Do unresolved behavior issues keep you awake at night thinking about what strategies might enhance responsible decision making and increase academic learning time? It’s natural to feel personally and professionally challenged—as I have, too many times to count.
The good news is that there are some research-based strategies called kernels that you can add to your classroom management toolkit.
What Are Kernels?
In a 2008 paper published in Clinical Child and Family Psychology, Dennis Embry and Anthony Biglan describe kernels as “fundamental units of behavioral influence”—bite-size strategies that are validated by mountains of empirical evidence and teacher experience. (Barry Parsonson’s “Evidence-Based Classroom Behavior Management Strategies” offers another deep dive into the research.)
Embry and Biglan describe how a kernel might help the parent whose child is struggling to get out the door on time for school: “Alone, such a complaint does not merit implementing parenting skills training. However, a simple behavior change strategy, such as the ‘Beat the Timer’ game (Adams and Drabman 1995), in which the child receives a reward for completing a behavior before the timer goes off, could solve the problem, and prevent parent-child conflict.”
Particularly at the beginning of the year, before you’ve had a chance to develop deeper relationships with your students, kernels can offer useful approaches to classroom management. Administrators and coaches recommend kernels because implementing them with fidelity is intuitive and observable. They require neither special training nor expensive consultants.
11 Classroom Management Kernels
While veteran teachers may read the annotated list of kernels as common knowledge, their ubiquity is an advantage. You’ll often find them embedded in more complex constellations of evidence-based behavioral programs because of their effectiveness in cuing self-awareness, self-regulation, and pro-academic dispositions.
1. Nonverbal Cues: A teacher can use subtle body movements (like proximity) or more explicit hand signals to cue self-regulation. One popular cue involves moving to the front of the room and making eye contact with the high schooler who is acting out, then pausing until you have the individual’s attention. Younger students are less familiar with social cues and might require a verbal signal to accompany the nonverbal cues. Example: “What should you be doing right now?”
2. Nonverbal Transition Cues: Kids can become so immersed in an activity that they might not notice your attempts to shift them into the next learning event. Ringing a bell or turning lights on and off are unmistakable signals that shift attention to the teacher or a new task. Asking a class to collectively decide what signal to use can be a community builder.
3. Timeouts: Hundreds of studies support the timeout strategy, which is now considered an indispensable component of many evidence-based behavior management systems. Unlike the dunce cap punishment, which intentionally shames and stigmatizes students, a timeout is now used in progressive classrooms to provide an emotional breather in a less socially charged area of the room. It’s also a way for students to decompress, reflect on and enhance their self-awareness, and then return to their seats with improved self-regulation.
4. Over-Correction: Younger students may find classroom routines foreign or overwhelming. Take the time to model the appropriate procedure and then rehearse it three times or more until each step of the routine becomes second nature. After these rehearsals, my second graders took pride in executing the required actions quickly and perfectly for the rest of the year.
5. Notes of Praise: A private note left on a student’s desk praising improved classroom effort is a powerful reinforcement, especially when the note is heartfelt. Studies also show that sending positive letters home improves kids’ self-management and decision making.
6. Private Reminders: When partnered with discreet praise, private reminders to students about how to act responsibly increase on-task behaviors. Researchers recommend using short and unemotional reminders.
7. Greetings: It might seem like an insignificant gesture, but greeting students by name and making a positive statement enhances their self-regulation and increases class participation. Example: “Hey, Marcus. How is my brilliant student today?”
8. On-the-Spot Corrections: During a lesson, don’t leave behavioral missteps unaddressed. Immediately, briefly, and without drama, cue students about responsible conduct. Example: “What should you be doing right now? Right. Let’s see that happen.”
9. Mindfulness Practice: Citing numerous studies, Emily Campbell writes that teaching a student to meditate or practice nasal breathing (inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth) enhances emotional regulation. This animated gif helps students (and teachers) learn the technique.
10. Notice and Comment: The Peacebuilders website shares several “Minute Recipes for Building Peace,” such as recognizing changes in student behavior and showing interest. Example: “I really like how you’re acting today. Did something happen to make you feel better about your group?” Noticing and commenting sends an unmistakable and powerful message: I care.
11. When-Then: Another intervention published by Peacebuilders, “When-Then” helps students make responsible decisions—but also leaves the choice in the students’ hands: “When you start talking to me with a lowered voice, then we’ll problem-solve this situation.”
An overwhelming number of studies recommend that classroom instructors systematically teach self-regulation, relationship management, and responsible decision making at the beginning of the school year, so implement these kernels soon.