The ABCs Of Behavioral Management: Part One

Behavioral Management
Teaching Methodology

The ABCs Of Behavioral Management: Part One

I asked in my last blog and on our student-only Facebook group for topic ideas for this blog.  I want to thank Kristy for her suggestion to blog about behavioral management. We spoke earlier this week about the troublesome kindergartener who is doing his best to destroy her student teaching experience.

Strong “behavioral management” skills are critical to a teacher’s success in the classroom. An honest administrator will tell you that someone with strong classroom management will more easily earn professional status than someone who is less adept at modifying curriculum or designing fancy lesson plans. Nothing is a bigger pain for an administrator than a teacher who can’t control her classroom. Whatever is second on an admin’s pain list isn’t even close. 

Over the course of my career, I’ve given lectures on this topic to MINT (Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers) participants and teachers at public and private schools. Believe it or not, I’ve actually gotten a standing ovation or two over the years (from some MTEL classes too). I have supervised and trained new teachers and Harvard Graduate School of Education clinical interns. Some people have taken what I’ve said and changed their perspective and practice for the better. Others have challenged everything I’ve said or suggested, argued with me, or outright ignored me. Guess whose classrooms improved and guess who are no longer working in education, considering leaving the field, or are no longer allowed to have their own classrooms?

There are general and specific considerations to ponder. In this blog, we’ll focus on the more general aspects of behavioral and classroom management: structure, consistency, and routines.   I will explain the three levels of behavioral management in the next installment.

The Importance Of Structure

Most classroom issues are solved before they start with a good classroom structure.  All human beings – especially young children – do better with routines and consistency. I chafe at being micromanaged, but I need structure and routines to do my best work. Children, especially those with any kind of disability, crave structure. 

When I’ve supervised teachers or observed classrooms, the first thing I do is identify the structures and routines that are in place. These structures and routines allow students to focus on learning and not on “What am I supposed to be doing?” or “When am I supposed to do it?”  

When these questions are not answered by the classroom structure, students answer the questions themselves. Their answer is not likely to be, “I’m supposed to have my books and materials ready for learning right now.” 

Kids will fill the void with more preferred activities like talking to their friends, teasing girls they like, or walking around the classroom. Anxious students will become more anxious because unstructured time is empty and invites them to retreat into their thoughts and worries. Students on the spectrum may also retreat into their internal world and forget you or the classroom even exists; good luck trying to transition them to an activity.  Students with ADHD?  You will be noticing them soon enough. Unstructured time is the bane of classroom management.

The Consequences Of Poor Classroom Structure

The worst example of structure I’ve ever seen was in a high school physics class. Students whom I had taught as freshmen were now juniors and had been telling me about the new physics teacher.

“She doesn’t even teach us. She’s terrible and has no idea what she’s doing.”

“Guys, she can’t be that bad. Come on,” I replied.

“Come see,” they said. So I did.

I arrived a few minutes before the bell and took a seat in the back. The kids filed in and took their seats. Most noticed me and nodded. Some smiled and motioned to the teacher’s desk, where she was sitting. I have sat in on countless classes over the years and always catch the teacher’s eye and give a smile and a wave. Not being an administrator nor evaluator allows teachers to proceed without the anxiety aroused when the principal walks in, but I like to let people know that I’m there.

But she did not notice me. Not ever. She sat at her desk talking to herself. She seemed to be muttering about what she was supposed to be teaching. All the kids noticed me by the time the bell rang. I waited and watched. The students looked at me with “See! I told you so!” looks on their faces. 

Five minutes and then 10 minutes went by. The teacher never addressed the class. After 15 minutes, I got up and slowly walked toward the door. I opened it. I waited. She still didn’t notice me. The kids were giggling or outright laughing. If she had taught that group when they had been freshman, desks would have been stacked to the ceiling and books thrown out the window (which actually happened from a 3rd floor math class when they were sophomores).

When I had these kids as 9th graders, I realized about 15 minutes into their first class that I would have to scrap what I had planned and restructure everything. These kids had no idea what it meant to be “a student.”  They had no consideration for me—an adult and teacher—and no idea what my expectations were.

