We need young people who can think well, who are able to make informed decisions, and who respect others. It is our responsibility as guardians of these values to establish a learning environment that fosters freedom AND responsibility.

When we say “behavior” we tend to compartmentalize it into simple class management, but it is more and beyond that. Behavior is both a source and an effect of daily interactions, expectations, routines, and language we use in the classroom.  Anyone who has ever taught knows that “rules” are never enough, and that they are quickly broken in an environment where trust, openness, firm boundaries and care are absent. In other words,

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

My approach? The three Fs – be fair, firm and friendly, and high expectations of students as a sign of trust in their abilities as learners.

NOTE: The blog has two parts: one where I explicitly show how I begin to implement some strategies and another one where I mention how this works in the long run.

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Day 1 of school

SILENT CONVERSATION

The students write to one another in pairs (silently) and then share with the class so we can learn about everyone. By talking about their peer instead of themselves I encourage students to *listen* to their partners and actively learn about them.

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ME/WE

The students are given a piece of paper where the word “ME” is printed in capital letters. They look puzzled at first, but I give them a few moments to talk to each other about it. Then I ask them to cut the word in the middle and to turn the letter “M” upside down. The result? “WE”. As a class then we have a great conversation about this activity, why they think we did it, what makes a community (“we”) of learners, and so on.

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NOTE: You can use a different approach: “LOOKS like, SOUNDS like, FEELS like”. On three A3 sheets of paper write in the center, “A great class…” (see below) and give students time to write their ideas in groups. Rotate the papers until all groups have a chance to contribute. Use these ideas to create a poster of “class rules” later and display it in a visible location (the students can also add drawings or doodles). I usually use this with younger students (lower elementary) as it is a good way for them to break down their ideas in specific behaviors (“What does exactly it mean to be respectful ?”, “What would we hear in such a class?”, “How would children feel in such a class?” etc.). 

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ESSENTIAL AGREEMENTS

This is a longer activity (1 hour) but never think you waste time – you *invest* time in building not only relationships but a structure that will help you all year round.

1.The students are sat at their tables (in groups). The group has an A3 paper to be used by everyone – they will write their individual answers in the corners.

Screenshot (1227)2. After each student writes the answers to the two questions, they read them to the rest of the group so that everyone has a chance to communicate their ideas.

NOTE: Why these two questions? The 1st one addresses relationships (how we ought to treat one another) and the 2nd one refers to the more academic aspect (expectations, study habits, etc.). You would be surprised how often students write about class NOISE as being the biggest obstacle in their learning!

3. The group now negotiates 3 agreements based on what most members wrote. They write them in the center.

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4. I place the A3 sheets on the whiteboard and read the 3 agreements of each group out loud while everyone is sat on the carpet and listening.

5. The students vote individually for their 5 most favorite – they simply draw a dot or a star next to the statement they prefer. I count the stars and the most favorite 5 become our class agreements.

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NOTE: It is essential to REPHRASE them if they are negative. Example: “Don’t bully others” – “Treat others with care and respect.” I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to focus on the positive aspect of behavior – these are more likely to be internalized instead of being perceived as punishment or social stigma.

6. The last step is for students to role-play these agreements (and I take pictures of their final pose).  Making behavior visible is a great way to reinforce it; in addition to that, the students themselves participate in this act so whenever they are tempted to transgress these agreements I only need to point to them!

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7. The next day I display the photos and the Class Essential Agreements in front of the classroom. They stay there the entire school year as a reminder of what *we* all agreed to do. Psychologically, this is a great tool to use peer pressure in a gentle, non-intrusive way (if you are a behaviorist); ethically, this establishes a community with its own agreements based on democratic choices and vote.

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NOTE: Use “we” when you address behavior from now on. “Matteo, in this class, we agreed to… (be respectful).”

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THE 7 NORMS OF COLLABORATION

The following week I introduce the 7 Norms of Collaboration that I designed to be student-friendly. I model one each day and then have students practice at their tables during any class (it can be Math, Literature, etc.). I also laminate them and place them in front of the classroom so they can guide our interactions.

