The Fourth of July always seems to mark when I start
thinking about school again. I take a
walk and see an unusual stone and pick it up for the classroom. A friend starts to throw out something and I
snag it thinking I can use it for this or that.
I’m sure you have had similar experiences.
It is also time when we start thinking about the students we
will have in the coming year. We look
forward to getting to know new students to the grade. As pleasant as that can be, we worry a bit
about THAT student, the one we’ve heard so much about, or have had in class
before. Thinking about THAT student can
tie our stomachs in knots.
The teachers I know report that the number of challenging
students has changed, and the kind of behavior these students demonstrate has
become more violent.
Articles about the nation’s schools seem to indicate that
the number of students with behavior problems has not actually increased, but
that the intensity of their behavior has.
What can teachers do now to have a better 2019-2020 school year?
The first step to find a way to make ourselves think about
THAT student’s behavior in a different way.
Every time a student acts out, she is sending a message. We must think like detectives to decode the
message. We cannot just conclude the
behavior stems from some fundamental core of “bad child”.
The fact is that less than 1% of the whole population can be
considered psychopaths, people who do not have that little voice inside their
heads telling them what they are doing is right or wrong, people who can be
considered “bad” in their souls. This
means that the student who throws a temper tantrum, who swears at the teacher,
who flinches when someone comes near them, or who seems to over-react to the
simplest thing is not bad. They are not
trying to get on your last nerve. They
are sending you a message.
This is where we have to start looking at patterns.
Some are easier to see than others. The child who has to use the bathroom the minute the class is supposed to work on math is likely trying to avoid math.
Other patterns are a bit more difficult to decipher.
There is much being written lately about the effects of
childhood trauma or exposure to trauma.
These students may have short tempers, meltdown easily, or be unable to
switch smoothly from one task to another.
Children who experience trauma have classroom difficulties
in five main areas: forming bonds with others,
hypervigilance, negative thinking, issues with self-regulation, and with
Forming bonds with others Clues we can expect to see are:
Being wary of adults
Suspecting adults have an ulterior motive for being nice to them
Not knowing how to make friends with other children
Being “clingy” with children and/or adults
Hypervigilance Hypervigilance is defined as being extremely alert for possible danger. Children who are hypervigilant may give these clues:
Flinching when someone comes too close
Requiring more personal space than other
Positioning himself on the edge of a group
Jumping or startling in situations that do not
seem to require that reaction
Consistently expressing that this child or that
is out to “get” her
Negative Thinking Negative thinking is, in essence, seeing the world as a glass half-empty. They have been led to believe they are “bad kids” and bad kids just don’t do well in school, or in life. Clues about negative thinking may be:
Figuring that adults or children are thinking poorly about them
Being a perfectionist, or giving up because he cannot understand something or do something quickly enough.
Believing the teacher’s behavior towards them has negative intent. For example, the teacher says, “Sit down,” but the child hears the teacher as if he has hollered the same words.
They melt-down or over-react to making mistakes. They may attempt to hide those mistakes or say the assignment is stupid and not worth the effort.
Self-regulation Self-regulation is the ability to wait to have one’s needs met. It can also be the ability to calm one’s self when one is feeling “big emotions”. Clues to watch for include:
Negative behavior that happens when the teacher’s
attention is focused on another student.
Negative behavior that happens when a peer’s
attention is focused on someone else.
Being easily angered, easily frustrated, easily
reduced to tears
Having to be first, first in line, first to be
called on, first to be noticed.
Issues with executive function “Executive function” is a bit like the role of a company’s CEO. She is the one that plans, organizes, and choses the company’s direction. Our brain’s executive function includes our ability plan, organize, pay attention, switch from on task to another, and makes choices about what to do now and what to do later. Clues that a student has difficulty with executive function include
Difficulties with organizing his desk, his
locker, his backpack
Appearing to fiddle around with things instead
of getting right to work
Appearing angry, overwhelmed, or lost when it is
time to transition from this task to another
Confusion about what to do first, second, next
Taking forever to complete a task
Giving up easily
Seeming to lose papers, pencils, books, and not
being able to locate them even when they are in plain sight
Students’ behavior tells us things about what is going on inside their immature brains. Situations that would not test an adult’s ability to function are already challenging to children. (Remember, the brain does not really reach maturity until it is 25 plus years old!) Those students who have experienced trauma find getting though the school day to be even more difficult than their peers do. Their behavior may seem naughty, irresponsible, or downright mean, but it is really the child telling us she is having difficulties in the only ways she knows how.
Teachers can do some things that other professionals cannot do as easily. They can try to teach students a different set of behaviors. They can demonstrate that adults can be trustworthy and positive role models. They can show kids they find something endearing about them even if they do not like all of the child’s behaviors.
Now is the time to think about THAT student’s behavior. Try thinking about the things THAT student does as messages, rather than malicious.
When we work with children who use a dialect of English or who have a different home language, we teach those children to “code-switch”, changing from speaking in one’s home language in some circumstances and switching to another language in other circumstances. We do not penalize the child. We teach him/her when each language is appropriate.
The same principle is true for behavior.
Children come to school with many ideas about what is the
best way to behave. What is okay at
Mindy’s house may be not okay at Henry’s house.
When these children do things that are not appropriate for school, we
can blame the parents and deplore the behavior, or we can plan how to teach
children what is acceptable at school.
When I was a principal, an eight year old boy was sent to my
office. I was on the phone, but he stormed
in and threw himself into the visitor’s chair.
He began talking before I finished my phone conversation. When I hung up, I interrupted him and said, “Charlie,
I am going to show you the school way to come to my office.” I showed him how to knock on the door frame
and to wait until I said, “Come in.”
Then I had him practice doing that.
At first I stood by him and praised what he did right and then corrected
any mistakes. When he had that down
pretty well, I sat at my desk and had him try the behavior on his own. We high fived when he got it right. Only then did I ask him why he was sent to
The school counselor watched this with her mouth hanging
open. Later she told me that most of the
teachers had given up on Charlie, believing he would never behave in the way
Charlie was sent to the office many times during that school
year, but he never forgot how to ask permission to come into the office.
I offer this story to show that kids can be taught exactly what to do in “the school way”. Phrasing it in these terms takes away the idea that what children do at home is wrong and what we do at school is right. That just makes children confused and parents alienated from the school system. Instead we need to say It is just a different way to behave in a certain situation. In other words, we are teaching the children to “code-switch” between a place where X behavior is appropriate and a place where Y behavior is expected.
It is difficult to do this at the end of the school year,
but we can plan to teach children to code-switch their behavior at the
beginning of the next school year. Here
is what to do:
Make a list of the behaviors children seemed to
have difficulty with in previous years and what you would rather the children
Prioritize the list. What behaviors are the most important
ones? By prioritizing your list, you
will know what behavior procedures you need to teach in the first few days of
school and which can be taught later on.
Decide when to teach the behavior. Something that is of paramount importance to
you might need to be taught before you begin the process of handing out books
or other beginning of the school year activities.
Decide how to teach the behavior. If you can teach the behavior in the context
of a subject area lesson, more power to you!
Explain the behavior.
Model the behavior. You may choose to first model a
non-example. If you do, model the
expected behavior, then the non-example, then the expected behavior again.
Have students practice the behavior.
Repeat steps A-D as needed.
Remember to re-teach the expected behaviors
regularly during the first couple of weeks.
Plan to remind students of the expected behavior after a long weekend or
a school holiday.
Teaching children to code-switch their behavior between “home behavior” and “school behavior” saves wear and tear on our nerves. The time we spend on teaching those behaviors up-front saves our stress level as the year goes on. In addition, it helps kids understand what to do in a given situation at school instead of just telling them they are wrong. Learning to “code-switch” behavior is a life skill worth cultivating.
