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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Documenting Classroom Management

Education schools and professional development consultants have become fond of reward-based classroom management schemes. Most often these schemes rely on some sort of token economy, in which students earn or lose tokens based on their behavior. Later, students buy a reward with their accumulated tokens. In spite of the reams of research opposing extrinsic reward schemes, almost every teacher has a jar of marbles on their desk, or a rack of colored cards on the wall, or something.

The fact is token economies do work, at least in the short term. In some schools, getting through the day is all that matters anyway. Never mind loftier goals of helping students develop self discipline and satisfaction in their own learning, and countering the pervasive what's-in-it-for-me motivation. Problem is, extrinsic rewards lose force after just a few weeks. Furthermore, students have been known to turn the tables and begin blackmailing the teacher with threats to misbehave unless they get a reward. Then there is always the student who tests the scheme by creating a nothing-to-lose situation because any hope of reward has already been forfeited through misbehavior.

An even more vexing problem for teachers is the lack of administrative support. It is not fair, but administrators view a student in the office as a demonstration of teacher's lack classroom management skill. Calling parents is fraught with its own perils, especially since it is often a last resort. Teachers need a plan that answers all three concerns: promoting intrinsic motivation within students, securing administrative support, and avoiding calls of frustration to parents.

When teachers talk about making learning fun, they are hoping to tap into intrinsic motivation. Fun is only one type of intrinsic motivator, and possibly the least valuable, because it is easily converted into short attention spans, sound bites, and a desire for constantly new stimuli. There are other intrinsic motivators, deeper and more sustaining, such as those meeting the hierarchy of needs. Learning is accompanied by two drives, the drive to improve one's own knowledge and competency, and the drive to prove that competency to others. The first is intrinsic, and the one schools claim to promote. The second is extrinsic and the one schools actually promote through endless testing.

But I begin to digress. The point is classroom management should promote intrinsic rewards, in this case, disciplining of one's self.

First: Set Expectations

Instead of a long list of rules, most experts recommend focusing on the three most important to you, the teacher. Pick the three things that peeve you the most. It is not as if school were some other planet. Students (except the very youngest who may still be learning) already know the rules of socially acceptable and respectful behavior. The kid who disrupts because supposedly class is so boring sits quietly through an even more boring church sermon. The science teacher should probably be the only teacher with a list of rules longer than three because safety issues with equipment and supplies may be involved.

Second: Post Consequences

Think through your three most important rules and the consequences of infraction. Of course, natural consequences are the most effective, but school is not necessarily a natural situation. Be sure you choose consequences you have the will and the power to implement. Avoid decisions on the fly which students may consider open to negotiation. Of course, you will listen to students, but you will not be manipulated. You, the teacher, are the one with legal responsibility for students' safety and well-being. They are responsible for their behavior, not you.

Third: Follow Through Calmly assign consequences as soon as violations occur. Minimize warnings. For the most part, students were warned that first day when you detailed the rules and the consequences. Ignore the whining for second chances. Remember the three F's: Be fair, be firm, be friendly. You want to build a reputation for saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Keep records of what you do.

The following is sample record-keeping form suitable for secondary students:


Student Name______________________ School Year _____________

Teacher _______________________________

This student's behavior has been disturbing the class. Specifically, the problem is:

As the classroom teacher, I have taken the following steps:

Step 1: LUNCHTIME DETENTION was assigned for __date____________. The
student (came) (on time) (late) (did not come). I discussed the problem with the student and reiterated future consequences.

Step 2: A SECOND LUNCHTIME DETENTION with written parent notification was held
_____date_______. I again discussed the problem with the student.

Step 3: A FORMAL TEACHER/STUDENT CONFERENCE was held on _____date_____.
I again discussed the problem with the student and warned that further misbehavior would result in an office referral. Student signed a memorandum of the meeting.

Step 4: PARENT PHONE CONTACT was made on ______date_______. I advised the parent of the problem and the steps taken thus far. The parent's support was requested.

Step 5: THE PROBLEM PERSISTS. Therefore, I am referring this student to the office.

Date: ____________ Time: ___________

Teacher Signature: _____________________

Features of the Classroom Management Form

All students received a detailed explanation of the due process the first day of school. I hold my detentions in my room at the very beginning of the lunch period BEFORE getting their lunch. They must come empty-handed. Lunch is prime social time that most students do not want to miss. Lunch time detention avoids many of the problems inherent with office-administered after-school detentions. I have students stand at casual attention, not leaning on anything for ten, only ten, silent minutes. If they utter a single word, even so much as “Is it time yet?,” they get another five minutes. Another word and they get detention the next day. Thus detention is never any more than fifteen minutes long.

I send a note home (by mail, not with the student) any time a student is assigned a second detention for the same problem. Students appreciate that the first time is “just between the two of us. Neither your parents nor the school need ever know.” I do not wait for issues to escalate before bringing the parents on board. Parents' number one complaint is that the teacher never informed them or did not inform them early “when we could have done something about it at home” whether they would have done anything or not. If I get around to step 4, the call to parents, it is not a cold call. They received a heads-up at step 2. Furthermore, the call is not made out of frustration, but part of an orderly due process.

I never assign more than two detentions. If you actually ever have to refer a student to the office, you have a complete record of the steps you took. You have documented a calm, competent approach that demonstrates you did not resort to office referral out of frustration. Make sure you do not send your only copy with the student. I start the file with the first detention and make a copy if and when I get to Step 4. The method I have outlined has worked well for me. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually had to send a student to the office. In fact, I rarely assigned even a second detention to any student.

Feel free to adapt the form to your own situation and personality.


  1. I really, really love all your insights. You actually outline very specifically what works -- which is pretty much the opposite of what I was taught in college and classroom management books, all the advice which has previously failed me. I especially like your advice to provide no warning, because you are correct that students already know how to behave, if for no other reason than that you told them at the beginning of the year. I beg for seasoned teachers to share advice on how they manage the classroom, and they say, "I don't know; I mean, if I have to, I'll use my mean voice and kids know I mean business," or something similarly vague. It's very unhelpful. I think the days of extrinsic motivation, which I resented from the get-go, have been realized for the educational trend that they were (at least by me). Even kids know they're not helpful. Besides which, these reward systems cost teachers money and take time to tally points and reward prizes, etc.-- time that should instead be used to show students how great it feels to improve your body of knowledge and your skill set simply for the sake of growing as a human being. Thank you for much more specific help than I got from my former administrator: "Ya can't be their friend."

  2. Thank you for your kind words. It might interest you to know I regularly receive negative evaluations from education students for passing on just this kind of advice (and more) because I am the seasoned veteran who should be passing on the benefits of my experience.

    And why do I get down-rated? Students who down rate me says it is because I am opinionated, and they are right as you can tell from this essay.