Correction - Winning Classroom Management
Returning to the opening analogy, winning coaches plan for success, practice requisite skills, and make in-game adjustments. In the same way, winning the classroom management game requires these three phases. The first three chapters examined various ways to plan for success, such as developing belonging, building strong teacher-student relationships, and designing engaging instruction. The previous chapter explored how to help students practice prosocial behaviors by using differential social attention to praise the behaviors that should be replicated in the classroom.
This final chapter, then, looks at the in-game adjustments that teachers should be equipped with when misbehavior occurs. Even when students feel like they belong to a supportive social group that has established norms and behaviors, when they have a secure attachment with their teacher, and they engage in interesting instruction, some missteps will take place. What should teachers do when misbehavior occurs?
To begin with, place the situation in its proper context. All discipline encounters are teaching moments where the goal is to either teach or help the students practice the missing skill so that the student can be successful. Discipline is not about punishment or simply getting the students to comply with behavioral norms. Teachers should strive to help students do the right things, not simply stop doing the wrong things.
The default form of discipline that teachers will invariably resort to, unless shown a better way, is power-assertive discipline. With this method, the adult relies on power, size, or resources to control the child, typically involving a revocation of privileges. This common type of discipline is problematic because it models antisocial behaviors. Students who are controlled by threats and punishment learn to mirror this behavior when they become frustrated. Even though the immediate problem might be solved through forced compliance, a larger issue is brewing.
Even worse, overreliance on power-assertion damages the teacher-student relationship. When the trusted adult is viewed as a harsh, vindictive disciplinarian, resentment increases. Students will continually face obstacles to meeting their needs with no better solutions being presented. The adult that should be providing a safe harbor is instead creating a violent storm, and the vicious cycle escalates.
Instead, a psychologically safe method of discipline is called victim-centered induction. This is a fancy term for reasoning with students during discipline while focusing attention on those that are affected by the misbehavior. This form of correction involves a few simple steps.
First, describe how the student’s behavior affects others. Use descriptive language that is nonjudgmental and places their actions within a larger social context. Instead of, “Julius, you were being rude and bothering everyone else,” use language that narrates dispassionately, such as, “Julius, you were making loud noises with your body and it was difficult for your table group to concentrate.”
Second, ask the student to imagine being in the other student’s place. “Imagine what it’s like for Suzie. She was focused hard on her math problems but she was distracted by those strange noises.” This slight, yet powerful, shift in discipline keeps behavior in the realm of social interactions. When students misbehave, they aren’t just hurting themselves but also causing damage to the larger group. As long as they are connected with their classmates through belonging, they will have an aversion to damaging their peer relationships through misbehavior.
Third, suggest concrete actions for repair. Remember, discipline is about teaching and practicing missing skills, not punishment. How can students make it right? If the misbehaving child is to internalize prosocial behavior, they need a chance to not only behave correctly through practice but also to repair any relationships that might have become strained because of the interaction. “Julius, you can apologize to your tablemates for distracting them. You can also get up and step into the hallway quickly if you feel like a distracting noise is going to come out of your body.”
This type of discipline, induction, keeps things running smoothly while helping students develop self-control and prosocial behavior. Discipline encounters will inevitably create negative emotions in students, such as embarrassment, anger, or anxiety. The goal is for students to internalize the interpretations of these emotions so they lead to the internalization of values from the teacher. For example, Julius would hopefully think, “I feel embarrassed because I distracted Suzie and made it hard for her to work on math.”
When power-assertive discipline is used, such as threats and punishments, students tend to externalize their negative emotions that arise during the encounter. For example, a teacher that yelled at Julius to get him to stop making rude noises might cause him to think, “I’m embarrassed but my teacher is mean. I only stopped so I wouldn’t get in any more trouble.” Compliance, then, is interpreted by the student as resulting from force rather than being freely chosen. This type of behavior will arise again and again because the student has not internalized the negative emotions but instead blamed them on the teacher.
When misbehavior happens in the classroom, use the following strategies in descending order to decide on the best action plan.
Praise the desired behavior in others. The first option for addressing misbehavior is to focus attention on the correct actions that others are displaying. Find someone close to the negative behavior that is meeting behavioral norms and provide praise that is personal, recurring, assorted, immediate, specific, and enthusiastic. This provides the offending student a shame-free way to correct their behavior. If this solves the problem, be sure to immediately praise the new behavior in the student to reinforce them.
Ignore it and air it out later. Sometimes praise helps students choose the right behavior, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, behavior that receives attention is reinforced so fussing at a child to stop being annoying unfortunately draws attention to the behavior and makes it likely to be seen in the future. If the behavior is not disrupting the class but simply a minor nuisance, ignore it until the behavior stops. After it has ceased, provide the student with a learning opportunity using victim-centered induction. First, describe how the behavior affected others. Remember that relating the misbehavior to how it affects peers will keep the social impact in the forefront of the student’s mind. Second, ask the student to imagine the other student’s feelings that arose due to their behavior. Third, give the student concrete actions to repair the relationship. This teaches empathy and equips students with positive actions that they can use in the future. These three steps (affect, imagine, repair) are a method to address misbehavior and teach students missing skills after a behavioral incident has elapsed.
Use the drips method to achieve compliance in the moment. This action is the last resort when immediate compliance is required. When the misbehavior is so egregious or distracting, or receiving enough attention from peers that ignoring it or praising positive behaviors in others won’t cause it to cease, the drips method is slow, persistent persuasion that acts like dripping water on a stone, slowly eroding it one drip at a time. Imagine that a first grade teacher has asked the class to go to the carpet for reading and Jennifer is refusing, sitting at her desk. First, give the directive. Instead of telling students what to stop doing, tell them what to start doing. “Jennifer, come take a seat on the carpet so we can begin the read-aloud.” Second, include a rationale. If there isn’t a rationale for doing something, then it might not be a directive that’s worth fighting for. “We have a new picture book today and you won’t be able to see the illustrations from your desk.” Third, iterate. Like a broken record, repeat the directive and rationale with minor tweaks and adjustments to make each repetition novel. “Jennifer, it’s time to come to the carpet. I think you’ll like the pictures in our new book and I want you to be able to see them. If you’re back here, you might miss some of the hidden details the illustrator included.” Fourth, remind the student of past compliance. Including this is like priming the pump, helping students take the first mental step toward meeting expectations. “Remember how you noticed the flower hidden behind the shed in the book we read yesterday? I wonder if you’ll find something else like that today.” Finally, stick with it. Instead of getting angry or including an “or else” statement, keep going through the previous steps. Give the directive, provide a rationale, iterate, and remind the student of past compliance. Eventually the student will get tired of the tug of war and comply. When they do, praise them for their action so they are immediately reinforced for following directions.
Note: Sometimes when using the drips method, students will begin to negotiate. Instead of sitting on the carpet, Jennifer might want to sit in a chair close to the carpet. Negotiation is healthy and compromise is much better than outright defiance. If the negotiation still meets the spirit of the directive, if not the letter, then embrace it and move on. This supports the student’s need for autonomy and shows that the student is thinking more rationally than emotionally, which is a positive sign.
Find all the episodes in this web series (and the free eBook) here.
Bergin, C. (2018). Designing a prosocial classroom: Fostering collaboration in students from prek-12 with the curriculum you already use. W.W. Norton & Company.