If you’re reading this article, we may assume that you are most likely a teacher, and already familiar with the concept of classroom management, the subtle and individualistic methods that teachers use to keep a class focused, on task, and working on academics, rather than breaking out into a floating craps game in the back of the room while the teacher is writing on the board.
Don’t laugh, it happens. It happened to your humble narrator, in an inner-city high school.
Just in case you need a refresher on the basics of classroom management, or if you wish to know what to do in the event of a floating craps game, there is a great online class called “Classroom Management Essentials” that will fill in the background nicely. You might also find that this blog post by Brigitta Schwulst, “Classroom Management Plan” will help to refresh you.
One very important method of behavior management that sometimes gets overlooked is to show the student the absurdity of the situation. Once they can get out of themselves long enough to see how ridiculous they’re being, you’ve won half the battle.
If you’re a teacher, you know that along with having to plan and execute lessons, grade papers, deal with administrative silliness and record keeping, you need to manage student behavior. If you’re not a teacher, but plan to be one, or are in school working towards being one, you must learn the importance of behavior management.
And of course, “behavior management” is not the same as “class management.” Behavior management has to do with maintaining a safe and orderly environment in the classroom, one that offers an uncompromised learning experience for all. As odd as it might seem to non-teachers, one student’s bad behavior can diminish morale, diminish the learning environment, and diminish the relationship between the teacher and the rest of the students.
In a nutshell, effective behavior management skills are a necessity for anyone who plans to set foot inside a classroom and hopes not to end up full of despair within a month or two.
It’s worthwhile to look over some of the basic behavior management strategies, and how you can learn to stop trouble before it starts, and before things develop into a situation that impacts your other students’ learning and your year-end evaluation.
An Ounce of Prevention…
Perhaps the best way to insure that your classroom is a safe, orderly, nurturing place where learning is fostered is to take steps to prevent any sort of situation or behavior that would disrupt it. If you take the time from the beginning of the school year to clearly establish the rules, and enforce them in a fair and even way, your life will be much improved.
In other words, your classroom needs to be a very structured place. Students need to be aware from the start that your classroom, while not a dour and stuffy place, is a place of learning, where all are equal and all are valued, and where self-respect, and respect for others are the only way. Keep the rules simple and clear. Involve the students in making them, if that is feasible, without giving them all the control over rule-making.
For example, if you are clear about when it might be OK for students to talk and when it is not OK, you stand a much better chance of getting your students to go along with it. If you tell them that the first three minutes of class are free for them to talk as long as they get out their materials and get set for the day’s work, and perhaps also give the last three minutes as free time to talk, then more students are likely to respect the quiet, work-oriented time in between.
Ensure that your classroom rules are designed in such a way that each student knows that respect for other students and the teacher is expected, and that each student knows what to expect. Predictable classrooms (at least in terms of how a student will be spoken to or treated) are comfortable classrooms.
And of course, as the teacher, you must monitor student behavior just as you monitor student academic performance. You keep records of each student’s work and attendance, so why wouldn’t you keep records of behavior? At the very least, it will give you something to refer to when parent-teacher conferences come around, if you don’t need it before then. Keep anecdotal records of student behavior, both good and bad, in a special notebook. If a student persists in teasing another student, write it down with the date and the circumstances at the end of class. By the same token, if a student is kind to another, jot that down as well. Such anecdotal records can form the basis of the next step, should your prevention methods fail to achieve the results you hope for.
Ultimately, what you must do when you intervene in terms of behavior management is teach your students the social skills they are lacking. If you’re looking to bone up on your knowledge of psychology, and perhaps go a bit farther than you are expected to go in graduate school, there’s a great online class you should check out called “How to Get People: Practical Psychology.” It’s a good addition to the psych classes you’ve already taken.
First, you must identify which skills are lacking in a given student, based on his or her behavior. The student may not have been taught the essential social skills, and may simply not know how to behave. If this is the case, then you must follow a simple plan. Once you identify the missing social skills, you must model them or find another student to use as an example. Then, the skills must be practiced, ideally in a “safe” situation like role-play. Finally, you must reinforce the skills by praising students who exhibit them—let the student know that he or she is doing a good job.
