UPDATE, July 16, 2014: This post has morphed into a whole series of posts about how and why to manage your classroom using relationships instead of charts and systems. To read the whole series, please visit my Chuck the Chart page.
Preface: I continue to be overwhelmed, in the best possible way, at the response to Too High A Price: Why I Don’t Do Behavior Charts. It seems I really struck a chord with many readers. Thanks to all of you who shared that post, and especially to those who commented, saying it changed (or was going to change) your practice. I am honoured. In the comments on that post (as well as in a question submitted to Ask Miss Night), many of you asked how I DO manage behaviour in my classroom. At long last, here is the follow-up!
How do I manage behaviour in my classroom?
As silly as it sounds, this question caught me a little off-guard. How do I manage behaviour without charts or stickers or a treasure chest? I just DO.
That answer, of course, is woefully inadequate. Obviously, there are things I DO, guiding principles I follow. The challenge becomes putting those things into words. You all would not believe the number of showers and car rides I have spent trying to articulate exactly how and why and when and where I manage behaviour in my classoom. (Come on, admit it, you do your best thinking in the shower and the car, too…)
So, gallons of water and tanks of gas later, here are the points that kept floating to the surface. They are sort of in a logical order, but also all inter-related. They have come from so many places: the kind of parenting I received, the schools I attended, reading and research, experience both broad (thousands of children, literally) and specific (singular moments that changed my practice forever). Before I begin, a sidebar: I am not in love with the terms “management” and “behaviour” in this context; both have connotations that make me uncomfortable. I use them here for the sake of clarity. The issue of vocabulary seems like another post, for another day.
- Fact: I do not run a permissive classroom. I have heard parents say “there is no nonsense in Miss Night’s room,” and they are correct (note that, in spite of the lack of nonsense, my room is still full of laughter and smiles and hugs and songs and music and fun). I have high high expectations for my students, but those expectations are grounded in trust and faith that children, given the right support, and the right environment, can manage themselves very nicely. The children in my room get lots of freedom and lots of choice, but they also know that those freedoms and choices are privileges. That said, at first glance, my classroom might APPEAR permissive, because:
- I have a very specific definition of “problem behaviour.” A behaviour is ONLY a problem if it interferes with a child’s safety and learning or the safety and learning of others. Period. A behaviour that is annoying to me is not automatically a problem. Think on that for a minute. How often have you reprimanded or disciplined a child for doing something that was annoying you? I’m embarrassed to say how often I have done just that (let’s be clear – I am far from perfect in all this….) With this definition, a whole bunch of things STOP being problems — wiggling during circle; slouching in a chair; looking at the ceiling during a story, sitting on their knees instead of their bottoms; walking in a zig-zag instead of a straight line — unless and until it becomes obvious that these things are dangerous or detrimental to learning.
- Fair doesn’t mean same. Fair means everybody gets what they need. This is one of the first social lessons I teach, and we talk about this A LOT. The example I use is that, if fair means same, then EVERYONE should eat when *I* am hungry, because otherwise it’s not fair. On the other hand, if fair means everybody gets what they need, then everybody should get to eat when they are hungry. Five-year-olds have no problem grasping this, and we discuss it repeatedly throughout the year. Without teaching this lesson, I could not run my classroom the way I do. It lays the foundation for the next two points.
- I manage children as individuals, not as a group. Johnny concentrates better sitting on a chair than on the floor; Johnny is allowed a chair at story time. Natasha has no problem on the floor. She does not get a chair. Natasha does, however, have trouble printing her name, so on her work, I write her name in highlighter for her to trace over for the first several weeks. Samantha has no problem with her name, but struggles to keep her hands to herself. She can choose a fidget toy during whole group instruction. Raymond is the only child who frequently falls asleep at rest time; he is the only one who is allowed to rest behind my desk so that he will not be disturbed when we start centres. When you really get to know your students, you know that EVERY child has “special needs.” When the children understand what “fair” means, you can meet those needs without worrying about accusations of favouritism. (Although, sometimes, you have to teach parents and colleagues what “fair” means, too.)
- I normalize the tools that help children manage their own behaviour. Just as students ask for help with their school work, they need to know it is okay to ask for help with their behaviour. If a child asks for a break from the carpet, she can have it. If he knows he will do better in line by walking with me, he can. If she can’t stop chatting with her neighbour, I will help her find a place to work alone. Leaving the carpet, holding my hand, sitting alone, are NOT punishments: I don’t present them as punishments, and I work hard to change the kids’ perception of punishment. These are choices and tools that help children be their best selves. These are also choices that, as adults, we frequently have the freedom to make for ourselves. And, speaking of choices:
- Choice is a privilege. My students get lots of choices. They choose their first activity upon arrival. They choose which “work” to do first. They choose where to lay at rest time. They choose their play centres. They choose when to have afternoon snack. Kids like having choices, having a voice in the path their day takes. But (and it’s a BIG “but”) if they are not managing those choices well, the privilege of choice is lost. A child who is wondering the classroom, harassing others and not settling into an activity, will be assigned an activity. A child who is kicking her neighbour at rest time will be assigned a spot with no neighbours. I rarely need any consequences other than “loss of choice.”
- I look for patterns. If I am constantly correcting the same behaviour from the same child at the same time in the same spot every day: is there a way to break the pattern? If there is pushing in the lineup to wash hands EVERY DAY, how can I change the lineup routine? Can I give them more space? Send some to the bathroom? Make the lineup go faster? Give them something to do while they wait? Sometimes, changing the pattern means changing what I think I know about something. After months of intervening with little boys playing “too rough,” I did some research, talked to some people, and re-framed my understanding of rough-and-tumble play. Looking for patterns with individual children works, too. If Peter lashes out and hits other kids in the crowded coatroom, maybe Peter would manage better if his cubby was not IN THE MIDDLE of the coatroom. Again, in an environment where “fair doesn’t mean same” and children are given choices and tools to meet their needs, Peter will likely accept an offer to move his cubby, and, because he CHOSE, it doesn’t feel like punishment.
- I don’t have “systems.” I have relationships. As I re-read these now, it is that simple. I cannot think of a single system or routine in my classroom that is applied universally to every child at all times in all situations. What works for one does not work for another and makes things even worse for a third. I have had situations with specific children where the best way to communicate about behaviour was to have a private “chart” that went home every day. This is not my favourite strategy, but it was the best one for THAT child and THAT family in THAT situation. For other kids, it has been best to cue them in advance of any potentially challenging event. For still others, we have role-played and practiced the right words and actions.