Here is a four-part formula that might help you manage your classroom effectively.
For a long time in Indian schools, classroom management used to mean physically and emotionally abusing children into submission and obedience. Back in those days, when I was a student, you could not imagine a teacher walking around the school or entering a classroom without an ominous 'cane' in their hand. While they used ravishingly red apples to symbolize teachers across the world, the image of a threateningly long yellow cane suggested how we taught our children in Indian schools. Every child who pretend-played teaching those days walked around the house, beating up chairs to teach them. The word discipline meant 'to punish' in Indian classrooms. This mindless physical and emotional violence against our children continued in our schools even after Section 17 of the Right to Education Act 2009 banned corporal punishment without adequate warning or preparation.
The cane ban
My decision to become a full-time instructional coach somehow coincided with India passing the Right to Education Act. As an instructional coach, I could travel across India, visiting schools and observing teachers in their classrooms. I could see first-hand how teachers responded to this sudden ban on canes in Indian classrooms. They were confused, annoyed. Everywhere I went, I could hear frustrated teachers asking during professional development workshops or feedback sessions after classroom observations: "Without disciplining children, how will we teach them?"
Mark Twain once said, 'Teaching is like trying to hold 35 corks underwater at once.' We banned the only tool Indian teachers had at their disposal to manage 30 to 60 noisy kids in the classroom without telling them how else to. As I continued my journey as an Instructional Coach watching lessons, I could see that our teachers responded to the cane ban in three ways. Some of them tactically ignored troublemakers, thinking that these kids behaved how they behaved to divert the attention from the lesson. Many of them threatened to send these kids to a senior colleague like a headteacher or principal. Most of them yelled whenever student behaviour irritated them. The challenge was real. They had to spend 95% of teaching time trying to hold those wiggly corks down on their seats, struggling to make them pay attention.
25000 conversations on classroom management!
Even today, when I sit with an Indian teacher as an instructional coach, the unresolved questions on classroom management lurk behind every word we speak. So far, I have observed and given feedback to more than 25000 teachers as an Instructional Coach. It means, I may have sat through at least one forty-minute lesson per teacher and gave them feedback on how to improve the quality of their teaching and assessment processes. I can still hear most of them silently feel or openly ask me, 'All these sound good, but what about those unruly and disinterested kids in my classroom? What do I do with them?' Back in those days, when I started my career as an Instructional Coach, I did not have a straightforward answer for this. I knew how to manage my classroom without coercing or punishing children. I did not know how to explain what to do about classroom management to a teacher who needed help. A discussion on classroom management always went out of hand, never making sense to the teacher or me. More than 5000 such confused conversations later, I decided to decode classroom management and see if I could come up with an easy to use framework for Indian teachers.
I did two things to make sense of classroom management as a teacher and an instructional coach. I started documenting every classroom management issue that cropped up during classroom observations and noted how the teachers did or did not respond to it. I also looked at every piece of research work on classroom management I could lay my hand on. When I compared the theories on classroom management with our approaches to classroom management, I realized that there is a method to this madness. A four-part formula for classroom management emerged out of this exploration. Later in my career as an instructional coach, I started sharing this four-part formula with teachers during feedback sessions. Those who applied this four-part formula in their classrooms successfully managed to keep their students on task, less disruptive. What is this four-part formula all about?
Before we delve into the four-part formula for classroom management, it is important to clarify the two key principles of classroom management. Yes, the four-part classroom management formula will not work unless you are clear about these two principles. What are these two principles?
Every misbehaviour is a teachable moment.
Classroom management is a misleading term. For many of us, the word management means to control. In India, we added the idea of 'discipline' to the mix and made sure that we understood classroom management as control and punishment. We coerced our students into submission, punishing them physically or emotionally when we could not control them. The world, however, was going in a different direction, trying to redefine classroom management. In 2003, Cassetta and Sawyer defined classroom management as being "about building relationships with students and teaching social skills along with academic skills."
Dominique Smith famously wrote, "Students are going to misbehave as they learn and grow—it's how we respond to their misbehaviour that matters." He continued to help us understand that rewards or consequences, shame or humiliation, and suspensions or expulsions are not effective responses to misbehaviour. Smith tells us that when it comes to reducing off-task or unruly behaviour, meaningful relationships with your students and high-quality instruction work. He also tells us that we must view every misbehaviour as an opportunity to teach and not to punish.
Every misbehaviour is a teachable moment. However, we must make three fundamental mindset shifts while approaching these teachable moments. In 1957, Carl Rogers listed three conditions that are crucial to change while you are teaching (coaching) someone - empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard. When you are empathetic, your frame of reference while dealing with a behaviour issue is to understand the thoughts and feelings of your students. When you are congruent, you are genuine, helping your students feel valued. When you show unconditional positive regard, you stop judging your misbehaving student. Empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard must guide all your efforts to turn a misbehaviour into a teachable moment.
Every misbehaviour is a form of communication.
When a child misbehaves in your classroom, they may be doing so because they want to let you know that they are bored, confused, or stressed. You may have asked them to do a dull, irrelevant, and trivial task, and they want to tell you they are bored to death. Often, students misbehave to show you they are confused because what you are teaching them either contradicts what they already know or has no connection to the 'rough model of reality they carry around in their minds.' They also misbehave to let you know they are stressed about something and need your immediate attention, help, and support. Annette Breaux once said: "Remember: everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehaviour or defiance. Nine times out of ten, the story behind the misbehaviour won't make you angry. It will break your heart."
Every misbehaviour is a form of communication. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work when behaviour is an attempt to communicate something. Your success in managing your classroom is directly proportional to your ability to listen to behaviour and make sense of what your student is trying to communicate. Researchers suggest that the nature of your relationship with your students and the quality of your instruction directly influence your ability to listen to student behaviour.
