Scaffolding Behaviour

I believe that people inherently want to do the right thing.  This absolutely includes our students (although it sometimes might not seem like it). Most people like to know where they stand. We all like to know what is acceptable and what will get us into trouble. Students often test teachers in order to explore these boundaries. There is nothing worse than having a teacher leaping out to enforce rules and regulations that you were only dimly aware of.

Your students already know the rules

If your classroom’s rules are fair and clear, most students will be following them within a couple of months, if not before. I teach middle (and sometimes high) school. The students I teach have attended school for many years. They already know how to behave in a classroom. When I was their age, there was nothing worse than the first week of term when every single teacher’s first lesson was about their behaviour expectations. As if they were all different from each other’s(!) I try to take a different approach. My first lesson is a real lesson, I teach them something. Then I decide if I need to tackle poor behaviour or if they are already on track.

Seriously, they already know the rules!

Most of my colleagues ask students which rules they would like for their classroom. In my first year of teaching, a 12 year old said “Miss, you’re the teacher. You tell us,” and would not accept my appeals that I wanted the class to have ownership. Anyway, the rules are always the standard “Listen to others, Be respectful, Be prepared for lessons” etc etc.

Beware the floating voters

Instead, choose five things that you want to see in your classroom, five things you want your students to do every lesson. And recognise them for it. Your major behavioural problems are not coming so much from the minority of children with behavioural special needs (although, of course those students are challenging), but from the floating voters. The children who need to see which way the wind is blowing before they act. If those children see that you appreciate their good behaviour, they are much less likely to act up.

Consistency is not as big a deal as everyone says (sorry)

But, and this is a bit rebellious of me, don’t worry about consistency that much. Rewards are much more powerful when they are a bit unpredictable. Yes, students want you to be consistent and I’m not suggesting you should be actively unfair. But it is okay to forget to reward certain behaviours once in a while. Just as long as you get around to it the next time.

The ultimate aim is to stop rewarding them

Same goes for slacking off with your system towards the end of term. This is a good thing. You do not want to create adults who only do things because they will be praised or get a reward, you want adults who self-regulate their behaviour because it is the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong with weaning your students off of rewards toward the end of term. If your students are doing the right thing without external motivation, then the rewards have served their purpose. I see behavioural policies more as a temporary scaffolding structure, to allow the students to build their own values and responses.

(Published first by ClassDojo Thought Partners blog)

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Building a Great Relationship with your Class

Students learn best with teachers they have a good relationship with. That is not to say you need to be their ‘friend’ but just that they need to perceive you as fair, approachable and competent. Young people need to feel that they are respected by their teacher. They may be able to learn from someone they suspect dislikes them but usually this creates a mental block.

Here are some tips you can use today to help build your relationship with your class.This will help your classroom culture and help with behavior management (and save you time!)

1) Admit when you made a mistake or do not know something

As adults it is tempting to pretend we are gatekeepers to All Human Knowledge or that we always do the right thing. Your students might give you a (slightly) hard time the first time you are honest about your limitations but they will respect your integrity at the same time.This example also encourages them to give things a try even if they suspect they will fail.

2) Trust them

In one of my old schools with some really difficult students, most teachers limited control of what happened in lessons. They would stop and start activities every few minutes and everyone had to be doing the same thing at the same time. I tried something different with a few classes, where my students had more open-ended tasks and I was not on top of them the entire lesson. It does not work for every student (what does?) but for some groups, it can be a revelation.

For the other groups who are not ready for that sort of freedom, get them to volunteer for responsibilities around the class. We feel more connected to people we have done a favour for, rather than the other way around.

3) Smile

Forget all that ‘no smiling before December rubbish you might have heard. We are social animals. Humans mirror the facial expressions they see and if they are pulling particular facial expressions, they start to feel that emotion. If you genuinely look happy to see your students, they will feel happy to see you.

4) Be playful

You don’t need to roll up to class in clown make up, just keep them on their toes with fun activities.

Word play, puns, jokes of the week, quizzes, games, competitions… these are all tools that make lessons more interesting and your topics more ‘sticky’ in memory terms. Laughter also reduces symptoms of stress. If your students are anxious and serious, they will probably still learn but if they are relaxed and entertained, they will be able to retain so much more.

School Home Communication

I don’t know about you but I found talking to parents particularly intimidating when I first started teaching. Having no children of my own and being in my early 20s, I was unsure of myself and it showed.

