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What's the Secret to Effective Classroom Management?

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
Here it is: Children have a strong, positive relationship with their teacher, and vice-versa. Beneath this seemingly simple concept is a lot of neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive development, and SEL.

Social rule structures eventually rest on one of two things: trust or fear. When the rules are based on trust, students feel freer to participate; problem-based learning can thrive, versus learning focused on getting the one right answer; students can challenge prevailing wisdom, ask questions, and disagree safely with one another. Students can co-create classroom management rules because they want to be there and they want the classroom to be engaging and work well.

When fear predominates, classrooms can look orderly on the surface, but it is the order of prison. "Underground," perhaps, there is rebellion. Sometimes there is also overt misbehavior, to express frustration or even get oneself put out of the noxious environment.

Classrooms managed based on fear create disaffection and disengagement from the learning tasks, which are often "blamed" on students as the reason so much rigid order is needed. So learning suffers, genuine learning, even if there is a lot of rote seatwork being done.

Learning is work of the head and work of the heart. A climate of fear thwarts all of the goals of higher learning. Plus, as David Brooks so insightfully points out, children often learn first for the teacher, to please the teacher and to obtain the teacher's pleasure in their learning, more than they learn for the intrinsic value they attach to the subject matter or tasks. This is especially true when students are introduced to new content and concepts.

Those concerned about classroom management must simultaneously be concerned about student learning. Both thrive only when there are trusting, respectful, caring relationships between students and teachers. When the latter are in place, rules will be effective and the majority of students will be engaged learners.

Please share your ideas and practices for building positive relationships with students as a scaffold for classroom rules and productive learning environments.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (62)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Daniel Sierra's picture
Daniel Sierra
pre-service educator from Miami Dade County

I agree with David Brooks, there is a positive relationship between teachers and students. Every time I found students on the street they get so exited and yell "hey Mr Sierra!! look he is my math teacher" and I am just an intern. I do believe that the relationship between both individuals can make a difference. Of course, not to change from a teacher to a "friend" but to create a relation of trust where students can feel confidence to ask questions without affecting their esteem with the answers. Sometimes, when appropriate, I use hi5s for an answer and that motivates them to participate more. They also feel more confidence if I use more positive reinforcement than negative. Instead of just taking points away I give points for any appropriate behavior and of course the feeling of competition is always there to make them feel that they need to improve.

Kari's picture

This is a very interesting way of looking at classroom management and it's not that hard to do but it requires lots of time to implement. I also think that the students' attitude toward class would impact their classroom performance and whether or not they have trust on the teacher won't really have as much effect as mentioned on the article. The best part is that this rule would work on almost any grade level but the part that would change is how to show the student that they can trust the teacher.

Joe Edi's picture
Joe Edi
Teacher, Parent, Advocate...Miami, FL

While I agree that creating an environment that is built on trust is more beneficial than that of fear, I think that both trust and fear (of the rules and consequences) can coexist within classroom management. No student should ever fear a teacher because it is absolutely true that students do learn first for the teacher as stated in the article. However, it is important to teach students that within an organized, orderly society rules exist to keep individuals safe and within the parameter of law, just as rules exist in the classroom for safety as well as appropriate conduct.
I strongly believe that my students know that I care deeply for them as individuals, but they also realize that I will not tolerate behavior that we, as a group, have developed within our classroom rules. Those rules have consequences, which some may fear, but this is a part of life that we all have to live with. I know that I should not park without feeding the meter and by not following this simple rule, I fear returning to my car and finding a ticket. My students know that they are to keep their hands to themselves at all times and by not doing this they may fear a note being sent home and having to deal with the consequences. This is what I mean by fear, but again I repeat that trust is by far the first step in having students want to learn while obeying the rules.

Rural schoolmarm's picture
Rural schoolmarm
jr high teacher

J. Aravena: Future based on trust is fine and dandy. I just find it troubling that in your entire comment there is no mention of personal responsibility on the part of the student.

Joe Edi's picture
Joe Edi
Teacher, Parent, Advocate...Miami, FL

Personal responsibility?
The mere fact that a child has internalized their action and "fears" the consequences attached to this behavior shows an acknowledgement of personal responsibility. The child recognizes that the behavior is unacceptable and should not be repeated. That's personal responsibility!