You must also find ways to mitigate and defuse negative emotions in your classroom that may result from incidents between two students or may be directed at you. If it is possible to defuse the situation with humor (self-deprecating is always the best type if you can manage it), do so. If not, you may need to help students deal with situations that make them angry on a one-on-one basis. Send an angry student on a mission for you, or suggest that he or she go get a drink of water to cool off.
If such a strategy is impractical or does not prove successful, then it may be that the student needs some coaching or training in anger management. This is not your purview, unless you are a guidance counselor or school psychologist, so you should refer the student to the appropriately trained professional in your building or district.
Professionals with anger management training can work with students, teaching them the coping strategies they need and empowering them to self-assess and self-instruct in relaxation and using social problem-solving techniques that will allow the anger to dissipate and be replaced by productive social interactions.
As we discussed earlier, there are several benefits to keeping records, even anecdotal informal ones, of student behavior. There may come a time when you need more intensive or further intervention strategies than we’ve talked about to create the kind of classroom you want and the students need. Educating yourself as much as possible is always helpful in situations like those, and if you’re thinking it’s time to add to your teacher toolbox in this regard, you might be interested in online classes in “Emotional Intelligence in the Classroom” or moving “Beyond Compliance.” Both will add to your insight, and help you understand what makes the average student tick.
When you must move beyond the sort of informal interventions we discussed in the last section, there are some specific strategies that help you officially document and act on problematic student behaviors. Sometimes, the behaviors just don’t change, no matter what you might have tried, and you need to take things to the next level.
To do so, you must begin tracking behaviors in a bit more of an organized way. Start a journal specifically for the problem student, and write down every instance of problematic behavior, in as much detail as possible, with time and date information. This gives you a basis from which to assess if the behaviors are truly beyond the level and frequency that is acceptable. Also keep records of how the behaviors affect the classroom as a whole. Are other students suffering? Have any of the other students come to you to complain about the problematic student?
Keeping all these records gives you a justification and a springboard for making a Functional Behavior Assessment, or FBA. An FBA is an organized method for cataloging and assessing problematic behaviors over time with the goal of understanding the cause and purpose of the behaviors. Generally, behaviors occur in response to a specific stimulus, and they may not always be obvious.
Once the reasons and purposes of the behavior are ascertained, then specific interventions can be designed and implemented. Generally, working with the classroom teacher on an FBA and the follow-up intervention will be a guidance counselor, perhaps a school psychologist, perhaps a specialist who works closely with the student (speech language pathologist, physical therapist, etc.), perhaps an administrator or dean, or a special education co-teacher.
These professionals also will be involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in the intervention that follows the FBA, the Behavior Intervention Plan, also known as the BIP. A BIP can be implemented for students with or without IEPs, and provide a support group to develop a plan for how to modify and improve the student’s behavior that works much like an IEP works to modify and improve academic performance.
A BIP will outline the behaviors that need to be changed and list clear objectives for behavior improvement. To accomplish this, a set of clear preventative strategies, and other behaviors to model as alternates are set. The BIP also lists the reinforcements to be implemented if the behaviors improve, and the consequences to be implemented if the behaviors do not improve or worsen. A BIP will also outline a set of suggested intervention strategies to be used at home, and specific time goals for the implementation and achievement of the objectives.
Of course, there may be a time when even the “by the books” official methods for behavior management do not work. You cannot win them all, and there is, unfortunately, a reason for the disciplinary referral system in public schools. There are some students you cannot reach, and unfortunately, some parents who may be unwilling or incapable of helping you. You can only do what you can do, and if negative student behaviors cannot be changed constructively, you may need to resort to the disciplinary process. After all, you must maintain order.
If you have twenty five or thirty students in a single class, you must consider the greater good. A referral on one student who constantly disrupts is less of a negative act than allowing the educations of the remaining students to be compromised. Do good always, but do what you must for the benefit of all.