Some Thoughts on Classroom Rules, Part 2

Do you ever have students who do not seem to follow a rule all of the time?  Sometimes THAT student follows it and sometimes THAT student does not.  Sometimes we think a student is being deliberately malicious when really THAT student is simply confused.

I’ve observed this many times in classrooms.  For example, I saw a student who answered the teacher’s question like they were having a conversation.  In other words, the student did not raise his hand and wait to be called on.  He simply answered the question.  The teacher snapped at the student, telling him that he had broken the rule and would have a consequence.  The boy first appeared confused, and then angry.  He said, “That’s not fair!  You let ___ answer you!”  The teacher argued back – but that is another blog topic.  Suffice it to say that the teacher and the student disagreed about his behavior.  The result was anger, resentment, and lost instructional time.

I noticed that the teacher had a rule about raising hands to talk.  Yet the students had just been working in small groups.  In the small groups the students talked to each other naturally, answering questions, interjecting, and even interrupting.  As the students went back to their usual seats, one girl stepped up next to the teacher and asked a question.  The teacher answered, then turned to the whole class and asked her question.  THAT student blurted out an answer.  The teacher saw THAT student as being deliberately rude to her by blurting out the answer.  I saw it as THAT student, even though he was in the large group now, still using the “rules” that were okay in the small group.  He was also correct that the teacher had answered ___’s question, but THAT student did not see the difference between being next to the teacher to talk to her and talking from his seat.

This is an illustration of my second point about rules:  Rules are things that are in place at all times.  Rules should not be something that changes during the day or even the week.  If it is a rule, it should be a rule all of the time. 

Let’s look at the speed limit analogy again.  The speed limit sign says you can go no faster than that particular number.  Many of us elect to go five miles per hour faster than the number on the sign.  We know we should keep up with traffic and not be the slow car.  Yet, the police would be within their rights to ticket any of us doing that extra five miles per hour.  The law says we are supposed to drive no more than the speed limit, and, although we choose to not follow that law, we know we can be penalized for it. 

The speed limit law is like a classroom rule.  It is in place at all times. 

On the other hand, if the so-called rule is sometimes in place and sometimes not, then that “rule” is actually a procedure. 

Let’s go back to the story about the student who blurted out during whole group instruction.  The teacher had a rule about raising one’s hand to talk.  However, that rule was not in place at all times.  When students were in small groups, they were not expected to raise their hands to talk.  When the student was next to the teacher, s/he didn’t have to raise his/her hand to talk.  So raising a hand to talk was only true for large group instruction.  A raised hand could also be used for a small group to indicate to the teacher that the group had a question and were trying to get the teacher’s attention. 

The hand-raising “rule” was only in place some of the time, so instead of being a rule (think “law”), it was a procedure.

Harry and Rosemary Wong define a procedure as “how we do things here.”  To get a turn to talk in that classroom, the students had to switch between different circumstances.  When they were in a large group, they had to raise their hands to get a turn to talk.  When they were in small groups, they could talk to each other without raising their hands.  If they wanted the teacher to come to their group for some reason, they raised their hands.  If a single student had approached the teacher and was standing right beside her, s/he didn’t have to raise his/her hand.  So there were actually several different ways the students got a turn to talk. 

When we talk in different ways depending on the situation, we are following a set of procedures.

Students can learn that when we do this, we act this way, and when we do that we act that way.  They just need to be taught what to do at which time, and to be reminded that X behavior is expected in this situation.

We can and should teach students when and how they are expected to talk in various situations that happen at school.  Doing so helps the student learn skills s/he will use in the future, in the classroom, on the job, and out in public. 

Let’s take a look at some other rules and see if they can be in place at all times. 

This is a picture of a rules poster available at various teacher supply stores.

Rule 1.  Yes, we want students to listen to us and to their classmates when the classmate is talking.  However, is this something that is done all of the time, without exception?  If students are working in small groups, we do want them to listen to each other, but we don’t want them to listen to other groups.  If they are working individually and the teacher stops to talk to Susie, we do not expect all of the other students to stop working and listen to the teacher.  So this is not something that can be in place at all times.

If I wanted a rule about students talking, I would word it like this:  “Talk only on your turn.”  I would make sure I taught students what I meant by this, and I would continuously remind students about how to get a turn to talk during this particular activity.

You may want to do away with hand raising for any reason other than getting the teacher’s attention.  If you used “Kathryn’s Card Trick” described in the blog, “Calling on Students and Making Groups:  Tips You Can Use on Monday” found at , then you are doing something that can eradicate raising hands altogether.

Rule 2:  Yes, we want students to do as they are told and to do it right away.  Absolutely!  However, can you think of any situation in the classroom when students might not follow directions?  The only one that I can think of is if the student does not understand the directions.  You might be thinking, “they should ask questions if they do not understand.”  I agree with you, however I also know that students do not ask for clarification for a number of reasons.  They might be embarrassed because they think they are the only student who does not understand.  They may think they understand but they don’t.  As a result, this rule is something that could be a rule, but only if the adult in the room consistently ensures that everyone really does understand, has shown students both examples and non-examples, and has thought of everything a student might have misconceptions about.

If it were my classroom, I would skip this rule entirely.  However, there may be some variations I have not yet observed.

Rule 3:  We do not want students to hit each other with anything.  Ever.  So this is a rule that can be in place at all times. 

A side note:  I’ve seen teacher have a rule that said “Keep hands and feet to yourself.”  Students would poke each other with pencils, hit each other with books, snap each other with rubber bands, etc.  The students would look at her and at me with wide-eyed innocence and claim they hadn’t broken the rule because they hadn’t hit the other with their hands or their feet.  And they were actually right.  Remember, there always seems to be a budding lawyer in every class, so don’t give them the opportunity to quibble.  Make sure you add “and other objects” to this rule!

I would keep this rule or one similar to it.

