Classroom management and discipline

Discipline is one of the problems that we all confront as teachers.  Do we shame the student into compliance? Do we just say “Put the phone away” or “Get back to work” or something similar?  Are these effective ways to correct behavior in the long-run? In the short-term?  In the long-run, probably not.

According to this intriguing article in Mother Jones by Katherine Reynolds Lewis, many schools and parents have used a Pavlovian approach advocated by B.F. Skinner in the mid-20th Century.  This approach includes rewards (like gold stars) for good behavior and negative consequences (like suspensions and expulsions from school) for bad behavior.  Yet alongside Skinner’s approach is a lot of “recidivism” (i.e. repeat suspensions/expulsions) and “problem students” often going to jail after school.  This approach especially harms black students and students with learning and behavior disabilities.  Psychologist Ross Greene, who has taught at Harvard and Virginia Tech, and is author of The Explosive Child and Lost at School, has proposed a new method which has much better results.  According to Lewis,

His model was honed in children’s psychiatric clinics and battle-tested in state juvenile facilities, and in 2006 it formally made its way into a smattering of public and private schools. The results thus far have been dramatic, with schools reporting drops as great as 80 percent in disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and incidents of peer aggression. “We know if we keep doing what isn’t working for those kids, we lose them,” Greene told me. “Eventually there’s this whole population of kids we refer to as overcorrected, overdirected, and overpunished. Anyone who works with kids who are behaviorally challenging knows these kids: They’ve habituated to punishment.”

Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. You’d talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

Greene proposes that teachers talk to students and try to understand what the actual problem is: why is the student frustrated? why is the student speaking out of turn? why is the student not starting his/her classwork?  why is the student not finishing or turning in his/her homework?  Once we understand the root of the problem, we–both the teacher and the student–should together develop a plan to address the problem.  Should the student walk away or just take some deep breathes when he/she starts to be frustrated or anxious? Does the student just need a snack to alleviate some hunger so he/she can work?

All these conversations help students develop problem-solving skills, which can help in a lot of ways (see also my post on metacognition).  Depending on the students’ age and development, their prefrontal cortex–which manages our ability to control impulses, plan, and prioritize tasks–may not have fully developed.  However, helping a student problem-solve, plan, and control impulses will help the neural pathways develop in the prefrontal cortex so that it develops and problems become less frequent (i.e. less “recidivism”).

Ok, so this is all good to know and this science-backed idea sounds great, but we are often the only teacher in a class of many students, how do we implement this?

  • Be careful about the teaching persona you adopt.  Lewis noted that Greene’s method made staffers at a juvenile detention center feel less adversarial in relationship to students.  The more you think about your students as adversaries, the less you and the student may be willing to work together and develop a plan for both of you to enact in order to improve the behavior.
  • When you talk to students, make sure that the plan you develop is age-appropriate.  For example, if the student is slow to start work because he/she is hungry, a simple solution may be for him/her to have a snack.  But who supplies the snack?  In a college setting, it is most reasonable for the student to carry granola bars or a bag of nuts that he/she can eat, but this expectation may not always be reasonable or practical for all ages.
  • Also be willing to accommodate the plan that you develop with the student.  If the student is frustrated and needs to distance himself/herself from others for a bit, let him/her walk away and out of the classroom.  If the student’s hunger gets in the way of his/her work, let him/her eat in class.  But if you are not comfortable with the plan that the student suggests, calmly explain to the student about why that plan is not a good idea or you cannot accommodate it.
  • Ideally, we would talk to a student in private so that the student does not think we are challenging them in front of their peers.  We may also let negative behavior (like cursing) go for a bit and then talk to the student after class or in an individual meeting outside of class–perhaps ask to talk to them as they are leaving the classroom or e-mail them to set up an appointment to meet, or depending on the problem and student, discuss the problem via e-mail.  Delaying your conversation with the student may also let both of you approach the topic more calmly and less emotionally, so you can better reason and develop a plan.  When you meet with them, listen to them and talk to them.  I know that I have a tendency to suggest ideas rather than help students develop their own, but helping them develop their own will be more beneficial for them.
  • I have also found that allotting part of the class time to group work (here and here) can really help me provide more individualized instruction.  This can be a great time to talk to individual students about their issues.  This may be especially helpful if you notice that several students are having problems with a certain problem, such as remembering vocabulary.  You can assign them all to the same group and then try to brainstorm ways to help them learn vocabulary during the group work time.
  • Obviously, if you are not the only teacher, teaching assistants or aides can talk to students and develop these plans while you continue to work with the entire class, another group, or another student.

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