There are very effective teachers who adhere to a set of rules, often posted on their classroom walls, and reward and punish their students accordingly. From what I understand, the key to this effectiveness is trust, which is built up through consistent and unbiased application of rewards and punishments to all students.
I am not one of these teachers. There are no rules on the walls of my classroom. At the same time, I have not sent a student out of class or to the Principal’s office for disrupting lessons in over four years. I like to think this is because the learning environment I design gives all students a voice / agency, and kids are free to move, provided it does not disrupt the lesson. When there are rules that limit student agency and freedom of movement, a revolution on some scale is inevitable.
That said, there may come a time when my students might not come from stable and supportive families, which results in a strong self-esteem, ambitious goals, and thus a motivation to learn. What would I do in such a situation?
According to some academics, the rewards and punishments alluded to earlier, consistently applied or not, is not the way to go (Good & Brophy, 2003). If students are rewarded for doing what they already do naturally, the argument goes, then what had been intrinsically motivated behaviour becomes extrinsic. Yet, what happens to the behaviour if the rewards stop being distributed? (Imagine a circus full of animals that were not rewarded for doing tricks. There would be no tricks, and it would be a chaotic and scary place, I imagine). While I tend to agree with this stance, effectively a critique of behaviourism, there are others who argue for a more balanced approach. Marzano (2007) provides two staged responses to disruptive behaviour, one based on adherence to rules and procedures, the other acknowledging a lack of adherence to rules and procedures.
For students who adhere to the rules of the classroom, Marzano suggests the following sequence of acknowledgement from the teacher:
- Verbal and non-verbal recognition of the student’s adherence to the rules
- Tangible recognition of the adherence to rules— this traditionally took the form of points. However, in the eight years since the publication of Marzano’s book, badges have become much more popular.
- Involve the home in the recognition of student’s good behaviour. For instance, a phone call or an email to let the parent’s know their child has been doing great. (I’ve been doing the email thing lately. It takes very little time and the parents are always delighted to know their child is behaving excellently).
For student’s that do not adhere to rules, Marzano also provides recommendations. Below is an adaptation of Marzano’s suggestions, which aligns well with measures I’ve taken in the past that have proven effective:
The first, ‘Be with it,’ or ‘withitness,’ involves a full spectrum awareness of the classroom and a proactive stance. In response to how his students should take on multiple attackers, a martial arts instructor once famously said: “Surround them!” The idea of one person surrounding five is paradoxical, but I think it gets to the core of ‘withitness.’ As teachers, we need to be everywhere, with eyes in the back of our heads, which allows for a proactive rather than reactive stance. Next, I like to give potentially disruptive students the option of the “stage.” I will call on them to answer a question we are discussing, or to share their insights on an issue. Often disruptive behaviour is due to inactivity and an enforced, unnatural silence. If a student expects to be put on stage to share knowledge, they are more likely to listen while others are speaking. If this doesn’t deter the disruptive behaviour, it may be a good time to remind the class–not explicitly focusing on the disruptive student, though making it known to them in more subtle ways that the message is intended for them–that they have high academic aspirations. To impede these ambitions by disrupting the journey is therefore selfish and generally uncool. It’s the sort of behaviour one would expect from much younger students, etc.. This sort of language has a way of a) making the class less tolerant of the disruptions, and b) putting the disruptive behaviour in a new frame, characterised by immaturity and desperation. If none of the above work, then it may be time for a student to step outside the class for a few minutes. If this option is taken, I think it’s important to escort the student out, let them know why this option was taken, and have them reflect on why they felt the need to act this way, why they were unable to control their impulses, why the need for attention was so strong that they were willing to disrupt a lesson.
It’s critical to remember that no matter how annoyed we might feel, these are kids, and there may well be very sad stories driving the attention seeking behaviour.
Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (2003). Looking in classrooms (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Marzano, R.J. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, VA: ACSD.