You’ve just introduced students to the idea of subtraction
with regrouping. You’ve put the students
into small groups to work together to solve 5 problems. Aaron has contorted himself around his chair
and appears to be playing with something – whatever it is, he is not
interacting with his group. He spots you
looking at him and he immediately asks if he can sharpen his pencils. You gently say, “No, Aaron. It is time to work with your group on the
regrouping problems.” Aaron pouts and
crosses his arms in a huff. Inwardly,
you sigh. You’ve seen this behavior over
and over again.
One possible explanation for Aaron’s behavior is that he is
We often think of perfectionists as supremely confident individuals to whom most things seem to come easily. We think of perfectionism as ultimately leading to success. The truth is these stereotypes are rarely, if ever, true.
Perfectionists are often anxious and fearful. They fear being seen as a failure. These fears can manifest themselves in the
classroom in many ways.
Doesn’t take risks in learning This is the student to always seems to keep to the easier “stuff”. He will choose books below his instructional reading level. She will copy others’ creative or open-ended answers for fear of having a product or answer that is different from others.
Avoids tasks, especially challenging new work This is the student who seems to ask to use the bathroom whenever he is asked to do something new in a subject. She regularly starts a different task or continues with a previous task instead of what she was asked to do.
Gives up easily This is the student who declares, “This is stupid” and gives up. She huffs and pouts and becomes stubborn.
Is exceptionally slow when working This is the student who draws each letter in a sentence in slow motion. She seems to take forever to get anything done.
Has a meltdown when mistakes are pointed out or when s/he makes a mistake This is the student who has us tiptoeing around telling him about what he got wrong because we are afraid he will throw a temper tantrum, or she will start shouting and overturning desks.
Uses diversionary tactics This is the student who tried to get you and the class off-task or off topic. She will ask questions that have nothing to do with the subject at hand. He knows what can get the teacher off on a different subject, telling stories, or reminiscing about something else. When he is successful, the lesson stalls and suddenly it is the end of the class period or it is time for a “special”.
Procrastinates The student avoids getting started on an assignment or project, or simply doesn’t hand something in. She figures that if she doesn’t get started she won’t be up against the possibility of failure. If he never handed anything in, he can say, “I could have done great on that, but it just wasn’t worth my time.”
Many students are often masters at hiding their perfectionism. We think he can’t possibly be a perfectionist because he doesn’t dress or groom himself well, his desk or locker or backpack is a disaster area, his handwriting is sloppy, or he loses things with alarming regularity. It fits with the stereotypes we have about perfectionists when we think a student cannot be a perfectionist because she is not “perfect” in every area of her life. Yet perfectionists often seek “perfection” in only one or a few aspects of his/her life
How can you spot a perfectionist?
Look for the behaviors above and watch for
patterns in behavior. Being slow at
completing an assignment once can be attributed to having a bad day. Twice might be a coincidence, but three times
can be a pattern.
Examine your own stereotypes about
Think about why a student might demonstrate a
particular behavior in that particular time and in that particular place. What is she attempting to get or avoid with
the behavior. Don’t fall into the trap
of thinking “she just wants attention”.
Attention-getting behaviors quite often are far more complex than a simple
bid for attention. We have to ask
ourselves why he wants that kind of attention at that particular moment.
What can I do if I think one or more of my students are
Model making mistakes When I first started teaching, I would be horrified if I made a mistake when students could see it. I came to realize that often children do not have particularly good role models for making mistakes. They may have adults in their lives who do not ever seem to make mistakes, or who use any or all of the coping strategies listed above. It can be empowering for students to see an adult make mistakes without the world coming to an end.
Model how to recover from making mistakes. Showing students that you can laugh at your mistakes or that you can learn from them is a valuable lesson for them. I used to tell students to carefully watch what I was writing on the board and to try to catch me in making a spelling mistake. It provided an opportunity to apply phonics skills and kept students engaged, even if they were only engaged in seeing if I goofed. When I student caught me in a spelling error, I would ask the student to spell the word for me while I corrected my mistake on the board. Then I’d write his name on the board with a tally mark after it. At the end of the lesson, or the day, or the week (it depended on the age of the students), I would ask everyone who caught me in a mistake to take a bow while the class gave them a round of applause.
Demonstrate thinking about how to learn from mistakes. Pretending to make a mistake when doing that subtraction with regrouping problem on the board, and thinking aloud about how to both recognize the mistake and how to learn from it helps students understand the process. Try marking papers with the number correct over the number possible on the page. For example, if there were 12 possible answers on an assignment and the student got 3 wrong, write 9/12 as the score rather than a percentage or a letter. This puts the focus on what the student did right and not on what s/he did wrong. Allow students to discuss with other students where they went wrong. You can try putting them into small groups based on what they got wrong (Everyone who got sidetracked with problem 11 meet here) or in mixed groups to review each part of an assignment. You can even have a discussion on what may have happened on a particular part of an assignment. For example, “I noticed that about half the class had difficulty with ___. Who will share with the class their strategy that helped them figure out what to do instead?” This latter can only happen in a class where students have become comfortable with making and learning from errors.
Anticipate common errors and show students how to avoid those. Teachers can anticipate the ways that students will get new concepts wrong. With the subtraction with regrouping example, we can predict that students will make these common errors. If we can anticipate that someone will likely make these mistakes we can incorporate that into our lesson. For example, say, “A lot of times people get mixed up about how exactly to subtract with regrouping. I’m going to write some mixed up problems on the board and I want you to try to figure out where I went wrong. Now don’t get tricked!”
Don’t get tricked vs. don’t make a mistake Mistakes are scary to many students, but avoiding getting tricked is a game. When a teacher frames “mistakes” as trying to avoid getting tricked, it casts the possible mistake in the light of a puzzle. Children who might react negatively to making a mistake often see puzzles as fun to do, and delight in outwitting the task or teacher.
Try to set aside our own perfectionist tendencies. Teachers are no different from other human beings. There are many of us who are perfectionists, who fear making mistakes, and who see our own fallibility as something shameful. We can convey those beliefs to students. If we are more comfortable with making mistakes, we can convey that attitude as well.
We often do not think of THAT student as a perfectionist yet that exact trait may be what makes THAT student do THAT. We can look for the signs of perfectionism and create a class culture that helps students cope with being imperfect and learning from our imperfections.
What went wrong with those subtraction problems?
61 – 17 = 56: The
student subtracted the 1 from the 7, inverting the ones column.
62 – 17 = 58: The
student added the ones column.
62 – 17 =
54: The student regrouped, subtracting 7
from 11, but did not write down the regrouping in the 10s column so he
subtracted 10 from 60 instead of 10 from 50.
62 – 17 = 52:
The student made the 1 a 10 and subtracted 7.
62 – 17 = 1:
The student added 6+1 to get 7, and 1+7 to get 8. She then subtracted the smaller number (7)
from the larger number (8) to get 1.
Depression in children is tricky to diagnose. Children who are depressed do not always have
the same symptoms as adults.
The list of possible symptoms is long. Here I am going to look at those we are most
likely to see at school.
Grouchy, crabby, or prickly and prone to anger Some children act out when they are depressed. They take offense at the littlest thing. They grump and complain through the day, refusing to do this or that or becoming angry and shouting or saying something offensive.
Verbal outbursts or crying The irritability can lead to children to talk back, blurt out, or even cry. Often these behaviors seem to come out of the blue and finding the antecedent is difficult.
