These colors denote various levels of regulation and stimulation; for instance, the blue zone generally refers to fatigue or sickness, while the red zone refers to excitement or frustration. Knowing this not only helps the student find ways to regulate; it also helps teachers determine ways to teach him or her to regulate. For instance, Mia, a kindergartener I taught several years ago, struggled with physical regulation and would often find herself in the red zone. Her body needed a great deal of movement, and one of her preferred strategies for regulation was yoga. Together, we came up with a plan where she would do a few minutes of yoga when she became aware she was in the red zone.

Kuyper's framework can be adapted to create behavior management plans for students who need more support with emotional and physical regulation. This builds autonomy and a positive culture around emotional awareness, meanwhile normalizing both comfortable and uncomfortable feelings.

Provide Structures for Resolving Conflicts

Generally speaking, children aren't naturally inclined to resolve conflicts peacefully and autonomously. If we're going to create a space where all emotions are normalized, we also need to ensure we've taught children healthy, adaptive behaviors for dealing with complex, uncomfortable emotions.

Colleagues and I have created a simple framework for this process. It involves four steps, accompanied by thinking and speaking stems, because changing the way students speak and interact during conflict resolution isn't enough; we must also change how they think about conflict. These steps are:

1. Assume positive intent.

Think: Maybe they didn't notice what they did.

Say: "Did you notice ___?"

2. Advocate for yourself.

Think: They won't know how I feel if I don't tell them.

Say: When you ___, it makes me ___. I need you to ___.

3. Let everyone tell their story.

Think: Everyone deserves to be heard.

Say: "I want to hear how you feel, too."

4. You can always get a teacher.

Think: I'm not getting what I need right now.

Say: "Mr. Paynter, I need help with a conflict."

Honor Inner Journeys

How we talk to students about their challenges and growth can increase awareness. I learned a lot from my student Winnie, who had known a great deal of childhood trauma. She lost a parent and had moved around a lot, resulting in maladaptive behaviors for building relationships and seeking attention. It wasn't until I spoke with her therapist that I understood I'd focused too much on Winnie's external behaviors—including her achievements and misbehaviors—and not enough on guiding her internal journey. I realized that Winnie had no awareness of any internal dialogue about her struggles or her own actions. This was probably why she had such trouble reaching out.

A subtle change in my feedback to make Winnie aware of her actions and her own role in shifting her behaviors toward the positive helped her see that she could, in fact, reach out and receive validation in more productive ways. I would say things like, "I love how you took your time on your work today. I can tell you really want to share your ideas with me, and I can't wait to see them" or "I was so happy to see you share your feelings using your Peace Talk today. I could tell you were really upset, but I think using your Peace Talk helped your friend understand what you needed."

It took a few months, but soon Winnie was making positive contributions to the classroom without any suggestions from me. She was even getting praise in closing circle from her peers for doing things like picking up in the classroom or plugging in the iPads.

Intrinsic Motivation as an Energy Source

While Winnie's trauma was unique and somewhat rare, her responses were natural, even commonplace. But it wasn't enough for Winnie to simply develop an awareness of her thoughts and feelings; she also needed to find the motivation to change the ways she was interacting with others.

Motivation is multifaceted. Author Daniel Pink (2011) identifies three key inputs to intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose, all of which are critical to promoting self-management in the classroom. Students need to feel as though they can exercise their autonomy within productive constraints, and they need to see that their efforts are helping them slowly, but surely, master their goals. But they also need a sense of purpose, which can be the hardest element to cultivate.

The purposes for education we espouse too often boil down to practical, down-the-road outcomes like going to college or getting a job. We tell our students the skills we teach them are important because they will serve them in their adult lives, preparing them for future schooling or employment. In reality, the average kid doesn't genuinely care about that—and who can blame them? They have no conception of what "preparing for future employment" means at such a young age.

For so many of our kids—such as Winnie—the natural desire for independence and human connection provides enough purpose for learning how to manage oneself in the classroom ecosystem. Human connection is what drives us more than anything else. So leveraging a child's innate desire for human connection can complete this trifecta of intrinsic motivation and promote self-management—more so than discussing a student's future college prospects.

With this perspective on classroom management, the conversation about managing our kids changes from keeping them in check to helping them build healthy, adaptive skills that make it possible for them to connect with others through learning, all while managing themselves.

If the classroom ecosystem is going to be a place where learning feels natural, we should be tapping into our natural human conditions. Behavior charts, prizes, and other incentives may provide a short-term fix, but the novelty of these wears off. The gratification from genuine human connection, however, is endless, providing a purpose for learning well beyond the classroom and setting children up for a lifetime of autonomous learning.

Author's note: All student names are pseudonyms.


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Free Press, reprint edition.

Kuypers, L. (2011). The zones of regulation. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing.

Pink, D. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Responsive Classroom. (2000). The first six weeks of school. Turner Falls, MA: Center for Responsive Schools, Inc.

End Notes

1 The concepts of expected and unexpected behavior and "group plans" are derived from these products by Social Thinking: Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students (2008) by Michelle Garcia Winner. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc., and We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers Curriculum (2013) by Ryan Hendrix, Kari Zweber Palmer, Nancy Tarshis, and Michelle Garcia Winner. All Rights Reserved. Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Paul Emerich France thumbnail

Paul Emerich France (www.paulemerich.com) is a National Board Certified Teacher, keynote speaker, and education consultant. He is the author of Reclaiming Personalized Learning (Corwin, 2019) and other books. He currently runs his own teaching practice, teaching elementary school students in-person and virtually.

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