Classroom Discipline Best Practices

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Discipline is one of the most pressing issues in our schools today, and in order for learning to take place, teachers must control and minimize time off task due to discipline problems.  Choosing an effective approach and using it correctly can make a big difference in whether a child feels safe or threatened and whether a child learns more appropriate behaviors or not once the discipline has been administered. 

Instead of waiting until bad behavior rears its ugly head, it is best practice for teachers to proactively teach discipline just like any other subject.  Lessons should include teaching positive behavior skills and how to achieve them during various situations.   As students’ knowledge, skill, and practice of good behavior grows, so does the chance of them having a lasting impact.  The goal is to help students develop self-control and begin to understand socially responsible behavior.

Usually, teachers discuss classroom rules on the first day of school and post them in the room as a visual reminder.  While this approach to rule setting can be quite effective in establishing a sense of order in a classroom (which we very much need), it does little to help children develop self-discipline, ethical thinking, or an understanding of how to be contributing members of a democratic community.  At its worst, it invites tension, blind obedience, or a constant battle of wills between adults and children in school. (Thorton, Mary Beth. Rules in School. Center for Responsive Schools, Inc. 2011)

Research suggests that when students and teachers work collaboratively during the early weeks of school to develop classroom rules, students generally view the rules in a more positive light.  They must understand that the rules are there to keep them safe and help them achieve their goals in school.  As a suggestion, you might start with a list of basic rules and then collaboratively work with students to rewrite and/or add to them.

When it comes to discipline, a teacher’s approach is extremely important.   Since all discipline problems are not alike, an effective teacher learns to match different approaches to different problems.  The key is to be aware of the various discipline approaches that have been developed, so here are some that you might want to use from Inspiring Discipline by Merrill Harmin (NEA Professional Library 1995). 

The Simple Authority Statement: With a simple authority statement, teachers can exercise authority with minimum distress and emotion. By employing this strategy, you also show students how a person can use authority respectfully and reasonably. The strategy calls for the teacher to voice disapproval authoritatively, promptly, and as unemotionally as possible.

Redirect Student Energy: By redirecting student energy, a teacher can end misbehavior without creating negative feelings. Instead of focusing on the misbehavior, this strategy calls on the teacher to turn student attention to something else, preferably something worth attending to. This is a useful approach when direct confrontation is either unnecessary or imprudent.

The Calm Reminder: A calm reminder can help students understand what they are supposed to do, in a way that does not communicate negative emotions.

The Next-Time Message: A next-time message can correct students' behavior without making them feel discouraged. The strategy calls for the teacher to tell students what to do next time, without focusing on what was done this time.

The Check-Yourself Message: A check-yourself message can remind students to manage themselves responsibly. The strategy involves the teacher telling students to check what they have done, implying that when they do so, they will see what corrections are necessary. This strategy can be used whenever students become careless.

The Silent Response: A silent response strategy gives students room to solve their own problems. This strategy also provides a way of avoiding hasty, inappropriate responses. A teacher using this strategy reacts to an act of misbehavior by making a mental note only and considering later what, if any, action is appropriate.

Clock Focus: A clock focus strategy can settle student restlessness and increase student powers of concentration. The strategy calls for the teacher to announce "clock focus," a cue to students to stand and watch the second hand of a clock make full circles, as many rotations as they choose, and then to sit and resume their individual work. The strategy can be used whenever students need to be settled down, particularly young students working at individual tasks.

The Visitor's Chair: By using the visitor's chair strategy, a teacher can position a student close-by without communicating disapproval. The teacher using this strategy asks a student to sit in a "visitor's chair" close to where the teacher is sitting or standing. Students know they can return to their own seats whenever they feel ready for responsible self-management.

Honest "I" Statements: "I" statements can help teachers communicate honestly without generating defensiveness or guilt. Honest "I" statements also help teachers model a valuable interpersonal skill. The strategy calls for the teacher to talk honestly about personal needs and feelings, making "I" statements, avoiding comments about what "you" did or "you" said. This approach is especially useful when upsetting feelings emerge.

The Undone-Work Response: An undone-work response is a useful approach when students fail to do required work. A teacher using this strategy avoids a blaming response and instead aims to create a growth-producing response. This approach can be used whenever a student has not completed work on time. 

In conclusion, teachers must always be mindful of their own role when it comes to disciplining a child. They must:  

  1. establish clear expectations,

  2. teach students how their actions can bring positive or negative consequences to themselves and others,

  3. use respectful strategies to stop misbehavior and restore positive behavior as quickly as possible,

  4. be kind, fair, and consistent,

  5. aim to create a calm, safe, and orderly classroom while preserving the dignity of each child.

When bad behavior occurs, teachers should take the necessary steps to get students back on track.  If the behavior is new, stop and talk to the student about it, using the list above to address the behavior.  If it happens again, chances are that the student has developed a pattern of this misbehavior.  The teacher should address the behavior problem as a pattern and use the list above to deal with the pattern of misbehavior.  Now, if the behavior happens again, it’s time for the teacher to involve the parent(s) and possibly the principal. 

Students will have many opportunities at school to learn from their mistakes, and the teacher plays a huge role in guiding them toward success both academically and socially.  Haim Ginnot, a school teacher, child psychologist, psychotherapist, and parent educator, wrote one of the best quotes I’ve ever read, and I think it makes a great conclusion to this topic.  He wrote:

 

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

How to Gain Control of Your Classroom

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Who’s in Control?

This is an important question…but, before I attempt to answer it, I should explain that I CAN’T answer this question for you. I can only answer it as it applies to me. As a former classroom teacher, it was a question I grappled with the first day I walked into my cooperating teacher’s classroom during my semester as a student teacher.