Short Attention Span Almost all children distract easily and children do not have the
attention span of an adult. One rule of
thumb is that children usually have an attention span of their age in
minutes. That is, a five year old would
have about a five minute ability to focus, a ten year old would have ten
minutes, etc. Children of any age must
practice stamina to stick with an activity.
A depressed child may have an even shorter attention span, or an uneven
one where s/he can be focused for X minutes today but only half that tomorrow.
Social Withdrawal A depressed child may pull away from his/her usual friends. S/he way stand on the sidelines during recess
when s/he used to be actively engaged in kickball or swinging from the monkey
bars. When working in small groups, s/he
may be quiet, apparently day-dreaming instead of joining in.
Rejection A depressed child may seem to over-react when s/he feels rejected. If a friend wants to play with someone else
s/he may act out or cry. If s/he gets a
low score on a test, s/he may act as if it is the end of the world. Things that other children are able shrug off
seem to hit the depressed child like a ton of bricks.
Sometimes we pass these behaviors off as the child being immature for his/her age. We may characterize him/her as “needy” or “moody”.
Of course, all children demonstrate these symptoms from time
to time. A child may be depressed if
these behaviors persist. This is where
is careful record-keeping can help.
There are many ways to keep track of children’s
behaviors. Some teachers have a three
ring binder with alphabet tabs and a sheet of paper for each child. Others keep a card file box with a card for
I’m afraid those teachers are far more organized than I
am. I learned to have a file folder for
each child. I would jot down a thought
or an observation about a child on any scrap of paper, date it and drop it into
the file folder. When it was time to
talk to a parent or colleagues about the child, I would take out the file and
organize the slips of paper into chronological order. I could add to the information to expand on
my chicken scratches.
You may have an entirely different system that works for
you. The important thing is to jot down
the behaviors you observe so that you can report it as needed.
If we see a child who persistently shows the behaviors, or
some of the behaviors above, we can say, “Kathryn seems to be depressed.” We are not psychologists so we cannot
diagnose, but we can express our concerns.
If we see some of the symptoms above, we do have an
obligation to report them to the child’s parent and to ask for assistance from
the school counselor or behavior intervention team.
Sadly, when I was a principal, I often saw children who
seemed depressed who had gathered such a negative reputation that teachers
labeled them as “bad”, “naughty”, or said the child didn’t care, or was doing
this or that “because she just wants attention”.
Take a look at THAT student. Try to look past the frustration that you feel about his/her behaviors. Could s/he be depressed? Sometimes even just considering that there is a cause for the behavior aside from seeking attention or trying to deliberately get under the teacher’s skin can change how we feel about THAT child.
I am taking a little break from writing about good rules and
poor rules to address a concern I’ve heard frequently over the past several months. What I’ve heard over and over again is people
saying that the solution for chaotic schools is to get rid of those students who
are disruptive so teachers can work with the students “who want to learn.” These comments have come from those in education,
and those outside of education.
I want to start by saying that I can hear the frustration in
the voices of those who express these ideas.
The teachers who say it are stressed and often bewildered by what is happening. People outside of education are often saying this
because it angers them that their loved ones have such a poor work environment,
or are expressing nostalgia for the “good old days” when allegedly students behaved
No matter what age one lived in, there have always been disruptive
students in the schools. Yes, we did deal
with those students differently in the past.
They were often urged to drop out of school, even as young as in elementary
school. Their absence did make schools more
peaceful, but at what cost?
In my grandparents, or even my parents time, it was possible
for a person to be functionally illiterate and to still make a decent living for
themselves and for their families. There
were factory jobs or manual labor jobs where one did not need to read, write, or
do math at all, or not at a very high level.
That has changed dramatically in the second half of the 20th century
and even more so in the first decade of the 21st.
Using figures from a PBS article describing an episode of Frontline called Dropout Nation from 2012, we
can see that even six years ago, the cost of dropping out of school is expensive,
not just to the drop out but to society as well.
The average dropout can expect to earn an annual
income of $20,241. . . That’s a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate,
and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree.
While the national unemployment rate stood at 8.1 percent in August [of 2012], joblessness among
those without a high school degree measured 12 percent. Among college graduates,
it was 4.1 percent.
According to the Department of Education.
Dropouts experienced a poverty rate of 30.8 percent, while those with at least a
bachelor’s degree had a poverty rate of 13.5 percent.
Among dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24, incarceration
rates were a whopping 63 times higher than among college graduates, according to
a study by researchers at Northeastern University
When compared to the typical high school graduate
— a dropout will end up costing taxpayers an average of $292,000 over a lifetime
due to the price tag associated with incarceration and other factors such as how
much less they pay in taxes. (Breslow, 2012)
These are dismal
figures. Worse, additional research
shows that this “by the numbers” snapshot is getting darker, not better.
further, each state has set their own age where a student may drop out of
Age for drop out varies.
This figure is in the individual states’ hands. Most have set the legal age at 16. However, fifteen states and the District of
Columbia set the legal drop out age at 18.
Nine have set it at 17. As of
2011, six states, including Iowa were debating raising the minimum dropout age
to 18. In other words, 38 states plus
the District of Columbia have or are considering raising the age when a student
can legally leave school. (K12 Academics, 2011)
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest
teachers’ union, advocates for raising the legal dropout age to 21. Why?
The NEA cites much of the above information and adds that a study done
at MIT shows that more than a quarter of the students considering dropping out
of school stay in because of compulsory attendance laws. (National Education Association, 2012)
So we see that there is a high cost to the student and to
society when young people drop out of school.
But that leads us to the next strand of this issue: what is the connection between using
in-school suspension, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and dropping
First we have to look at suspension and expulsion, why
schools do and don’t use it.
In the aftermath of mass school shootings in the 1990s, new
policies were put in place at the federal, state, and local levels regarding
students bring guns or other weapons to school, and how we handled violent
students. These policies came to be
called “zero tolerance” policies because any student who brought weapons to
school or who were too violent were expected to be taken out of the school – we
were to have no or zero tolerance for such behavior.
I was a school principal when “zero tolerance” became the
buzzword in conversations about school discipline. In districts all around mine and across the
country, students were being suspended for “offenses” as small as bring a knife
in their lunch box to cut up an apple, making their fingers into “guns” and
having imaginary gun battles, and bringing their grandfather’s pocket knife to
show and tell. I believed that such a
strict interpretation of the zero tolerance policies was absurd and I refused
to suspend the kindergartener who brought that pocket knife to school, although
I did keep it in my desk until his parents could come get it. I was much more concerned with the intent
behind the behavior than actually bringing the item to school or playing “cops
and robbers”. At that time, I often
declared that if someone wanted to take me to court over it, I figured no judge
would condemn me. I still stand by that
Yet many did not and school suspensions and expulsions rose
dramatically. However, during the Obama
administration, states and schools were sent a policy memo asking for a more
moderate interpretation of the policy requirements. Sadly, after the Parkland shooting, federal
level law makers have called for a return to the literal interpretation of “zero
tolerance” and for increasingly punitive responses to student behaviors.
We have had two decades to study the results of those zero
tolerance policies and to see if they do indeed work. The short answer is “No, they do not work.” Why?
A synthesis of a number of studies shows that schools that
have high suspension rates demonstrate low academic performance rates for the
school. These performance rates are
those measured by whatever academic assessment has been required by the
state. Additionally, studies of student
attitudes show that schools that have a high number of suspensions have
students and families who believe the school to be punitive instead of trying
to help students and their families. The
students in the studies often cited the reason for a suspended student’s
behavior as being rooted in institutional oppression based on race, creed,
socioeconomic condition, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. These observations made the students less
likely to view the school, its teachers and administrators as sympathetic to
the needs of young people, and more likely to be unfair and arbitrary. (Black, 2018)
In other words, the greater the number of suspensions and
expulsions in a school, the more poorly the school did academically and in the
perceptions of the students and their families.