Some of this can be attributed to cultural and socioeconomic factors (a subject of a future blog); this school consisted of 95% inner-city Dominican kids, and I am a middle-class white guy. They talked when they wanted to talk; stood up when they felt the need to stretch their legs; and pretty much ignored any request I made to the group.

This is not a “Stand and Deliver” story. These were good kids from good families who just happened to attend a school in a low-performing, urban school district for the first 8 years of their education and had no “student” skills. They needed some training and high expectations, not a miraculous transformation.

Tips For Behavioral Management

I was hired to run the IT department for this school and charged with teaching two introductory 9th grade computer classes, Computer Literacy.  I was given a book on Microsoft Office applications and free reign to teach anything I wanted.

Every class, subject, or grade is different, so structures will vary, but this is what I did:

A Classroom Meeting

Day number two started with a classroom meeting. I needed to make some things clear and set structures and expectations, but classroom meetings are generally a good idea to have on occasion. You can use them to discuss what’s working or not, get feedback from the group, and teach students how to appropriately advocate for themselves or air grievances. 

In the meeting, I described the new structure and expectations of the classroom.  Of course, classroom behavioral expectations were reviewed, but I realized that changing eight years of bad habits was going to take time. I implemented three simple rules that I could expand to cover any potential behavior (more on this next blog when we discuss how to “label” behavior):

  • Respect self
  • Respect others
  • Respect materials

These rules were non-negotiable. All the students agreed that the rules were reasonable.

An Appropriate Grading System

I instituted changes to the grading system. Students could earn up to 5 points a day (equivalent to a quiz grade a week) for “participation.” A 5 meant 100% of the time; a 0 meant 0% of the time was appropriately on-task.

I did not use the word “behavior.” If one is not behaving, one can’t possibly be appropriately participating, so I can “grade” and give feedback on behavior without using the word.

Using the term “behavior” often comes with judgmental language and reactionary defensiveness from the student (and parents). My attitude was, “It’s up to you to learn, but I can’t have you disrupting the learning process for others or interfering with my job.” But, if they followed the structure of the class, they couldn’t help but learn.

Get Their Attention Right Away

Students wanted to jump right on the computers and surf the web, play a game, or check their email. This was not an efficient way for me to get their attention and start Computer Literacy class. 

Class started with students in their seat with materials for that day out and ready when the bell rang. There would always be a short activity or question on the board as an opener, a “do now.” These were due and collected (passed to the middle and up to the front) in 5 minutes. If they were attempted (100%) or not (0%).

Students were dismissed as a group to the computers by me, not when individuals finished the “do now.” When I said, “Please go to a computer,” they were allowed to leave their desks.

Be Transparent About Structure

The structure for the day and week was clearly written on the board:

  • Mondays: Lecture on the history of computers and computer pioneers.
    • Students were taught how to take notes by following along with me on the board
  • Tuesdays: Homework was due (one assignment weekly)
    • Work in our Microsoft Office book
    • Short demonstration and students would work independently
  • Wednesdays: Project work/research
    • We always had a project to work on
  • Thursdays: Keyboarding practice
    • I found a free Mavis Beacon program online
  • Friday: Assessment
    • Some kind of test or quiz every Friday
    • Earned free time

Have Weekly Check-Ins

As students, “What do you think you earned for participation yesterday?” This gives them a chance to explain expectations and give feedback

Consistent and regular feedback is very important. Engage each student. Discuss how they can improve their grade or give positive feedback about how they’re doing.

Behavioral Management: The Bottom Line

Implementing these structures and routines significantly improved the classroom experience for me and my students. I had few behavioral management problems. Did this go perfectly?  Hell no!  When it didn’t, I had a plan. 

I would give 3 warnings to the group if things got too noisy. On the third, we were back to desks. I would lecture or even continue the class after school. Waste my time, and I’ll take yours. If necessary, I would pull the plug on the Internet.

I followed through every time.  Consistency. They knew I meant business. If a student said “I didn’t know we had homework due today!”  I’d point to the board and say, “Class, when is homework due?” Without looking, they would drone in unison, “Tuesday.”

Students who demonstrate difficult behaviors when a good structure is in place need more specialized intervention.  We will examine such instances in the next blog.

In the meantime, if you need help passing the MTELs, get certified for my classes here.

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