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Response: 'Add More Positives' When Your Classroom Goes South

(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you turn around a class that you've let get out-of-control?


This series began with responses from Bobson Wong, Rita Platt, Kevin Parr, Theresa Staley, Valerie Ruckes and Sarah Thomas.  You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Bobson, Rita, Kevin and Theresa on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Cindi Rigsbee, Lori Jackson, Steve Peck, Becky Corr, Otis Kriegel shared their responses.

This is the series' final post, and it's wrapped up by Julia Thompson, Rebecca Alber, Madeline Whitaker Good, Stuart Ablon, Alisha Pollastri, Allen Mendler, and Kelly Wickham Hurst.  I've also included many responses from readers.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is currently a teacher trainer for the Bureau of Research and Development. She is also the author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide, Fourth Edition. Thompson offers practical advice for teachers at her website, www.juliagthompson.com, her blog, www. juliagthompson.blogspot.com, and on Twitter @TeacherAdvice:

If you have a class that you have let get out of control, you are not alone. We've all been there. Sometimes the class is one that seems to be doing well and then spring (or Monday or Halloween...) happens and those cooperative students have turned into puzzling, ill-behaved challenges. Fortunately, even though they may outnumber you, there are plenty of actions you can take to turn the situation around. Here's just a few suggestions to put your class back on track.

  • Before you act in haste, gather data to define the problem as carefully as you can. Is it the entire class or just a few key students? Is there a pattern to the misbehavior you are now seeing? What times of day seem to be most troubling? What interactions among students seem to be the cause of the problems? Gather data by taking quick notes during class, by recording yourself, and by asking colleagues to stop by to observe. With this information, you will be able to make sensible decisions about how to correct the problems in your class.

  • One of the best ways to turn around a class is to examine what you are doing as a classroom leader. Since you have control over your actions, it will be possible for you to adjust the way you manage your class once you determine your role in the problem. For example, as a school term progresses, many teachers become too comfortable with their students and neglect to follow through on observing rules, procedures, and policies as thoroughly as they may have done at the start of the year. This often leads to an out-of-control class. Once teachers are aware of this, however, it is easy to get back on track. Never forget: if it is your problem, then it is your solution. Be honest with yourself about how you could be the troublemaker in your class.

  • To turn a negative class atmosphere into a positive one, work on the relationships that you have with the entire class and with individual students. A strong relationship with a challenging student can be your best defense against that student's academic and behavioral failures. Positive relationships make all the good things possible in a class.

  • When you are trying to turn around a class, do it in small, strategic steps. Tweak this. Change that. Be more positive. Be a better class leader. These are all going to lead to a successful class atmosphere much more quickly than if you come in and furiously try to change everything all at once. Doing this will only confuse or antagonize your students.

  • It is easy to react in a negative way when things are not going well in class. Instead of a negative reaction, focus on adding in more positives to the daily routines of your class. Smile more. Let your students know when they are successful. Praise and encourage. When students know that their teacher likes and approves of them, has confidence in them, and is genuinely proud of their effort, they will behave much better than those students who have angry or frustrated teachers.  

  • One of the easiest mistakes to make as the year goes along is to neglect to let the rules, procedures, and policies that you have in place to the work that they are supposed to do. Calm and consistent enforcement of the management framework you have in place for your students will prevent many problems. If you see your class turning into an unpleasant group, be sure to use the rules, procedures, and policies that you already have in place to help students make productive decisions about their behavior.

  • Be persistent. Experienced teachers know that each day--even the last day of class--is an opportunity to make a positive change in the lives of their students. Working on building a positive class environment is an ongoing process. Don't give up. All your students need a teacher who is determined that they will be successful.

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Response From Rebecca Alber

Dr. Rebecca Alber is an instructor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education where she teaches teachers. She is a literacy specialist, blogger and consulting editor at Edutopia, and a compulsive reader. She dips into the Pacific as often as she can get away with:

Meditation teacher and scholar Sharon Salzberg says we can always begin again. I believe this too applies to the classroom teacher who has found herself in the midst of a chaotic classroom situation.

Since I work with first-year teachers, I would say this is something that is a common occurrence for our novice teacher colleagues. As rooky educators, we will often equate permissiveness with kindness and caring. (We make that mistake once, I think, and then we learn.)

So, let's say it is your first year and you've provided kids with too much leeway in the form of soft rules, vague routines, sporadic consequences and things have gotten, well, let's say, messy. How do you fix it? What do you do?

Here's some of the advice I give first-year teachers. It's important that you don't put the blame on students for the chaos. Take a good amount of the blame for not being clear enough and consistent with consequences. (Then be sure to forgive yourself; you are learning.) You need to address this mistake to your class. This is the first important piece in the quest for repair. Share with your class that upon reflection, you've realized for the greater good of all that you need to tighten rules and make the routines clearer. Share with them that this will help them all as learners and will also decrease the counter-productive behaviors. That said, declare also that consequences will be solidly enforced as you move forward. Then, revisit your rules, routines, and consequences making sure they are understood by all. Note: Many teachers take a student-centered approach to this task, and provide students opportunities to contribute to creating the class rules and routines. These are sometimes called "shared agreements."

And from there, you've got to follow through. This is where you've got to roll up your sleeves and not waiver. If talking when it isn't your turn, or coming to class late hasn't consistently been followed by a consequence in your classroom, then some students will challenge you when you make your big move with that consequence. Stay calm and remind them that this is the new way of things, and it's for the greater good-- the purpose being to have a safe, fair, and productive class for all.  

