Strong classroom management is one of the critical components to making your life as a teacher more smooth and enjoyable. No matter where you fall on the classroom management spectrum – from “My classroom is a zen, well-oiled machine” to, “I never feel my classroom is in control…maybe I’m not cut out for this teaching thing”, it is possible for you to transform your classroom into a space where respect is the core focus, and students are more intrinsically motivated.
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Over the past ten years in the classroom, my classroom management has evolved, and will continue to do so. I have had the opportunity to learn from many students who require very heavy behavior supports, and from those who easily adapt in any learning environment.
What I can say with confidence now is that I am in love with the classroom management approach I use, and know it can meet the unique needs of the wide spectrum of learners I teach year after year. Teaching does not feel like an exhausting battle. I do not spend my days putting out behavior fires. My students are respected by me. I am respected by my students. Best of of all…I know all my students are learning critical life skills for developing authentic long-term success. Here’s a peek at my classroom management journey…so far. I hope sharing this helps inspire you as you travel your own path toward finding a classroom management approach that feels just right for you and your students.
Table Points and Rewards
In my early years as a teacher, I used to rely heavily on awarding table points as my go-to classroom management approach. If you walked into my classroom back then, it appeared to be a well-managed environment where students were learning each day. Despite this surface-level look and feel of a controlled, productive learning space, I knew deep down the main reason my students were “well-behaved” was because I always had a carrot dangled in front of them.
During every transition, and throughout each block of work time, you could hear me saying things like, “Table one is looking very focused,” or “Let’s see which group can get ready the quickest,” or “I’m looking for students who have all their supplies ready for this activity.” As these words rolled off my tongue, I would walk to the front of the room and award table points to reinforce that the statement I had just made was true, or worth something.
Some students would get giddy over the idea of getting a point, while others could care less. Unfortunately, all of them were learning that extrinsic motivation was more valued over intrinsic motivation in their learning space.
When we use classroom management gimmicks like table points, marble jars, and other reward systems, we are robbing our students of their opportunity to develop one of the most important life skills….intrinsic motivation. We are also (likely inadvertently) communicating to them we do not trust or respect them enough to make wise behavior choices… that the only way they could possibly make that decision is if they’re rewarded for it.
I learned this truth early on in my career, but I really struggled to break the habit of awarding those table points. It felt like not doing so would be so much harder that just continuing even though I knew it wasn’t what was best for my students. Have you ever felt this way?
Wanting More From Respect
Another classroom management tool I used from my first moments in the classroom was the overarching idea of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. It grew from a hand-made poster that hung in the classroom where I did my student teaching. At the beginning of each year, I would spend time introducing what each letter of the acronym represented in my classroom, and then hang the poster on the wall to guide our behaviors and interactions throughout the year.
In theory, it was a great concept. What was missing was student buy-in. They heard that respect was important to me, and that I wanted them to display respectful behavior toward each other, themselves, classroom property, the environment, thoughts that were shared, and as they collaborated each day. What they didn’t fully understand was what this all really meant. It was shared once at the beginning of the year, and never meaningfully revisited later.
My students continued to demonstrate a surface-level appearance of respect, focus, motivation, and productivity, but they weren’t really learning the skills they needed to be genuinely respectful learners.
Developing A Language of Learning
During the next couple years in the classroom, I read articles and books about how to better develop a classroom management system focused on intrinsic motivation and respect.
I began to change the way I talked by taking the focus off what I liked, or what I was pleased with, and shifted focus onto the benefit for my students. “I’m looking for students who have all their supplies ready for this activity,” changed to “Students who are ready have a sharpened pencil, their name on their paper, and their distractions tucked away.”
I also learned the importance of praising the process rather than the product. “Good job on that informational piece about the rainforest,” became “How does it feel to see all the research you gathered come together into this informational piece about the rainforest?”
During my professional development throughout those early years, I felt very validated because the strategies and classroom management ideals I valued weren’t only things that made me feel good as an educator, they were backed by research. The themes of intrinsic motivation and building respect were indeed important, but retraining my brain to speak and teach in ways that made them a focal point was extremely challenging.
I had grown up in classrooms where teacher-centered talk and product-focused language were used day in, and day out. That language was ingrained in my brain…as it likely is for many of you. It literally took years of practice, and feeling really cheesy about the words coming out of my mouth to break those habits.