Rule 4:  It is very difficult to know what exactly will disturb others.  I personally want complete silence when I am doing school-like work like writing this blog.  When I taught at the college level, I surprised a few students who were working in the computer lab outside my office by asking them to use ear buds when listening to music or when they were watching videos.  They probably thought I was a cranky old lady who didn’t like their music.  That wasn’t it at all.  I cannot do intellectual work when there is distracting sound.  Others can.  So what actually is the definition of “disturbing others”?  I can see pestering another student as being in violation of this rule and I can see being “too loud” as violating it as well.  But “too loud” would have to be defined.

There are many circumstances in the classroom where we expect students to make some noise.  We expect them to talk to each other when they are in small groups.  We expect that engaged hum that happens when learning is taking place. 

You might be thinking, “Well, they shouldn’t shout or scream,” and I would agree with you.  There are noises and sounds that shouldn’t happen when others are working.

But this rule does not specify when the students should work quietly or what it is that might disturb others. 

A local school uses a procedure that appears to work quite well.  When the teacher gives instructions on what the students are expected to do, they tell the students that their voices should be at ___, giving a number to fit into the blank.  A zero means no talking at all.  A 1 would be the softest of whispers, and so on.  Most teachers I observed there put small group conversations at 3 or 4.

This is a very clear procedure that all of the teachers in the school use so it is consistent from room to room and from grade level to grade level.

I would classify rule 4 as too vague to be a rule.  It does not tell the reader what is meant by “work quietly” or “do not disturb”.  The meaning of each of these phrases changes with the activity.  So this should be covered by a procedure, not a rule.

If it were my classroom, I would have procedures to follow that would cut down on disturbing others.

Rule 5:  I believe I have talked about the slippery term “respect” in other blog posts.  Teachers often say, “They should know what respect means!”  Yet respect has many different meanings.  What constitutes respect to you or me could be the height of disrespect depending on culture and depending on upbringing.  We may find it disrespectful to put our feet up on classroom furniture and ask, “Do you put your feet up on the table at home?” only to hear a student respond sincerely, “Yes.”  When I worked on the reservation, children who were raised traditionally learned that it was disrespectful to look an elder in the face.  Their upbringing and my upbringing clashed when I expected a student to look at me when I was talking and their training said that was disrespectful.  No matter how long or how hard I’ve thought about it, I haven’t figured out a universal definition for respect.  As a result, I avoid using that word in rules.

What exactly are we trying to get at with this rule?  Are we trying to say “do to others as you want them to do to you”?  Are we saying “no vandalism”?  Are we saying, “Do yell ‘hey, Teach’ to get my attention”?  I know what I mean, but is it the same as what you mean?  Are there cultural differences we have to consider? 

I think this is a poor rule for a couple of reasons.  First, it is not clear what is meant by it.  Yes, the teacher could teach the class what s/he means.  That would help it become a viable rule.  Second, there are so many cultural variations of “respect” that it is a poor rule unless we are working in a school where everyone shares the exact same culture.

I would not have a rule that talked about respecting anything unless I was sure everyone understood what is meant by it and they were capable of finding ways around cultural imperatives to appear to match my definition of respect.

Rule 6:  Expecting students to work and play in safe manner is not a bad rule.  It is worded vaguely, and that could be a problem.

I do not have any problem with vague rules.  I think specific rules are easier because they are cut and dried, but I also know that not all of life is cut and dried.  Vague rules have a lot more wiggle room to them, so they can actually cover more situations than specific rules, but they come with a built-in challenge:  not everyone knows what they mean.  My former students used to say, “Students should know what that means!” and they are probably right.  However, not all students do know what you mean by X.  The teacher last year or in the classroom next door may mean something different by it.  They may not have been taught this at home.  They may be from a culture that has a different interpretation.  The only way to make vague rules work is to explicitly teach students exactly what you mean by it, and to allow the students a bit of practice time.

In classes like industrial technology, science, art, or any class where there are safety procedures that must be followed, I highly recommend a rule like this or a rule that says “Follow all safety procedures.”  That way we can enforce it if a student chooses to be reckless with a piece of equipment or with his/her behavior.  After all, we do not want to send children home missing a finger or an eye.  Parents frown on that.

If you teach a class where safety is not at risk because you will not be using machinery or sharp objects, then you may want to skip a safety rule.  There are safety rules that are whole-school rules, and whole-school rules are in place in individual classrooms.  You may want to save time and energy by only specifying rules that are true in this particular classroom.

I taught science at the middle school level and art at the high school level, so I would have a rule about following safety procedures.

That brings up another point about rules.  Experts in classroom management and discipline seem to agree that there should be no more than 5 rules in any given classroom.  Having more means that students are likely to forget them. 

This rules poster violates that recommendation because there are 6 rules.

There is another trend in classroom rules that is illustrated by this poster, also for sale at teacher supply venues:

It seems that many classrooms have goals posted and call then rules.  On this poster, that covers statements like “dream big”, “believe in yourself”, or “leave a little sparkle wherever you go”. 

It is great to dream big.  I’m a fan.  However, do you expect to punish a student who does not dream big?  What about if s/he doesn’t believe in him/herself?  I would argue that it is even problematic to include “always do your best” as a rule.  Are you always at your best when you come to work?  Do you ever have to talk yourself up before the day begins?  Do you make  mistakes during the day?  I do not know anyone, teacher or not, who could possibly, always be at their best all day, every day.  I am not sure it is humanly possible.  Yet if we say it is a rule, then it must be enforced and consequences assigned if it is not followed. 

I’ve had pre-service teaches say, “Well, I’m not stupid!  I wouldn’t give a kid a consequence for having a bad day!”  They were really quite angry at me when they said that, too!  Of course they are not stupid.  But if they do not plan to have it in force all of the time, then it is not a rule.  In this case, it is not a procedure either.  It is a goal.  It is or should be everyone’s goal to be at their best every day, ready to learn, believing in themselves, being sparkly, and dreaming big.  But we aren’t!  We are human.  We should expect students to be human, too.

