Chapter 7: Order in the classroom: behavior management strategies
Student behavior problems are the foe of almost every teacher, no matter the grade or subject. How do you discipline a student who doesn’t seem to care? They ignore you, don’t hand in their work, talk constantly, and you are left dealing with a kid whose parents may be either indifferent or just as incapable of controlling them at home as you are at school. I remember being in teachers collage and asking my professor, “How do you deal with a student who simply has no interest in behaving himself or herself.” She was very unhelpful, saying things like call their parents (during class time?), contact admin (for every issue?) and ignore them (can be difficult if they are disrupting others as well). When I asked for clarification, the professor was stuck, possibly because she was a faculty member from a Faculty of Education and not a classroom teacher with recent experience on the front lines. So we come back to the question posed earlier: What do you do when a student in your class acts up and interferes with the learning of others?
Before you can correct the behavioural problem, you need to take a good look at the nature of the transgressive behavior and its context. Is there something about the classroom environment that contributes to the problem? Many kids require structure. Quite often poor behavior can be the result of a disorganized or ever-changing environment. At the end of this chapter, I discuss the value of predictable routines in creating a stable classroom structure. Secondly you need to determine whether the transgressive behavior is a one-off (acute) occurrence or a reoccurring (chronic) problem.
Dealing with the one-time cases
Often poor behavior is a one-off thing. Students get off track, lose focus, and have a quick chat with their neighbour. These students often need just a small reminder to get back on track.
1. Get closer. Move closer to the misbehaving student. You can use this strategy both when you are teaching and when the student is supposed to be working independently. This reduction of distance between you and the student may be a deliberate action, meant to be obvious, or a subtle one, where it appears you are simply moving around the room. Either way, your goal is to decrease the space between you and the offending party(ies). By decreasing this distance, you assert your presence and decrease the likelihood that the poor behavior will be repeated.
2. Use visual cues – give them the “teacher stare.” Proximity usually works, but sometimes students need an additional reminder. In addition to moving closer, make eye contact to let misbehaving students know, without saying a word, that you know what they are doing and are not going to let it continue.
For the occasional transgression, these methods often do the trick. However, there are the more troublesome cases in which one bad hat, or sometimes a small group of misbehaving students, are repeat offenders, disrupting learning for themselves and those around them. These repeat cases are chronic and demand stronger measures. Here’s how we deal with them.
Dealing with repeat offenders
Each situation of chronic misconduct is unique and must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. That’s why it’s challenging. There is no single set of magic words to fix the problem, but there is a process of escalating steps that usually work in all but the most unruly cases, no matter the grade level or the subject you teach.
1. Determine what is causing the behavior in the first place.
Talk to the individual(s) involved to try to find out if there is some underlying problem that needs to be addressed that is giving rise to the misconduct. Sometimes extrinsic factors such as family life, relationships, bullying, and so on can play a huge role in how your students behave in class. Maybe it’s a low blood sugar problem—the student is hungry because he wasn’t fed breakfast at home. Maybe she has no idea what is going on during the lesson itself and is acting out, or playing the joker, as a way to avoid embarrassment. Kids don’t want to feel stupid and so, if they don’t understand the lesson, they may choose to escape rather than struggle with concepts they find confusing. Bothering Maria in the next seat can be an escape in two ways. If your teacher is telling you off for bothering her, you won’t be expected to answer the question. Alternatively, if you aren’t following the lesson, which seems too hard, you will be bored and therefore, easily distracted by a more enticing activity (bothering Maria).
Once you get a handle on the underlying issue, you can begin to formulate a plan for what to do or whom to speak to next. Often you can address the situation right here at this first step and won’t need to go further. Here are two cases of repeat offenders and what worked to turn their situations around.
Reina – During my fact-finding talk with Reina, I found out that, for a variety of reasons, she never had a chance to eat breakfast before coming to school. I told her about a breakfast program we ran at our school and that she should check it out. After that day, her behavior was much improved in my class. Whether the improvement was due to the extra calories or to her appreciating that I had listened and offered help or both, the key thing was that Reina’s behavior significantly improved.
Manuel – It turned out that Manuel, a grade 9 student, couldn’t read when he entered my class and therefore, he couldn’t follow written instructions. To cover up his stigmatizing reading gap, he said, he acted out so that I wouldn’t call upon him. Not wanting his friends to find out, he preferred to be thought bad than stupid. I introduced Manuel to our guidance councillors, who got him the extra help he needed. His behavior improved dramatically.
Often the problem can be resolved by talking to the students involved. If not, you will need to move on to steps 2 and 3.
2. Consult those who are in the know.
Keep in mind that parents, your administration, and your fellow teachers are there to help. Use them. Have colleagues in your department taught the student in the past? What strategies did they use? Are the parents aware of the issue, and, if so, what strategies do they use? Most likely, the problem is an ongoing one that the parents have been dealing with for some time at school and at home. Unless the parents are among those who wilfully turn a blind eye and insist their child could do nothing wrong, they will support you with useful information or at-home consequences. How about your administration? Speak with them; most likely your repeat offender is known in the office. Guidance councillors are also an excellent source of information about strategies for specific students and also certain behavior patterns in general. From this consultation, which may involve one or more of these sources of advice, you can determine what strategies have been used before with what outcomes, possible escalations, and so on.