Further, there is a direct correlation between suspension
and the so-called school to prison pipeline.
In an article about the reasons why school punishments do not work,
Marie Amaro cites an Australian study that found “students were 4.5 times more likely to
engage in criminal activity when they were suspended” than when they were simply
truant. She further asks, “Jails are
full of people who do not respond to the threat of incarceration so why do we
think that loss of recess or suspension will change a student’s behaviour?” (Amaro)
To be absolutely fair in this discussion, I must report that I was not the only administrator who disliked the zero tolerance policies and who did not always follow them. However, often the reasons why school leaders did not follow them had to do with another punitive piece of legislation: the 2000 iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The ESEA has been around for nearly 60 years, and is renewed approximately every 10 years. Each time it is revised, it is given a new name: Goals 2000, Every Student Succeeds Act, or, in 2000, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The ESEA is currently called Every Student Succeeds Act and does away with many of the NCLB regulations — therefore, those who lay the blame for the problems in education on NCLB may need to look at the ESSA more closely.
NCLB was the first time that there were punitive measures
against schools and districts that did not show “adequate yearly progress” in
academic achievement, or in school behavior issues. Under NCLB, schools that were deemed “persistently
unsafe” were sanctioned in progressively harsher ways. As a result, many school superintendents directed
administrators to under-report acts of school violence, and to deal with, for
example, fist-fights, without resorting to out-of-school suspensions.
This institutional dishonesty resulted in some very
interesting efforts to encourage young people to avoid violent behavior. In one school district near the one where I
worked, the middle school principal would fly a special flag outside of the
school building on days when there were no fights. Other schools adopted school-wide reward
programs such as point and level systems that gave students rewards such as
weekly movie afternoons if the student had earned enough points to be
considered at the highest level of positive behavior.
Many schools seemed to jump onto the positive rewards
bandwagon in an effort to encourage positive behavior. We saw systems like “catch them being good”
in which adults would give a tangible reward to students who did something
positive. We saw “Character Counts”
programs in which students were expected to demonstrate one of the six pillars
of ethical behavior, and in which students who did demonstrate those behaviors
were given a tangible reward of some kind.
The common theme of these programs was to give students tangible
rewards if they followed the rules and who were recognized by teachers and
staff as “behaving”.
I can almost hear readers saying, “What’s wrong with
that? That’s the opposite of punishing
misbehavior, isn’t it?”
Well, yes, and no.
Yes, giving tangible rewards like movies, or extra recess,
or special privileges, candy, treats, tickets, or whatever, is the opposite of
punitive measures that seek to punish those who do not “behave”. But the reality is that these programs do not
We have known since the 1970s at least that giving a person
a tangible reward actually decreases their enjoyment of that activity. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, summarizes
these studies from an economics perspective.
(I highly recommend listening to or watching Pink’s TED Talk.) But Pink is not the first person to call for
end to “stickering students to death” as I used to call it. Alfie Kohn has long been an outspoken
champion of making schools less about rewards and more about learning.
I’ve written about this phenomenon before, and I will repeat
here: promising treats, extra recesses,
or other tangible rewards will not make students more successful. It will not make students adopt the behaviors
that are rewarded. In fact, it will make
students less likely to see the behavior or academics as something worthy to
do, and more likely to make them see those things as means to an end. They will do the minimum to get the maximum
reward. It will not make those students
who are not rewarded envious enough of the reward to have them change their
behavior on their own. It does make
students see the reward as handed out consistently to students based on
something other than their behavior – for example, students perceive that athletes
get rewards more often than non-athletes.
It can also result in the same phenomenon reported in Black article,
that students see rewards and punishments being unfair and punitively applied
to those who really need help.
Dr. Ruby Payne, quoted in an article about the effectiveness
of punishment in schools, says that while teachers may see punishment and
rewards as flip sides of the same problem, students do not. She goes on to say that behaviorist theory
that says to reward one behavior and punish another may work when one is
observing rats in the laboratory, or training animals, but it doesn’t work so
clearly with human beings. (Morrison, 2014)
Rick Wormeli ,another “big name” in education, comes at this
argument from the perspective of making meaningful changes in schools and from
standards-based grading. In one of his
videos available on YouTube, he discusses the concept of make-up work and
assessing students who fail to turn in homework. In it he says, that students who raise their
hands, sit down in their chairs, do work when we tell them to do it, do it, not
from a fear of punishment, but from hope.
He says it is not about “you can get a horse to water but you can’t make
it drink. No, it is about you can get a
horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.” He advocates for making students “thirsty”
and to do that they have to have hope. (Stenhouse Publishers, 2010)
So how do we, as Rick Wormeli says, communicate hope to
First, we have to change our perspective on what works and
what does not work when talking about managing behavior. All of the resources I consulted stated
this: We must reform how we manage
student behavior, not with punishments or rewards, but by teaching students the
behaviors we expect.
Harry and Rosemary Wong have advocated this approach for
decades. They say that if we just give
rewards or apply negative consequences, we are applying discipline, we are not
managing the classroom or the behavior.
They repeat over and over again that we must teach students what we
expect them to do, not just with academics, but with behaviors as well. (Wong, 2018)
Understand, this is not a quick or easy fix. Many teachers have not received much
instruction in classroom management.
They have been expected to simply acquire these skills by osmosis or
some other process. Those who were
required to take a specific class in classroom management often did not really
embrace the information. They did what
was expected of them, but continued to believe that punishment was the real way
to change student behavior. After all,
the college students would say, they changed their behavior when their parents
This last is a misconception about how parents teach
children about what to do in any given situation. Parents teach children in several ways that
do not include punishments. They
demonstrate what they want, using what we educators would call direct instruction. They also employ indirect instruction by
modeling expected behaviors – sometimes behaviors educators do not want to see
in schools! Parents have children
practice the desired behaviors over and over again, primarily because parents
have more opportunity to be with children – they are with children when they
are not in school and during school vacations.
(I am using “parents” loosely, as meaning whomever stands in for
parents, including those providing child care.)
In addition, parents are usually loved by children, and are far more
important to the child than a teacher.
This latter part is especially true if the child has the
perception that “the teacher doesn’t like me” or “the school is out to get me.” This is the result of the negative side of
the self-fulfilling prophesy, and of being both on the receiving end of school
punishments or observing that these punishments are applied in a manner thee
student sees as unfair.
I often hear, “By this age, students should know . . . “ Yes, they probably should know, but they have
just demonstrated they do not know. Or
they may know what Ms. Jones down the hall means or expects but not what you
mean by something or what you expect students to do. It may be fine to just toss work onto Ms.
Jones’ desk, but you want the work put neatly into a particular tray. You must teach students how to do that! It may be fine in Ms. Jones’ room to holler
across the room, “Hey Teach! I need some
help here!” It may not be okay with you,
and if not, you must teach the desired behavior!
When we teach behaviors, we have to follow the formula we
use when teaching how to find the area of a rectangle or the steps in the
scientific principle: teach, practice,
reinforce, reteach, practice some more, and reinforce again. Just saying do this or do that at the
beginning of the year won’t help.
Expecting students to remember everything you expect when they’ve had 3
out of 5 days home with snow days, won’t help.
We must teach the behaviors, and review them when students have been
away from school or in a situation where the expectations have been different
for a while. Review expectations after
having a sub as well. It doesn’t have to
be a big, long review. It can be as
simple as, “In just a minute I’m going to ask if you all turned in your
homework when you walked into the room.