It does not do students a service to say that these are rules, that they are in place at all times.  We will have some students who are afraid that they may violate the rule, and others who figure they can’t ever follow it so why bother.

If we have rules that are really goals, or if we have rules that are not in place at all times, we send powerful messages to the students.  We are saying we are holding you to an impossible standard.  We are saying we don’t really mean it even though we say this is the rule.  I believe the latter opens us up to more discipline problems in the classroom.  Students become confused when they don’t know what they are supposed to do at this moment.  Like the student I described at the beginning, confusion can lead to breaking the rule, even if the student doesn’t mean to do so.  Worse it can lead to accusations of being unfair and favoritism.  This, in turn, leads to damaging that fragile student-teacher relationship.  And that, as you know, leads to more problems.

Take a look at your classroom rules.  Are each of them something that is in place at all times?  Are any of them so vague that you must remind students regularly about how to follow them?

You can consider changing the classroom rules even if it is in the middle of the year.  To do so, sit down with the class and say, “I don’t think the rules we have had were working as well as I would like.  Here are the new class rules.”  This is not something you want to do every other week, but you can do it when you need to, when the rules aren’t working like you’d wanted.  You will have to teach the students what you mean and remind students about the new rules.

Next time, we will look at another one of Roe’s Rules for Rules.

Will A Return to School Prayer Help Make Better Schools?

Recently, I’ve received several Facebook posts asking for a return to prayer in schools.  I would like to believe that the people who post these kinds of things are well-meaning, and that they have not really thought this through.

I do not think prayer should be back in public schools because they are public. That means that they are open to any and all, no matter the creed.  I have been an educator for 39 years.  I have worked in both public and parochial schools, so please do not think I am anti-religion.  I am not.  

There are no laws against prayer in schools.  By law, students can bring their own copies of scriptures, they can wear religious garb, they can form religious clubs, and they can pray whenever they like as long as it is voluntary.  Prayer led by students, for example around the flag pole before school starts, is fine.  In fact, that kind of prayer is protected by the much maligned No Child Left Behind version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

What is forbidden is having school officials leading prayer, or anything that makes it seem that the public school is teaching or promoting one particular religion.

(Public schools can teach about religion, but they cannot teach religion, if you catch the difference.)

There are schools where teacher-led, or administrator-led prayer is fine, where it is the norm to teach a particular religion, and any parent can choose to send their children there.  These are parochial schools or other kinds of private schools.  These schools are not usually supported by public taxes, and , yes, to send a child there one must pay tuition.  Some may find the tuition to be prohibitive, yet I’ve worked in parochial schools where every single student was there on scholarship, so tuition is not always a barrier to that choice. 

The point is that there are schools where a particular religion is taught, practiced, and celebrated.  Any family can choose to have that kind of school for their children.  There are face-to-face parochial schools and there are online parochial schools, so even those who live in small towns can send their children to a school that has a religious base.

Often those who call for a return to prayer in schools are engaging in a kind of nostalgia, a belief that things were better in the good old days.  But were they?

I can remember when some of the public schools I attended had teachers or administrators who led prayer, and there were Christmas programs that told the story of the Nativity.  Let’s go back to one of those years I can remember. 

Fifty years ago was 1969.  That is the year when good things like the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock happened.  Teachers and administrators in many public schools led prayers.  It was common to have high school graduation have religious overtones.  School Christmas programs told the story of the Nativity, and children dressed up as angels and vied to be chosen as Mary or Joseph.  It was also a year of much turmoil.  We were still feeling the effects of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy.  Segregation was the norm.  It was the year of Chappaquiddick .  In many states, women could not have a credit card in their own name and a pregnant teacher was forced to quit when she began to show.  Richard Nixon took the oath of office, and a few days later, perhaps coincidentally, the President’s salary doubled.  We were still enmeshed in Viet Nam and the draft lottery commenced.  The Stonewall riots took place in New York.  The Manson family murdered Susan Tate.  In most public schools, girls were required to wear dresses and boys were required to wear dress pants.  Tennis shoes were only for gym class. 

So not everything was as rosy and peachy as nostalgic memories can paint them to be.  We have come a long way in 50 years.  We can probably all agree that we have a long way to go before we can declare the US a utopia. 

Would requiring prayer in our public schools change that?

Public schools are different than private schools.  They are funded through public monies, and they are designed to be more inclusive than private schools, more diverse. When I was an administrator of a parochial school, I could say, “I’m sorry, we cannot serve your child best in this school” and send kids and families away if they did not want to conform to our religious beliefs or rules. On the other hand, in public schools children from all families are welcomed.  That means that any given public school could serve students and families who are all denominations of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, followers of Shintoism, Hindu, so on and so forth.

I mention “all denominations of Christians” because I find that the majority of people who post this particular call for prayer in the schools describe themselves as Christians.  Yet there are many, many different kinds of Christians.  Each of those denominations were formed because a group did not agree with a particular version of Christianity.  Within those denominations there are disagreements about which way to say the Lord’s prayer, how to be baptized, and even which day is the day God intended for community worship. 

If one believes this country is or should be declared Christian, which of the above versions of Christianity do you think should be the basis of prayer in schools?  Do you think you and all of the members of your community would agree? 

Even our Founding Fathers did not share a common religion or even a common version of Christianity.

We are a country that has prospered on diversity and by protecting that diversity. Those who disagee often argue that the country was founded by the Pilgrims.  That is not completely accurate.  There were other colonies in North America before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock.  There were French and Spanish Catholics.  There were other English colonies who practiced Christianity based on the Church of England.  Remember, the Pilgrims wound up on this continent after they had sought religious freedom in Britain and the Netherlands.  Others seeking religious freedom followed, including William Penn who was a Quaker.  The colony he founded was based on religious freedom.  And let’s not forget that the people indigenous to the continent had their own beliefs.

