From Punishing to Teaching The Behavior We Want To See

Ahh, “behavior management.”

Research shows that “behavior management” is one of the top challenges for teachers, one of the factors attributed to teacher attrition, and a top priority for school administrators.  But what does it mean, to manage behaviors?

It is a teacher’s job to gain the cooperation of his/her learners.  Think about those words . . . gain the cooperation of . . . What are our expectations of a well-managed classroom?  Cooperative learners?  Engaged learners?  Compliant children?

Many of the systems we find in classrooms (i.e., clip charts, color charts, marble jars) are contingent upon compliance.  But compliance with what?  We often inundate children with vague classroom rules (what does it really mean to “be respectful”?) without clear operationalized expectations for, say, getting clipped up or clipped down.  What is the tangible real difference in behavior between “good job” and “great job” on a clip chart?  Ask any kid.  They’ll tell you it’s the teacher’s call, and it usually depends on the teacher’s mood.

And that’s moving UP on the chart.  Let’s talk about moving down.

Commonly, moving down on the system relies on punishment – lose five minutes recess, “think time,” or call parent.  Consequences are good, you say?  But, how do these things TEACH the behavior we want to see in children?  A child is not sitting still in class, so taking away the one time of day that they can move freely (recess) will teach him/her to sit still?  And if we are clipping kids down and enforcing these consequences consistently, then are we actually managing behavior?  Because the consequences aren’t changing the child’s behavior and now we’re in a punishment cycle where we feel compelled to make the consequences stiffer rather than to consider the entire system is failing.  Let’s reconsider the system together.

These systems operate on some assumptions.

  1. All children come to school ready to learn.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  2. All children know what you want them to do and how to do it.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  3. Kids at whatever grade I teach “should know better by now.”
    1. (Spoiler alert:  They don’t.)
  4. Punishment is the only way to gain cooperation.
    1. (Spoiler alert:  It isn’t.  In fact, it’s a terrible way to gain cooperation.)

What if we dismissed all of these false assumptions and envisioned a classroom community built on trust and acceptance of individual children’s needs?  What would that even look like?  Let’s start by establishing new assumptions.

  1. All children come to school having already had experiences, both good and bad, for the day.
    1. (Pro tip:  Like adults!  Sometimes, I oversleep.  Sometimes, I spill my coffee.  Sometimes, we run out of hot water.  Sometimes, I’m grumpy.  All of the emotions we as adults experience that affect our day can also be experienced by children.  And their feelings matter as much as ours!)
  2. All children are capable of being taught our expectations.
    1. (Pro tip:  It’s our job to teach!  Some kids need more teaching on some things and less on others.  We still teach.  Behavior is like math.  Differentiated instruction is necessary for all kids to learn.)
  3. All children make mistakes and need the opportunity to try again.
    1. (Pro tip:  Like adults!  I know better than to speed on the highway . . . but, I still do it.  Sometimes, I need teaching too.  Mistakes are learning opportunities!)
  4. Punishment doesn’t work.  It also betrays trust and frustrates everyone.
    1. (Pro tip:  Even after I get a speeding ticket, I speed.  Oops)

So if we assume all kids are doing the best they can and that they need our help to realize their full potential, how would that change our approach to building classroom community?  What if we flip from managing behavior to creating community and developing strategies for meeting individual students where they are?

Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??).  I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.

3 thoughts on “From Punishing to Teaching The Behavior We Want To See

  1. As a newer teacher to the field, developing a “behavior plan” is one of the more intimidating aspects of being an educator. I’ve found it difficult to discuss my approach with experienced teachers when they use strategies I don’t necessarily agree with, especially as someone who is new to the faculty.




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  2. I personally feel like a lot of it would come from a change in the culture of teaching. We do so many great things behind the closed door of our classroom that teachers down the hall don’t even know about. Creating spaces where teachers can openly discuss pros/cons of approaches without feeling attacked, but doing so in a way that stems from research based dialogue, would be a start.




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