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Effective Classroom Control: It Works In Families, Too

Setting clear expectations and catching kids doing well fosters cooperation.

Key points

  • Teachers use basic principles of reward to create calm, effective learning environments.
  • To behave well, students need to know what to do and how to do it. They also need to be prepared to transition between tasks.
  • Calling attention to good behavior rewards success while helping other students to succeed.
  • Students listen for praise but tune out punishment.

I have spent several days this week visiting elementary schools with my therapy dog. Reading with the kids has been a great pleasure, and hearing their pet stories and sharing their worries has been my privilege.

I was struck by how masterful the children's teachers were at getting a chaotic group of excited small folk to work together with a minimum of fuss. I sometimes have trouble getting my college students to move through a series of small group activities. That these early elementary teachers did it so well impressed me.

Some observations...

These early primary classrooms were notably calm and well-ordered. How did the teachers do it?

All of the teachers gave students clear guidance on what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Then they noticed and rewarded good behavior. For example, we were reading in small groups of four children, a visiting adult, and a dog. It was organized chaos, with five groups reading at once. Then, it was time to bring the class back together as a whole.

The teachers:

  • Acknowledged the students' current activity: "Hello, friends! We have been having a wonderful time reading to our special guests!"
  • Previewed the next activity: "Now we are going to go back to our desks for a special surprise!"
  • Explained how to make the transition: "Stand up quietly and walk walk walk to your desk. No talking on the way."
  • Explained what to do immediately after the transition: "Put your book in the upper left corner of your desk. Take out a pencil."
  • Brought the class back together, ready for a new task: "When you have your pencil out, look at me so I know you are ready."

The teachers acknowledged every small success.

  • They called out the names of children walking quietly.
  • They encouraged students who were lagging to move on to the next step.
  • They acknowledged every child who was ready and looking at them.

Each of these steps both gave positive attention to children who were on task, while also reminding other children what they should be doing. I also loved that, unlike reading well or running fast, these types of small successes were much more accessible to many different children.

Children respond to reward. Reward creates a desire to please.

The classrooms I visited were not without problems—I know of at least one child who is homeless, another who worried the phone in my pocket was a hidden gun, and several who seemed painfully shy. Students tattled on each other, told whoppers that were not true, and reported behavior at home that raised my eyebrows. But the quiet order the teachers brought to the classroom was certainly one stable part of these children’s lives.

Most of us don’t have to corral large groups of kids into coordinated good behavior. But many of us do work with children—including our own—and try to get them to do things they don’t want to. Lessons I will take to my work with children and young adults:

  • Clear behavioral expectations reduce anxiety. We feel safe when we know what is expected of us. Kids from orderly families and those without clear guidelines were all told what they need to do in this setting. That levels the playing field and helps everyone succeed.
  • Praise is inherently rewarding. These kids wanted attention. Recognition of doing right and doing well gave it to them.
  • Constant recognition of small positive behavior communicated that someone cared. A core precept of good parenting is that children learn and behave best when they are 1) loved unconditionally while 2) being differentially rewarded for good and bad behavior. When people notice when you do well, you do well more often.
  • Knowing that teachers rewarded good behavior also increased children’s focus on the teacher. We listen for praise. We tune out reprimands. It also allowed the teachers to remind children of what should be done—“Kendra is walking quietly. Jonathan is walking quietly”—without nagging or reprimanding.

Using reward makes teachers rewarding. Obvious, I know. But we try harder to please people we care about. A great deal of research suggests children and adolescents are more motivated by pleasure than by avoidance of harm. That makes this positive disciplinary approach particularly effective.

No classroom is perfect. No teacher is "on" all the time. However, consistent application of basic behavioral principles can help all of us create safer, calmer environments for kids to grow in.

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