As the various colonies came together to form a nation, we took steps to not just declare ourselves independent but also that we do not force anyone to believe a certain thing.  That statement is in our Constitution, in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment to the Constitution is very clear. It says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

If we believe in our democracy and in our Constitution, then we believe that no one should be forced to attend a school that promotes a religion in which we do not believe, and we believe that we must uphold the rights our Founders held most dear including the Constitution’s First Amendment.  Please note, it is the FIRST amendment, so it was the one that the Founders believed came first.

It is my experience that many who call for a return to prayer in public schools believe themselves to be fervent supporters of the foundational beliefs of our nation.  The First Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, was submitted to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789, and adopted on December 15, 1791.  It is the bedrock, the foundation of our democracy, our republic.  If one defines oneself as a patriot, then one must defend that First Amendment.

So let’s celebrate the fact that we can teach our children about our own, dearly held religious beliefs at home or in a private school with others who have the same beliefs, and that our public schools allow our children to experience the richness of the diversity our country allows and enjoys, a diversity that is not so celebrated in other countries or in other times.

Some Thoughts on Classroom Rules, Part 1

If you do a web search for “classroom management” you will get a lot of posts about classroom rules.  This reflects a common misconception about managing a classroom:  if you have enough good rules, the class will be managed. 

I beg to differ.

Rules are about discipline, not about management.  Management is structuring the classroom and the class in a way that ensures learning will take place and maximizing the amount of time for learning.  Discipline is something else.

A google search shows the definition of “discipline” is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”  So classroom rules fall in the category of discipline. 

I’ve said many times that I would rather work in a school that had a lot of procedures and no rules than in a school with a lot of rules and no procedures.  Why?  Rules do not guarantee that students will do what the rule says. 

An analogy might be the speed limit.  There are rules, laws, that govern how fast one can drive a car in a particular area, but most people tend to drive faster than the speed limit.  They are breaking the law, or not following the rule.  I include myself in that group of rule-breakers.  I travel about 6 miles an hour above the posted speed limit figuring the police won’t bother with me where there are others who are going much faster. 

Everyone who is exceeding the speed limit knows they are breaking the law, but they do it anyway.  Why?  Pretty much for the same reason I do it:  we figure we won’t get caught, and even if the police see us, they won’t do anything about it.

The same is usually true for students in school.  Just because there is a rule that says to do a certain thing doesn’t mean the student won’t do that thing.  They are likely to do that thing hoping they won’t get caught.  This casts the teacher in the role of behavior police, watching students for infractions of the rules and punishing them when they inevitably get caught.

What does this do to teachers and students?

Students view teachers as the enemy.
Okay, “enemy” is probably too strong a word.  Instead, think “them and us”.  Students learn that teachers are in the “them” or “other” group and his/her peers are in the “us” group of fellow conspirators.

We’ve known for a long time that student-teacher relationships are of paramount importance.  Students will do a lot of things for a teacher who they believe likes them than for a teacher they view as disliking them or even being indifferent to them. 

When a teacher’s “classroom management plan” is all about rules then relationships have little to do with whether or not the student will do what the teacher asks.  Now the stage has been set for a game of “catch me if you can”.  The student see that what s/he or his peers are doing is fun and the teacher is there to prevent them from having that fun.

Fred Jones observed “zones of proximity” in the classroom.  Students who are closest to the teacher are in the “red zone” meaning their negative behavior will likely cease.  Students a little further away from the teachers are in the “yellow zone” meaning they will proceed with a particular behavior with caution.  Students in the “green zone”, farthest from the teacher, have a green light to go ahead with whatever behavior because the teacher is likely too far away from the teacher for him/her to see the negative behaviors. 

Fred Jones, Zones of Proximity in the classroom

These “zones of proximity” are used as the reason teachers should continuously more around the room.  However, what happens if the teacher is working with a small reading group and other students are supposed to be involved with station work?  The teacher cannot move  around the room and continue to work with the reading group.  If students have learned that the teacher’s proximity is the reason why s/he is to “behave”, then it is likely that s/he will engage in proscribed behavior when s/he is at a station and not working directly with the teacher.

Harry and Rosemary Wong characterize rules as a dare.  I know of few students who will walk away from a dare!

Students learn to be more sneaky.
As a result of the previous point, students learn to hide their misbehavior. 

For example, back in the dark ages when I was in high school, we had a school rule against passing notes.  Remember, this was before cell phones or even personal computers, so writing notes was a way to communicate with your friends under the teachers’ noses.  My friends and I probably watched too many spy shows on TV, and we devised many ways to pass notes so that the teacher would never know.  My favorite way was to roll up the note and put it into the barrel of a ballpoint pen after I’d removed the ink cartridge.  I don’t recall ever having a note intercepted by a teacher when I used that method!

Being told we couldn’t pass notes didn’t result in us not passing notes.  We just found more and more clever ways to pass them. 

I think every teacher has had that student who, when confronted with breaking a rule, turns on an Oscar-quality performance, telling us that they did no such thing.  You’ve probably also had the student who can seem to turn the tears on and off at will, and who look at you with those big eyes brimming with tears begging us to overlook this egregious behavior “just this once”.  In my opinion, this is just another way of being sneaky about things.  These students have learned that if they are caught, they should prevaricate.

Students can’t do what they don’t know how to do.
For any desired behavior to actually happen, students have to be developmentally capable of it and they have to have been taught how to do it. 

For example, just saying “respect the teacher” doesn’t mean the child knows how to do that.  S/he may actually like the teacher very much, but the way s/he knows how to show that may be a long way off from what the teacher wants to see.

