If your students think the answer is THEM, you might be doing something RIGHT.
Recently on the playground, a child asked to get a drink and I overheard his friend mutter, “Man, teachers get to make ALL the decisions around here.” I couldn’t help but laugh, but at the same time, I wondered if that child understood just how much control students have over how a classroom is run. After all, the teacher’s decision whether or not to let the child go inside to the water fountain was based largely on the student’s behavior: could he be trusted to walk in the hallways, refrain from splashing, and come quietly back outside?
Whether the teacher is conscious of it or not, students have a great deal of influence on how the day goes. When teachers recognize this fact, and show kids the power of their influence on how the classroom is run, a profound transformation can take place in which kids learn to self-regulate.
Here’s an excerpt from my book The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable about how to make a clear connection between the way STUDENTS behave and the way YOU behave:
Students’ cooperation or lack thereof has a remarkable effect on both the direction and outcome of a lesson. The problem is that children don’t realize the power of their influence unless you point it out to them. Students must be led to understand that when they follow the rules, you smile a lot, you give them privileges and additional freedom, and you trust them with fun activities. Similarly, they must learn that when they don’t contribute to an orderly classroom, you have no choice but to pull in the reins. This must be taught EXPLICITLY at first—students do not automatically make the connection between what they do and what you do! And once you’ve taught them that their behavior affects how the classroom is run, you must reinforce this understanding throughout the day by responding CONSISTENTLY to behavioral infractions.
Teaching students about the connection between their behavior and yours is a relatively simple matter of pointing it out. When students play around while lining up, say with a disappointed face, “Well, I guess you’re not ready. Have a seat, please. When it’s quiet, I’ll line you back up again.” When students look unhappy, say, “I know, it makes me unhappy, too. I don’t want to be late for lunch, either. The people who were playing around are causing me to miss my lunch time, too! But this is what I have to do when students misbehave, because I want them to learn to make good choices.” When students do line up correctly the next time, let them see how the right decisions also influenced the way things happen in the classroom by saying, “Wow! Almost every single person got right to their spot and didn’t say a word! I’m so impressed! See how fast and easy that was? We’re actually going to have an extra minute for our lunchtime because we didn’t have to wait around on anyone!”
Another conversation I have from time to time with my kids is about their behavior during projects and hands-on activities. If they start off well, I reinforce their behavior by saying, “Teachers don’t like using manipulatives when kids play around, talk to people, ignore directions, and get lazy during clean up. Those behaviors make teachers say, forget it! But when I see you all following along with me, using the materials the right way, listening to what I’m saying…that makes me want to use manipulatives with you all of the time. The more you behave like this when we do special projects, the more projects we’ll do.”
Students need to see privileges for what they are, and work for them. But they will only put forth effort if they believe it will impact the outcome. Conversations like the ones above have a tremendous effect on my students. When I say, “Today we’re going to use fraction tiles,” immediately five or six kids say, “Oh, thank you, Ms. Powell!” The whole class sits up straight and folds their hands automatically. They know from experience that I’ll only give them a few chances before saying, “You all aren’t showing me that this is something you want to do. You’re doing your own thing and you’re not trying to learn. Please put the materials back in their bag. I’m going to give you a page in your workbook to do instead. If you are responsible with that, then maybe we’ll try again tomorrow with the manipulatives.”
When students understand that their behavior impacts the way the classroom is run, they will be more motivated to cooperate with the routines and rules you’ve put in place. They will demonstrate a more positive attitude toward you and a willingness to work together with their classmates toward a common goal. They will show gratitude for the little things you allow them to do, and will think carefully about how to show you they are responsible and ready for additional privileges.
How do you empower students to make responsible choices in the classroom? Do you have students earn the use of certain instructional strategies, and if so, do you explain that decision to students? What do you do to convince children that they have control and influence over the way they experience life each day?