Here are some tips to get the most out of communicating with parents:

  1. Make contact before official events such as parent teacher conferences or report cycles. Get in contact to let parents know about your class, your expectations with regards to homework and show them their child is in good hands.
  2. Do not bombard them with information. People these days get a lot of emails and text messages. Keep it short and to the point. Rule of thumb: The older the students are, the less the parents really want to read about what they did in class.
  3. Praise students to parents. Send pithy emails or postcards about how great their child was. I sent a few off at the start of the year with what turned out to be a difficult class of 15 year olds. The most difficult of the students actually carried that postcard around with him for months. You can usually find something that a student has done well.
  4. If you need to convey difficult or hard-to-hear information, don’t try to soften the blow with teaching euphemisms. I ran some of my best jargon past a friend of mine and she had zero idea that I was even giving bad news. If you need to say, “Your child is ruining every lesson with their poor behaviour,” only sugar-coat this information lightly. Consider, “Johnny’s poor choices often mean he does not make any progress and makes learning harder for other members in the class.”
  5. That being said, I am a big fan of the ‘praise sandwich’. Praise-bread wrapped around a criticism-filling. Even though a child’s conduct is usually not a reflection on parenting quality, parents become defensive. If you can demonstrate you recognize their child is a work in progress and has particular strengths, parents are more likely to listen to reports of poor organization or social skills.
  6.  Don’t be a ‘yes’ man. If a parent is wrong, it is okay to let them know. Obviously you would not talk to them like they were a child. However, an adult-to-adult professional conversation should not always end with you agreeing to whatever the parent says. I watched in awe as my old boss talked down a parent who was insisting that his son should not have been suspended for a disciplinary issue because ‘everyone else was doing it’. She was masterful. She was gentle and polite but she was firm and gave no ground. And in the end, the parent agreed with my boss.
  7. Sometimes parents are (rightly or wrongly), upset and lose their cool. The best thing to do, if the situation is safe, is to keep the conversation about their child. Keep the focus on what can be done in the future and how best to help. Any diversions into speculating about your professionalism don’t help with the matter at hand. If they are upset to the point of aggression, terminate the meeting immediately and go somewhere safe. If the aggressive communication has occurred over email, paradoxically, calling for a face-to-face meeting often defuses the situation (but meet in a place with others around just to be safe)

Writing Reports: What you say and what you mean

It’s coming up to report card time. As teachers, we want to try to phrase things positively in reports. That’s someone’s child after all and no one responds well to pure criticism. However, sometimes you have to broach difficult topics in a report and the sugar coating can get in the way of communication.

My top tip from my first teaching mentor: parents usually only get mad if the bad news is a shock. I have noticed that parents react less negatively to a report, if they already were aware of the issue. So, if you need to get in contact with parents about a behavioural or organisational issue, do it before a parent-teacher conference or report cycle.

I had been writing reports for several years when I got into a conversation with a friend who home-educates her three children. I ran my best phrases past her to see if she could pick up what I was putting down. No. She could not. It was an eye-opener.

“Sammy is very enthusiastic but this can mean he does not give other children a chance to contribute.”

What I mean: “Sammy needs to raise his hand and stop shouting out.”

What a parent might hear: ”Sammy is a great orator and the other children love listening to him.”

Consider: “Sammy is very enthusiastic. He needs to remember to raise his hand in classroom discussions.”

“Joey does not always come prepared to lessons.”

What I mean: “Joey almost NEVER comes prepared to lessons.”

What a parent might hear: “Joey sometimes forgets his notebook from time to time.”

Consider “As we have already discussed over the phone, Joey very rarely brings his notebook and pen to lessons.”

“Jamie sometimes does not think about the consequences of his actions.”

What I think I mean: “Jamie is a total nightmare.”

What a parent might hear “Jamie is an adorable little scamp!”

Consider “Jamie gets into situations that distract him and others from the lesson (for example: …). I know he wants to do the right thing and I am supporting him by….”

Another tip, look for ways of automating the process that do not involve Mr Control C and Ms Control V. I’d much rather spend my time writing quality phrases that tell each child exactly how they are achieving and exactly how they can improve, instead of grinding away at typing out similar but not identical phrases for each child.  For example schoolreportwriter.com has a lovely system, where you upload a bank of comments and can choose the appropriate ones for each student. You can even switch adjectives and phrases up for a more tailored report.

Just remember to tell it to them straight, however you write it.

Field Trips: A User’s Guide

Here are my top tips for having wonderful field trips:-

  1. Take café trips in shifts. I used to work in a science museum before I was a teacher and all the adults disappearing into the café was a sure indicator of which classes would act up.
  2. Have activities that don’t involve worksheets. Think of it more like a road trip with observational activities. The less they can leave on top of a display case, the better.
  3. If you can swing it, only take your class. You have a relationship with them, you know them well. This was painfully learned after I realised the children kicking the exhibits were complete strangers to me.
  4. Devolve as much of your responsibilities to your students as you can. Nominate a time keeper, a note keeper, a decider, an exhibit label reader, a photographer. I don’t know about you but I am shocking at plate spinning. Let the students lighten the load.
  5. Play dumb. I know all about the Bernoulli effect because of my science museum gig in my late teens. I still let students explain it to me when they learn about it. Curiosity is contagious after all.