An example of this happened to a speech-language therapist working with kindergarten children.  Ms. X was seated on one of the tiny chairs and working with a small group of children, holding a conversation with them while in the regular classroom.  One of the girls in the class came up behind Ms. X, reached around her and squeezed both of Ms. X’s breasts saying, “honk, honk!”  Ms. X gently took the girls hands and pulled her around to face her.  “No, we don’t do that to ladies,” she said.  The little girl’s face crumpled, “But Daddy does that to Mommy all the time, and she likes it!”  Ms. X staggered into my office, laughing so hard she could barely walk, to share that story with me.  After laughing myself, I wound up having to call the child’s parents to suggest the adults be cognizant of how children soak up things like a sponge, and that children do not have filters about what is okay for some and not okay for others.

While this story is funny, it illustrates my case in point:  children do not always know what we mean by rules and sometimes they have learned a different way of doing something than what we had in mind.  Many teachers have a rule about “respect.”  Yet signs of respect differ by family and by culture.  What the teacher means by respect may be entirely different than what the child has learned about respect.

I remember all too well asking a child if they were allowed to walk on the furniture at home.  He looked at me with what appeared to be sincere confusion and said, “Yes.”

Children have to be taught how to follow certain rules.  Just telling them isn’t enough.  Just as we have to do with procedures, many children must be taught, have the opportunity to practice, and have their efforts reinforced before they can follow a particular rule.

Children can’t do what they are not able to do.
Rules are sometimes things children are not capable of doing. 

One aspect of this is developmental.  Asking a kindergartener to sit still is not practical.  A five year old’s concept of sitting still is to squirm and wiggle and tap and twist and tie themselves into knots.  Expecting something different is like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket.  It isn’t going to happen. 

Expecting a teenager to sit up straight is a terrific goal.  We adults know that they will be healthier in the long run and feel better in the short run.  But teenagers slump.  It is the nature of the beast.  Having a rule that says “sit up straight” doesn’t make sense when it is so very difficult for a teenager to comply.

Another aspect has to do with who the rule is really for.  A first grader is not usually responsible for setting an alarm, getting up when the alarm goes off, getting his/her clothes on and hair combed, etc.  It is an adult’s responsibility for that to happen.  The rule says that students are not to be tardy to school, but punishing the child doesn’t make sense.  It is not his/her fault if the parent oversleeps or has a flexible interpretation of “on time”.  On the other hand, a high school student is much more capable of all of the above, and it makes sense to hold him/her accountable for being to school on time.

Teachers focus on the negative.
Probably the most damaging aspect of focusing on rules has to do with the teacher’s attitude.

I’ve written many times about the power of a teacher’s attitude and beliefs.  If a teacher believes something about a student, even if the teacher never vocalizes that belief, and even if the teacher consciously believes s/he is treating everyone the same, the teacher will subconsciously act on that belief by treating some students differently.

If the teacher is focused on whether or not students follow rules, s/he will most likely watch for students who are breaking the rules rather than noticing those who are following the rules.  It may be an unusual thing for Susie Creamcheese to misbehave and the teacher noticing her disobedience will likely keep Susie in check.  However, THAT student already has a reputation for being out of line.  If the teacher is focused on seeing who is violating the rules, s/he will notice THAT student more often than not.

THAT student may have learned that any attention is better than no attention, but that is not what we really want the students to learn. 

What do we want students to learn about rules and behavior?  Most of us want students to learn how to self-regulate, to have self-discipline, and to do the right thing even when no one is watching.  Rules don’t teach that.  In fact, rules themselves do not teach.  It is the teacher – or parent, or peer – who teaches about behavior.  Rules are a tool teachers can use to draw a line in the sand that says “this I will tolerate in this classroom and this I will not tolerate”.  Rules allow a teacher to enforce behavioral expectations with negative consequences or punishments.  But rules only work a little bit, and may instead be elicit the responses outlined above.   

I challenge you to consider what it is that you are trying to accomplish with the rules you’ve selected for your classroom.  Are any of the rules you have making you the enemy in students’ eyes?  Are they making students better at hiding misbehavior?  Are the students able to follow the rules?  Are you so busy watching for students breaking the rules that you aren’t able to see the good things they are doing? 

Make a few notes about these thoughts so you don’t forget them.  We’ll come back to those ideas in the weeks ahead.

Look for more about Roe’s Rules for Rules in upcoming posts.

Photo by Miguel Constantin Montes from Pexels

Does THAT Student have ADD/ADHD?

Most of us learned a little about children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in college.  For example, I learned that kids with ADHD couldn’t stop moving and would fidget and squirm in their seats and could not concentrate on anything longer than a few seconds.  My professors told me that these children would calm down when given an amphetamine like ritalin, while those who did not have this disorder would “speed up”.   I was taught that the best place in the classroom for this student was right up front, next to the teacher.  The idea was that if he was sitting there, he would know the teacher had her eye on him and he would control his behavior.  And I was taught that setting up a system of negative consequences and rewards would get him/her to control his/her behavior once and for all.  Further, I learned from various sources that ADHD is a “made up” disorder and that what looks like ADHD is really the result of bad parenting or inappropriate school curriculum.

Does this sound familiar to you?  What if I told you that all of the above were myths?

Myth 1:  ADD and ADHD are “made up” disorders.
The truth is that these are both recognized mental and physical conditions.  People with ADD or ADHD have meaningful differences in their brains, how they process information, and their impulse control.  ADD and ADHD are neurological disorders that have been around for a very long time, but were not recognized as a particular health issue until the last 50 or 60 years.  Even then there were some who labeled children with symptoms of the disorder as “lazy”, “stupid”, “incapable of learning”, etc.

Myth 2:  Children with ADD or ADHD are lazy, stupid, or just plain bad.
It is estimated that the majority of children with ADD or ADHD are above average in intelligence.  They sometimes appear less capable because the work they are asked to do does not hold their attention, or because they are wiggling and squirming when the teacher wants them to pay attention.  They sometimes get the label “lazy” because they do not do school work for a variety of reasons or lose it before they can turn it in.  And ADD/ADHD is not a character flaw.  It is a neurological disorder.

