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Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To Respond To “Unpredictable” Student Behavior

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 18, 2011 7 min read
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Eric Skoog asked:

How can you minimize unpredictable behaviors that negatively affect your classroom?

I’m sure we all have experienced “unpredictable” (what a diplomatic way of phrasing it, Eric!) student behaviors in our classes. The key question is how we can respond to them in positive ways that are helpful to the student exhibiting the behavior, to the rest of our students, and to our own sanity....

I’m going to begin this post with sharing a few examples of how I respond to “unpredictable” or disruptive student behaviors (I have also previously shared ideas at “Response: Several Ways To Help Students Develop Self-Control”). Then, Dr. Marvin Marshall, one of the best known proponents of positive -- not punitive -- classroom management strategies will share a guest response. Finally, last but definitely not least, I’ll include responses from readers.

I try to use negative consequences as a last result. There are some extreme behaviors that might require them and, of course, since I’m human and have bad days, too, I’m not always successful in this effort. Practically speaking, however, research has shown, and it’s been supported by my personal experience, that the primary student lesson punishment often teaches is that it’s “important to not be caught next time.”

Here are a few pro-active alternatives I use:

* Telling students that I am not going to call their parents. Instead of calling parents of a student who is not behaving well, I will often tell them that, instead, I am going to call their home in a week, that I want to just say good things about them, and that they have a week to show that they are the kind of student I know they can be.

* Much classroom management research has shown three common elements in efforts to have students top disruptive behavior. One is the teacher having close physical proximity to the student being approached, another is including the word “please” in the student’s direction, and a third is positive recognition when the student complies. In addition, saying “thank you” can provide immediate positive reinforcement to the student.

* Although some researchers differ, more recent studies and my own personal experience indicate that students -- and most people -- are more likely to comply with a task (and do so more quickly) if asked to do so instead of being told. Saying to Bob, “Can you please sit down?” in a calm voice may be more effective than “Sit down!”

* The Ben Franklin Effect is a psychological finding that you like people you do things for, and many teachers, including me, know that giving “unpredictable” students positions of classroom responsibility can often result in a major behavioral change for the better.

* “Reflection Cards” that students take outside and write a few sentences about a past positive experience. This “reset” seems to help students come back more focused and positive.

* Working with the student to develop a simple “self-monitoring” behavior system. It could be a small sheet of paper that the student keeps on his/her desk each day that lists one or two target behaviors, or even a Post-It Note where students give themselves a mark for every fifteen minutes they are doing the behavior. Both student and teacher quickly give a number or letter assessment at the end of the period. Students have told me that just having the sheet on their desk is a helpful reminder.

The behavior targets would ideally be framed as the behavior you want students to do (“I was on task"; “I controlled myself”) instead of what you don’t want them to do (“I didn’t yell out”). Researchers have found that a more effective way to gain a desired behavior is to emphasize what you want instead of what you don’t want. In fact, they have found that the opposite occurs under conditions of anxiety and stress -- students are more likely to do what is listed as what they are supposed to not do!

I’m not a fan of carrots and sticks and, ideally, students become intrinsically invested in this kind of self-monitoring. However, when push comes to shove, I certainly have offered the carrot of extra credit in the short term for students who clearly needed it. But I also always have an “exit plan” in mind to quickly move off this kind of operant conditioning.

Of course, few of these “tactics” will have a positive effect if a teacher has not put in the time and energy necessary to develop a solid relationship with students. We need to know their interests, dreams and hopes for many reasons, not the least being that we can then use that knowledge to help students reflect on if their actions are the best ones they can be taking to achieve their goals.

As Dr. Marvin Marshall writes, we teachers need to always keep this question in mind:

“Will what I am about to do or say bring me closer or will it push me away farther from the person with whom I am communicating?”

Response From Dr. Marvin Marshall

I’ve long respected Dr. Marvin Marshall, author of Discipline Without Stress, Punishment Or Rewards. His message of being pro-active, positive, and promoting of student autonomy has been a major influence on my own classroom management philosophy:

The only practical way to minimize unpredictable negative behaviors is to be proactive, rather than resorting to the usual reactive approach of responding after the inappropriate behavior.

It seems rather obvious that teachers should teach expectations, and most teachers try by teaching rules. The problem is that rules are aimed at obedience, but obedience does not create desire. Teachers who rely on rules place themselves in the role of a cop to enforce rules rather than as a facilitator of learning.

Rules are necessary in games but are counterproductive in the classroom because enforcement of a rule immediately creates adversarial relationships. A much more effective approach is for teachers to list responsibilities and keep them few and positive. These become true expectations, a key characteristic of all successful teachers.

Another crucial approach is to understand the differences between classroom management and discipline. Classroom management is about teaching procedures, practicing them, and reinforcing them until they become routine. The biggest mistake so many teachers make is to assume that students know what the teacher would like students to do without first establishing procedures. This is the key to making instruction efficient and is the teacher’s responsibility. Discipline is about the student’s behavior, self-discipline, and impulse control and is the student’s responsibility.

The easiest way to minimize unpredictable negative behaviors is to let students know your procedure for dealing with them. This is in contrast to the usual approach of announcing the outcome (consequence) ahead of time. Just bring to your students’ attention the fact that we are all constantly making decisions. If a student chooses to act irresponsibly, then the student will decide on the consequence--pending approval of the teacher. In simple terms, the procedure is to elicit, rather than to impose. The student created the problem, so the student owns the solution. A prime reason that this approach is so successful is that people do not argue with their own decisions.

Reader Responses

Erin Sigler:

I try to use humor in each situation if it is appropriate.(ex: if a student farts in class and all hear). I try to use the Capturing Kids Hearts questioning technique, “What are you doing?” Pause for their answer. “What are you supposed to be doing?” Listen to their answer. Then I redirect them. I try to minimize the disruption by moving on as quickly as possible.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. .

Thanks again to Eric for posing this week’s question and to Dr. Marshall and Erin for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting next week’s question here on Friday, and hope readers will share their responses. Several will be included in next Wednesday’s post responding to that “question of the week.”

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.