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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What's the Secret to Effective Classroom Management?

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

I saw once a simple comparison of leadership versus management: leadership is doing the RIGHT THINGS while management is doing THINGS RIGHT (sorry I don't remember the source; my apologies). In that context, it is much more important to show leadership in the classroom. Indeed, there are times when the learners AND instructor are wading into a new topic or subtopic and therefore taking wrong and/or chaotic paths of discovery on the way to understanding. The trust noted in the piece I find is only enhanced when student involvement is encouraged and "teacher as a learner too" is evident to the students. There is of course core knowledge that the instructor hopefully knows and understands well - in order for the students to learn and understand well. BUT it is the inquiry and discovery in the classroom with leadership but also participation by the instructor that makes that learning effective (retained longterm and easily utilized to successfully address assignments and situations in general) - with the gathering and evaluation of additional information of course.

Kelle Campbell's picture

I just saw a video on a related topic at the Hey Jude blog: http://heyjude.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/born-to-learn/ It was discussing how children truly learn by interacting with their environment or playing and how some traditional attitudes can stifle that capacity.

I think maintaining the balance of discipline and engagement is constantly challenging, and gets worse when teachers burn out from paperwork and/or dealing with troubled students. In addition to knowing the secret to effective classroom management, teachers will need a culture of mutual support and accountability in order for the whole faculty to adhere to it.

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