Maurice J. Elias's picture

There have been wonderful, heartfelt comments by so many, and I have learned a lot. I want to add one important dimension implicit in many comments: classroom management is far more difficult when it is not built upon self-regulation and a supportive school environment. First, when students enter a classroom having been in classrooms with the kinds of approaches many have described, in which they feel some level of ownership/responsibility for creating the rules, a sense of having been respected (thanks, James Mac Shane) and trusted, and in which they have been encouraged to build skills of self-management (typical skills of SEL/emotional intelligence), then the teacher's job is not quite so challenging. There is much to build upon, and even new students coming into a school who have not had such a background are able to be socialized and mentored by those who have. So classroom management is actually developmental, and educators need to be VERY concerned about the techniques used by their colleagues.

The second dimension is the overall school philosophy. When an individual has a classroom management approach that attempts to develop students' internalized moral compasses in a school that is dominated by a strict system of external rewards and punishments, the experience will be one of swimming upstream. If the students are also not coming in with some prior experience in classrooms fostering self-management, the experience will be one of swimming upstream against rapids. We must recognize that classroom management is tied to prior student experience with classroom management (and so, in the beginning of the school year, this might be a wise topic to discuss with students before embarking on one's approach...) and the overall school approach to building student self-discpline (vs. compliance).
Maurice Elias

Maurice J. Elias's picture

[quote]A critical point is "the majority of student" will be engaged learners. In my lab where students are simultaneously exploring a variety of 21st C projects, responsibility on the part of students is crucial. At times, a student, who would rather smooze with their friends than learn, can obstruct progress in what would otherwise be a well-managed classroom. What is the key to managing what an educational motivational speaker at a previous school called, "the buzzards in the back"? Sure, engage them, but who has some secrets for the hard core disengaged?[/quote]

This is indeed a great challenge, but there are no secrets. The same principles apply, with a twist. Unless students have genuine emotional disturbance, in which case there is a CST referral process that should be initiated, they want to belong to something meaningful, make contributions, be appreciated, have something they feel competent in, and feel they have a voice/some power. Being disruptive meets some of these needs, in the sense of, "if I can't belong to a decent classroom, you won't, either." What I have found effective is to meet with these students, individually or in pairs, and discuss the extent to which the class, to them, is a source of meaning, contribution, etc. And then I will ask how we will make it so, in some ways, for them. I will let them know that they cannot convince me of their incompetence or lack of value, so it's not worth their trying. I will also say that fitting in is not easy, and I will acknowledge that historically, they may not have been appreciated, nor might they be in other classes/parts of the school. (Note: to the extent they have a negative history and are labeled by the school currently as incorrigibly disengaged, it will be harder to change their ways) But I will try to make a case that even a desert has a oasis or two, and this can be theirs if they are willing. And I will treat this as a work in progress, that we may have a plan that may not work, which only means we need to meet again to make a better plan. I will also try to buddy up the recalcitrant with others in the class they might respect/find acceptable, to provide them with some extra support in areas where they might need help academically, though I will also try to see if the buddying can be reciprocal (e.g., the disengaged might have a lot to teach them about how to manage on the bus, at lunch, recess, etc.). I wish there were secrets, and I wish that effective methods were less time consuming. But these approaches also help kids get the services, if needed, that will allow them to accept help when it is being offered sincerely. If they can't develop that skill, their lives will be difficult indeed.

Maurice Elias

A Hirt's picture

[quote]J. Aravena: Future based on trust is fine and dandy. I just find it troubling that in your entire comment there is no mention of personal responsibility on the part of the student.[/quote]

A Hirt's picture

I agree..personal responsibility is an important key. I work at a Title 1 school. Many students behave poorly in class and are very rude. Students needs to know how to conduct themselves in the classroom by the time they reach high school

David Ginsburg's picture
David Ginsburg
Instructional Coach, Leadership Coach, Math Specialist


Just letting you know about my latest Ed Week blog post,Behavior Management ? Classroom Management, which was inspired in part by your post and the dialogue it has generated. I hope you and your readers check it out and provide comments.


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