3. Once you’ve gathered your information, you can decide on a course of action.
Your action depends entirely on what you found out from steps 1 and 2. After you have found out all you can from the students themselves and from parents, colleagues, etc., you need to think carefully about what steps to take next. Rewards and positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior are always a first choice. But if you decide on some kind of punishment, follow these guidelines for ensuring that the punishment is fair and fits the crime. The punishment should be:
- directly related to the misbehaviour. For example, if someone pushes another student, don’t take away the offender’s iPod. Instead, speak to them about why they pushed and through discussion, have them come to the conclusion that pushing isn’t the answer. Together you can then come up with a way to remedy the situation.
- proportionate with the severity of the offence, which is to say it should seem reasonable to a disinterested observer. If you’re in a physical education class and you have a student who each day, doesn’t put any effort into running the track as a warm-up, the punishment shouldn’t be to run 20 laps. Although this fulfils the requirements above (punishment should be related to the behavior), the punishment isn’t reasonable.
- something within the capability of the student.
- something from which the student can learn about the negative consequences of inappropriate behavior, whatever it may have been, so that the bad behavior is not repeated.
Here’s a list of specific strategies.
- Don’t succumb to frustration, take a deep breath and be calm. Model the behavior you want to see. Getting angry yourself only escalates the problem.
- If things begin to escalate, take a break. This might mean a timeout for younger grades or a short walk through the school for older ones. What I don’t suggest you do, however, is kick the student out of your class for prolonged periods of time. It’s best not to have them sit outside the room or be sent to the Principal/Vice-Principal, if it can be avoided. Removing your student from class for prolonged periods comes at the expense of valuable learning time that can never be recovered.
- You break it, you fix it. If a student has caused some harm in your class, be it emotional harm to another student, physical damage, etc., make that student take responsibility and repair the harm done.
- Whatever you do, make sure you follow through with announced punishments and anything you may say about consequences. Never make empty threats.
- When dealing with students who just don’t care about the consequences, handle them with calmness and dispassion. They are most likely just trying to get under your skin, don’t let them. Administer your pre-assigned punishment (although escalation may be needed for chronic offenders) and move on.
- If you are dealing with a student who has mental health issues, I advise you to seek out professional assistance. They will have someone in your school who is specifically assigned to this student, you need to speak with them and learn as much as you can about what works and what doesn’t for this person as well as any specific strategies that have already been implemented.
As long as you stick to the guidelines above, removing privileges that relate to the misconduct can be an excellent way to manage poor behavior.
If you're interested, I can also send you my book chapter-by-chapter. The sequence gets sent out twice-a-week for ease of reading.
Where should I send it?
Case Study – Bothersome Kyle
Suppose that in your classroom you provide your students with computer time when they complete their classroom work. Instead of completing his own work during work time, Kyle is bothering Josh and interfering with his work. What might you do? Compare the following two approaches.
Effective Teacher Response:
You could take away Kyle’s computer time for the day. This response does four things: 1) it removes a privileged activity which Kyle enjoys; 2) it directly relates to the improper action; 3) it is a reasonable punishment based on the infraction; and 4) it shows Kyle what happens when he does something that disrupts other students’ learning.
Ineffective Teacher Response:
In this same scenario, think about the likely outcome of this next approach. In this case, the teacher becomes annoyed and sends Kyle to the office. This teacher’s response gets rid of the immediate bothersome behavior, but it fails to satisfy the criteria for appropriate punishments. The consequence of being sent to the office has little relationship to the offence; the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, being disproportionately severe; and what Kyle learns is that poor behavior gets him sent away for discipline and removed from the learning environment.
Have consistent routines
As noted at the beginning of this chapter, many kids learn better in a predictable, structured environment. To create structure, you need a routine that is set up and agreed upon by all parties at the start of your time together. Routines will differ significantly, depending on what grade you teach. The key is that whatever you do, do it consistently. For everything to do with your class including getting started, finishing your day/lesson, taking up homework, practicing specific skills, etc., make a routine for it. For instance, in my science classroom, I have an opening routine, beginning each lesson with a short video (generally 2-3 minutes in length but no more than 6 minutes). I find this routine helpful because the process of coming into class and settling right into the video provides a cushion of time for transition into the lesson. If the kids are distracted at the start, after 30 seconds they are quiet and focussed. This focus then spills over to our post-video discussion. So what are these videos? Since I’m in science, I use a lot of stuff from ASAP science, a video producer, who does an excellent job bringing application to the classroom. You don’t need to spend hours finding the right video either. If it corresponds to your previous lesson or today’s lesson, that’s a bonus. But as long as long as the video is timely and has something to do with your subject, that’s all you need. Here’s the link to a page I’ve composed of my favourite videos – https://teachwithfergy.com/science-videos/.
The final thing I’ll say about problems with classroom behavior management is this: don’t take them personally and don’t take them home with you. Unless you are letting your kids run all over you, you are probably not the cause. With many students, problems are longstanding and have their roots in any number of outside factors. Use the strategies outlined above, but don’t let behavior problems get to you.