George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I was recently at an intermediate school observing the classrooms of teachers who had signed up for assistance in working with one or more of their difficult students. As expected, I saw a range of inappropriate behaviors among the kids I was asked to observe, including Keegan wandering around the room, Carlton with his head on the desk, Shaleesha and Louisa bickering over a pencil, and Manny making squeaky noises. Later on, I met with each of five teachers to discuss their concerns and explore strategies.

While every teacher had no trouble reciting a litany of these students' disruptive behaviors, I was amazed that, three months into the school year, not one was able to tell me any of the students' favorite out-of-school interest, hobby, or activity. Hiding my shock, I suggested that it might be a good idea to engage each student to discover these things so that, going forward, they might be better prepared to reach out and connect in a positive way.

Perhaps it's unfair to generalize from this small sample, but these five teachers, although frustrated by those students, struck me as caring people truly dedicated to turning them around. Further, the teachers probably had numerous prior opportunities to connect with each student -- and probably thought that they'd tried. In fact, virtually every teacher claims to care about all students when asked. Yet I wondered if any of these kids actually felt cared about. In fact, student surveys consistently find that fewer than half believe their teachers care about them. I would guess that the numbers are even lower among the behaviorally challenging population.

Why the disconnect? And what are the remedies?

1. Too Much Reliance on Consequences

Consequences work only when someone cares more about what is lost than gained because of their behavior. Losing recess because you didn't do your work is only effective if a student's need for recess is greater than what he gets in class by not doing it. The threat of losing sports eligibility may at best work during the season but rarely beyond. Suspension only works when kids care more about being in class than being out. Restorative justice works when students believe that the system cares about them. Notice that the operative word for effectiveness is care. Most tough kids rightly or wrongly feel like unwanted outsiders and therefore don't allow these methods to work.

Remedy

In order for consequences to work, the student must see the teacher as an insider. Consider the answers to these questions: Does my teacher. . .

  • Know what I'm afraid of?
  • Know what I'm proud of?
  • Know what I'm anxious to talk about?
  • Recognize my interests, dreams and disappointments?
  • Openly share who he or she is?
  • Know me?

If not, we're viewed as someone trying to wield power, and we become yet another enemy to be resisted.

2. Failure to Connect

Since most challenging students build walls to protect themselves from disappointment or worse, it takes time, effort, and patience to become an insider.

Remedy

Make it a daily priority to:

  • Greet tough kids in a friendly way: "Good to see you."
  • Get to know how they are outside of class: "What do you like to do when you aren't in school?"
  • Learn about their hopes: "If you could spend more time with someone, who would it be?"
  • Learn about their dreams: "When I was a kid, I remember wanting to be a fireman. What about you?"
  • Share your own story of successes and failures.

Even with all of this, most kids will continue to visit their old behaviors as they are acquiring new ones. So expect backsliding, and when it occurs, view it as a sign that positive changes are beginning to take hold.

3. Lack of Dialogue, Negotiation, and Agreement

How effective have you found this approach to be for promoting an apology?

Matthew, that was a nasty, inappropriate, hurtful thing to say. Apologize to Briana right now, and I don't want to hear that again! Move your card to yellow right now [or some other consequence].

Remedy

Good discipline should be a trigger for reflection and insight, not an action that results solely in pain or pleasure. In his book The Village Way, Chaim Peri speaks of the DNA of effective discipline -- meaningful punishment as a process of dialogue, negotiation, and agreement (DNA). While the following approach to promote an apology is more time-consuming, it's also more likely to promote empathy and insight:

Matthew, how do you feel when someone says nasty, hurtful things to you? What would you want that person to say or do that might make you feel better? I know I'd feel upset and maybe mad, and I'd want someone to apologize and really mean it. Unless you can think of a different way to make things better, I think a good start would be apologizing to Briana for the hurt you caused. I also wonder if moving your card from green to yellow would help you remember not to say that again. What do you think?

Initiating this kind of dialogue with a youngster who breaks rules requires that we share how the behavior is problematic for us, others, or the student. This affords the student an opportunity to explore other ways of getting his needs met. It's an opportunity to let him see you as someone who sets limits, yet can also share the personal experience of remembering when adults set limits for you. By doing this, you encourage input from and possible negotiation with the student, leading to agreement.

I discuss all this and much more in my book Connecting With Students.

What are your thoughts about traveling a road to change that runs through connections rather than consequences? What strategies have you found helpful? Please share in the comments section below.

