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Behavior Management Strategies

By Mary C. McGrann

The beginning of each school year is a time for carefully establishing a balance with your students. It is a time for setting clear and consistent limits or boundaries. It is a time to let students know what types of behavior will be accepted and what types will not. It is also a time to set the foundation for a healthy relationship with each student. It is a time for making a connection with each child and his or her family. If you can walk the fine line of setting limits while weaving the first strands of trust, then you and your students can expect to have a successful school year. And you will be building a foundation for the future success of all of your students.

Setting clear and consistent limits or boundaries is a process that is established over time. Some teachers like to generate a class rules list with their group of students. Others make class rules known without any input from the students. However you generate your list of class rules, it is important to be aware that the list in and of itself is meaningless. Displaying a list of class rules is not enough! The important part is how we, as teachers, deal with the rules and their infractions on an ongoing, daily basis. Just as we are getting to know our students, they are getting to know us. Students will test limits. They want to see if we mean what we say and say what we mean. They want to know what the consequences for violating our rules are. They want to know if we are fair and consistent. They want to know if we will discipline with dignity. How we as teachers respond to violations of our rules is very important. If we ignore infractions, we are telling the class that a particular rule is not very meaningful. This will make the students wonder if all the rules are genuine. If we overreact to infractions, we are telling students that the only way to get our attention is through negative behavior. It is imperative to be clear with your students. It is also important that you are honest with yourself. What behaviors will you absolutely not tolerate? When we have meaningful class rules that we fairly and consistently enforce, we are building an emotionally, academically, and socially safe learning environment.

A classroom that is free from teasing, stimulating, and supportive is the setting in which students can reach their maximum potential. It becomes an environment where students feel it is safe to take educational risks without worrying that others will laugh at their efforts. It is a safe place where the focus is on learning - not looking over their shoulder in fear of physical or emotional harms. It is a place where learning is fun. In many classrooms, the group dynamics are such that it is not socially acceptable to show interest in academics. There are also many students who have failed so often that they no longer buy into the educational process. In these situations, the responsibility falls on the classroom teacher to reignite the natural curiosity to learn within all his or her students. This is where the social aspect of the group process is so important and valuable. If they are acting like a classroom community, they will be supportive and helpful to one another. This support will allow them to show interest in academics and learning. It will also help to break down barriers formed by years of failing. It will give students a fresh, new start in their educational development.

There are many ways to build a classroom community. Students can work together as learning partners. They can also work together on a common goal. For example, when all students hand in homework for a designated number of days, a reward will be given to the group. Or when the group gets a certain number of unsolicited compliments from staff for good behavior, the class will get a reward. This encourages the class to work together as a cohesive unit. It also builds a community spirit so that when learning difficulties become apparent within the group, the class is more supportive to each individual. They are used to working together and are therefore more accepting of one another. It makes the classroom environment safe for educational risks.

If an important goal is for our students to treat each other with respect, then the responsibility for modeling respectful communication is on the teacher. Words are very powerful. Be careful how you use them. Be sure that your words focus on the behavior not on the student. There is a very big difference between saying, "You are so lazy!" and, "You haven't done your homework." Teacher remarks should be about behaviors. Students should know you value them even when you have to address areas that need improvement. Disciplining with dignity is essential for the emotional well being of each child. It is important to remember that some of our students will test us to see if we can maintain our respectful attitude even after they push our buttons. Never personalize students' remarks or behavior. It is about them and their past school experience. It is not personal. However it does allow us to show them that things can be different in our classrooms. We can break old patterns of behavior. We can treat them and all students with respect even when it is tough. By doing so, we are modeling to the group how to interact in a mature and healing way during difficult times. Always remember that the child who acts like they need approval the least is the one who needs it the most.

While it is very important to set firm and consistent limits at the beginning of the school year, it is also important to shape the desired behavior of the class. Catch them being good. Focus on the positive while redirecting the negative. Reinforce the good behaviors. Class discussions should highlight the good behavior rather that the bad. Some teachers punish students by giving lunch detention for behavioral infractions. Why not reward good behavior instead by inviting those who are on the right track to eat lunch in the classroom with you? This communicates that the good behavior is more valuable to you. Students don't have to act out to get your attention. It also gives you a chance to get to know your students better. Celebrate good behavior in your classroom. This will communicate clearly to your students that good behavior is valued. If we say that good behavior is our goal, yet harp on bad behavior, we are giving the students a mixed message.

We can make curriculum choices that help create a classroom community. Grouping and teaming activities create a bond between students in all subject areas. Bibliotherapy is a wonderful technique that allows students to explore life experiences through fictional characters. There are several excellent books that incorporate the theme of community. Swimmy, by Leo Lioni, shows students why working together as a team is so important. The Goodness Gorillas by Lisa McCourt shows the power that can be generated when a group of kids work together towards a common goal Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan portrays the uneasiness, vulnerability, and anxiety experienced by children as they get to know a new and significant adult in their lives. Selecting literature that parallels the building of the classroom community offers children a chance to use fiction to explore the concept in a non-threatening way through story book characters. By studying how fictional characters feel and deal with similar life experiences, students can examine their own personal experience and add to their repertoire of behavioral responses. Making connections with families is also a priority at the beginning of the school year. Families have valuable information about our students. They are our students' first teachers. They know what has worked in the past and what needs to be addressed. They know our students better than we do and we need their input to develop the most successful learning program for our students. When the school and the home are working together, anything is possible. Reach out to the families and let them know they are important. Let your first communication to them be a positive one. Don't wait to call them about a negative experience. Instead, share a funny story. Compliment a well done homework assignment. Let them know that their children are important and that you recognize their efforts.

If we focus on positive behaviors and build a trusting, respectful relationship with our students, we are ensuring a successful school year for our students and for ourselves. We are allowing them an opportunity to grow and made academic accomplishments in a safe environment. We are showing them that schools are a place where anything and everything is possible. This knowledge might make a huge and significant difference in the lives of your students. It might give them hope and perseverance when times are tough in the future. It could encourage your students to take educational risks and to become enthusiastic about learning.

This is Mary's fourth article on behavior management for Pencil Points! She is a special education teacher in Staten Island, NY. She is currently teaching learning disabled, junior high school students. Her experience includes teaching elementary school aged emotionally disturbed children. She has also taught at an in-patient psychiatric hospital setting for adolescents in grades 6 through 12.
Please visit her class website at

For specific tips on effective behavior management, visit the section on Classroom Management and Discipline on our Tips Page.

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