The four-part formula for classroom management
As I was going through the literature on classroom management during my research, I realized that there were hundreds of research-informed strategies teachers can use to manage their classrooms to enhance learning. What we lacked was a framework within which we could use these strategies. My search for a simple framework for classroom management led me to brain research. When you understand how our brains act and react when we sit through a formal lesson in group, it becomes evident that teachers need to use their strategies and approaches within a simple four-part formula to ensure their students are on task and are not disruptive. What are the elements included in this four-part formula?
(Pattern + (Clarity + Consistency)) x Patience = 28% reduction in classroom disruption and student defiance.
The human brain is a complex paradox. It constantly seeks novelty though it is more comfortable and responds better while seeking patterns. Teachers can deal with this paradox by varying instructional strategies and following a set of classroom management patterns.
Children get bored when we use the same instructional or assessment strategy throughout a lesson. Their brains need the time and space to think and wonder as you teach. Let me explain how I address this need. While we learn, we use our five senses (sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing) and our capacity to think and talk. I keep this in mind as I plan my lessons. I make sure that each of my instructional or assessment strategies allows children to use at least two of their senses and give them opportunities to think and talk. For example, if my first instructional activity involved touching and tasting, my second instructional activity would be about seeing and hearing. Both the activities will give children opportunities to think and talk. This way, my students never know what is coming next when I teach, and my lesson addresses the novelty-seeking nature of their brains.
Children get confused when teachers do not have a pattern in place to manage their behaviour. Let me give you an example. Imagine that you want to give your class a few instructions about the task at hand at three different points of your lesson. For the first task, you shout at the top of your voice and ask them for their attention. For the second task, you tap your desk hard with a book three times to get their attention. For the third task, you raise your hand to get their attention. Can you imagine the confusion you are subjecting your students to as you do these? If you do not want to confuse your students while managing the classroom, you need to set classroom management patterns (routines). For example, when I have something to tell my class, I always raise my hand before I do it. I do not speak unless I see all my students respond to my raised hand by raising their hands and looking at me. Similarly, I set non-verbal patterns for different scenarios. I have a pattern my students follow when they want to ask me a question as they are engaged in a task. I have a pattern they follow once they have completed a task. I have a pattern I follow when I ask a question. You get the picture, don't you? Decide what patterns you and your students will follow to communicate and understand routine events in the classroom, like calling student attention, asking or answering a question, conveying boredom or distraction etc.
Successful classroom management is about preempting and preventing misbehaviour. You need to figure out what triggers misbehaviour in your classroom and design patterns and ground rules to address the same. The success of these patterns and ground rules depends on how you make both clear to your students. When the brain does not have clarity, it starts operating from assumptions.
The ground rules for your classroom should not remain as beautifully designed wall posters that add to the look and feel of your classroom. You cannot use ground rules and gestures to manage the classroom if your students are not clear about them. Establish and clarify both behaviour and performance standards for your classroom. Do it early.
Clarity! Clarity! Clarity! As demanding as it may look, use every chance you get during a lesson to ensure that your students have absolute clarity about your behaviour and performance expectations. They do not know what you expect unless you tell them right at the beginning.
Consistency is critical to success in teaching. Classroom chaos is the assured result of inconsistency in our practice as teachers. Inconsistency confuses children. Candace Alstad says, "An inconsistent teacher has very little chance of success simply because the students don’t know what is expected of them – the classroom has an unstable atmosphere. They don’t know where the boundaries are from one day to the next. The feelings of insecurity and unfairness make them more inclined to push the boundaries next time and argue with you further."
Predictability counts in classroom management. Consistency in practice ensures predictability. Sit down and plan how you will demonstrate consistency in classroom procedures, discipline management, teaching style, and homework assignments. Remember that the rules you lay down for your classroom are to be followed by everyone. Candace Alstad continues to explain, "One way to stop the disruptive behaviour in your lessons is to be more consistent in everything you do in your teaching day. That means an essential part of being consistent is knowing in advance what you’re going to say and do in response to the things your students do and ask. Having a set of rules and sanctions in place that your students are familiar with is important. They must know what the exact consequence will be for their actions at any time." “Follow through with rewards and consequences. If you say it, mean it. And if you mean it, say it. Be clear, be proactive, and be consistent,” says Lori Sheffield.
Good classroom management is about helping children learn. Learning takes time. Patience, therefore, must be a part of teacher personality. In Classroom Management That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Every Teacher, Robert J. Marzano lists four factors that contribute to classroom management, namely teacher mindset, disciplinary interventions, teacher-student relationships, and classroom procedures. According to him, the nature of teacher mindset contributes to 40% success in classroom management. Consistency and fairness in disciplinary interventions contribute to 32%, and the nature of teacher-student relationships contributes to 31% of effective classroom management. Clarity and consistency in classroom procedures contribute to 28% success in classroom management. Interestingly, Marzano identifies patience as the thread that weaves through all these four factors and holds them together.
Your patterns may not work the first time you try them. They are not working because your students are not clear about them or you are not consistently practicing them. Patiently try to clarify the pattern with your students. Patiently, try and bring about consistency in how you are practicing these patterns. If you do not practice patience, no amount of patterns, clarity, or consistency will help you manage your classroom well.
About the Author
Sojo Varughese is an educator with more than a decade and a half of rich and varied on-field experience behind him in Teacher Training, Instructional Coaching, Academic Audit, Education Technology Integration, and School Improvement. Over these years, working with international, national & state board schools (government and private), he would have by now trained and coached 46000+ school leaders and teachers across India and the Middle East in contemporary classroom teaching, student assessment, and school management practices. Sojo Varughese is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about his work here.