Myth 3:  If a child has ADD or ADHD, s/he just needs to take medication.
First of all, the “test” of ADD or ADHD is not whether or not the child responds to amphetamines in a particular way is outdated.  Doctors who specialize in ADD and ADHD have much more sophisticated ways of determining whether or not the child has the syndrome.

Second, medication works for some children, but not for all.  Some children cannot tolerate the medication, meaning the side effects are dangerous.  For some, those side effects can include an inability to eat, an inability to sleep, increased blood pressure, nervousness, increased irritability when the medication wears off, headaches and stomachaches, moodiness, and overall increased irritability.  The result is that not every person can tolerate the various medications that are used for ADD or ADHD.  And the medication has little to no effect on some.

Third, sadly, our schools cannot control all of the bullying that takes place.  Children who must go to the nurse at particular times of the day to get medication are often the butt of bullying behavior.  Some of the language of that bullying has crept into our everyday language:  “take a chill pill” or “did you forget your meds today”.  This is a reason why some families choose to not medicate their children.

Myth 4:  ADD or ADHD is the result of bad parenting.
Parents can do everything completely right and still have a child who struggles with his/her ADD or ADHD.  Yes, there are parents who let their children “get away with murder”, and there are parents who are too strict with their ADHD children, but the syndrome is neurological, not the result of childhood conditioning. 

However, it is true that having a child with ADD/ADHD can get to a parent’s last nerve.  It can put an enormous strain on the family and can result in parents trying every which way to cope with their child.  This can result in being too harsh, too indulgent, and even in seeking “cures” from both good and fraudulent sources. 

I recall one family that would bundle their child off to the doctor every time they received a negative phone call.  They would ask the doctor to give the child different medication each time.  Sometimes this happened a couple of times in a single week.  The parents believed that medication would create a cure instead of making controlling behavior a little bit easier.  It certainly did not help the child. 

Parents who are caught up in trying desperately to find a way to cope with their “atypical” child really need help from the school rather than blame.  Telling the parent whenever the child has done something the teacher finds unacceptable puts further strain on the family.  Many, if not most, parents experience that as blaming the parents and they can respond with guilt, anger, or frustration.  That, in turn, can alienate parents from the school, and make them believe that the school, and the teacher are “out to get” their child. 

What parents really need is to hear when the child does something good.  If the teacher has not started the year out this way, it make take some serious effort to look for and find good things to tell families about THAT student, but the rewards are great.

Myth 5:  A child with ADD or ADHD needs parents and teachers willing to use strict behavior modification.
Behavior modification is when a person receives negative consequences when s/he chooses to do something like act out, and receives rewards when s/he chooses to do something “right”.  The problem with this approach with children with ADD or ADHD is that word “choose.”  ADD and ADHD are neurological disorders, not the result of choice.  Some children may benefit from some negative consequences, but the majority do not.  After all, if one cannot choose to have one’s brain respond in certain ways, how will a detention or a phone call home (common negative consequences) help?  If one cannot choose how one’s brain responds, how will a trip to the “treasure chest” or a sticker (common rewards) help?

The use of this kind of behavior management system may help in the short term, but it does not help in the long run.  Many with ADD or ADHD have said that they could never get a reward, that they tried their very hardest but they were only punished over and over again.  The result of this is often that the child learns to hate school, to believe the teacher is out to get him.  It can also backfire.  Some students over time become willing to accept negative consequences as a badge of honor.

What many of us learned in college, to have the child sit up front and next to the teacher comes out of this thinking.  However, many classrooms do not have a “front” and a good classroom manager is not going to remain in the front of the classroom or at his/her desk.  Putting a child with ADD/ADHD up front can have a negative effect on the whole classroom because it puts the child and his/her behavior where everyone can see it.  This can break down the child’s relationships with peers. 

I abandoned this strategy after having a class that consistently pointed out what the child with ADHD was doing:  “Ms. Roe!  He’s doing it again!”  I finally realized I was the grown up in the room and that I was much more capable of ignoring fidgeting, squirming, and seat dancing to an imaginary tune better than the children.  I moved that child to the back corner where fewer of his peers would see what he was doing.  I also resolved to allow him to do all of those “hyper” behaviors unless he was disrupting the class.  Life became so much better for me and for that particular student!

What the children need to learn most is a set of strategies s/he can use to cope with the demands of school, and to reach his/her learning potential.

Myth 6:  It’s not ADD/ADHD if the child can pay attention to something and not to others.
Many with ADD/ADHD demonstrate a behavior called “hyperfocus”.  This means that s/he is so fixated on a particular thing that is it is difficult to change to another behavior.  With my son, it was electronic screens – video games or computer screens.  He used to describe it as being sucked into the screen.  To change his focus, I would have to literally get between him and the screen.  Like many with ADD/ADHD changing that focus was difficult and often resulted in angry behavior. 

We see this in the classroom when a child does not respond well to changing activities.  She may continue to work on that math problem even after being told to put math away and get out the science book.  He may whine or act out when told it is time to stop one thing and start another.  Children with ADD/ADHD often benefit from having a quiet timer set up so that they can see how much time is left for an activity, or by the teacher telling the class, “We will be cleaning up in 5 minutes so start getting yourself to a stopping place.”

Children with ADD/ADHD also tend to perseverate.  That means they will continue to do or say something even after the time for that behavior has passed.  For example, the child may repeat a word over and over again, or look for a lost paper in only one or two places because the paper should be in one of those two spots even though it is not in either of those locations.  Sometimes this can look like OCD behavior.  That can be alarming for a teacher the first time they realize that it is perseveration, but please remember to use compassion – the kid just really cannot help it.

