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Dogs as Role Models: A Lesson in Classroom Management

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, "What do I do when several students act out at the same time?" Without resorting to S.W.A.T. gear, there are at least two methods that work almost all of the time. I learned them in a very unusual way.

About 20 years ago, I suffered a horrific event that resulted in a near-death experience. I acquired a trained therapy dog to help me deal with the panic attacks that followed. I took Otis everywhere with me -- 49 states (Hawaii was too complicated) and two countries. Some readers might remember meeting Otis during a training session.

After I stopped taking Otis with me, I'd bring him to his trainer's house when I traveled, a place where several other dogs stayed. Otis was so unhappy when I left that I snuck around to the back window to see how long it took him to adjust. (I did the same when I dropped my children off at day care, as I'm sure many of you have done.) After watching the interaction between the dogs, I was so fascinated that I started taking notes.

I'm not an expert on dog behavior, and I don't claim to be, but I began noticing certain patterns, specifically related to leadership. After a while it was obvious who the dog leader was. That dog ate first, went through the door first and had an effect on all the other dogs. Size, breed or toughness didn't seem to be factors in the dogs choosing the leader. It seemed as if some – the "alpha" dogs -- had a special "charisma" that the other dogs recognized.

Leader of the Pack

Soon I began to look at classrooms to see if students interacted the same as dogs in choosing and following a leader. While I have no scientific evidence and no formal research to back me up, I believe that there is a great similarity between dogs and students in this regard. After many years of working with teachers, I believe that the strategy I call "leader of the pack" works in most cases of multiple disruptions.

This strategy seems simple to explain in three steps, but in practice, it's much more complicated.

Step 1) Find the Classroom Leader

The first question relates to who the leaders are and how many there are. Just like dogs, student leaders aren't always the biggest, loudest or most visible. Oftentimes the most obvious source of trouble is not the real leader but rather someone who is egged on by someone else. In the classes I have observed, I've seen up to two leaders who sometimes vie for control. I've never seen three or more, because there is simply no room for more than two.

To find out who the real leaders are, compare the behavior and attitudes of the class once a suspected leader is absent. If the behavior changes, for better or (more typically) worse, that student is a leader. If the class behavior stays the same, then that student does not have a strong influence on the others. You don't need to wait for a random absenteeism. With an administrator's help, set up a situation to remove the students for at least a half hour, preferably even longer. Make it a positive removal, definitely not a punishment.

Step 2) Stop the Leader and the Others Will Follow

Once you discover who the real leader is, ask that student to help you keep the class under control. Say something like, "Juan, you are so respected in this class and other students trust you. I want them to learn. Can you help keep things cool in here?" If they are young enough, you can offer them deputy sheriff status. But never offer that to a high school student who will only think you're crazy! If the leader refuses, accept his or her decision gracefully, but then position yourself right next to the student and continue teaching the lesson. Your proximity will control the student and thus, most of the class.

When there are multiple disruptions, do not try to deal with the class as a whole. Most of the time, this only makes things worse, because you become the common enemy of the group. Deal with students one at a time, even if there is chaos around you. Start with the most influential students and work down. In most instances you will soon regain control.

Step 3) Create New Leaders

This strategy is a variation of the previous two. Divide the class into groups. Change the group membership each week. Chose a group leader, picking the natural leaders at first then giving all students a turn over time. The leader's responsibility is to help you keep his or her members quiet when necessary and in control if things get out of hand. When you set this strategy up, be sure to explain clearly and completely how the process will work to your class.

When necessary, tell the leaders to quiet their group or to stop disrupting. This way, you are not dealing with a whole class, but maybe five or six leaders, depending on class size.

These strategies will not always work, but they are effective most of the time. They give you an intermediate step before calling in the S.W.A.T. team.

Was this useful?

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

As long as may schools appear to be "going to the dogs.," why not do it the best way?!

What a great little clever piece Rick. I'm sending it to some dog loving teachers I know, including my daughter and son-in-law.

I hav been contacted by some Dogs Rights activists however who want to know whether I have any information regarding Otis being under contract and a member of the Teachers

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

to mark,

That's why Otis barked at you every time he saw you. He never had enough kibble to pay the union dues.

thanks for the comment.

Bob Brandis's picture
Bob Brandis
Principal - Australia (semi retired)

I love the "leader of the pack" analogy. I bet giving them some form of control must make the conscientious students gulp in horror.

Having visited hundreds of classrooms, it always amazes me how these little hounds ever got to that status in the first place.

I'm going to suggest this strategy to my staff.

ttrspks's picture
English Teacher from Queens, NY

Don't know if you are the fist bumping type, but even if it is metaphorically speaking, you've put into words what good teachers innately know. Everything about teaching is strategic, and your three-point explanation is accurate. As a middle school teacher, I know, I've lived it. Now what about when the classroom leader is the most deviant of them all? What about when the classroom leader is actually the bully? What about when the classroom leader's middle name is "I hate this school, and the teachers too." I'd like to know your take on how to handle them.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Hi pprspks,

You raise a great question. There two basic approaches, one short term and one long term.

Short term:
1. neutralize his power with proximity control, be close when you teach.
2. Greet him at the door about three days a week and greet him with something like (use your own words) "I'm glad to see you. I know you usually don't like school, but I hope today is better. Do you have any suggestions for me how I can help you learn today?" Use a similar approach when he leaves asking him about tomorrow.
3. Privately ask him if he had any teachers or classes that he didn't hate or at least liked a little more. Find out what that teacher did that you might do.

Long term:

He developed this attitude for a reason. If you can find the reason you might be able to change his attitude. You can ask him, but you may hear in response, "I don't know," or "leave me alone." ask others, family previous teachers or school personnel. Go back as far as you can.

I don't like trying to be commercial on this site, but my book, Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivating Urban Youth has a lot of other ideas that can really help. They are too long to explain in this post.

You may also hope he is absent more often (Joking, of course.)

Good luck,

Rick Curwin

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

I'd like to add one additional thought, which might be the most important of all. The single best attitude that a teacher can have in changing the attitudes of students is to believe in them. Telling a student that is better than nothing but not very effective overall. It's far better to show them that you believe in them. This is not simple to explain in a post how to do this but start by asking yourself what do people who believe in you show you, rather than tell you, that they really do. Then try those things.

Once again,
don't give up and Good luck

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