Teaching Opinion

Perpetual Proximity: More Than a Behavior Management Strategy

By David Ginsburg — October 31, 2014 2 min read
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When you hear the word proximity, you probably think about it in the context of behavior management. And proximity is indeed an essential behavior management practice that preserves students’ dignity, minimizes the risk of reinforcing attention-seeking behavior, prevents misbehavior from escalating, enables teachers to redirect students using non-verbal communication (e.g., pointing to the page for a daydreaming student or tapping the shoulder of a sleeping student), and ensures teachers know the facts before reacting to behavior (e.g., not admonishing a student from across the room for having a cell phone out when it’s really a calculator).

Yet proximity is more than an essential behavior management practice. It’s an essential assessment practice. Proximity in this context involves circulating among students throughout class, whether they’re working on a five-minute Do Now or a week-long project. Such perpetual proximity allows you to assess and address each student’s ongoing needs--academic and behavioral. It also lets you collect data about the class’s needs as a whole, and make timely, informed decisions about how to proceed. Examples include:

  • which students are having trouble starting an activity and why
  • whether to adjust the time you’ve allotted for an activity
  • what common misconceptions students have that you’ll want to address as a class--either by getting students’ attention for immediate troubleshooting if necessary or when you debrief at the end of class if it can wait
  • which questions are worth discussing as a class (e.g., in ELA, a writing prompt that elicits many different responses; in math, a problem for which students used multiple solution strategies)
  • which students have insights or solution strategies that are worth presenting to the class (see Students at the Board: Confidence Booster or Buster for guidelines)

What’s more, using proximity for assessment enhances its effectiveness for behavior management. One reason for this is that the goal of behavior management is for students to be cooperative rather than compliant. And a key to earning students’ cooperation is to connect with them as individuals (and to do so in the context and confines of the classroom). But how you connect with students depends on their individual needs and deeds at any given time, which you’re far more likely to know by using proximity than by planting yourself at the front of the room.

Perpetual proximity also lets you identify and respond to off-task students in a supportive way rather than punitive way. Effective behavior management involves addressing the cause of behavior, not just the behavior. And again, that’s much easier to do when you’re at a student’s desk than at your desk.

Finally, the more you circulate, the more you’re able to see and reinforce desirable behavior. And the more you reinforce desirable behavior, the less you need to redirect undesirable behavior. In my classroom, for example, the more I noticed and acknowledged “Success Comes From the HEART” behaviors (hope, effort, attitude, resourcefulness, and teamwork), the more students exhibited those behaviors. (See Harry and Rosemary Wong’s article, Execute and Praise, for reinforcement dos and dont’s).

Of course, the effectiveness of any practice depends on implementation. And in the case of perpetual proximity, you’ll need structures in place that cultivate self-reliance and collaboration among students so that you’re free to circulate. Here are a few previous posts with ideas to help you get started:

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