Myth 7:  ADD/ADHD is really the result of a poor curriculum.
Teachers are not really in charge of curriculum.  They are hired to teach the district’s curriculum.  But, if you are a teacher, you already know that.  I think maybe the people who say that mean “teaching strategies” rather than “curriculum”. 

There may be some truth to the idea that there are some teaching strategies that are better for kids with ADD/ADHD.  Lecture classes, or classes where students are expected to “sit and get” are probably less suited to them.  However, there is a good argument to say that those type of classes are not good for most students. 

My advice is to remember this “Roe’s Rule”:  The person who does the most work is the person doing the most learning.  That is, if the teacher is doing the most work, then the students are not doing the most learning.  Instead, creating lessons where students do the work is most likely to result in them learning the most.  For example, when I was teaching, the state said every eighth grader was to have a course in Indigenous People in the state.  The social studies teacher complained that she wouldn’t have time to teach everything else if she had to teach all of the “stuff” the state said the kids had to learn about Indigenous People.  I suggested that she form the class up into groups and have each group learn about a particular group, then teach the rest of the class what they learned.  That could be done in several different ways including a Jig Saw method.

There are many myths about people with ADD/ADHD.  We educators need to keep learning about this and other conditions that make a student different from the so-called typical student.  As a nation, we tend to pride ourselves on all being individuals, so shouldn’t we look at each of the students in our class as individuals?  Equity doesn’t mean treating everyone the same.  It means treating each in the way they need most. 

Special Education Students and General Education Teachers

A study released in May 2018 showed that the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities is “lagging”  (Heasley, 2018).  The study examined trends in having such students taught in regular education classes since the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) passed in 1976 through 2014.  IDEA requires that students with disabilities be placed in the “least restrictive environment”, meaning that they should be placed in a regular education classroom as much as possible.

I’ve read several articles about this study and I’ve found that there seems to be some confusion about what the term “intellectual disability” means.  I won’t go into a complete definition here but the term is generally used to describe students who have problems with general mental abilities that affect functioning in two areas:  intellectual functioning (such as learning, problem solving, judgement) and adaptive functioning (activities of daily life such as communication and independent living).  Some of the articles included students with ADHD, receptive and expressive language issues, those with poor social skills, etc.

This got me to thinking about teachers and special education inclusion. 

I do not think there are any teachers who believe that inclusion is bad for students.  The majority would say that inclusion has real, tangible benefits both for the student with special needs and for the general population of PK-12 students.  On the other hand, there are many teachers who believe that they are not the best person to work with special needs students.  A person outside of education, would, I think be unlikely to understand why that is, and would probably cast those teachers in a negative light.

All teachers take a course or two about special needs students.  At the college where I taught, this class was a 100 level class meaning it was generally taken by freshmen.  Another course in assessment was required for elementary education majors; this course primarily focused on special education assessment but was also supposed to include assessments teachers might use for “regular education” students. 

I taught an upper level course on classroom management and I found that, almost without exception, these pre-service teachers had a limited view of special education and almost no understanding of various behavioral issues that a special education student might demonstrate.  To a student, none knew anything about specific behavior disorders.

This is not to condemn those who teach classes about exceptional learners.  Not by a long shot!  Understanding students with disabilities and what it means to work with these students in the general education classroom is simply too much for one, three credit hour class.  In addition, in my experience, few freshmen can fully grasp the topic.  It is not because freshmen are deficit in any way.  It is because they are usually quite young, 18-19 years old.  They are usually away from home for the first time and exploring how to be independent from their parents.  In addition, college learning differs significantly from PK-12 learning.  College students are expected to have the discipline to do most of the educating on their own – for every hour of credit, the student is expected to do two hours of work outside of what is happening in the classroom.  In other words, the college student is expected to be in charge of his/her learning whereas the high school teacher is expected to “make” students learn. 

This is a very difficult transition for many young people.

Those who major in special education may receive more specific training in working with students with special needs, but those teachers are the ones destined for the “special education classroom” and for collaborating with regular education teachers who are working with special needs students.

So why don’t colleges require students to take more classes where they learn more about working with special needs students? 

Have you looked at the requirements education majors must meet?  Where I taught education majors, the list of classes that met requirements for an elementary teacher meant that an elementary education major could not take any electives unless s/he wanted to add a semester or so onto his/her college time.  Few students want to do that.  As it is, elementary education majors often have to take 16 or 18 credit hours per semester even though 12 credit hours per semester is considered full time. 

Many college professionals recognize that education could easily become a 5 year degree, or even a 6 year degree if courses and field experiences were added to ensure that all of the education majors were adept at teaching their own subjects and special education.  I have heard of only a handful of colleges that have made this a requirement.  The thinking is that students will vote with their feet, avoiding the 5 year programs in favor of those who say they can get the student through the program in 4 years.

Photo by nappy from Pexels

There are many outside of education who believe that the regular education teacher receives significant support from the special education teacher.  The special education teacher is supposed to help that regular education teacher find accommodations to use to help the student with special needs meet the same expectations as the other students in the classroom, and with modifications if the special education student is expected to be held to a different standard.  Many believe the special education teacher will be working along side the regular education teacher, co-teaching and collaborating.  And, really, that’s the way it is supposed to be!  But how many sp. ed. teachers are really able to do that? 

Consider an elementary sp. ed. teacher.  States use a number of plans to determine how many students a sp. ed. teacher has on her caseload.  There are students with whom she simply consults with the regular education teacher, students who are expected to have the teacher or another trained professional working with them for a significant part of the day, and everything in between.

The sp. ed. teacher might have students in multiple classrooms who are supposed to be receiving services from a “trained professional” at the same time.  She has to create a schedule where she is in this classroom for this amount of time, and that classroom for a different amount of time.  She has to have the time during the day to meet with the general education teachers for collaboration.  She has to have time to administer alternate assessments for some students, and assessments with accommodations for other students.  She must write and update Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and report on students’ progress to various people.  She must work with the parents of the students, too.  And she is expected to direct para-professionals on what to do with the students with whom they work. 

