For many of my early years in teaching I spent a significant amount of time before school started designing the *perfect* behavior management system. I had the colored cards, boxes on desks with tokens, and one year an elaborate system that involved a fancy bulletin board and names on balloons that kids moved from level to level as I told them to “drop their balloon”.  And every year it was the same kids’ balloons/cards, etc. that were tattered and beat up from moving and turning them and the same kids who got to visit the treasure box or turn in tokens for rewards. Clearly, this extrinsic way of controlling behaviors was not working. Perhaps it created an illusion of an orderly classroom, (and oftentimes not) but there were always children who did not feel empowered and who were making decisions in order to “get something” or to avoid a punishment rather than to work towards a common peacefulness, community and mutual respect in our classroom.

Then, about 8 years into my teaching career,  I realized what really mattered in behavior management – and it wasn’t management at all. It was community. I really think that the heart of a successful classroom is a strong community. I don’t have a behavior plan, a behavior system, rewards, tokens, stickers, treasure boxes or anything else that, in my opinion, equates with controlling children. I don’t even have a class list of rules. Instead, I work very hard with my students from Day 1 right up to Day 180 to create a community of learners who respect, listen, care, are kind to each other and who can live together peacefully in a small space for 180 days.

So how do we do this?

We talk. A LOT. In class meetings, in role play situations, in short puppet skits that address behavior issues we need to think about as a class, and in one-on-one conferences with children who may need more guidance in becoming a part of a larger community – we work to build the relationships in our classroom. While I don’t make a list of class rules, we do create some charts together as needs arise. Charts that we construct together like, “What kind of classroom do we want to live in?” and “Words that Hurt / Words that Help” – help us keep track of our thinking as we have classroom discussions about issues that inevitably arise when many people share a small space together. I trust my kindergarteners to handle problems independently and often will say, “do you think you can handle this or do you need my help?” when a problem is brought to my attention. Most of the time, children want to be empowered to solve problems and will talk about it with their friend and come to a good solution that works for them. I want them to feel in control in our classroom and feel a shared sense of responsibility for how our classroom runs. When they do need my help we get out the puppets, do a role play, read a book that relates or have a class meeting. I turn it over to the kids with a “we have a problem in our community. How can WE solve it?”

Yes, this social curriculum takes time away from reading, writing, math, etc. But it is a critical piece of education – whether there is a standard for it or not. Children have to learn how to solve problems and how to work together in our world. They need to learn empathy, compassion, how to work through frustrations, how to build mutual respect with people they work with, and how to celebrate their successes. I want children to leave our classroom feeling empowered, with a strong sense of self-efficacy, equipped with tools to negotiate problems and issues they are going to encounter in the world. I want them to be thinkers, reasoners, questioners, problem solvers – who care a whole lot for themselves, the world and each other. Without this, it doesn’t matter what test scores, reading levels or report cards grades look like. We teach all the academic subjects, why not teach children how to create and sustain relationships, community, trust and respect. It will take them further than we can imagine.

Here are some excellent resources that I’ve read as I moved towards a child-centered, progressive classroom:

Choice Words by Peter Johnston

Learning to Trust by Marilyn Watson and Laura Ecken

On Their Side by Bob Strachota

Beyond Discipline by Alfie Kohn

Responsive Classroom materials


  1. I couldn’t agree more! My last year in the classroom, I pushed all the furniture in a corner and didn’t put up any bulletin boards for the first day of school. Instead, my class and I created what we wanted the room to look like and where we wanted to put things. They really took ownership of our room. It did take some convincing of administration not to have a “pretty” room for the first day of school. But, it was well worth it!

  2. Thank you so much for this Katie! I’m transitioning to 1st grade and was spending a lot of time thinking this summer about how to get rid of the daily color chart (green=good, yellow=warning, blue= pretty bad, red=principal) and create that community in my classroom. You are right it’s the same kids all of the time moving colors so it’s clearly not working. Thank you for giving me a starting place to move forward.

    • Hi Lindsay,
      Yes, I am trained in Responsive Classroom and agree that it has been a great foundation for how my classroom works. I think their books are very helpful and read many of them as I moved away from extrinsic systems. Teaching Children to Care is one of my favorite RC books. I always refer to The First Six Weeks of School as we start the year. The Bob Strachota book I mentioned in the post is from RC too. I would highly recommend looking at their materials if you are beginning a shift away from a behavior system. Thanks for your comment! I will add the RC materials to the post. Thanks for bringing it up.

  3. I’m excited to read your blog this summer as I head back into looping first and second. I love your child centered, language focus! I have been trying to convince many of my colleagues that talking/speaking and listening stamina must, must, must come before writing and reading. All your reflections are right on! I love your passion and energy. I am on year 18 and strive to surround myself with energizing positive educators. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Katie, thank you so much for your blog! I have learned a lot of practical things to bring to my teaching. I’m heading into my 14th year!

    This topic has been on my mind. I can relate to the ineffectiveness of many of the behavior management methods you’ve listed. When I go back to my new class of first graders I want to have a positive and effective behavior plan ready to go. How do you find the time to meet as a class to talk about all the issues as they come up? We literally have little to no extra time because of the many requirements in our day. Any suggestions?? Thanks!

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, time is always such a concern. I feel that providing the time to talk and problem solve has to take priority over the many requirements and demands in our day. Does that mean some days we don’t get to important academic tasks? Yes, some days are like that. But I find when I ignore the “little” issues and keep pressing on with my agenda, ultimately the little issues become “HUGE” issues that take away a lot more learning time than if I had addressed them when they first came up. I used to schedule weekly class meetings, but I don’t do that anymore. We just call a class meeting when it’s necessary. Another possible solution is to meet with small groups for lunch. If we have an issue that doesn’t involve the whole class and needs my extra attention, I will meet with a small lunch bunch for lunch and to talk things through further. Good luck, I know how frustrating the time issue is. Please share any other thoughts you have as well!

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