It All Comes Together
It wasn’t until my sixth year of teaching that everything I had learned really started to come together. During that year I had the opportunity to attend a four-day training institute with Responsive Classroom. During that week, I learned about the value of morning meetings, closing circles, interactive modeling, meaningful teacher language, revisiting classroom routines, and so much more. It was truly a transformative experience that I recommend all teachers participate in if given the opportunity. Throughout the week, I felt so reassured that all the things I was longing for as a teacher were actually important…and really good for students.
The biggest transformation made that week was a deeper understanding of the value of slowing down, helping students build a strong understanding of routines, and revisiting the most important and challenging routines multiple times throughout the year. I kept hearing, “You have to slow down before you can speed up.” So true. So true. So true.
That August, I headed back to my classroom to integrate my new learnings with the routines I had already been working so hard to master. The results were undeniable. Remember that classroom I mentioned at the beginning of this post? That one where I’m not exhausted by my classroom management approach, I’m not putting out fires, my students are respected, my students respect me, and they’re genuinely building intrinsic motivation? Yeah…that classroom vision came to fruition and has been gaining strength ever since.
Is my classroom management perfect? Ha! We’re teachers….nothing is ever perfect. But it sure does make me proud. Here’s a low down on the main components that make up the system I love so dearly.
What I Do On The First Day of School
On the first day of school, I ask my students, “What are some words you hope to use to describe your classroom this year?” They brainstorm their ideas, write them on a post it note, and add them to our class anchor chart. We discuss any common themes noticed as their ideas come together. I then have them brainstorm the types of behaviors we should avoid if we are trying to create the type of classroom they hope to have. These are also added to an anchor chart and common ideas are grouped together.
When students work with the teacher to paint a unique picture for what their ideal learning environment looks like and feel likes, they are immediately more invested in behaving in ways that help everyone achieve that goal. Discussions like these give students the opportunity to have a voice and play an important role in building a place where they feel they belong.
We then shift our focus to the fact that even the most respectful and responsible people make mistakes. No one has perfect behavior. Everyone deserves a moment to take a break when they are struggling with behavior so they can reflect. We need that time to brainstorm how to fix our mistake, and make a plan for moving forward in a respectful way. I introduce the idea of taking a break – a concept rooted in the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching and learning.
If a student makes a behavior mistake in the classroom, they will be politely asked to take a break. Taking a break means stepping away from their activity to a quiet place where they can be alone for a moment to reflect on their behavior. They are welcome to rejoin the group when they are ready to focus their energy in a productive way. I show them our “take a break spot” – a stool at the back table, and our back-up spot, a seat on our class bench in case the space at the back table is occupied. They each have the opportunity to practice heading to that spot on the first day of school so they have the opportunity to get a feel for taking a break. This practice emphasizes that taking a break is for anyone at any time they need it.
How I Keep Parents Informed About Student Behavior
If a student chooses to continue with disrespectful behavior after they have taken a break, they are asked to reflect with more structure using a Fix It Ticket. A Fix It Ticket is a simple reflection page where students write their behavior reflection. The page includes:
- A space for students to explain the behavior decision they made.
- A space where they list three things they will do to get back on track with respectful behavior.
- A space to sign their name.
When a student completes their Fix It Ticket, they hand it to the teacher to sign, review, and add any additional notes needed. Students learn also learn that I will debrief with them at the next break (recess, lunch, or after school) rather than taking time away from other students to discuss. The ticket is then taken home that night so the student can discuss their behavior with a parent/guardian, have it signed, and return it the following morning.
Building Respect on the Second Day of School
The second day of school is focused on helping students build a stronger understanding of what respectful behavior looks like, sounds like, and feels like. We begin with a read aloud of Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller. While reading, I point out how the author shows us what respectful behavior is, and what it is not. Following this read aloud, the guiding principle of respect is introduced using a large R.E.S.P.E.C.T. poster.
I begin by introducing what each letter in the acronym represents using mini posters that describe each word in the acronym. Each of these mini posters is placed next to a blank brainstorm poster around that room. Once all letters of the acronym are discussed, students are given time to visit each mini poster and write an idea using the following prompts.
