Take CHARGE Day 4: The power of procedures
Updated: Feb 11, 2020
(To read Day 3, click here. To listen to this post as a podcast, click here.)
Take CHARGE of the Classroom
There is an assumption that exists in many schools today. Many teachers believe that if they post the classroom rules in a prominent location, tie a series of consequences to them, and go over them on the first day of school, the students will behave appropriately.
That's like taking a collar and leash, hurling them on an unsuspecting coyote roaming the countryside, and then calmly saying, "Sit!" There's more to the process than simply creating the structure for order. It needs to be developed sequentially and incrementally, not spoken of once and then presumed to be in place without any further support.
At the end, all teachers want the same thing. They want their students to be successful, well-behaved, and self-sufficient in the classroom. No teacher that I know of seeks to create a co-dependent relationship in which students are paralyzed into inaction, yet it happens all too often.
While all classrooms have rules, not all have procedures.
Rules are a series of Thou Shalt Nots. They tell students what not to do. Unfortunately, rules don't teach correct behavior. By nature, they attempt to limit students, listing for them a series of undesirable actions or attitudes. If students read and obeyed the rules (Hallelujah!), they know what not to do.
But what should they do instead?
Procedures are proactive
When a child doesn't know how to write, we teach her. When she doesn't know how to subtract across zeros, we teach her. If she's unsure of how to generate and support a thesis statement, we show her. But when she doesn't know how to behave, we punish her.
See the discrepancy? We cannot operate off the assumption that students know what to do all the time and are simply making poor choices for the express purpose of bothering us. Even though it might seem like that sometimes, that's a shaky premise. It would be easier, and safer, to start without any preconceived notions about what students know about proper behavior.
What do you want students to do in certain situations? How do you want them to behave and in what order should certain actions be taken? Be specific. Paint a vivid picture and then provide time for practice.
Lots of practice.
Think about the following situations that occur every day in your class. Do you have an ideal action for each event? Do your students know what your desires are? Have they had enough time to practice?
Entering activities - What should students do upon coming into class? What items need to be stored and where? What needs to be turned in and where? What signals the start of class and what should students be doing upon the signal?
Learning activities - Where should students turn in classwork assignments? What noise level should they work at? What can/should students do if they finish their tasks early?
Maintenance activities - How should students signal to use the restroom? What should they do if they need to sharpen or replace a pencil? Where can students find missing assignments when they return from an absence?
Leaving activities - How will class be dismissed? What should each student's space look like before leaving? What should students do with unfinished classwork?
This is just a sampling of all the mundane tasks that students move through on a daily basis. The more familiar that students are with the procedure for each of these, the more structure they'll find within the classroom. Structure supports student learning and actually boosts autonomy because it allows them to generate a sense of normalcy and routine. No one likes to constantly guess about what's coming next. Routines generate predictability, which our pattern-seeking brains crave.
Coming to the carpet
One of the best examples of instilling and maintaining procedures I've ever seen was with a kindergarten class. As with all early childhood classes, a large part of their direct instruction took place on a large carpet in the front of the classroom. Transitioning on and off the carpet, done multiple times a day, was one of the key procedures that this teacher worked on.
What made this procedure so memorable to me was the composure and consistency of the teacher. Most of us would teach something a few times and then expect our students to remember it. If variations occurred later, we'd probably fuss at the children until they mostly did the procedure correctly.
Not this teacher. Before transitioning, she would quickly and efficiently review the steps she wanted the students to take when coming to the carpet. Every. Single. Time. Even in March, after having the students for over seven months, she'd start each transition the exact same way - communicating her expectations in clear, concise language. She never assumed that the students knew her expectations but reinforced them again and again.
When students skipped a step, or ran to the carpet instead of walking, she calmly asked the student to try again. Instead of getting upset at them, taking their misbehavior as a personal challenge, she expressed disappointment in their actions (not them). She knew they could do better and she wanted to give them the opportunity to show her how to do it correctly. By maintaining an even temperament when students did not follow her procedures, she never escalated a problem. Too often teachers make mountains out of molehills, blowing up a simple lapse in memory into a willful attempt to overthrow their authority in the classroom.
Procedures will not fix all of your classroom problems. Just most of them.
Imagine walking across the Golden Gate Bridge across San Francisco Bay. Now pretend you're doing so with no guardrails whatsoever. The lack of boundary and physical barrier would push most people toward the center of the bridge. Taking the guardrails off wouldn't shrink the width of the bridge in any way nor would it make it any harder to walk across. Yet it would seem a lot more dangerous.
Guardrails provide a clear distinction between safety and danger. With the guardrails in place, most people would walk right along the edge, with one hand on the rail, to enjoy the view. Knowing that the guardrail is there would embolden most people to explore the edges of safety because an errant step wouldn't send them hurtling down into the water.
Procedures provide guardrails for your classroom. They give your students a sense of consistency and safety as they navigate all the learning activities, transitions, and interactions that are an everyday reality for them. If a large portion of their mental space is occupied with trying to figure out the proper noise level, how to get a sharpened pencil, or not knowing what to do if they finish early, there's not much room left for learning.
Practice with a smile
Most teachers have a similar plan for the first few days of school in which they explain various procedures for a wide variety of tasks. Unfortunately, students have slept since then. If they are in middle or high school, they have six or seven other sets of procedures to keep up with. When students don't follow the proper procedure, let them have another chance to do it correctly. This should not be seen as a punishment but as a learning opportunity.
When students get homework problems wrong, we don't punish them. If they fail to conjugate a Spanish verb correctly, they aren't kept for detention. Not remembering the year that the War of 1812 started (seriously!?!) won't earn them an office referral. If students forget a fact or academic skill, we reteach it to them rather than punish them.
We should do the same with procedures.
It makes life so much simpler if we view behaviors that conflict with established procedures as a learning opportunity rather than outright defiance. Just chill out for a second and dial down your conspiracy theories. Your students aren't out to get you, they just forgot. Let them practice the procedure again (and again) until it's done right. If this happens with a smile on your face, then they won't get defensive. They'll know that you still care about them and that you simply want them to do their best.
If students are purposefully ignoring procedures, then you'll need to go back to the first part of Take CHARGE that were discussed on Day 2 and Day 3 - human. An unwillingness to follow established, reasonable procedures typically happens when students feel disconnected. If they don't feel cared for, they won't care about your silly procedures. Repair the relationship and compliance will follow.
Action: Take a look at the series of questions in the Procedures are proactive section. Select one or two that you haven't established procedures for and think through them. Plan how to practice these with your students.
Reflective Questions: What do your students do consistently that drives you crazy? How can you correct this with a procedure? How will you make the proper procedure short and sweet? When will you introduce it? How often will you practice it?
To read Day 5, click here.