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One question that could change your classroom.

Disclaimer: I am a hope-aholic. When it comes to education, I hold stubbornly to the belief that we can make a difference, find a better way, and impact students’ lives so that they can reach their potential, while keeping what is best for students as our central focus. It is with these goals in mind that I ask educators to consider this one question that could change your classroom:

How can we apply Growth Mindset principles to misbehavior in the classroom?

I can vividly remember my third grade classroom. My teacher, Mrs. S was engaging, and bigger than life. Her voice boomed across the room as she taught. She would sashay around the room as she wrote with a flourish on the chalkboard. Mrs. S ran a tight ship. Having very little tolerance for interruptions or distractions, she kept us all in check by writing our name on the board for the first infraction (such as calling out, not focusing, or perhaps getting our pencil stuck in our shoe…something I remember the boy sitting next to me doing on one occasion), and subsequently placing check marks after our names for each transgression there after. Being a rather quiet and compliant child, I would cringe each time someone’s name was written on the board (while secretly breathing a sigh of relief that it was not my own name) and even felt sorry for Barry when he received a check mark, as well as his shoe (with the pencil still stuck in it) tacked up on the board as a reminder to all of us not to repeat his foolish behavior. The funny thing is, I can still clearly remember the list of students (including Barry) whose names were regulars on the board, because they never really changed. The same kids struggled to keep their behavior in check each and every day.

Rethinking Classroom Management Systems

Today’s classrooms look different in many ways. First of all, most blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards. Hopefully we won’t see names written on the white boards, however the behavior management systems really have not changed. From clip charts, to color cards, to behavior tracking apps with cute little avatars, the majority of teachers across the country still use similar behavior management systems to keep students in line. These systems are based on rewards and punishments in varying degrees. When a student makes a poor choice (such as calling out or chatting with a neighbor) they are clipped down, have to change their color card, or their avatar looses points. On the other hand, when teachers happen to notice students making a good choice they can get their clip moved up, change their color card back to green, or perhaps receive a marble in a jar. The reality is that most educators learned these classroom management systems from other teachers, either in their undergrad courses, during their student teaching experiences, or shared on popular teacher blogs.

Teaching is not an easy profession. Teachers need effective tools in their toolboxes to assist them in managing classroom behavior. It’s important that teachers are able to deliver instruction … this is our job. In the classroom, teachers are out numbered, usually 24, 25, or even 29 to one!

I really get it; I’ve been there. When I taught in the classroom, I confess that I actually used several variations of these kinds of behavior management systems, from individual stop lights on each child’s desk (everyone started on green and moved to yellow for the first infraction and red for the next …which inevitably resulted in green, yellow, and red discs velcroed to my attire by the end of the day) to printing “Kruse Cash” where students earned money for good things that they did and forfeited money for poor choices. I never really felt very good about using these systems, they often felt manipulative (and to be honest, I knew that I couldn’t possibly see every “good” or “bad” behavior happening, so I naturally focused on those that pushed the boundaries) but I was desperate to gain control so that I could teach. I didn't know then what I know now.

Here’s the cold hard facts…

Clip charts, marble jars, color charts, and even Kruse cash work quite well…until they don’t. Initially these kinds of behavior management systems actually work, and they seem to work well, however they are not sustainable because they are built on extrinsic motivation instead of intrinsic motivation. The research on this is clear, rewards and punishments simply do not work over time.

The sad thing is that for many students (such as my classmate Barry), these systems actually do more harm than good. The students that struggle with self-control, those that are continually clipped down, or “on red” can begin to feel like they are “bad” in their own minds as well as in the minds of their classmates, and they live up to that expectation. These behavior managements systems are based on shaming. They publicly broadcast to everyone that you have missed the mark, made a mistake …you are not adequate in the eyes of the teacher. Brene Brown, a shame researcher, has written extensively about the impact of shaming in our society. In her talk to educators she shares that 85% of the men and women that she has interviewed for her research “can remember a shaming incident that occurred at school that was so devastating, it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners.” I invite you to take a few minutes and view her inspiring talk to educators here.

Mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn…

The other day I decided to stop in the grocery store for a few items on my way home. There are two important things to note… I was in a hurry, and I was in a grocery store (this is never a good combination). My overloaded pantry attests to the fact that I can never just “pick up a few things”. Being in a hurry to get home in time to make dinner, I quickly scanned the check out lines, determining which was both the shortest and fastest moving line. I quickly placed the items from my half-full grocery cart on the belt. It was only after my cart was emptied that I happened to look up and notice that the “15 or less items light” was dimly lit… ugghh, I flushed with embarrassment, feeling that surely every person with a cart filled to the brim behind me was frowning in my direction. I was so thankful that no one put a clip up with my name on it on the grocery store bulletin board or attached a yellow or red card to my cart. The point is, we all make mistakes. Sometimes, because we are in a hurry, distracted, or even too tired to care. Children are still developing their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates their behavior (this actually isn’t fully developed until they’re 24 yrs old … which explains a lot). Some children develop self-regulatory behavior more quickly than others. Social and emotional skills can, and should be taught rather than simply managed. The research of Edward Deci,has shown that teachers who try to control their student’s behavior, rather than teaching their students the skills needed to be successful, actually erode the essential components of motivation. Using our mistakes as opportunities to learn is the key to changing behavior, and is foundational to cultivating a growth mindset.

How exactly do we apply Growth Mindset to Behavior?

Growth Mindset, a phrase coined by Carol Dweck, has gained traction in education settings across the globe. Dweck’s research revealed that we all have basic assumptions about both our abilities and intelligence (Dweck, 2007). In her book, Dweck purports that your mindset, how you perceive your abilities and intellect, plays a crucial role in achieving your potential. Research shows that students that embrace a growth mindset (the belief that their intellect and abilities can change with hard work and effort) actually increase achievement when compared to students with a fixed mindset. Educators have been quick to apply Growth Mindset principles to teaching academics. However, academics and social & emotional learning are intertwined. Each influences the other both positively and negatively.

Here are 5 things to consider when applying Growth Mindset to behavior:

  1. Have clear and developmentally appropriate expectations – for students that struggle to meet expectations, help them to set reasonable goals

  2. Give students concrete strategies to use in order to improve their behavior

  3. Use mistakes as opportunities to learn by helping students to recognize their mistakes, and give feedback that moves them forward

  4. Recognize leading edge behaviors for students that struggle

  5. Give lots of opportunities to practice

Unfortunately, most classroom behavior systems do not afford students that struggle with behavior the opportunity to receive feedback that moves them forward, learn and practice specific strategies, create

goals, and reflect on their progress. So what can we do?

Teachers are some of the hardest working, enthusiastic, wanting-to-do-it-right, people that I know. It is important that parents and administrators support educators as they embrace this paradigm shift and support them with professional learning opportunities to discover strategies in order to integrate this new thinking into their classrooms. So teachers, please take a deep breath, relax and consider a few things you can do right now.

5 simple ways to begin …

1. View your classroom with a wide-angle lens – instead of focusing on “bad” behavior, widen your perspective and consider what you might be able to change. Were the students sitting too long? Do they need more opportunities to turn and talk? Would a visual reminder help them to be more successful?

2. Identify the specific skills that your students need to learn in order to be successful and teach students these skills – Mike Anderson explains the key components for effective modeling

3. Fill your teacher tool-box with strategies – here are some excellent resources:

  • Effective teacher language is a powerful tool. Check out Peter Johnston's book Choice Words, and the Responsive Classroom website for articles, videos and books.

  • For specific strategies to deal with challenging behavior, check out Jessica Minahan's book: The Behavior Code

4. Invite students to solve problems collaboratively with you. The work of Ross Greene and the book Thorny Behavior Problems by Caltha Crowe give great ideas and insights into this strategy.

5. Get rid of the extrinsic motivators - the marble jars, clip charts, and colored cards. By the way, I know how scary this is…but trust me, it is so worth it! (Please note:there may be a few students that can benefit from an individual behavior plan, however all students will benefit by getting rid of these behavior management systems)

When I decided to get rid of my behavior management system and focus instead on teaching students the skills they needed my classroom was changed forever! However, change takes courage and vulnerability. Our classrooms need to be places where students can feel safe enough to take the risks necessary for learning to happen. Brene Brown also shares that “over 90% of the people interviewed can remember a specific teacher, coach, or administrator who made them believe in their self-worth”. Educators play such an important, powerful role in the lives of their students. You each make a huge impact in the lives of the students that you teach. I encourage you as parents, teachers, and administrators to share this information and support educators to make the needed changes in our classrooms. In doing so, we can create learning environments where each student can reach their potential. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

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