Behavior Management in the Classroom

November 21, 2011

By Joe Semsar, Associate Consultant (MPA '12)

With Thanksgiving revels already on the minds of millions of Americans and the winter holiday season just around the corner, thousands of first-year teachers are jubilant, crossing their fingers in hopes of making it to their first extended break from school. For most teachers, this winter break is a time of rest, and reflection on their first two nine-weeks in the classroom. The hope is that new teachers, too, spend this time thinking through their own pedagogy, considering implementation of new strategies and interventions. However, the reality is that most first-year teachers, unfortunately, use winter break as a time to mull over bettering their in-class behavior management systems.

As a first year teacher in the fall of 2009, I vividly remember what many in the profession had coined “Black October.” The token month for rookie teachers to throw in the towel and leave the profession head in hands. My first October in the classroom had been bleak. I found writing lesson plans -- for seven subjects to engage my thirty-six fourth graders, which ranged in age from nine to fourteen –an extremely difficult endeavor. However, it paled in comparison to the difficulties I, along with the rest of my fellow first-year teachers, had in managing students’ behavior. So, when I finally pulled my Halloween mask off and stared into November and December, I was holding on for dear life.

Regrettably, when most educational reform experts debate problem areas in schools, the issue of behavior management is rarely discussed.  Though, any first year teacher would tell you that managing students’ behavior is paramount. It has become the elephant in the room education reformist seem not to notice. Teacher turnover, teacher pay, teacher experience, technology, expenditure per pupil, socio economic status of students, and the proportion of minority students always seem to fall into the hodge-podge of what has become our “key components” for consideration in the education reform debate.

These issues are factors in fostering positive behavior in schools, but if you analyze the underprivileged schools that are outperforming their expectations you will begin to notice a common thread. Students are engaged in classroom instruction, and behavior management doesn’t seem to be an issue. Many of the low-income, under resourced schools, charter and public, that experience great academic successes, have the make-up of typically failing schools: high turnover, freshman teachers, large percentages of students on free and reduced lunch, and a lack of technology/school resources. So, what’s their magical solution?

These schools have implemented extremely structured behavior systems -- which their teachers thoroughly understand -- that break down what is and what is not acceptable in terms of student conduct. By setting high behavior expectations and creating a system that students understand, administrative figures move from the revolving door of discipline problems to entering teachers’ doors to observe instruction and provide critical feedback.

Many schools combine positive behavior incentive systems with conduct contracts to curb bad behavior. This combination builds classroom structures in which teachers can move from using carrots and sticks to incentivize good behavior to fostering intrinsic motivation within students by educating them about the empowerment accompanied with a quality education. To create institutions that give our youth the education they deserve, we must set out on a journey to determine the promising practices for dealing with behavior management, and then begin to implement these systems district-wide.  The cascade of behavior referrals in our lowest performing schools is alarming. In order to return our teachers to teaching instead of behavioral hawks with their heads constantly on a swivel seeking out the next problem child, we must begin to adopt the behavior strategies that are working.

Thus, in hopes of finding solutions to behavioral issues that leave schools in pandemonium, I plan to set out on a journey to interview students, parents, teachers and principals in the Philadelphia community to figure out what systems and instruments are succeeding in creating positive, safe learning cultures in our city’s schools. Stay tuned for this mini-series titled “Returning Teaching to Teachers.”

Associate Consultants are graduate students at the Fels Institute of Government. In addition to their work with Fels, Associate Consultants are completing their Master of Public Administration degrees.

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