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NOTE: These need to be reinforced daily throughout the first month until they become habitual – otherwise they are just words stuck on a wall.

TIP: If your students find it difficult to incorporate these communication tools, you can type sentence stems on strips of paper, laminate them, and place them on key rings so they can use them independently.

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QUOTES

I do not display more than 2-3 quotes in the classroom on the first day of school. I prefer a completely “blank” room to a heavily decorated one because it is the students’ space and they need to be involved in its making.

While quotes per se do not change behavior on the first day, they act as anchors for our interactions and expectations. This one, for instance, has been my favorite for years now and I display it in front of the classroom.

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GROUP WORK EXPECTATIONS

In order to have a good learning environment, you need to make group work expectations clear from the very beginning. No student learns well in an environment where noise prevails, nor in a group where members can be dominant, tune out of work, or become overly chatty.

BE SPECIFIC: I prefer to set group work expectations for each task where collaborative work is needed. That is because different subjects (e.g. Mathematics) and tasks (e.g. note-taking vs. solving a word problem) require different approaches. Having general statements (Get along, Participate, Use soft voices and so on) does not really help. I set:

roles within a group

timing of tasks

order of tasks

type of interactions expected.

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FEEDBACK NOT CRITICISM

Behavior often springs from the way we give feedback to students and it can have a devastating impact in the long run if it takes the form of criticism.

NOTE: I will write another post on specific ways to give effective feedback but for the purpose of this blog post (namely, behavior) this will suffice.

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NO REWARDS

I have never been an adept of rewards and I read enough literature (psychology) on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to know the latter does not only *not* work in the long run, but it can have negative effects on learning, self-esteem, and social relationships.

I do NOT use charts, prizes, stickers or other tools to stimulate student behavior or academic achievement. Not even when I teach grade 1. We should not reward students for behaving well – that should be the expectation (the same way we do not give adults stickers for respectful behavior). However, it is good to reinforce good behavior by mentioning out loud when students display it (e.g. “Thank you, Emma, for picking up that piece of paper from the floor”). The role of peer imitation and models should never be underestimated with anyone, let alone children who are still learning to navigate the social world.

If we refer to academic achievement, a verbal praise is more than enough and I try to phrase it so that the student understands also *why* I celebrated his/her success (e.g. “You were a great communicator during this activity because you used sophisticated vocabulary, you listened to your group members’ ideas, and shared yours clearly.”).  

Being in an IB school, I use Learner Profile words – they are also displayed at the whiteboard as a reference at all times. It also helps me engage students in other conversations (e.g. ”How can we be good thinkers when tackling this math problem – what should we do first?”) or in reflections (e.g. ”Do you think you were principled when you…?”).

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NOTE: You do not have to be an IB teacher –in the first week of school, you and your class could start brainstorming some attitudes you all value. You can use the RANKING strategy.

  1. Give each group of 4 students 6 small blank strips of paper. Together they brainstorm 6 values (e.g. “respect”, “care”, “trust” etc.).
  2. The group then ranks them (see model below).
  3. As a class, share these rankings, decide on the most important 5-6 values and stick to them throughout the school year. The students can use any creative way (drawing, photography, art collage, etc.) to make them visible in the classroom.

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INFORMED PARENTS 

It is essential that you inform the parents about the essential agreements established in your classroom together with the students as well as about other class routines you have. I do that in the first week of school – the earlier, the better.

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I also try to understand each child from their parent perspective and I send parents a 2-page “homework” in the first week of school. This can only help consolidate good relationships with students which, in turn, helps with behavior (and not only).

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OTHER FACTORS

1. Challenging work

Unless your students are thinking hard in your lessons, they tend to get distracted and that’s a sure path to disruptive behavior. Thinking hard does not imply a lack of enthusiasm or joy, but we need to honor students’ abilities and stretch their thinking to their potential offering support where needed. No busyness and mindless work.

2. Time

When students work in pairs or groups I need to time their work as they get so engaged that they lose track of time. Whether it is for bringing them together as a class (to discuss a task, to formulate a conclusion, to explain a misconception, etc.) or for giving further instructions, I use three strategies:

  • counting down (5-4-3-2-1)
  • a small bell that I ring
  • a clock that I draw on the whiteboard and shade in as time passes (so that the students can anticipate when they should finish their work)
  • the best free online tool that I found (Classroom Screen) – it includes text, drawing, mode of work, name generator, language, timer and more.

