Of particular interest to me was this blog post on warnings for breaking rules.
I’ve used a variety of “rules” in my classroom over the decade and a half I’ve been teaching… depending on whether I was teaching Intermediate, Junior or Primary students, and taking into account factors like ESL and Spec Ed., I’ve tried everything from generating TRIBES agreements, to brainstorming and posting classroom criteria collaboratively with the students, to Turn-a-Card, to Teacher-inflicted rules. In general, I prefer to avoid the latter, because philosophically, I’ve always felt it interferes with the more free-flowing, student-led climate I try to foster in my classroom.
Teaching primary grades, though, has made me re-consider the practice of guiding students in setting the rules...
Your expectations as a teacher, and your consistent reinforcement of same, can really enable students to learn how to work effectively in a large group setting. If they know what to do, and what happens if they don’t do it, then they can be confident there will be no surprises, and can just focus on their work.
I tried this last year with my Grade 3’s, posting the class rules during the first week of school, and brainstorming with students what each might look, sound and feel like in our classroom. Then I trained them in the use of “Turn-a-card”, a fairly simple, easy-to-manage visual 1-2-3 Strikes sort of system for tracking behaviour and reminding students of where they are at.
What I didn’t anticipate was the cultural factor.
You see, some of the cultures represented in my classroom hit their children when it is perceived that there is trouble at school*. And so, when a kid got to a red card (3rd strike on the turn-a-card system) in one day, and had to take home a “think sheet” to be signed, so that parents could be kept in the loop about what was happening at school (a practise supported by Michael Linsin, I might add), I had a student in my class who completely freaked out. It got to the point that as soon as he had a paper to fill out (and there was one pretty much every week with him, if I was consistent with turning cards), he would begin to wail at the top of his lungs for 45 minutes, and we had to call in extra adults to manage him, or to get the other students out of the room while I dealt with the aftermath.
So afraid was he of the beating he would get if that think sheet went home, that he was completely shut down for the rest of that day. If he was learning little before then, he was learning nothing after the red card incident.
What to do?
I couldn’t just not enforce rules with that one student. And yet, I couldn’t possibly send him home to certain, harsh physical punishment once a week.
This year, I elected not to use this system because of my experiences last year. I simply could not deal with another meltdown each week. And so I convinced myself that if I built a caring, inclusive community in my classroom, we -- I and the students -- could collaboratively construct agreements to guide behaviour.
Needless to say, it was a bit of a flop!
Although the students in my classroom are generally happy at school, and are polite, or at least, well-intentioned (no one tells me to fuck-off, or yells at me or throws things… well, except for one student who I am pretty sure suffers from an undiagnosed underlying condition, but anyway…), many of them call out inappropriately, i.e. during a lesson, or wander about the classroom disrupting the learning of others, when they should be working.
I hate this. I don’t want my classroom to be a dictatorship, or a place of rigidity, because many students actually work very effectively and efficiently at the back counter, on the couch, or in the reading corner, and I don’t want to make them sit at their desks if it isn’t necessary. I don’t want to give up our “self serve” washroom policy in favour of personally policing washroom visits so that lessons are constantly interrupted because a student genuinely needs to pee but has to ask for explicit permission. But I have kids who do wander and disrupt others, and I have kids who do go to the bathroom 17 times a day, and I have kids who do call out during lessons, because they just can’t seem to control their behaviour.
Michael Linsin says I should set the rules myself and communicate them to my students, and that if they break them, I should give them a warning “quickly, dispassionately, and with as few words as possible”. (see full post here)
And, I need to be consistent about it.
“When your students begin to grasp that the responsibility for breaking rules in your classroom falls firmly -- and solely -- in their laps, behavior will improve”, he claims.
I knew that about warnings and consistency. That’s why I liked the turn-a-card system so much. But that was only when enforcing consequences later didn’t result in a mandatory phone call to Children’s Aid for some students in my class as a result. Linsin doesn’t address this issue in his blog. He also doesn’t address the issue of what to do for the few children whose behaviour doesn’t improve, even with consistent reinforcement of rules and routines over time.
There seems to be an increasing number of sleep-deprived, undernourished, and undiagnosed children in our classrooms, at least in the communities where I choose to teach, and it is these children who appear to have the most trouble managing their behaviour. Consistent rules and reinforcement of said rules definitely increases the likelihood of appropriate classroom behaviour for most students, but it doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with the outliers.
And I want to know!
(*Yes, I am generalising, and my comment is based on recurring observations by myself and my colleagues, and confirmation from members of that cultural group that in general, it is the norm for parents in their culture to use physical punishment to control their children’s behaviour. So engrained is this practice, that these are often quite genuinely perplexed when they get a visit from C.A.S. as a consequence of a mandatory report from the school, and if the classroom teacher has done a good job of reaching out to the family and building trust, it can be the start of a positive parenting educational experience for all involved.)