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Steve March's picture

As stated in this article, developing positive relationships is the key to classroom management because it shows students you care. When I have communicated this to teachers, sometimes they look scared and say things like, "With all the other requirements on my time, how do you expect me to develop these relationships? Do I need to individually take each of my students out to ice cream or something?" The direct answer to this second question is no, there are many ways to develop those relationships within the class room environment. This article gives some good questions to ask. But I think, from a teacher's perspective, sometimes we need to realize a few things.
First, for encouraging positive behavior, student perception of the relationship is key. Even if you don't feel like there is a positive relationship, how can you convince the student that there is? This starts in your eyes, your smile, your demeanor toward the student. If your whole body says, "Great to see you, I'm glad you are hear", then the student will eventually feel like he or she belongs and wants to be there. The article mentioned greeting students at the door--it works! Greet, then invite them to start on an engaging activity that "I made just for you". I also have students fill out a questionnaire on the first day of class which tells me some of their hobbies, then I look back at them every once in a while and ask the students about what they already communicated to me.
Second, in the context of the student, your smile may be the only one he or she sees all day. Personally, I let my guard down a little in the context of my home--where I feel most comfortable. And as an adult, I have learned where the line is between a moral issue--which I do not let my guard down about--and a social issue like cracking my knuckles or wearing stripes and polka dots. Again, in the context of the student, they may not have learned this distinction before our class. If we are showing the students that they are welcome in the class, they may feel comfortable which leads to pushing the boundaries to find out where they are. This is an educational opportunity! Even express gratitude with a big smile toward the student for finding the class so comfortable, then ask if you can show how the class works best. Some teachers feel that a list of rules published on the wall should be enough "education". Again in the context of the child, many have been conditioned to go against written rules for a long time.
Finally, have fun and relax. You will spend about (6 hours a day) x (180 days) = 1080 hours per year with your students compared to 8760 total hours in a year. In that time, it may not be reasonable to expect your work to turn a student's life around (in fact, it may be arrogant to think you alone can). Instead, understand tat you are one small positive factor in the life of a child and, like a rudder on a large ship, you can slowly help point him or her in the right direction.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Really well said, Steve. I especially resonate to the idea of expressing gratitude to the student for feeling sufficiently comfortable to push boundaries and then letting the student know what works best in the classroom. Thanks for your well thought, comprehensive comment.

Jessica Ann's picture

Thank you for sharing this. I have had multiple people ask me how I built my relationships with my students and I have never been able to fully explain it further than, they know that I have their back. Through reading this article I could identify with each point. I had a student who struggled consistently in most subject areas, but he mostly struggled with confidence. I shared my math struggles as a student, we found his strengths, what worked for him, and he soared! I still correspond with him when he has a success he wants to share. My students knew the expectations, we discussed what consequences they believed were appropriate and they implemented them for themselves, and they emailed their parents what happened. I believe this article is something that all pre-service teachers should be exposed to so that they can understand how to have effective classroom management, while building strong student relationships that encourage an atmosphere of true life-long learning through mistakes and successes. Does your book provide more specific examples and guidelines for teachers wanting to move towards this classroom mentality?

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Thanks for your comment Jessica. As you have experienced, sharing your own struggles can be a powerful motivator when it comes from someone who is respected and successful. In response to your question about my book, WHEN TEACHING GETS TOUGH offers plenty of specifics. I would also suggest CONNECTING WITH STUDENTS, also published by ASCD. Visit our website (tlc-sems.com) for a listing of materials that orient to "this classroom mentality."

Jessica Ann's picture

Thank you for the resources and suggestions. They are very much appreciated.

Best,
Jessica

vcrunnfe's picture

As I read this article, there were several students running through my mind. Some that I have formed great connections with, and others that have been more difficult to create. One student in particular I have noticed typically performs and behaves more appropriately when I have started the day with a positive connection and he has time to share how he is feeling and we can discuss what may be difficult and exciting throughout the day. There are many days however, that I get caught up in something else and forget to put forth the extra effort to really talk with him in the morning. After reflecting on this post, I am reminded of the importance of starting each day with a clean slate, and connecting first thing with some students.

RWM Librarian's picture

I would love to be able to speak more thoughtfully to my students about disruptions and misbehaviors...but when I'm in the middle of a lesson, with students I see once a week, and with no other adults in the room, it's really hard to justify the time taken away from the other students to have that conversation. I'd love some advice from more experienced teachers! (Note: I'm a school librarian and technology teacher.)

Mary Pakusch's picture

I love this article! I'm a special ed teacher and I've always made it a point to connect with my students, especially the more difficult ones. This caught my eye because it can also apply in other settings. My quadraplegic friend has a reputation for being difficult at his nursing home. His behavior stems from anxiety and trying to have some control over what happens to him. The nurses and aides that have gotten to know him love him and he is very cooperative for them. The ones that don't look beyond his behavior yell at him and treat him like a child. It creates a lot of conflict. It is so important for everyone to feel cared about and listened to!

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

To RWM: You might consider having that conversation by cellphone if you can't find a way during the one class a week. Before you do, I would suggest getting an okay from administration.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi RWM Librarian. In my library, I make sure that my expectations are clear and posted and we review them at the start of each class. That being said, disruptions occur all the time! My school used a chart system (which I'm terrible at using) for behavior management, and I find that I can get some traction by managing the immediate disruption ("I can't get to the story if I don't have quiet bodies and quiet voices," etc) and then talking 1-1 with the kids who have issues during check out time. My check-out is a self-service system, so I don't have to be too involved (though I tend to hang out by the computer while they're doing it, in case trouble arises). I also try to make sure that I have options ("You may check out books, read aloud to a buddy or a stuffed animal, or you may write or draw something related to the book we read today xxxxx") available for the work in the library and I try to keep my voice to a minimum. Our tech time is separate from library time, but much of the same stuff applies- clear expectations that I stick to carefully, clear consequences managed privately, etc. Good luck!

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