Under constant pressure to cover curriculum goals, teachers may opt for the three most familiar choices when disciplining unruly students: shout, threaten, and punish. But U-Turn Teaching authors Rich Allen and Jenn Currie tell us that, according to research about learning and the brain, these tactics actually shut down student learning. In this MiddleWeb guest article, they offer three alternative strategies to prevent the classroom from becoming a battleground.
by Rich Allen and Jenn Currie
Research shows that, if we stress students by yelling at, humiliating or punishing them, they stop learning and remain unable to learn for some time afterwards. You see, when students are stressed, they secrete stress hormones, which adversely affect brain function – especially memory. During a perceived threat, our adrenal glands immediately release adrenalin. If the threat persists after a couple of minutes, the adrenals then release the steroid hormone, cortisol, preparing the body for “fight or flight.” Once in the brain, cortisol remains there much longer than adrenalin and, while it does, it can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories.
Clearly, we need to approach discipline from the other direction. Rather than waiting for and then punishing bad behavior with actions that inhibit learning, we need to do everything we can to support good behavior. Specifically, we need to model it, expect it, and reward it as we demonstrate, facilitate and motivate.
Students learn just as much from what teachers do, as what we say. At all times, we need to model the behavior we expect.
If we are contemptuous of a student’s response, the class will be too. Alternatively, if we are accepting of difference, generous with our praise, and appreciative of every effort, this also rubs off on our students.
Young adolescents need solid modeling to learn appropriate ways to interact with each other. Don’t assume your students know how to be organized or well behaved. Start by showing and telling your students exactly what to do. Then, highlight the desired behavior whenever you see it in action.
Try to be very specific in your comments, rather than just saying, “nice job.” For example, you could say, “Hey I notice John is organized. Look how nice and neatly his books are stacked and off to the side.” “I notice Courtnie is helping Carla find the correct page. That’s what I call good teamwork.”
When you do this, other students start to mirror the behavior, hoping to get noticed.
One of the best ways to support our students in behaving appropriately is to make it easier for them to do so.
This starts with our own expectations. If we expect a particular student to be a problem in class, our attitude towards them will be negative from the start. We will give them less leeway than other students, reserve our smiles for our ‘good’ students, and generally treat the ‘bad’ student with distrust and suspicion. This student will promptly pick up on our unconscious hostility, react against it, and quickly fulfill our expectations of bad behavior – thereby justifying our attitude in the first place.
This classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy is re-enacted in classrooms all over the world. If we expect a particular student to behave badly, they almost certainly will. Our expectations as a teacher are the greatest predictor of actual outcomes in our classrooms. Change our thinking, and we will change the outcomes.
We can also be proactive in making it easy for all students to behave well. For example, we can give clear instructions. You know that moment when you notice half the class has failed to open their books to the correct page? It’s easy to get cross with those out-of-sync students and blame them for not paying attention. But let’s look at what happened here. We were responsible for communicating that instruction. If half the class didn’t understand it, perhaps we could have done a better job with our instructions. Instead of getting angry with our students, perhaps we should apologize to them!
Before you react to that suggestion with outrage – just think it through. What are we trying to achieve here? We want every student looking at the right page. How long will that take if we berate half the class for not paying attention? And how many of those students will be ready to learn when we’ve finished? What if, instead, we smile and say: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t very clear about our page number. Please turn to page 27 and wiggle your pen in the air when you get there.” Your entire class will be on the right page in seconds – and they will be smiling at you.
In many situations where teachers get frustrated with students, there are two sides to the situation. Is a student fidgeting because they are badly behaved, or because their teacher has left them sitting still for too long? Is a student doing the wrong thing because they deliberately chose to be obnoxious, or because their teacher didn’t explain the activity clearly? Rather than blaming our students every time they fail to do what we want them to, we need to make a bigger effort to provide clarity around every single classroom activity. And we need to stop putting adolescents into situations – such as sitting still and silent for too long – that are guaranteed to generate poor behavior.
Of course, there are times when students are simply behaving badly. But, even in these circumstances, we should give them the benefit of the doubt. By taking the ‘blame’ ourselves, we can often divert a student from going too far down the road to poor behavior.
For example, by saying in a genuinely concerned voice: “I’m so sorry, Hayley, I obviously didn’t make that instruction clear, let me try again,” we are effectively offering Hayley a ‘get of jail free’ card. Of course we know that the instruction was clear, and Hayley is deliberately pushing the boundaries, but we also know that yelling at Hayley makes her dig in her heels still further. This simple tactic gets students back on track without shouting or making them feel stupid or distracting the class.
The fact that they ‘got away’ with acting out is irrelevant. We achieved our objective of guiding their behavior back in line. Moreover, they are likely to spend the rest of the lesson on their best behavior.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but many students misbehave because it’s the only way they can get enough attention. For some middle grades students, any attention is better than remaining anonymous – it proves they exist and affirms their sense of self. If these students can’t get positive attention by answering questions correctly or getting good marks, they will get negative attention by acting out.
This is why we need to heap copious rewards on students for even minor improvements in behavior. These rewards can be anything from a private smile, to public praise, to a coveted prize. The key is to give rewards constantly, frequently and with great enthusiasm. If you used to spend 15 minutes every day disciplining the same student, you need to spend at least that long – and probably longer – praising their positive behavior.
No matter what other teachers tell you – or the size of the personal file that arrives with a particular student – begin the year by assuming that each child can achieve and will behave well. If you treat each student with respect and kindness, that is exactly what you will receive back. And if you expect good behavior, you are much more likely to get it. The worst thing you can do is buy into the preconceived notions the school and prior teachers have built about your students.
Ignore the files. Ignore the eye rolling of other teachers. Find the goodness in every child, accentuate it with positive affirmations and build on it. The results will be spectacular.
At first, I thought that some of these ideas were too “simple” and could not possibly make a difference. I could not have been more wrong. My “worst” year turned out to be the best one I have ever had. It all started with my attitude. I realized my students were living up to what I expected of them. When I did not believe in them they underperformed.
– Chris Straub, 4th Grade Teacher, Commodore Perry School District, Pennsylvania
Rich Allen is an internationally known educator and professional development consultant with more than 25 years experience working with teachers. Founder and President of Green Light Education, he is the author of Green Light Classrooms, High-Impact Teaching in the XYZ Era of Education, TrainSmart: Effective Trainings Every Time, High Five Teaching , and most recently U-Turn Teaching and The Rock ‘n Roll Classroom. Rich completed his doctorate in educational psychology at Arizona State University and divides his time between his home in the US Virgin Islands and his wife’s home in Sydney, Australia. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jenn Currie has been teaching in the Commodore Perry School District for over 15 years, working mostly with students in grades 4-6. Since discovering brain-based learning strategies in 2005, Jenn has consistently helped ‘problem’ students achieve their first-ever academic successes and was recognized as Teacher of the Year in 2008, 2011, and 2012. Jenn earned her B.S. and M. Ed in Elementary Education from Slippery Rock University and is currently pursuing a doctoral program. She lives with her husband Scott and their canine companion Maggi in the small town of Greenville, Pennsylvania. Contact her at email@example.com.