Tell me what it is you are supposed to do when you turn in
homework? Jackie? Yes, that is correct, we . . .”
Middle school and high school teachers often describe
student behaviors that they find particularly difficult to change. This can be true for a number of
First, one of my personal rules is “the larger the kid, the
larger the behavior.” Behaviors that
started out fairly small when the student was in kindergarten have compounded
until they are “larger” by the time they are in 7th grade. A kindergartener who throws a temper tantrum
is more easily handled than a 7th grader who is nearly the height and
weight of an adult.
Second, as children get older, there are more opportunities
for life experiences to leave a permanent mark or scar. What may have made a child cry in 1st
grade has become so deeply entrenched by 7th grade that it may have
completely changed that student’s perspective on life, leaving him/her with
chronic depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. The 7th grader has had at least 8
years of school experiences, making re-learning or changing a behavior that
much more difficult.
Third, the peer group has become more and more
important. An early elementary student
may do something just to have the teacher smile at him. A 7th grader is much more likely
to try to get other 7th graders to approve of his behavior.
Fourth, a 7th grader has had far more
opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t work. She may have learned that if she doesn’t like
math, she can act like this or that and she will be sent out of the room. He may have learned that if the lunch room is
where he will be bullied, he can earn a detention and avoid the lunch room all
together. If she think that teachers are
usually out to get her, she will see what the teacher does, not what the
teacher intends, as reinforcing that belief.
All of these are even more true of the high school student.
One obvious solution would be for specialized teachers to
work with disruptive students. I started
out as a special education teacher, and that is what we were expected to accomplish. However, I have worked in teacher preparation
for 13 years and as a school principal and curriculum coordinator for 12. In the last 15 years, I have seen a troubling
trend in special education. That is,
these specialists are viewed as people to help students complete work assigned
in “regular” classes rather than as having something to teach students separate
from the “regular” classroom. More
recently I have seen this trend in states or in districts that have a near 100%
“commitment” to the integration of special needs children into the regular
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not advocating for a return to the bad
old days when kids with special needs were hidden away in basement rooms and
who never saw the rest of the school or their peers except in art, music, and
PE classes. (That latter is another
story altogether.) What I am saying is
that students with special needs in learning disabilities and behavior
disorders need to have specialized instruction in how to work with their different
abilities. The LD student needs to know
how to use his/her strengths to help him/her learn. The BD student needs to learn ways to better
control his/her behavior before being out in the general population. Both are areas of instruction that a teacher
with a four year degree has had no time to learn.
In teaching a junior/senior class in classroom management, I
was appalled to learn that the students knew nothing or next to nothing about
working with ADD/ADHD students who do not necessarily qualify for and IEP, let
alone knowing how to work with BD students, and nothing about oppositional
defiant disorder let alone conduct disorders.
Yet they were expected to work with all of these children in the regular
classroom often without support from a “push in” special education
teacher. Even worse in my eyes was that many
were getting additional endorsements in special education besides their “regular”
teaching license with almost no additional training.
How can we expect any regular teacher with a four year
degree to know what to do about students whose poor behavior has taken root for
so many years?
Yes, these students can benefit, sometimes, from having an
aide work with them. However, few
special education aides have any training whatsoever in working with these
students. And what do we expect when we
pay them minimum wage for 30 hours a week or less so we can get by without
providing health insurance?
Neither is what is meant when we write an IEP that says a
student needs an aide or when we say that s/he is eligible for specialized
instruction. Folks, that is exactly what
it means when we say a student is eligible for an IEP! We are saying the student needs specialized
instruction from a teacher trained to work with his/her disability.
Besides the lack of training, many teachers find that the
special education teacher is bogged down with far too many students than s/he
can teach effectively, even if s/he is only expected to help students complete
work assigned by others.
To be fair, those who set the school budget and who oversee
the instructional program too often do not have much more training than the
regular classroom teacher, and often that training came many more years
ago. School board members in many states
do not need to have any particular level of education to qualify for the
position. They are elected on whether or
not their campaign promises strike the voting population as needed or
reasonable. And few of the people in a
community will vote to raise property taxes to improve school funding.
So we must understand that changing this situation will not
bet a quick or easy fix.
There are a few things a teacher can do to help improve the
situation. But it will not be a silver
bullet! And often, the best time to
start these changes is at the beginning of the year.
What we can do:
Relationships Teachers can and must develop relationships with students. It is not enough to develop a relationship with those students who follow the rules, complete homework, and are generally viewed as “the good kids.” When we do this, we perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophesy. Students live up or down to the teacher’s perceptions of them, even if the teacher does not consciously treat the students differently.
I recommend greeting students at the door of the classroom
at the beginning of the day or at the beginning of each class period. When I first heard of doing this, I was teaching
science and saw the passing time between classes as the time when I could
quickly set up equipment for the next class.
I had to revise how I structured my working day, arriving at school a
bit earlier and setting up the equipment for the whole day, not just class
period by class period. I had to get
over my initial feelings of how unfair this was to me, and to focus instead on
I also recommend that teachers work to improve their
relationship with students by improving their relationship with the students’
families. Making positive phone calls
home is the best way to do that as study after study has shown. Families view a voicemail message as being
much more personal than an email, especially when it appears the email is mass-generated. And we still cannot guarantee that adult
family members will use electronic media with any regularity! I’ve written about ways to go about making
positive parent contacts. When I taught
middle school I saw about 120 students a day, but I managed to usually meet my
goal of contacting each student’s family by phone once per month. It meant making about 6 phone calls per day. I was always sure to have a quick thing to
say, hoping for voicemail, but telling parents who actually answered the phone,
“I have about 30 seconds to let you know this” so they would be more
understanding if I had to cut the call short.
Although I do not have the article at my fingertips, I
recall reading where a teacher would quietly some of the more problematic
students as they entered the room, “I’m glad you are here today. I’m planning on calling your mom (or aunt, or
foster mom, etc.) today and telling her how you are doing in school so I’m
going to be watching you closely today to be able to tell her something good.” It sounded a bit like what I did as a
principal. I couldn’t hope to call every
family about every one of the 500 children in the building each month, so I
picked out those kids who had the worst reputations for behavior and focused on
calling home each month with something positive about those students.
I can say from experience as both a teacher, a principal,
and parent that those positive phone calls work!
Use Praise and Encouragement, not Tangible Rewards We know tangible rewards don’t work so don’t use them. Yes, that is difficult when other teachers use them, but it can be done.
When I am talking about praise and encouragement, I am not
talking about saying, “Good job, Kathryn”.
That is not praise. In fact, most
students hear it as so much noise – think how Charlie Brown hears his teacher
talking. Others see that “good job” as
something other kids hear but that they don’t – more ways we perpetuate the
Useful praise tells the receiver exactly what s/he is doing
right and why. Students cannot hope to
replicate the behavior if they do not explicitly know what it is they are
supposed to do! Here is the formula for
effective praise and encouragement:
Get the student’s attention – usually by saying
their name quietly or by talking directly to the student
Tell the student what s/he has done that is
right or praiseworthy. For example,
saying, “You were able to hold your tongue and not say something mean to Gloria
when she knocked your books down.”
Tell the student why that behavior is
positive. For example, “Remember how
when you would yell at the other student, it was usually you that got into
trouble? By holding your tongue, you
were able to avoid making the situation worse and having you get into trouble.”
If you can, acknowledge the effort the student
made to do this thing. For example, “I
know it takes a lot of effort and self-control to do that.”
Then you can add words of praise like, “that was
awesome”, or “good for you”, etc.
