A few weeks ago, I was asked by a university professor to speak to a group of student teachers on classroom management. The topic has been on my mind a ton lately, primarily because I know of several colleagues who are struggling with managing behaviors in their classrooms.
So I figured I’d share three tips for managing classrooms that have always worked for me:
Good classroom management starts by carefully structuring your classroom and your activities: One lesson that I’ve learned the hard way over the course of my career is that conflict and behavior problems are JUST as often a function of mistakes that I make as they are a function of the choices being made by the students in my classroom.
Instead of carefully considering personalities when building my seating chart, I’ve created groups with students who have a history of clashing with one another and conflict happens. Instead of making multiple copies of a classroom task, I’ve expected kids who are still learning about cooperation to share important resources or lab supplies and conflict happens. Instead of creating engaging activities to fill unstructured time, I’ve given kids tasks that aren’t all that interesting and conflict happens.
So instead of questioning the choices of your students in moments where your classroom feels like it is out of control or where conflict has occurred between kids, start questioning your own choices. What could YOU have done to avoid those conflicts to begin with. Good classroom management requires being proactive, not reactive.
Good classroom management starts by building positive relationships with the kids who frustrate you the most: Here’s two simple truths: First, most of the classroom management issues that you deal with are probably related to the actions of a small handful of students. Second, you probably don’t enjoy those students very much. In fact, you probably have no patience for them at all — or you probably dread seeing them each day because you know that the chances of drama or conflict are high.
But here’s the thing: Those are the EXACT kids that you need to build positive relationships with. Here’s why: You don’t manage behaviors with rules and consequences. You manage behaviors with relationships. If a frustrating kid knows that you love and appreciate them, they are far more likely to cooperate with you when you DO have to correct his behaviors or choices.
What does that mean for you as a teacher? Find the most frustrating students in your classroom. Say hello to them when they walk in the room. Celebrate them when they make it through an entire lesson without conflict. Give them a small treat or privilege whenever they’ve done something deserving of recognition. Call on them when you know that they have the right answers to your questions — and celebrate their answers publicly in front of their peers to prove to everyone that you see the value of “those kids” too.
Doing so builds trust — and trust is the real lever towards changing behaviors in the long run. Doing so also will reframe your own thinking about frustrating kids. Instead of remembering every bad thing “that kid” has ever done to disrupt your classroom, you will start to see him/her as something more than their negative behaviors — which will help you to be less reactionary the next time that child misbehaves.
Good classroom management depends on your willingness to assume good intentions of every student — including those who frustrate you: One of the things that I’ve been wrestling with this year is my own reactions to the frustrating kids on our hallway. I catch myself jumping to conclusions immediately about the reasons for their every action based on nothing more than assumptions that I’ve made in the moment — and my assumptions are almost always negative.
Those negative assumptions are not only incomplete, they are also almost always inaccurate. The result: I catch myself punishing kids without fully understanding the entirety of a situation.
That’s unproductive, y’all. Your assumptions shouldn’t be guiding your decisions when dealing with frustrating kids because when you are frustrated, your assumptions aren’t all that objective.
To address this weakness in my own practice, I’ve stolen a strategy from Crucial Conversations: When I see a student behaving in a way that surprises me, I ask myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational person act this way?”
Here are some examples: If I see a student shout at another child, I ask myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational person act this way?” If I see a student with a phone out in a space where they aren’t supposed to have their phones out, I ask myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational person act this way?” If I see two students bickering over something that happened in class, I ask myself, “Why would a reasonable, rational person act this way?”
By doing so, I’m reminding myself that no child comes to school WANTING to get in trouble — and that while there may be no excuse for poor choices, there are OFTEN lots of reasonable, rational explanations for those exact same choices. By getting curious instead of furious about a student’s behavior — an argument made in this fantastic Edutopia article — I’m far more likely to build a healthy relationship with my frustrating students AND to spot reasons for poor choices that can be addressed in a systematic and deliberate way.
Does any of this make sense?
I guess what I am arguing with all three of these suggestions is that a frustrating child’s behavior in our rooms might just be an even better reflection of our relationship with that child or the choices that we are making as teachers than they are a reflection of who that child is as a person.
Our job is to do more than “manage behaviors.” Our job is to take professional responsibility for the impact that OUR choices and actions are having on the behavior of the frustrating students in our classrooms.
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