This is probably not half of what most special education teachers have to accomplish.

Some districts hire aides or para-professionals to work with special education students on a one-to-one basis.  Many districts pay only minimum wage to these aides and keep them under 30 hours per week so that they are not considered full time and do not receive benefits.  As a result, few of the aides can truly be considered “trained professionals”.  Some states require special education aides to receive training, but this training varies.  It could be an online overview of special education, or it could be a few hours of face-to-face instruction through a college, tech school, or district led inservice training.  Few states require special education aides to have a baccalaureate, and few states require aids to receive a salary commensurate with that level of training.

In short, most sp. ed. teachers wish they could be cloned so that there was enough of them to go around.

What this means for the general education teacher is that s/he is expected to accommodate or modify lessons for the special needs students assigned to them, find alternative materials as needed, work with the students developing social skills, helping the students change negative behaviors, etc. 

I’m sure there are many, many regular education teachers who are delivering fantastic services to special needs students!  My point is that those wonderful regular education teachers often have to figure out how to do all of that often based on what they were supposed to have learned in one or two college classes.

Some school districts try to “fix” the problem by integrating students with IEPs into “specials” like art, music, and physical education.  I used to be an art teacher, and I used to be a special education teacher.  My training as an art teacher did little to help me understand how to accommodate or modify art activities for special education students.  Special subject teachers in general receive no more training in working with special needs students than any other “regular” teacher.

As a special educator, I worked primarily with students with behavior disorders (BD).  Out of that experience, I’ve seen that it is very difficult for a regular education teacher to work with a BD student and assure that the other students in the class are learning.  By definition, BD students have problems with their behavior and can disrupt a regular education class regularly.  Regular education teachers can become frustrated and resentful if they are expected to work with a BD student without intensive support.  That frustration and resentment is communicated to the students in very subtle ways, even when the teacher truly does not want to project that.  (See the blog posts about teacher attitude.)  I found it was to the BD student’s benefit to keep him/her in a special education classroom where we could work intensely on his/her behavior, and to slowly integrate the student into regular classes. 

It takes a teacher with super powers to provide for everything a special needs student needs to be successful academically!

My hat is off to those teachers and paraprofessionals who are working hard to provide the best educational opportunities for both the “regular” and the “special” student!

In my opinion, that is why so many students with IEPs are served in classrooms separate from their general education peers.  It is not ideal.  It is not the intent of the law. 

And that is why, in my opinion, why we do not see an 80% or better inclusion rate.

If we really want special education students to be included in the regular classroom 80% of the day or more, we need to provide supports for both the students and the teachers.  We need more special education teachers and more training for regular education teachers.  And most teachers would say they also need fewer students – smaller class sizes or caseloads.

Sadly, I suspect that the student mentioned at the beginning will spur state agencies and local school districts to boost the number of students in the regular education classroom.  I also suspect that there will be no requirement for additional training for teachers or paras.

If you are a special education teacher, please have some compassion and empathy for the regular education teacher.  Help him/her develop effective accommodations and modifications.

If you are a regular education teacher, work as closely as you can with the special education teacher and recognize that s/he is probably doing the best s/he can with all of the things s/he is expected to do.

I encourage all teachers to request more training in working with special needs students, and I encourage all teachers to seek out more information themselves.  Advocate for the students by advocating for more support and training for all of the adults who work with special needs kids.  Remember:  being positive about what you do, tends to get more results that telling people how bad your day is!  We catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

The kids deserve it and so do you!

Take your advocacy a step further:  let your local school board know what you must do each day and how you do it.  Do this in a positive, informational way.  Help state and federal representatives know how the legal expectations for special needs children play out in the classroom. 

Let everyone know what the good things are that go on in your classroom and how students benefit from your dedication to the education all students. 

I hope I can do you a service by suggesting ways to work with THAT student in your classroom!

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Giving Back

Sometimes giving back is the greatest gift and one that helps students understand basic needs better.

In several schools in which I worked, we would plan to give personal hygiene and car products to the local women’s shelter or the homeless shelter in the area. 

Here is how we did it:

Each grade level would decide on an item to contribute.  The grade would brainstorm some ways of raising money so that each student would be able to contribute one of the selected items.  The teachers would ask parents to contribute one of the selected items in the name of the child in the grade if they were able to do so.  Families that could, contributed more than one item.  Families that could not were covered by the funding plan.

The items we collected were:

  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Washcloth
  • Soap
  • Lip balm
  • Shampoo

If we had additional grades in the building, the following could be collected”

  • Dental floss
  • Body lotion
  • Hand sanitizer
  • toenail clipper

The teachers would compose a short note to the intended recipients to be included in the package and would contribute boxes of Ziploc bags.  I suspect that some of the disposable plastic containers would work well, too.

When the items were collected, the older grades would help sort the items into plastic zip closure bags.  We’d set it all up like an assembly line.  Each student would take a plastic bag and then put one of each item into the bag, zip it closed (often with the help of an adult) and then drop it into a box.

We did a variation on this project for victims of a tornado one year.  Each grade made a Christmas ornament – you know, the ones that are often made by elementary children, the ones moms and grandparents cherish.  Those are often lost in a catastrophic event like a tornado.  We made a package containing one of each kind of ornament and, by contacting local churches, send a package to each family who had lost the most.  We received many phone calls and letters from families who told us that the ornaments helped them remember the ones their children had made and that had been lost. 

When teaching at the university level, two of my students spearheaded a project for a capstone class they were required to take.  They contacted local organizations and businesses and put together backpacks with various items in them for foster children.  Foster children may wind up moving to a new home or environment at a moment’s notice and often are not able to take much if anything along.

Has your school done anything like this?  Share your story!