I received a question about this topic through the anonymous form for Ask Angela Anything, and I thought it was such a common issue that I’d address it in its own post. KM writes:
Usually my grade 3 students are very well behaved when I am teaching them, but if they go to specials, they are very misbehaved. How can I help them to have more consistent behaviour? Am I being too authoritarian? Or do I need to be more strict?
I have totally been in your position so many times, and I know it’s incredibly frustrating. I kind of expected it on days when my kids were a little crazy in the classroom. But there were also days when my students spent the entire morning focused and on-task, and then when I picked them up from art or music or the library, I’d hear a huge list of complaints about everything from disrespectful behavior to not following the rules to physical altercations.
While I sympathized with the specials teachers and was glad they told me about the problem, I did find the situation awkward. Ignoring it would undermine the teacher’s complaint and send the message to my students that I didn’t care how they behaved at specials. But I was not comfortable giving students a consequence for something they did while they were not under my care and authority.
Usually I’d end up giving my sternest teacher look to the class while listening to the teacher’s report, and then talk with the student(s) involved while walking the class back to our room. After all, there wasn’t much else I could do after the fact. But, I discovered there was quite a bit I could do pro-actively to prevent the problem from re-occurring, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.
Let’s start by looking at this from the kids’ perspective. Most students view specials classes as a break from regular learning. That’s not true, of course, but it’s how they see it. They’ve been in their regular classroom for a very long period of time and expected to focus, concentrate, and stay on task throughout that time. When they’re finally allowed to move down the hallway, they release all that pent-up energy, and continue doing so during PE, art, music, etc. In many students’ minds, it’s not necessary to sit still and listen to the teacher until “real” learning takes place again back in their own classroom with their “real” teacher.
Being mindful of your students’ perspective on specials will keep you from getting aggravated. It will also help you make good decisions about how to structure your class time. It took me forever to figure this out, but eventually I realized I was likely to get a bad report from the specials teacher when I had administered tests during the morning, or assigned otherwise unengaging tasks that involved lots of sitting still and being quiet. So if you can, plan those less active lessons for the days students have PE or other specials that permit them to move around, and on the days when students will need to concentrate during specials, try to plan more hands-on activities in your classroom beforehand.
You can coordinate this with certain specials teachers if they repeatedly have issues with your students. You could say, “I’m so sorry my students have been giving you trouble lately. I’m wondering if they’re spending too much time sitting before I drop them off. Can you give me a heads-up first thing in the morning if the kids will need to sit and listen quietly for the whole specials period, or do mostly paper and pencil work while they’re with you? I’ll try to make sure they get to move around in my room beforehand. If nothing else, we can do a few stretches and brain breaks to help them get the wiggles out before I drop them off.” If the specials teacher is unwilling or unable to do this, you can automatically incorporate those movement opportunities into your instruction on the days your students will be attending that special.
If a particular teacher has a hard time handling your class or certain students in your class, talk with him or her about it when the kids aren’t around. You could say, “I know __ can be challenging sometimes. One thing I’ve tried in my classroom with him/her is ___. I’ve also tried ___ and sometimes that works, too.” Find out what kind of routines and behavior management/reward systems the teacher is using, and share what has worked in your room. You can also offer to stay and observe your students during specials: you might be able to recommend that certain kids not sit near each other, or you may able to spot attention seeking behaviors or other sneaky things kids try to get away with when the adult in charge doesn’t know them well. Having an open dialogue about the situation can provide the other teacher with helpful suggestions and shows that you’re taking his or concerns seriously.
Ultimately, though, you cannot control how your students behave when you’re not around. It’s up to each individual teacher to set, model, practice, and reinforce expectations for his or her classroom. Don’t put yourself on a guilt trip about something that happened while another teacher was in charge.
Your job is to build a strong sense of community, respect, and personal responsibility in your students while they’re in your classroom. Often, those qualities will be reflected in your class even when they’re not in your room. The key to getting students to behave appropriately no matter where they’re at is teaching them to make wise decisions for themselves and exercise self-control rather than depending on teacher control. Obviously that’s not something you can accomplish in just ten months with every single student, but it’s a goal you can strive for as a school community, and you can work with your specials teachers as much as possible to help nurture those qualities in your students.