It is important that teachers make the praise about the
students, not about the teacher. Saying
something like , “I like how you did this or that” is not effective because it
makes the praise contingent upon what the teacher likes. Students need to know that there is a goal
larger than what a teacher likes or dislikes.
If it is just about what the teacher likes, we reinforce the perception
that teachers are arbitrary and unfailr.
Use Restorative Justice Practices instead of Punishments There are some very good articles about restorative justice practices found on the Edutopia website. In a nutshell, restorative justice practices focus on helping students make up for what they have done, and learn from the situation rather than applying punishments. Students do not learn from punishments because they are designed to make students fear the negative consequences of a particular behavior rather than learning an alternative to that behavior.
A case in point: many
schools use detentions and they do so because they believe students will want
to avoid getting a detention. This does
not acknowledge that students often do not know how or what to do instead of
the behavior that earned them a detention, that detention is often preferable
to being with others at recess or in the lunch room, or that often older
students have incorporated the idea of being “given” a detention with their
personal identity. (Note, in schools
that do use detentions, never say you are “giving” a detention. That again reinforces the idea that
detentions are awarded in an arbitrary or punitive manner. Instead, always talk about the student
earning the detention or “In this school, that behavior means you must go to
detention.” Never make the behavior
about what the teacher likes or dislikes!)
Too often we think that if this small negative consequence
didn’t work then we just need something stronger to use as a deterrent. Not so.
Less harsh penalties often have a greater effect on the student than the
fear of a harsher one. It is more
effective to hold a student after class for a minute or so to talk with the
teacher (keep it short!) than to threaten a detention.
Don’t assume! Teach the expected behavior! I often hear, “By this age, students should know . . . “ Yes, they probably should know, but they have just demonstrated they do not know. Or they may know what Ms. Jones down the hall means or expects but not what you mean by something or what you expect students to do. It may be fine to just toss work onto Ms. Jones’ desk, but you want the work put neatly into a particular tray. You must teach students how to do that! It may be fine in Ms. Jones’ room to holler across the room, “Hey Teach! I need some help here!” It may not be okay with you, and if not, you must teach the desired behavior!
When we teach behaviors, we have to follow the formula we
use when teaching how to find the area of a rectangle or the steps in the
scientific principle: teach, practice,
reinforce, reteach, practice some more, and reinforce again. Just saying do this or do that at the
beginning of the year won’t help.
Expecting students to remember everything you expect when they’ve had 3
out of 5 days home with snow days, won’t help.
We must teach the behaviors, and review them when students have been
away from school or in a situation where the expectations have been different
for a while. Review expectations after
having a sub as well. It doesn’t have to
be a big, long review. It can be as
simple as, “In just a minute I’m going to ask if you all turned in your
homework when you walked into the room.
Tell me what it is you are supposed to do when you turn in
homework? Jackie? Yes, that is correct, we . . .”
Look for the Positives, not the Negatives It is very important that teachers always focus on what kids are doing right, not what they are doing wrong. That means recognizing and reinforcing when students take baby steps in the right direction. We do that when we teach kids to do double digit multiplication. We will say, “Yes, you got this part and this part right. Now, what do you do next?” Sadly, we forget that behavior is also something that is learned and changed incrementally. When we look for positives, we are much more likely to see the student who is taking those baby steps in the right direction. We are more likely to notice that student who didn’t yell at Gloria when she knocked his/her books on the floor. We are more likely to get the behavior we want when we actually look for it!
I know this is much easier to say than to do. It takes a true shift in perspective. I used to make little notes to myself,
usually in the form of a symbol, and put them where I would see them, just to
remind myself to do this and not that. For
example, I would use symbols like these to remind myself to use the effective
Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin We have to let students (and parents) know that we really like them. We may not like something they did, but we like the person the student is. We cannot do that unless we focus on the positive!
On a larger scale, there are things schools must do if they
are going to turn things around, if the school is going to improve the
experience of schooling. It is not going
to improve if schools and districts adopt policies that punish students rather
than help educate students to live better lives.
Don’t expect that adopting any of the above will change
things over night, or in a week, or even in a month. Remember, most students have had too many
years of negative school experience to overcome. Indeed many of these recommendations work
best if initiated at the beginning of a school year. However, one can make improvements in our own
lives as well as the lives of the students by even taking small steps.
Given that the school year is half way done, I would
recommend doing the following:
Make positive phone calls home
Teach, practice, reinforce (and repeat) the
Hate the sin but love the sinner
I know that I have not addressed all of the concerns
expressed to me about this topic, but this blog post is twice the length of any
other one I’ve done, so I will have to look at those areas in other posts.
Take a deep breath!
You can do this!
Works Cited Amaro, M. (n.d.). Why Punishment is Ineffective Behavior Management. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from The Highly Effective Teacher: https://thehighlyeffectiveteacher.com/why-punishment-is-ineffective-behaviour-management/ Black, D. W. (2018, March 15). Zero tolerance discipline policies won’t fix school shootings. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from The Conversation: Adademic Rigor; Journalistic Flair: http://theconversation.com/zero-tolerance-discipline-policies-wont-fix-school-shootings-93399 Breslow, J. M. (2012, September 21). By the numbers: the cost of dropping out of high school. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from PBS: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/by-the-numbers-dropping-out-of-high-school/ Bridgeland, J. M., Dilulio, J. J., & Morison, K. B. (2006). The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from gatesfoundation.org: https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/Documents/TheSilentEpidemic3-06Final.pdf K12 Academics. (2011). School Leaving Age. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from K12 Academics: https://www.k12academics.com/dropping-out/school-leaving-age Maxwell, Z. (2013, November 27). The School-to-Prison Pipeline Is Targeting Your Child. Retrieved September 12, 2018, from Ebony: https://www.ebony.com/news/the-school-to-prison-pipeline-is-targeting-your-child-405/ Morrison, N. (2014, August 31). The Surprising Truth about Discipline in Schools. Retrieved February 12, 2019, from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2014/08/31/the-surprising-truth-about-discipline-in-schools/#5bdd6ec93f83 National Education Association. (2012). Raising Compulsory School Age Requirements: A Dropout Fix? (An NEA Policy Brief). Retrieved February 13, 2019, from National Education Association: http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/PB40raisingcompulsoryschoolage2012.pdf Stenhouse Publishers. (2010, December 14). Rick Wormeli: Redos, Retakes, and Do-Overs, Part One. Retrieved February 16, 2019, from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM-3PFfIfvI Wexler, N. (2018, November 29). Why Graduation Rates Are Rising But Student Achievement Is Not. Retrieved February 13, 2019, from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nataliewexler/2018/11/29/why-graduation-rates-are-rising-but-student-achievement-is-not/#271c02216a7f Wong, H. a. (2018). The First Days of School: How to be an effective teacher 5e. Harry K. Wong Publications.
Have you ever had to pry yourself out of bed in the morning and shuffle off to school even though you’d rather stay home?
Have you ever had to make polite small talk with someone you
really do not like or do not respect?
Have you ever felt crabby and irritable when you were in a
situation where you couldn’t express that?
Have you ever had a period in your life where you weren’t
particularly happy with yourself?
Do you ever have days when your best is far less than your
best on other days?
I’m sure you could say yes to all of the situations
described above. I certainly have! There have been many days in my life where I’ve
had to paste a smile on my face when I really wanted to pout or stomp my
feet. There have been many times where I
have had to “fake it ‘til you make it” at work or in other parts of my life. And I have had periods in my life where I was
not pleased with myself but was still expected to meet my obligations, when my “best”
was nowhere near as good as my capabilities.
Let’s face it: It is
not always easy living out lives! And
most of us have learned that we cannot always show everyone what we are
thinking or feeling.