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3. Refocus

Sometimes, although very rarely (maybe a few times a year), I use a written form of drawing attention to a student. I quietly go to his/her desk and place this STOP sign – this helps them refocus and I need not call them out in front of the classroom for their behavior. I rarely use it because all the strategies mentioned above are very effective and the students grow these habits of work and interaction quite quickly if you are consistent.

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I was asked on Twitter (in a private message) many questions that I will answer below:

  • Do you ever give detentions? – No, I only heard about this concept on Twitter.
  • Do you ever have a student miss recess for misbehavior? – Never. It is children’s time to relax, socialize, and play. Society already stole their childhood to a great extent (in my time, the primary school day was only between 8:00- 12:00!) by making the school day longer, having fewer vacations, and cluttering their day with after-school clubs and other “optional” activities imposed by their parents.
  • Why are school and teacher rules so prevalent? – Firstly, it is because we work with *groups* of people, and group dynamics are completely different from individual behavior (see the psychology of communities and concepts such as in-group relationships, mechanisms dealing with status, cooperative behavior, groupthink and more). Besides, the more complex a system the harder it is to manage without rules due to its interconnectedness and unpredictability – more so in the case of human beings (see Emergence, by Steven Johnson).
  • Where does the system break down? – When there is a unidirectional way of organizing the system. Students need to have input in the way a classroom is functioning, whether we refer to whole-class agreements, displays, way of arranging the furniture and so on. After all, they spend 6-7 hours in that environment and it mainly belongs to them. Sometimes there is also a cultural aspect – compare the Chinese system vs. the U.K. in terms of the teacher status in society and respect for authority in general.
  • Are there any key books to read about understanding the thought processes behind the essential agreements? – You can start by reading Ron Ritchart’s book 8 Cultural Forces That Shape the Classroom. But even without the book, you can easily understand why *collective* agreements work better than top-down rules: people prefer choices and autonomy, they have ownership of the process, are more responsible about outcomes, and generally more engaged in making things work.
  • What do you do when a student misbehaves? – I already mentioned that happens very rarely for several reasons enumerated above (focused work, time, habits formed through consistent protocols, etc.). When a student seems off-task or begins to distract others, I always go next to him/her and that is enough for them to refocus or I use the STOP method. If I notice that s/he displays the same pattern over 2-3 days, I set a conference with them – a simple conversation to find out what prompted that behavior. It can sometimes be stress over a problem at home (e.g. parents divorcing), anxiety related to a friendship they lost, or another personal issue. Following this discussion, I also talk to our school counselor and seek their advice. If the problem persists, I contact the parents and discuss possible solutions – both at school and at home. The child is also part of the conference and we make a written “contract” using the SMART format.

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  • What do you do when a student hasn’t completed the work in the allocated time? – As teachers, we need to be aware that not all students can work at the same pace in the classroom. When work is not finished in time I ask the student to do the rest at home.
  • To what extent does your context make this method successful that may make it difficult in other contexts (teaching in Italy vs. the U.K., being a primary teacher vs. secondary, etc.)? – I cannot assess with confidence the weight of each of these factors in the implementation of a behavior system, and I am not certain that any research could clearly do it – there are too many confounding variables. It is obvious that each has its advantages and disadvantages. Being a primary teacher can seem easier compared to the role of a secondary teacher but I think that is a false impression as our students are different in terms of maturity, reliance on teacher support, development of skills, attention span and so on. So while, say, a teenager can be more prone to rebellious behavior, a primary child can be more sensitive to feedback and develop anxiety over an assessment. Where a teenager has stronger skill in a subject, say writing, a young child needs more teacher guidance and support and that impacts interactions and behavior. There is no complete equivalence between these age groups but I don’t think this is an impediment in allowing older students autonomy, mastery, and purpose as D. Pink mentions in his book. You may use a different route to achieve that.
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