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School Climate & Safety Opinion

Reducing Student-Behavior Problems: Notes From a High School Teacher

By Paul Barnwell — October 14, 2013 9 min read
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For many “old-school” teachers and parents who grew up in an age of greater conformity and fear-based authority, the culture of our schools is in dire straits because they believe there is not enough discipline. Not enough respect. Too few consequences for students who don’t toe the line. The kids are out of control.

In reality, we dole out far more punitive disciplinary measures like suspension than we did 30 years ago, and according to research by Villanova University sociology professor Allison Ann Payne, the number of security guards, cameras, controlled grounds, and other police-like measures have been steadily increasing since the mid-1990s.

Yet, as a teacher at various public schools in Kentucky over the past nine years, I’ve rarely seen these types of control measures have the effect of deterring or preventing repeat behavioral problems. At my high school last year, for example, there were 4,996 discipline referrals written on 911 students (over 75 percent of the student body) and 532 suspensions of 284 students. Clearly repeat offenders are not changing their behavior.

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I’m certainly not advocating for a “soft” stance on discipline—truly disruptive or violent behavior must be dealt with strongly. But since it seems like punitive discipline isn’t always very effective, shouldn’t we consider other options to change behavior and create improved school climates? Does the “policing” mindset in schools align with our goal—or what should be our goal—of keeping all students safe, in classrooms, and learning?

To me, it’s obvious that there are some serious flaws with the status quo. I also think there are specific actions we can take to cultivate better school climates and behavior. As teachers, I believe we need to set clear boundaries for students in our classrooms and strengthen techniques for engaging them in learning. At the school level, building administrators must introduce policies and programs that emphasize personal growth and responsibility.

Be Friendly, But Not a Friend

As a young teacher, I was nearly run out of the profession due to a poorly run school, unruly students, and my own massively inadequate classroom-management skills. Looking back, it’s clear I had no idea how to establish authority. I remember wanting to be friends with my students. I remember thinking I already had what it took to maintain classroom order. I remember being conned into favors by 14-year-olds, making bargains with students who wanted to be let off the hook for various disruptions.

So this is my first rule of classroom management: You are not your students’ friend. Friends help each other out with favors and expect give-and-take. This is not the way things work in the classroom. Do not “friend” students on Facebook or other social-media sites, and do not show favoritism to any single student. Because students are perceptive as to how you react to each and every child in the classroom, they are much less likely to talk back or cause other disruptions if it’s clear you are not providing favors or loopholes for any of them. We teachers have all been in situations where some students ask for special treatment, like extra bathroom breaks or letting it slide if they are tardy. You think other students don’t notice this? Not a chance! Contrary to the belief of many teachers, most students want an authoritative, caring adult in the classroom, one who has a consistent approach to dealing with all students.

That said, it’s important to build constructive relationships with students. Show interest in their music, hobbies, and after-school activities. Students will respond. It can be tough to show patience and flash a smile with certain students—a devious fourth-period student of mine comes to mind—but showing you are a friendly, caring adult will go a long way toward preventing behavioral problems. Many students don’t have an adult in their lives who asks questions and acknowledges likes and dislikes, generally showing interest in their thoughts and feelings. As soon as students realize you care about them as people, many of them will instinctively come to your side and not want to disappoint you behaviorally or academically.

Engagement as Prevention

A classroom-management argument I certainly don’t buy is that it’s the student’s job to sit there, be quiet, and learn. In my view, it’s the teacher’s job to make sure students are engaged. Sure, there is always a student who is going to pop off no matter what I do. I’ve had students who are bipolar, victims of rape, and malnourished when they enter the classroom, among other conditions I can’t control. But I can make the situation better for all of us if I take actions to elicit students’ interest and attention. If I sit back and pass out work packets and expect students to comply, I’m putting myself in a tenuous position. Giving students extended periods of time with no expectation of active involvement or teacher feedback will lead to disruptions, guaranteed.