The students who come to us for six hours or so every day
often have the same difficulties, but they are not as mature as we are and
often cannot fake it. Not all of them
are able to overcome their inner emotions and present a more perfect front to
the world. It is equally true that some
will have learned to fake it rather than let a teacher know what they are
Right? What does this have to do
with classroom rules?
There are very well-meaning teachers who make rules that
they themselves would not be able to follow.
They make rules about emotions, things that are not really observable or
I used this commercially
available rules poster as an illustration last week and I labeled some of the “rules”
as really being goals.
Let’s look at these a little more closely.
Always do your best. How do we know if what a student is doing is
his/her very best or the best s/he can do right now?
yourself. How do we know a
student believes in him/herself?
The answer to both of those questions is we don’t. We honestly do not know if anyone believes in
him/herself. Sure, we can see certain
behaviors that make us believe that Susie believes in herself, but we really
don’t know for sure.
You might say, “a student who believes in herself would keep
trying when they find something difficult”
or “he would turn in his homework because he would know that his school
grades matter” or “she would wear clean clothes and have better hygiene if she
believes in herself”.
All of those behaviors might lead us to think the student
doesn’t believe in himself. But we
cannot know for sure. We cannot see
inside any student’s head to know what s/he is really feeling or thinking. In fact, many of the students who come to us
every day have learned, sometimes painfully, to fake it.
Let me try to clarify.
What is going on with the student in this photo?
You might say the student is tired, or isolating himself, or
that he is bored, maybe angry. You might
say any of those things and you might be right.
You can cite your experience that says that when a student has his head
down on the back of a seat like that he is feeling this way or that. And you might be right. But you might not be.
You really cannot know for certain what is going on inside a
student’s head. Yes, this one might be
tired, or sad, or bored, or angry. He
might be isolating himself for a reason that has negative connotations. But he also might have a headache. He could be overwhelmed by the noise around
him, or trying to control his emotional reaction to something, or he could be
hungry. He could just be tired of
holding his head up!
In fact, the site where I found that image had it under “bored
child’, “angry child”, and “sad child”.
My third point about classroom rules is that the rules
should be about things that are observable and measurable. If we make rules about thoughts, attitudes,
or emotions, we will be forever chastising students. And we can be wrong about it, too.
Take this young lady.
Is she engaged because she is “ready to learn” as the rules poster
says? Does she believe in herself?
She does appear to be doing what she’s been asked to do if
she was asked to do some school work.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Once I had to deal with a first grade girl who, by all
appearances, seemed to be a model student in the classroom. On the playground, she was far from
well-behaved. She was the leader of a
group of girls who were terrorizing other girls. This young lady was actually a bully who was
directing others to carry out her bullying behavior. When I talked to her about it, she informed
me that she wrote out plans for who she was going to tell to do what to
whom. She had it all plotted out in a
notebook in her desk. When I asked, the
teacher told me that this little girl “loved to write” and would get done with
her work early so she could spend time writing stories. The teacher had to see the bullying plans the
girl had written to believe she could be at all involved in this playground
This was an experienced teacher and not one that was easily
fooled by students. However, this little
girl had the teacher snowed.
We just do not know what is going on inside other people.
I often see rules that say something about “respect yourself”. I understand what the teacher is getting at
when they have this as a rule. The
teacher believes, perhaps correctly, that a person who respects themselves will
treat others well and will do what they need to do to make their aspirations
come true. However, I also know that
children who are abused often present a “perfect” front to the world outside
while inside they have little respect for themselves. I’ve worked with young people who are “cutters”,
who cut themselves to relieve stress and painful emotions, yet few of their
teachers knew anything was amiss.
I often see rules that say something about “have a good
attitude”. Again, I understand that the
teachers are trying to say that the students should act like they want to
learn, that they should be willing to try new things, or to persevere when learning something that is
more difficult. I want students to do
that, too. Yet, we cannot know if
students have a good attitude. We can
only know if they appear to
have a good attitude.
We make rules about ‘respect the teacher” when we really do
not know if they actually respect us. We
just want them to treat us as if they respect us. We make rules about “make friends” not
because we really think everyone needs to be friends with all 500 or 2000 kids
in the building, but because we want them to act in a friendly manner. We make rules about “have fun” not because we
think that memorizing multiplication tables is all that fun, but because we
want them to learn to love learning.
We don’t expect teachers to have fun all day long, or to be
friends with all of the adults who work in the building, or to respect even the
most bumbling of colleague or administrator, although we do expect them to
treat that person respectfully. We certainly
“have a good attitude” all day long, every day.
So can we really expect students to do so?
That’s what we are usually trying to get at when we make
rules that are about things that are not observable or measurable. We want students to behave as if those things
How can we hold students accountable for such “rules”?
I asked that of a group of college students in a classroom
management class. I was told, angrily, “I’m
not an idiot! If a student is having a
bad day, I won’t force him to follow that rule!”
If that pre-service teacher meant she would be sensitive to
the students’ needs, then more power to her.
But if it is a RULE, then we are obligated to hold students
accountable. Thinking back to the
traffic laws analogy in previous posts, a police officer is rarely, if ever,
going to say, “Oh, wow. You are having a
bad day, so I’m not going to write you a ticket for exceeding the speed limit
or rolling through that stop sign.” If
it is the law, a rule, then it is in place at all times even if we don’t feel
like following it.
(Yes, there is something called civil disobedience, but that
is something else. Come on, don’t rain
on my analogy!)
Let’s say you did allow Fred off the hook for not following
the rule “Have a good attitude.” The
other students in the room observe what happens when Fred tells you that he is
having a bad day, and you do not follow through on enforcing the rule. The next time you try to hold Herman
accountable for that rule, he tells he is having a bad day. You really cannot dispute it because you don’t
know what went on before Fred got to school and you don’t know how he is really
feeling about it.
Teachers may believe that they are trying to be equitable
and responsive to students’ needs by enforcing the rules sometimes and not
other times. However, I would be willing
to bet that, even though the teacher means well, s/he begins to enforce the
rules in a way that reinforces the self-fulfilling prophesy, being flexible
with some students and inflexible with others based on his/her perceptions
about that student.
We all know what happens if a teacher is not consistent
about enforcing rules. Students begin to
resent the fact that the rules apply to some, but not all. They try to argue about fairness. And they begin to test the teacher every day –
is today a day when the rules are enforced?
Or is today one of the days when they are not? Are they enforced for this student and not
That is a recipe for chaos.
In addition, students live up or down to their perceptions
about the teacher’s beliefs and attitude towards them.
Take a look at your list of classroom rules. Do any other them deal with things that are
not observable or measurable? If so,
what behavior is it that you are trying to get students to do? Is there another way to get that behavior?
I used to tell students to “give me the appearance that you
are paying attention to me. Look in my
direction. Nod your head sometimes.” Of course, I said it humorously, and the students
laughed, but there was a bit of seriousness as well. If a student was doing something that made it
appear that he was not paying attention to me, I would make another joke about
it and most of the students would comply.
Think about how you might get students to do X besides
making a rule about it.
We’ve looked at four of Roe’s Rules for Rules so far:
Rules must be about things students can actually
control or know how to do.
Rules must be about things that are reasonable.
Rules must be in place at all times.
Rules must be about things that are actually observable
We will look at another aspect of rules next week.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Next time, we will look at another one of Roe’s Rules for Rules.
Let’s face it. We are all human, and being human means we lose our temper sometimes. Everyone gets angry. Honest. We all do.
Yelling is one way we humans cope with anger. It can be a way of telling others that we are angry. If our goal is to communicate that we are angry, it works pretty well. However, if our goal is to change THAT student’s behavior, it is not the most effective route.