Every teacher I know has taken the above steps (or one's similar) in attempt to repair a chaotic class. And it works, most of the time. When do I observe real, lasting success with it? When a teacher, along with being firm, remains consistently kind and caring. This means she continues with those community building activities, keeps laughing with students and greeting them at the door when they arrive. Those important acts aren't diminished (they may even be increased!) In other words, the kids don't feel like they are being punished and are the bad class--the one their teacher dreads teaching. The key here is to stay firm and loving. To borrow Lisa Delpit's words, be a warm demander.

And those teachers, after they have passed that rocky road with their former horror show of a period three, I can't tell you how many of them share with me that this is now their favorite class. I mean, I hear this a lot. I guess where we struggle the most is often where we find the greatest rewards.

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Response From Madeline Whitaker Good

Madeline Whitaker Good has taught elementary and middle school, and is currently a middle school teacher in Springfield, Missouri. She is a co-author of Your First Year:

We have certainly all been in this situation, and it can seem like a daunting and downright impossible feat to overcome when you are in the midst of the chaos. There is hope, however, with something called "The Reset." Although it is a larger topic than what can be covered here, the gist of it is that you truly reset everything in your classroom - your relationships, your expectations, and your consistency. Changing an entire class' behavior means changing nearly every aspect of it.

The key to making an effective reset, however, is doing it right the first time. That means that it takes a lot of preparation. Before you change anything, you must take a step back and be able to acknowledge everything that is going wrong in your classroom. After that, you systematically find possible solutions for each issue through research, colleague support, and/or personal reflection.

Once you know everything that you want to change (which will most likely be a LOT of things!) you then need to prepare the tone for the official "reset" day. The key to this is to make sure that you never start this critical day with a negative tone. Remember, if you are at the point of a reset, it is most likely a combination of your own missteps that has made your class out of control. Thus, make sure you take ownership when you are introducing everything that will be different.

Lastly, after you introduce the changes you are making, you need to make sure you follow through with your new expectations. There is a good chance that a lack of consistency is what caused your class to get out-of-control in the first place, so implementing your plan for student misbehavior is the key to making your reset have a lasting effect.

Again, this is a big concept to cover in a small amount of words, so if you are hoping to learn more, my dad, sister, and I cover it in-depth in our book "Your First Year" and in our upcoming book "Classroom Management From the Ground Up."

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Response From Stuart Ablon & Alisha Pollastri

Stuart Ablon and Alisha Pollastri are clinical psychologists from the Think:Kids program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and are co-authors of the book, The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach. They develop, study, and teach Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS), an evidence-based approach for understanding and helping children who engage in challenging behaviors such as aggression, oppositionality, withdrawal, and academic avoidance:

We often assume that classrooms get out of control because of a lack of consequences for poor behavior. Indeed, there is something missing in classrooms like these. However, the missing ingredient is not consequences after poor behavior, but rather the clear expectations that should have been there beforehand. Students can't meet expectations of which they aren't aware; nor can they meet expectations that are moving targets, or that aren't developmentally appropriate.

Thus, your first task when you realize that your classroom is out of control is to determine when, where, and over what the majority of students are misbehaving. Then examine whether the expectations in those situations are clear, consistent, and realistic for the students. If your expectations are not clear or consistent, try posting them where every student can see them, or communicating them more frequently to make sure everyone knows what they are. If you are sure the expectations are clear and consistent, but they are not being met by the majority of students, then it is likely that the expectations are not realistic. In this case, you will need to better match your expectations to the developmental level of the students-- not the students you wish you had, but the students that you really have in front of you.

One effective way to accomplish this task is by involving the students themselves. Make them your partners in determining whether the expectations are clear, consistent, and realistic (they will tell you!).  Ask them why they think the classroom has slipped out of control, and what might be done to establish some order again. Enlist your students in helping to create clearer and more realistic classroom expectations. Students who have a hand in developing the expectations of their classroom tend to be much more invested in meeting them. If it's your expectations that aren't being met, the students may view this as your problem. But if everyone's expectations aren't being met, then everyone is on the hook for fixing the problem.

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Response From Allen Mendler

Allen Mendler is an educator and school psychologist who resides in Rochester, New York. He is the co-author of ASCD Discipline with Dignity, 4th Edition: How to Build Responsibility, Relationships, and Respect in Your Classroom (ASCD 2018):

No teacher begins a school year with classroom chaos being one of their goals. It is why we place so much emphasis on advising educators to take time early to identify, explain and have students practice important procedures; participate in developing rules and consequences; confront 'minor' annoyances regularly, directly and in a low-key manner; focus on building positive relationships. When students regularly feed off each other, I have found it best to meet separately with the misbehaving 'leader(s)' and satisfy their need for control by having them partner with the teacher in identifying and implementing solutions. If you can gain the cooperation of the leader(s), they will often succeed at influencing their peers.

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Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She's a mom of 6 and grandmother of 2 and lives with her husband in Springfield, Illinois:

There's nothing wrong with taking a time-out in front of students and saying, "This isn't working for me. Is it working for you?" Students want to provide input for their learning, so it's good to set the content aside for a day and re-organize yourselves by collaborating on what that will look like. Students LOVE to tell us how they learn best and will abide by them if you give them a voice here.

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Responses From Readers

Thanks to Julia, Rebecca, Madeline, Stuard, Alisha, Allen and Kelly, and to readers, for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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