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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Dogs as Role Models: A Lesson in Classroom Management

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
Otis

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, "What do I do when several students act out at the same time?" Without resorting to S.W.A.T. gear, there are at least two methods that work almost all of the time. I learned them in a very unusual way.

About 20 years ago, I suffered a horrific event that resulted in a near-death experience. I acquired a trained therapy dog to help me deal with the panic attacks that followed. I took Otis everywhere with me -- 49 states (Hawaii was too complicated) and two countries. Some readers might remember meeting Otis during a training session.

After I stopped taking Otis with me, I'd bring him to his trainer's house when I traveled, a place where several other dogs stayed. Otis was so unhappy when I left that I snuck around to the back window to see how long it took him to adjust. (I did the same when I dropped my children off at day care, as I'm sure many of you have done.) After watching the interaction between the dogs, I was so fascinated that I started taking notes.

I'm not an expert on dog behavior, and I don't claim to be, but I began noticing certain patterns, specifically related to leadership. After a while it was obvious who the dog leader was. That dog ate first, went through the door first and had an effect on all the other dogs. Size, breed or toughness didn't seem to be factors in the dogs choosing the leader. It seemed as if some – the "alpha" dogs -- had a special "charisma" that the other dogs recognized.

Leader of the Pack

Soon I began to look at classrooms to see if students interacted the same as dogs in choosing and following a leader. While I have no scientific evidence and no formal research to back me up, I believe that there is a great similarity between dogs and students in this regard. After many years of working with teachers, I believe that the strategy I call "leader of the pack" works in most cases of multiple disruptions.

This strategy seems simple to explain in three steps, but in practice, it's much more complicated.

Step 1) Find the Classroom Leader

The first question relates to who the leaders are and how many there are. Just like dogs, student leaders aren't always the biggest, loudest or most visible. Oftentimes the most obvious source of trouble is not the real leader but rather someone who is egged on by someone else. In the classes I have observed, I've seen up to two leaders who sometimes vie for control. I've never seen three or more, because there is simply no room for more than two.

To find out who the real leaders are, compare the behavior and attitudes of the class once a suspected leader is absent. If the behavior changes, for better or (more typically) worse, that student is a leader. If the class behavior stays the same, then that student does not have a strong influence on the others. You don't need to wait for a random absenteeism. With an administrator's help, set up a situation to remove the students for at least a half hour, preferably even longer. Make it a positive removal, definitely not a punishment.

Step 2) Stop the Leader and the Others Will Follow

Once you discover who the real leader is, ask that student to help you keep the class under control. Say something like, "Juan, you are so respected in this class and other students trust you. I want them to learn. Can you help keep things cool in here?" If they are young enough, you can offer them deputy sheriff status. But never offer that to a high school student who will only think you're crazy! If the leader refuses, accept his or her decision gracefully, but then position yourself right next to the student and continue teaching the lesson. Your proximity will control the student and thus, most of the class.

When there are multiple disruptions, do not try to deal with the class as a whole. Most of the time, this only makes things worse, because you become the common enemy of the group. Deal with students one at a time, even if there is chaos around you. Start with the most influential students and work down. In most instances you will soon regain control.

Step 3) Create New Leaders

This strategy is a variation of the previous two. Divide the class into groups. Change the group membership each week. Chose a group leader, picking the natural leaders at first then giving all students a turn over time. The leader's responsibility is to help you keep his or her members quiet when necessary and in control if things get out of hand. When you set this strategy up, be sure to explain clearly and completely how the process will work to your class.

When necessary, tell the leaders to quiet their group or to stop disrupting. This way, you are not dealing with a whole class, but maybe five or six leaders, depending on class size.

These strategies will not always work, but they are effective most of the time. They give you an intermediate step before calling in the S.W.A.T. team.

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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