I’ve interviewed many students over the years, at the elementary, middle, high school, and college levels. They have increasingly told me that a teacher who would yell became fair game to them. It became a game to see if they could make the teacher lose his/her temper and yell. I find that appalling and scary that more and more students find out of control behavior funny and desirable, and I could speculate for pages on end about why that has happened. However, the purpose of pointing it out here is to show that yelling may actually play into THAT student’s hands.
Many challenging students do not have a role model for what to do when angry other than yelling, screaming, hitting, or destroying things. These behaviors cause many children to become anxious, and researchers have begun to classify growing up in a chaotic household as trauma.. The yelling may, to them, signal that something scary is going to happen. They may respond by acting like nothing bothers them, or they may act out or they may withdraw. All of these can be signs that the child has experienced this sort of trauma. And when a child has experienced trauma, they are more likely to not respond well to yelling, and they are honestly not able to make changes in their behavior. Childhood trauma actually rewires the brain, and not in a good way. (We’ll talk more about the effects of trauma in another post.)
Consider apologizing. Now back in the dark ages when I was training to be a teacher, we were told to never apologize. We were told that it would make us look weak. I’m calling BS on that. Apologizing demonstrates what a mature person does when they lose control. THAT student probably NEEDS to see that people can say “sorry” and that it is not the end of the world.
We can be role models for other kinds of behaviors when a person is angry.
We may need to repeat the mantra, “I am the grown up. I am the grown up. I am the grown up.” many, many times to avoid losing our temper and showing an alternative to yelling.
We may need to perfect our use of “the Look” – you know, the teacher look – in a way that says, “do not do that.”
We may need to train ourselves to speak in a much lower, quieter voice when we are angry. I’ve found that students (and children and grand-children) really come to attention when I start speaking very softly and slowly while giving the Look. One granddaughter witnessed me doing that with a car repair person. Later she asked, “I wonder if he knew how close he was to dying?”
Consider what would go on inside THAT student’s head if you lowered your voice and said, “I’m too angry to talk to you about this right now. I will talk to you right at the beginning of recess.” (Or before lunch, or at the end of the class period, etc.) What would THAT student be thinking? His/her anticipation of what will happen is often communicates more than yelling at him/her would.
I taught fifth graders to leave me alone if I was “on vacation.” That is, I would put a post card of a tropical beach up on my desk. I’d written “on vacation, back in . . .” on it. I also had a timer that I would set. So my “vacation” might be 5 minutes or no more than 10 minutes. I would use the time to get that homework ready for that sick student, or to file some paperwork, or to check email. All the time I was doing that, I was taking deep breaths and thinking calming thoughts.
And speaking of interruptions, don’t they drive you crazy? They do me! And when I’m being driven crazy, I tend to get angry.
So the next thing to consider is “what are the things that happen in the classroom that make me angry” and then think of ways to avoid having those things happen.
I hate interruptions. I’m not talking about the student who blurts something out. I’m talking about things like when I’m working with this small group, and a constant stream of students suddenly have to ask, “Can I use the bathroom?”, “Can I get a drink?”, “Can get a pencil out of my back pack?” You know what I mean.
I taught the students to write their questions on little white boards in a what that could be answered yes, or no. If I was working with a small group, they could write on the white board, and walk to a place where they could hold it up and I could see it. I could then nod my head yes, or shake my head no. I found this really helped me avoid getting angry about interruptions.
What things in the classroom tend to make you angry? Make a list. Now think about how you could structure things to help prevent those things happening. Can you create a procedure? (Remember, any procedure must be taught, practiced, and reinforced.)
Above all, think about this: behavior of any kind is a sort of communication. When babies “act out” we recognize that they are telling us that they are hungry or wet or tired or need cuddling. We tend to forget that children, adolescents, and even adults do things to communicate needs. Consider what THAT student’s behavior is telling you. Sometimes if we treat situations as a puzzle or a mystery to be solved, we are less likely to be angry about it and more likely to treat it as data.
We’ve known for a long, long time that the most effective thing to do when trying to change student behavior is to notice and recognize the positive things a student does. Positive recognition helps the student know what it is s/he should do again. If we only tell kids what they’ve done wrong, they never learn what they should do instead.
Now, I do not mean giving students tangible rewards. Giving kids candy, or stickers, or a trip to the treasure box does not change behavior for the better in the long run. Instead studies show that it actually decreases student engagement in whatever the task is. Other studies have shown that giving tangible rewards for anything beyond rote memorization actually decreases productivity. (I highly recommend Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on the subject. You can see a YouTube video of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc )
In addition, it is good to think about the underlying message we send when we reward behaviors or academics with tangible rewards. Are we saying that this is only worth doing if we get something for it? Are we saying that the good feeling we get when we succeed at something is not enough?
Tangible rewards can be useful with some students who have challenging behavior. However, that practice comes with some limitations.
First, the goal of using tangible rewards to change behavior is to make that behavior go away, or to replace it with a different behavior. To do that, we have to wean the student off the tangible rewards because eventually we want the student to do X without the reward.
Second, the reward must mean something to the student. If I don’t particularly like chocolate, giving me a mini candy bar for X isn’t going to mean a lot to me. (Yes, there are people who do not like chocolate. I’m one who can take it or leave it.)
Third, the reward has to be something attainable. I’ve seen too many children who have been set up to fail because of this. For example, Cody’s* parents promised him that if he did not have any trips to the principal’s office for the whole 9 weeks, they would buy him a bicycle. Cody wound up being sent to the principal’s office during the first week. Cody usually was in the principal’s office 3 or 4 times a week, so being sent only once during a week was actually a real improvement. It showed he was really trying to make a change. But it also meant he wasn’t going to get that bike. As a result, Cody now had nothing to lose and his behavior actually got worse.
*Names are changed for confidentiality purposes.
Fourth, many students with challenging behavior respond to rewards only if they are given by someone the student believes likes him/her, and who has a relationship with him/her. If THAT student perceives the teacher as his/her enemy, all the candy bars in the world won’t change his/her behavior. It is true, however, that some many change their behavior just enough to get the reward, but often it is done with a heavy dose of the attitude that says, “I’m just doing this to get that thing, I still hate you and I am still going to make trouble.”
And, finally, I’ve noticed that students who receive a lot of tangible rewards develop what I call the “what’ll ya gimme” syndrome. That is, they do not do things just because it is the right thing to do. They will only do things after asking, “What’ll ya gimme?” For example, I had a group of fifth graders lined up to come into the building. A bit of trash blew along the line and I, “Please someone pick up that trash and throw it in the bin on the way in.” Every student watched the trash roll past them. One finally said, “What’ll ya gimme if I do it?” I looked at him, blinked, and said, “A nice big smile and a thank you.” He let the trash lay there, and I began reflecting on what rewards were doing to children.
So if yelling doesn’t work, and rewards tend to backfire, what can a teacher do about THAT student?
I read a blog somewhere where the teacher said she would greet THAT student at the door in the morning and say, “I’m planning to make a call to your mom today to tell her the good things you are doing. Make sure you are doing something today that I can tell her about!” How ingenious! It puts THAT student on notice to do good things and it makes the teacher notice them. It is a win-win.
Think about how to offer a student encouragement when you notice s/he is trying to make changes or when s/he takes a baby step in the direction you want him/her to go. (In another post I talked about the formula to use for praise or encouragement.) Remember, THAT student can’t do whatever that positive thing is again if s/he doesn’t know what it is. Think of encouragement as a way of getting students to replicate positive behavior.
If you are thinking, “Easier said than done,” you are likely right. But also think about this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is ineffective as well. Maybe it is time to try something new.