There are several methods I use to encourage students’ active involvement in lessons. First of all, I have a set of 3-by-5 note cards with each student’s name on a card. I use these for random questioning and classroom-participation prompts. I remember coming to the realization long ago that I had a tendency to call on certain students more frequently than others, or would simply let those whose hands shot up get too much airtime. By choosing a random card, I send a message to the class that everyone’s voice is valued, that everyone is expected to contribute, and that everyone should be ready to pipe up at any time.

Another processing activity that can ensure greater engagement—and fewer disciplinary issues—is the use of simple polls, such as asking students for a thumbs up, down, or sideways in response to instruction. For example, I might ask students about their understanding of appositives during a writing exercise. “Quick poll,” I’ll say. “How well do y’all understand this concept?” I don’t move on until I see every student’s hand gesture.

Another simple technique I use is to ask a question and have students write their responses on the whiteboard or other assigned places in the room. After everybody has recorded a response, I invite students to come up and examine each other’s answers, analyzing them for similarities and differences. This technique is a structured way for students—especially, in my experience, boys—to release pent-up energy by being allowed to get out of their seats, walk around the perimeter of the room, and then briefly lead the discussion. Creating opportunities for movement and involvement like this is often a good way to curb emerging behavioral problems.

For other ideas on engaging students, I highly recommend the book Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner by Pérsida Himmele and William Himmele. It’s been a valuable resource for me.

Creating the Right Conditions

Educators also need to continually ask themselves whether an infraction warrants losing class time.

Do you want to write up students who come unprepared to class, lacking a pencil or paper, and pass the problem along to the administration? Do you want to remove students from class for dress-code violations? Or, do you want to create conditions where students are in classrooms, potentially learning, for the maximum amount of time?

Over the four years I’ve been at my current high school, I’ve seen the priorities shift. Teachers used to remove students from classes for little things all the time, but now the onus is on us to create more rigorous, engaging instruction, which can prevent the bulk of discipline issues. Our administration has begun shortening faculty meetings in favor of time for professional learning communities and embedded professional development focused on instructional issues, so we’re also not expected to suddenly emerge as more effective teachers without the support of our building leaders and colleagues.

Developing Empathy

Thinking more big-picture, I believe that an emphasis on social-emotional learning, including approaches like restorative justice, has great promise for schools. Some high schools in Oakland, Calif.; Chicago; Denver; and other cities are shifting away from more punitive disciplinary systems and experimenting with the restorative justice approach in hopes of preventing or reducing student behavioral issues.

At the heart of the restorative justice process, according to a New York Times article, is relationship building and problem solving: “It encourages young people to come up with meaningful reparations for their wrongdoing while challenging them to develop empathy for one another through ‘talking circles’ led by facilitators.”

Imagining restorative justice becoming more widespread in schools can be tough, since many educators may view the approach as “touchy-feely.” Some may say it’s not their job to teach these life skills, but rather to focus on content like geometry or English. But how much can a student learn if he or she is constantly embroiled in tumult? Next to nothing, as I see it.

How often are classrooms, especially those full of students lacking social-emotional skills, disrupted due to students engaged in verbal sparring, which then escalates? Too frequently, at least every couple of years, I’ve had to deal with this type of counterproductive learning environment.

If students improve their social-emotional skills, the small conflicts all kids bring into the classroom can remain just that—small issues, rather than full-blown yelling matches. This is even more important now that spats begun on social-media outlets are streaming into our classrooms. Perhaps these issues could be contained more effectively with a restorative justice-like approach.

We can’t control who comes through our classroom doors or what a student’s home life is like, but we can shift how we deal with—and prevent—transgressions, both on the classroom and school levels. As the year continues, I know I’ll have to deal with student-behavior challenges that I simply can’t prevent. There will be students who stroll into Room 137 angry at the world, their parents, classmates, and what was said on Twitter. But sound classroom and school-wide approaches to behavior can go a long way in shaping environments where students feel safe and are engaged and learning at high levels.

Read additional stories from our Inside Classroom Management: Ideas and Solutions story package.

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