Classroom management doesn't have to be an enigma.
Educational research and best practices have solidified many components of daily instruction for us. We know about success criteria and the gradual release model, about checks for understanding and the importance of a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Even more recently, the science of teaching reading has revolutionized literacy instruction and social-emotional learning has opened up many new pathways for educating the whole child.
Yet when we look at behavior management, some of us are still stuck in the 1970s.
Classroom Management Journey
Most of us have tried everything that's out there. If you've been teaching for awhile, someone handed you Harry Wong's The First Days of School and you thought all you needed to do was establish and practice procedures. When that had mediocre success, you looked around and saw that others were trying token economies. You passed out classroom bucks, created a prize box, or even used ClassDojo to attempt to influence good behavior.
When that proved to be too cumbersome, you searched again and learned about morning circles and classroom agreements. Your environment became much more positive and welcoming but you still didn't know how to reduce challenging behaviors when they arose. So, you probably wound up where most of us landed after we'd been teaching for a few years and had seemingly tried it all - fussing.
Fussing is what I call any behavior management system that relies largely on getting onto students when they are causing trouble.
Carlos, sit down in your chair!
It's too loud in here. We should be at a level 0!
Genevieve, get started on your morning work.
Most of us wind up here because it works - sort of. Instead of chasing students around all day, threatening to take away Dojo points or remove cotton balls from a jar (which is exhausting), we settle in on the defensive. When a negative behavior arises, we fuss at the student and force compliance. Temporarily.
However, that's a merry-go-round that's hard to stop. The very act of paying attention to those negative behaviors guarantees that those same behaviors will recur in the future. You are locking yourself into a never ending game of whack-a-mole.
Here are some basic facts about human psychology.
Humans crave attention.
Your students are human.
Thus, your students crave attention.
We are all social creatures and are designed to live in community and seek attention. As a teacher, your attention is your currency and how you spend your coin will dictate how your students behave. When you notice a behavior, you give it energy. You're investing in it, guaranteeing that you'll see it again in the future. By directing your attention to a behavior, you are shouting to your students, "This is how to get my attention! Do this and I'll notice you."
That's why fussing at students is counterproductive. Instead of giving power to what you want to see more of, you're doing the opposite. Fussing at students when they misbehave actually gives them what they want, albeit negatively - your attention.
So, are we doomed in this Sisyphean task?
The answer lies within the realm of behavioral psychology. It's a deceptively simple solution to the classroom management conundrum that I wish someone had explained to me over 20 years ago when I started teaching.
The premise is simple: notice what you want to see more of. When Carlos is out of his chair when he shouldn't be, don't fuss at him. Instead, find someone that is meeting your behavioral expectations and notice them.
Joaquin is sitting in his chair and working on his practice problems. He's focused and using the strategies I've taught you.
A simple sentence like the one above does several things. First, it repeats the expectation (i.e., sit down and do your work) in a positive frame. Second, it gives attention to someone meeting your behavioral norms rather than one who is failing to meet them. Third, it gives specific actions that everyone can mimic. Fourth, it allows Carlos a chance to do the same without giving his negative behavior any attention. Fifth, Carlos is not shamed or embarrassed in front of his classmates.
That last point is one of the key elements of noticing. If you were to fuss at Carlos and get him to sit down, his ability to complete the task at hand would be compromised because he got in trouble. The negative feelings that arise when being fussed at hinder students even when they do comply with behavioral expectations.
So what do you do when Carlos sits down? You notice his behavior immediately and reinforce it. If he doesn't take the hint, you try again with a few other students. If you have built a positive relationship with Carlos, he'll want to please you and will crave your attention. When he learns that in order to get what he wants, he needs to meet your expectations, he'll do what it takes to meet his own attentional needs.
While token economies have a saturation effect, attention does not. In other words, students will soon tire of dollar store trinkets or ClassDojo points, but behavioral psychology has shown us that they won't tire of attention. They'll always want more!
To align your classroom management practices with what we know of human needs, you must notice positive actions with continuous praise.
Personal - Don't use generic statements but use the child's name so they know who is meeting your expectations
Recurring - You need to start heavy with noticing, up to three statements per minute. Once your students have figured out your new system of attention, you can slowly reduce the rate of noticing.
Assorted - Keep things changing and get creative. The same statements again and again will start to grow stale.
Immediate - To reinforce a behavior, your noticing needs to follow immediately after the behavior. If it's delayed even by a few minutes, the praise loses its potency.
Specific - "Carlos is doing a good job" doesn't let anyone else know how to do a good job. Describe specific actions that Carlos is doing so others can mimic it.
Enthusiastic - Remember, your students want to please you. When your noticing is filled with energy, you supercharge its effect.
If this seems too easy or too cheesy, let me ask you a question - How's your current behavior management strategy working for you? If it's going great and you don't have to fuss at students, then keep doing what you're doing! If you find yourself playing whack-a-mole, however, you might take a page from behavioral psychology and try out noticing.
Trust me, you won't be sorry.