- What does respecting ___ look like?
- What does respecting ___ sound like?
- How does respecting ___ feel?
Once students have written an idea on each brainstorm poster, they head back to their seat where a reflection page is waiting for them. This page gives them an additional way to focus on what they have learned over the past two days while their peers focus on finishing the activity at hand.
The final step for introducing R.E.S.P.E.C.T. at the beginning of the year is to complete the R.E.S.P.E.C.T. contract. This contract summarizes everything students have learned about our behavior routines and expectations, communicates these expectations to families, and emphasizes the importance of what has been discussed so students know they will be held accountable for their behavior, and provided with support for making respectful decisions throughout the year. I like to attach a cover letter to the contract so parents & guardians have some context for the contract, and can engage in a productive conversation around the importance of respect in the classroom.
Focusing on Respect Day-To-Day
After the introduction activities explained above, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. becomes our guiding principle for the duration of the school year. It is especially helpful during the first two weeks of school as we work as a class to write class rules together using the Responsive Classroom approach. Even after those first couple weeks, we refer to our poster on a consistent basis and revisit it after school breaks. Below are a few routines I follow as a teacher to ensure this guiding principle helps maintain a learning environment where everyone feels respected.
The R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Binder
Once all the contracts have been returned, I hole-punch them and place them in our R.E.S.P.E.C.T. binder. This binder is kept in a place that is easy to access, but also private enough so students who may need to complete a Fix-It-Ticket have a quiet area to reflect on their behavior and make a plan for improvement.
When Asking Students To Take A Break or Complete A Fix-It-Ticket
I like to make it a habit to give these reminders in a calm, quiet voice when in close proximity to the student, rather than giving a reminder from across the room. This is a great way to show respect to your students and helps bring their energy to a more calm and focused place.
If possible, I briefly check in with the student after they begin their Fix-It-Ticket to remind him/her that the most important thing to do is reflect, make a plan for improvement, and return to learning with more focus and respect.
When a student needs to complete a Fix-It-Ticket, holding off on discussing the behavior until the next break in the day gives both of us time to cool down, move forward, and have a calm conversation about what went wrong.
Building Student Accountability and Independence
Although it may be tempting at times to give a call or send an email following a Fix It Ticket, I like to leave it to my students to share what happened with their parents. This further communicates the confidence I have in their ability to monitor their behavior choices, and show respect at school.
If ever a parent follows up with an email requesting more information, I request that we all sit down together so the student knows he/she is an integral part of the entire behavior reflection process.
Consistency is Key
Practicing consistency and fairness is extremely important when implementing this system in your classroom as it builds a foundation for mutual trust and respect, and significantly reduces behavior problems. Some ways to demonstrate consistency include:
- Always giving students time to take a break without jumping straight to a Fix It Ticket.
- Always following up with a discussion if a Fix It Ticket is required.
- Always showing students whole-heartedly that they have a fresh start each day.
- Always using the same approach when asking student to take a break or fill out a ticket (if you are going to use close proximity and a calm voice, do it every time for every student so everyone feels respected).
Behavior Plans to Offer Additional Support
Each year, I teach students who need additional behavior supports. They participate in the introduction activities described above, and are in integral part of writing our classroom rules when it comes time to do so. They take breaks, and are provided with additional tools to help them make respectful behavior decisions.
The roll-out described above communicates to students that they are important, they are respected, and I will do everything I can to support them as they navigate their learning environment. With this message being repeated consistently and demonstrated every single day in our classroom, I begin to notice that students understand and truly believe that everyone deserves the supports they need. This eliminates students’ questions about fairness when they notice a classmate who needs more supports and uses different tools as they develop respectful and responsible behaviors each day.
Bringing R.E.S.P.E.C.T. To Your Classroom
Remember, it is possible for you to transform your classroom into a space where respect is the core focus, and students are more intrinsically motivated. I hope reading about my classroom management journey, and the specific details for how I introduce and implement my current approach to classroom management is helpful as you envision how you want to build your own community of respectful learners.
In the comments below, I’d love to hear about any challenges you are currently facing as you work to build a respectful learning environment. If you are looking for a few ready-to-use tools to implement the system I’ve described above, check out my R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Classroom Behavior Management Tools for Social Emotional Learning.
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