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By Dr. Harry Tennant

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Eliminating unwanted student behaviors

Want to extinguish unwanted student behaviors? You know the ones I'm talking about: everything from tardies to fights and bullying. If you misbehave, you'll get punished. Continue to misbehave and the punishments will continue to escalate. Eventually, you may even be suspended or expelled. That ought to teach you a lesson!

Simple and clear. And the dominant philosophy of school discipline for a long time.

One problem is that it doesn't work very well. Another is that it tends to generate resentment and a dislike for school and pehaps for learning. That's a terrible price to pay.

Let's consider some other possibilities.

Physical environment

Imagine a school with crowded hallways where all students change classes at the same time and certain areas where student traffic congestion slows movement to a crawl. Would you be surprised that there are a lot of tardies to class as a result? You're probably not going to punish your way to fewer tardies. But you'll likely reduce tardies here by changing traffic flow patterns or staggering passing times (e.g., 6th graders on the hour, 7th five minutes later, 8th five minutes after that).

Other solutions regarding the physical environment involve eliminating lockers and redesigning flow patterns in the cafeteria.

These are examples of extinguishing unwanted student behaviors without threatening students to behave differently. Change the environment and the behavior might take care of itself. There are other changes that give the same effect...read on.


Well designed classroom procedures can have the same effect of improving student behavior automatically. My business partner Ken Washam recalled when he observed a class that involved dictionary use. The teacher had done a fine job but at the end of the lesson, she asked the students to return the dictionaries to the shelves on the side of the room. Students got up, were bumping into one another, hitting one another over head with dictionaries and low-grade chaos ensued. This disruption could be avoided with a simple procedure. "Please pass your dictionaries to the right, and the student on the right please return them to the shelf." No collisions. No dictionaries as weapons. The class remains orderly without having to resort to any disruptions or punishments.

Define procedures for "how we do things here" to ensure an orderly class rather than having to recover from a disorderly class.

Classroom management skills

Many new teachers come to the job without having mastered classroom management skills. When behavior referrals show behaviors like disrespect, disruption or off-task, there's a pretty good chance that the teacher needs to improve his classroom management skills. With knowledge and skills, anyone can manage a classroom. But without the skills, a frustrated teacher might give up and leave to find another profession. In fact, frustration with student behavior is one of the most common reasons that teachers leave the profession.

In many cases, instances of students who are being disruptive, disrespectful or off-task simply disappear when in a classroom lead by a teacher skilled classroom management.

Teach expectations

Students often come to school without knowing the range of acceptable behavior. One ineffective approach to this is to punish behaviors that are not acceptable. But a better approach is to explicitly teach what is acceptable and what isn't. 

When Ken Washam was a new assistant principal at an at-risk middle school, they spent the entire first week teaching expectstions...in classrooms, in hallways, in restrooms and so on. Behavior got better. The next year, less expectations teaching was needed and the year after that, even less. Why? They weren't just teaching expectations. They were changing the school culture. In the later years, new students picked up the culture from the students who had been around a few years. 

Through teaching expectations they changed the school culture which eventually translated to students who met expectations simply because that's the way it's done around here.

Teach social skills

Some students punch, grab, yell, bully and take what they want away from others. In many cases these behaviors nvolve social skills necessary for life in school that some students haven't learned yet. Explicitly teaching social skills to students who need them can avoid a lot of misbehaviors that might otherwise occur. If, instead, you try to punish your way to proper behavior, you're likely to generate resentment and power struggles. Preclude the conflicts with social skills instruction. 

Function of behavior

Some schools set up specific policies of consequences for each type of misbehavior. The consequences escalate as the misbehavior types are repeated, as evidence that the student has not yet "learned his lesson." This approach has the advantages of simplicity and consistency. However, if strictly adhered to, it removes the element of judgement for specific circumstances.

A major need for judgement in individual cases is function of behavior, which is to say, why is the student exhibiting the behavior? What does she hope to get out of it? Among the reasons that students misbehave are to gain attention from adults or peers, to escape an unwanted situation or to gain access to something they want. If an automatic consequence reliably delivers what the student wants, then it makes the misbehavior more likely rather than less likely. Since the purpose of a consequence should be to extinguish undesired behaviors, the function of the student's behavior should be taken into account when assigning consequences, not just the behavior itself.

Logical consequences

Another problem with escalating consequences is that they sometimes lead to illogical ends. For example, teachers want to eliminate tardies for three reasons. A student who is tardy to class misses some instruction time. Student achievement depends on instruction time so better not to miss it. Second, a late arriving student may cause a bit of a disruption. Now all the students in class temporarily lose focus and lose a little instruction time. Third, tardies to school may mean that the student is not included in the official student count for the day which means that the district loses one student-day worth of funding from the state. It's easy to see why schools try to extinguish tardies.

Many schools have automatic tardy rules that apply consequences based on the student's tardy count. That's efficient and effective, but only up to a point. In the behavior data we collect from client schools we see that it is not unusual for repeated tardies to lead to suspensions. Just a minute. We want to extinguish tardies because students miss instruction time but then end up suspending some for days? It's just not logical. And it's not effective. It's likely that these often-tardy students are getting just what they want, escape from school.

Moving away from punishment

It is in the best interest of the student and in the best interest of en effective school that desired behaviors are encoraged and undesired behaviors are extinguished. The best ways to reinforce these behaviors may require more care and judgement than it might first appear.

Posted at 12:00 AM Keywords: behavior policies , function of behavior , teach expectations 0 Comments

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