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