It was easy to see that I wasn’t the one in control. It was Mrs. Hall’s classroom. She was my incredible mentor teacher during my student teacher days, and since it was her classroom of third graders, she was in control. Not me. But, I did what I was told to do, going through the various aspects of learning how to teach children. I did well…but, I was never truly the teacher—just the helper, as far as the kids were concerned.

I awaited the time during my training when Mrs. Hall would leave me alone for a few hours on occasion while I tried to figure out how to solo. Man! I’d be lying if I said that I felt like I was in control even then. I wasn’t, and it was painfully obvious by the way the third graders reacted to my approach. They weren’t listening to me. I was trying all the strategies I was taught to use that, in theory, were supposed to work with kids. I reverted to yelling, as that was how control was gained in my growing-up years. Out it came. I found myself raising my voice to be heard above the din of noise my out-of-control students were making on a daily basis. Funny, the more out-of-control they became, the more control they had…over me.

Control.

If you were to ask me today what the definition of control is, I would tell you that it is an imaginary, self-centered perspective that we create in order to mask our fear. That’s what I was doing in my early days as a teacher. Thankfully, with the help of Mrs. Hall, Jim Fay, Foster Cline, and Betsy Geddes, I was able to reset my dysfunctional default and change the direction of my approach to dealing with kids. Let’s face it, if a teacher has classroom management problems, he or she is not truly able to get to the craft of teaching. Almost anyone can learn how to disseminate knowledge, but without exemplary management skills, it doesn’t matter how sharp you are with content, very few of your students will ever get to benefit from your expertise if you don’t know who’s in charge.

That brings me to the answer to my opening question—who’s in control? Wait. Before I answer it, I have to change something. I have to change the question. The question cannot be, “Who’s in control?”

As a classroom manager, the real question is, “WHAT can I control?”

Let me tell you folks, knowing the answer to this revised question is what saved my career. Here’s the answer…I can only control myself, and that is ONLY on a good day! The point is, I learned that I cannot actually control ANYONE who lives outside my skin. So, if it’s true that I cannot actually control anything, then what? How would I ever get anything done in my classroom? Simple. I quit thinking that I should have the control to make kids listen, to make kids behave, to make them learn.

I adopted a new philosophy. I would only try to control how I would react to situations that arose in the classroom. It was very freeing to learn that not only was I NOT in control over my kids, but also that I didn’t need to be. What I needed control over was how to handle myself and my attitude when things didn’t go the way I thought they should go. Cline, Fay, and Geddes somehow sprinkled magic fairy dust on me and I really began to fly as a classroom manager. I learned how to SHARE control with my students over matters that I was willing to let go of. For instance, I had to figure out what was really my problem as a teacher and what were really my students’ problems. I quit taking ownership over my kids’ problems. I figured out that there were only a few big issues to deal with in most of the behavioral issues my kids’ displayed.

In order to get buy-in with my students, I quit imposing my rules upon them. Instead, we had a nice long conversation about the kind of classroom THEY wanted to learn in. It was amazing! My students explained that they wanted to feel safe, they didn’t want to fight or be called names, and they wanted to be treated fairly. Some offered that they needed times to be able to talk and also times for quiet. Hmmmmm. Well, those became our rules for a happy classroom, and they applied to me as the teacher, as well.

Soon, when disagreements arose in the classroom, when noise became too loud for me to handle, or when I felt like they were making it impossible for me to teach, I was able to call a meeting of the minds and discuss how we needed to realign ourselves with what we all had agreed would be our classroom rules.  I told them that I can only be the best teacher they have ever had if they let me teach. So, if I begin to feel that they are preventing me from being the best teacher they have ever had, I cannot allow whatever is happening to continue.

This new approach was startlingly successful. It was as if a cloak of darkness had been yanked off of all of us. I remember saying to my students when they were getting noisy that I was more than happy to let them make all the noise they wanted during recess time. That is their turn to make noise. When it is classroom time, that is my time to make noise, and since I would rather teach than make noise, I should be allowed to use my share of my time the way I want, just like they get to do. It made sense to them. It made sense to me. So, when I said, “Whose turn is it to make noise?” they all agreed that it was my time when we are in the classroom. I didn’t have to say anything more about noise except, “Is it my time or your time for noise?” I said it with a smile on my face—no anger, just an air of logic that allowed them to take hold of their own self-control.

I have many ordinary classroom experiences that became extraordinary simply because I had figured out whose problems belonged to whom and whose responsibility it was to fix the issues when they arose. By having a very general set of logical rules for all of us to abide by in the classroom, management or need for it became minimal. And, best of all, no more yelling to get what I wanted. I only needed to ask if we were all adhering to the decisions we had made about our rules. The rest of the issues truly took care of themselves. As my experience and wisdom grew over time, I became even more aware of what I needed to control and what I could let go. Parents were absolutely stunned that their kids behaved as well as they did in my classroom. All I could say is, “We have a very democratic method of class behavior that we use in the classroom, and it makes sense to all of us.” The secret was shared control, and it is a game changer.

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David Lutz

David, a former classroom teacher, administrator, and self-proclaimed grammar nut, considers the oddities of English vocabulary and grammar his playthings! He received his degrees in elementary education, teaching, and curriculum design from CMU in Fayette, MO, and the University of St. Mary, Leavenworth, KS, respectively. His career has been a colorful collage of experiences in education, ranging from Kindergarten to Adult education and parenting classes.

 

He and his wife, Marjorie, have been blessed with 30 years of marriage, three grown sons, a cherished daughter-in-law, and the smartest, cutest grandson on the planet! He’s worked for Shurley Instructional Materials, Inc., for over 11 years and loves to help students and their teachers learn to love language and language learning as much as he does.