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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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4 Early-Year Keys for Effective Classroom Discipline

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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Nothing can undermine a classroom climate that's conducive to learning more quickly than a host of minor disruptive behaviors. These behaviors alone may be no big deal, but collectively they steal instructional time and the positive energy that our students need to attain success. Although effectively managing student behavior is a multifaceted practice, there are four central things that you can -- and should -- do very early in the school year to set the proper tone.

1. Make your first words and actions confident, enthusiastic, and welcoming.

Let your students know how glad you are to meet them or see them again. You might say something like this:

I am really pleased to have you all in this class. There are a lot of great things we'll be doing, and there's lots of new stuff to learn. I'm excited about the year ahead. I want to tell you a little bit about myself. [Share something personal, such as a few sentences about your family, your hobbies, how you spent your vacation, etc.] My goal is to be the best teacher I can be -- but I am not perfect. Sometimes I make mistakes, and so will you. But there is no shame in mistakes. Every day, I expect myself to be on time and ready to go. I expect the same from each of you. Does anyone have any questions you'd like to ask me?

2. Set guidelines for how you plan to handle misbehavior.

Most teachers are good at letting students know routines, rules, and even consequences, but many neglect to share what might be the most important component that preserves everyone's dignity when rules are broken. Tell students that while most of what happens in class will be for everybody to hear, individual feedback including consequences will almost always be given privately. Here are two statements that you might make:

1. There will be many times this year that I will be dropping by your desk with an individual message that is only for your ears. It is the way I usually give feedback that tells you what I think you are doing well or how I think you could do better.
2. I don’t expect rules to be broken, but whenever lots of people share the same space, there are times when someone might do something inappropriate. I rarely stop a lesson to deal with unacceptable behavior. It may actually look like I am ignoring it, and maybe I am. I hope you do, too. But ignoring it doesn't mean that I'm not going to do anything about it. It just means that I think teaching is more important in that moment. It means that I'll get with that person later when it won't steal our time to learn.

3. Let students know when and how they can give you feedback.

Establish a time and place when students can give you feedback. I like the idea of having "conference time" where students can schedule a time with you for this purpose. If you prefer, have a "Feedback for Teacher" box where students can leave notes to express appreciation as well as suggestions about how you can be a better teacher for them. This could be your message about feedback:

It's very important for me to be the best teacher that I can be for each of you, and I will try very hard to be respectful even if you do things that I don't like. That's why most of the time I will give you feedback privately. In the same way, if you have ideas about how I can be a better teacher for you, let me know. You can write me a note and put it in the feedback box, see me at conference time, or tell me after class.

4. Define the difference between fair and equal.

Make clear that if a student breaks a rule, you will do whatever you think is best to help that student fix the mistake:

Since everyone doesn't always learn the same way, consequences may not always be the same, and it will up to me to decide which consequence(s), if any, would be best for that student. There will be times that I might even ask you what consequence(s) you think would work best. Anyway, if you ever think there is a more effective consequence, let me know in a respectful way, and I might change my mind. What I won't accept are complaints like, "It's not fair because Max did the same thing as me and you called my mother but not his." I'll talk to you about you, but not about Max. What I did with Max is between him and me, and what I do with you is between us. I will only listen to suggestions that you think could work better for you.

I invite you to share your effective early-year classroom management strategies to get the year off to a great start.

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Classroom Management

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Your #1 key is so important! In my early years of teaching, someone told me, "Make sure you are firm and no-nonsense the first day. They need to know you're in charge." I suspect this veteran teacher suggested this because she was worried that my high school juniors would run over little 23-year-old me.

I soon discovered that on the first day I would much rather make my 8th graders laugh, feel safe, and sense that learning will be fun in my class. So on the first day of school every year I start by reading aloud an especially engaging (and preferably funny) excerpt from a great book. In the past I have read aloud chapter one of Robert Newton Peck's "A Day No Pigs Would Die," Jordan Sonnenblick's "Notes from the Midnight Driver," and Michael Grant's "GONE;" but the best one lately has been a particularly hilarious scene deep into John Green's "Paper Towns." The kids laugh, look at each other with surprise ("Did she really just say that?!?") and go home raving about their funny English teacher.

We communicate so much by how we choose to structure that first week back. Let's show the kids that learning can be fun! Great suggestions here, Allen.

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