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Being a Classroom Manager

by Sarah Hruska Olson Olson.Sarah@MacPhail.org

Some teachers are instinctive classroom managers.  From the very start, they know how to lead a group and manage Hitane Elementary School classroom 2student behavior.  Unfortunately, I was not one of these people.  It took me several years to develop effective classroom management skills.  Although I am always still learning, I now feel much more confident about my ability to create a positive classroom environment and to respond to misbehavior effectively.  One of the best tools I have is the power of language.

I have always loved words.  Poetry, story telling and speech rhythms are always incorporated into my general music classes as springboards for musical creativity.  However, I did not intuitively understand the important principles of effective teacher language.  By observing other teachers, learning from my own experiences, and attending Responsive Classroom Level 1 training, I have improved my use of effective language in the general music classroom. Here are some things that I have come to understand over time:

  1. Be short, direct, and specific when redirecting a student’s behavior.  No matter how progressive and child-centered we are as educators, there are many times when we must give children non-negotiable instructions.  Avoid the temptation to go into explanation or discussion mode when you are giving these kinds of directions.  For example, “sit down” is better than “I would rather that you come and sit in one spot in the circle instead of wandering around the room, since it is distracting.”  Short, specific instructions make it clear that you are not actually offering a choice.
  1. When you set expectations for behavior, make sure everyone knows what you are talking about.  Many teachers refer to the concept of “respect.”  It takes concrete examples for children to understand all of the aspects of respectful interaction with others.  Take time to help students recognize what respectful, kind behavior looks like, sounds like, and feels like.  For instance, many of my students think it is important to have privacy when they have been told to sit in the “take a break” chair.  Other students spoke about the importance of not being laughed at when they make a mistake, especially if they are singing or playing a solo in front of the group.  I posted these student generated guidelines about respect and kindness in my music room at Paideia Academy, (one of my MacPhail partnerships.)  We also take time to visually model the behavior that we have described verbally.  If you are teaching in another teacher’s classroom, ask the students where the classroom rules are posted.  Read the rules out loud and ask students for a few brief explanations of the rules.  If you need to set your own rules that are not included in the classroom rules, take the time to make sure students understand them.  For my youngest students, I made a small picture chart of our music class rules.  If you use procedures like the Responsive Classroom “Take a break,” take the time to have a student model the procedure.
  1. Ask for what you want, not what you don’t want.  I am still working on remembering this one.  For instance, whistling is a pet peeve of mine.  Yet when I say, “I should not hear any whistling,” it is common for at least one student to respond by whistling and then covering his or her mouth sheepishly.  The truth is that we are all susceptible to suggestion.  It would be much better to say, “We need a sound level of zero right now.”  It is also important to model only the behavior you want.  My Responsive Classroom trainer suggested asking the most challenging student in the class to model how to take a break correctly.  I have found this method to be very effective.  Children enjoy showing how to do something correctly.  When I ask for volunteers to model how to take a break, almost every hand in the class goes up.
  1. Guide students with reminding language and reinforce students with specific praise.  When my young students are playing a xylophone ostinato to accompany a song, I have to remind them several beats in advance that the song will end so that they will remember to stop.  In the same way, it is good to use reminding language shortly before a transition time.  For instance, “I am going to sing the circle song as you walk into the room.  Remember that you can sing with me or just walk quietly to your circle spot.  You should be in your spot by the end of the song.”  Make your praise for successful behavior improvement as specific as possible.  Most students prefer to hear this type of praise privately.  “Julia, I notice that you are doing so much better at keeping your hands to yourself today.  I only had to remind you one time for the whole class period.”  Students who are always on task love to be told aside from the group that you have noticed them and appreciated their hard work.  Praise in front of the whole group should be for the whole group or for a group of students.  In Responsive Classroom training we were cautioned to guard against manipulating children with praise by singling out one student in front of the group in order to influence the other students’ behavior.
  1. Explain logical consequences for misbehavior in advance and follow through as needed.  Check in advance with the administrators and staff at your teaching sites to find out what kinds of consequences are used by school staff and what options are available for you to use.  A logical consequence should relate back to correcting the original misbehavior.  If you are at a teaching site for only a short time, it may be necessary to ask the regular school staff to help with the follow through of these consequences.  Once students understand the logical consequences for their behavior choices, it is better to take action than to threaten a consequence or to give too many warnings or reminders.  I have a soft heart, so I have to remind myself not to give students too many chances before I enforce a consequence.  In the long run, taking quick action to enforce logical consequences will help students to build better self- control.  Endless warnings or “take a break” for the same misbehavior can actually make students more angry or anxious than swift enforcement of consequences.
  1. Classroom teachers and parents are wonderful resources for positive language cues.  When I say the words, “body check” to Mr. Jeremy’s squirming Kindergarten class, they magically sit up in their circle spots and refocus their attention.  The reason this happens is because of time Mr. Jeremy has already spent working on body control with his students.  By using the same language that the classroom teacher uses, I am able to help students transfer their self-control skills to a different teacher!  Parents of challenging students and students with special needs can also teach you valuable words and phrases to use with individual children. 
  1. Don’t forget about tone of voice and body language.  Getting louder doesn’t work.  Give a quiet signal before you start talking to the group and insist having it completely quiet while you are speaking or while individual students are speaking to the group.  Make sure your body language is authoritative yet calm and welcoming.  Maybe all of these things come easily to some people.  I have had to work on them consciously over many years. 
  1. Words can hurt but words can also repair.  If a student punched you in the nose because he was having a terrible day, it would not be anything personal against you.  However, your nose would still hurt a lot.  In the same way, words can hurt us even when we know that we shouldn’t take them personally.  Sometimes children or their parents say things that truly hurt our feelings.  I have decided that it is emotionally honest and healthy to acknowledge this pain to oneself.  The good news is that you also get to take the good words personally.  Save the cards and drawings that students make for you.  Print out the kind e-mails from parents and colleagues.  Save the glowing course evaluations you receive.  It is good to have concrete written reminders of your value to others when you are having a rough moment.  For me, taking positive words to heart has been the best way to move on from hurt feelings about negative words.  By recognizing the emotional power of words, I also feel that I can empathize with my students and help guide them to choose the language they need to express themselves to their peers.      

 Photo credit: By Douglas P Perkins (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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