Classroom Management Based on Trust

Throw away the trinkets and build your classroom community

  • Grades: 3–5

Teacher Pop Quiz: How do your kids handle a substitute?

a) They're wonderful with a substitute and my students eagerly share their news of excellent behavior with me when I return. This action is then rewarded through some measure or behavior system (e.g., marble jar, stickers, points toward a PJ party).

b) My class is great for me, but they are horrible with a substitute. I dread the note on return and usually have to deduct points of some sort for their actions.

c) My class is rowdy with me and even rowdier with a substitute. I'd rather come in sick!

d) Things run as usual. The substitute leaves a note that the class was very helpful and the room is clean. There are a few notes from your kids wishing you well (if you were sick), and the usual routines are completed (e.g., tomorrow's date on the board, pencils sharpened, vacuuming, etc.) There are no "rewards" given to the students when you return, just a gracious and authentic "I can always count on you" during your morning meeting together.

Let's see what your answer may reveal!

If you selected:

a/b) Be cautious that students may be working on a punishment/reward system. Think of your children at home (if you have any) and ask yourself if you would want your kid(s) to be good only in return for something (or worse, only when you are looking-eek).

c) You may be new to the profession and/or you are still working on classroom management. That's okay! Perhaps you are reading through Harry Wong's book on procedures and rules.

d) With no reward system in place, you can feel pretty confident that your kids are good because it's based on mutual respect and trust. They want to please you because they know how much you care for them. It's a reciprocal relationship.

If you answered A, B, or C and you would like to throw your treasure box and trinkets away, read on. You may be disappointed though. I don't have a magic, cookie-cutter "program" to offer you. If you answered D, please share your methods of success!

My "Management" System Based on Trust: Throw Away the Trinkets!

Pros: Free, intrinsically rewarding, no treasure boxes to keep up with

Cons: Time and follow-ups

I really struggled with writing about this topic at all because: a) I don't have a formula and, b) I don't think "my way" is the only way. But it has been something my teacher visitors ask me over and over again. "How do you get them to..." or, "How does everyone know how to..." It also happens to be one of the few questions I struggle with answering, so bear with me on my reflection with you now. What I do may not work in your room, but I am really trying to share my world with you this year.

Reflection Point #1: My Parenting Style

What does that have to do with anything, right? Stick with me for a moment. I am an Alfie Kohn fan. If you have read Punished By Rewards, then you know where I am going with this. I just can't bring myself to work under a reward/punishment system. When I found out I was pregnant with my son, Eli, for example, this was a deeply discussed topic with my husband. I did not want to "manage" my child through bribes, stickers, and food. I feel the same way about the students in my classroom. Alfie Kohn argues against it, as well as eloquently fights back against the normal rhetoric for rewards (e.g., our culture works on this sort of system).

So, for example, when Eli's room gets messy, we discuss why we need him to clean up. We don't tell him and we don't bribe him. We don't yell. We just explain that we really need some help, as we have a full load of responsibilities already (e.g., laundry, dishes, trash). My husband says I am a master at explaining the "why" so that it makes sense. I share all this because it goes back to my roots. I work this way in and out of the classroom. And it just happens to work in and out of the classroom as well. Which reminds me. The "momma" look. Don't be afraid to use it.

Reflection Point #2 Charisma

At the beginning of the school year I always have one or two students that worry me. A whole year with them?!? I just don't think I am going to make it my first two weeks! And every single year the same conversation plays out with my husband about two weeks into the school year.

Me: This group just doesn't get it. They are off-task, have trouble following directions, and they even ask, "Do we have to do this?" Can you believe that? I really miss last year's class. They were so good.

My husband (rolling his eyes): Angela, you do this every year. And you said the same thing about your group last year...

Me (interrupting): No I didn't! That was the best class! Everyone was really good.

My husband: Okay, let me refresh your memory for you...

At this point, my husband truly impresses me with his recollection of who was not doing what and how things were not as rosy as I had imagined them in the beginning. He always ends his speech with, "I told you I listen," and I always wonder about my horrible, selective memory at that point.

So with that in mind, I realize that it is okay to resist the urge to call the parents about those precious kiddos during the first two or three weeks. Most likely, the parent(s) has/have heard the same speech since kindergarten with no improvements, and it sets a rocky tone for the year. It is with a "If it is to be, it is up to me" approach that I work my magic by authentically trying to connect with that student. For one student this year, it was his capability to write really (really) funny stories. For another student, its his honest talent for math. You just find that one thing that makes them really special and go for it. And it sure doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor either (just be careful with being sarcastic). They seem to be under my spell after that. And I feel silly two months into the school year about considering that phone call in the first place. The key is that it has to be authentic. When someone feels valued, they work harder. Great results for free.

Reflection #3 Understanding the Big Picture

I don't know if I can successfully write about this, but I am really good about seeing the "big picture" when it comes to my students. I see their future. I see what they can become. I can also see what's important and when to pick my battles. When I see something that bothers me, I know that it is something that merits bothering me. From a student not focusing while reading to a student not putting effort into their work, I don't give marks or take away recess. I am truly bothered and want to help that student out. From the simple, "Hey, I am worried that you're not reading as deeply during workshop time," each worry warrants the ultimate level of respect and care for each student. I also try to incorporate a "how can I help you?" approach, whenever possible. Giving a mark doesn't solve the problem...and if it does, it is simply based on fear. That's just not my cup of tea.

Did I mention that I am an outside the box person? This has been a blessing because I understand the outside the box potential in my class. There are kids in my room right now that are going to do great and wonderful things as adults, and it's the ones that don't fit under the "normal" range that will go on to make the greatest impact in our society. The quiet, straight "A" student may be well equipped for a desirable job in the future, but what does a future entrepreneur look like in 4th grade? Maybe I am weird thinking this, but I don't want to squish that future potential. In other words, I am flexible and understand that all walks of life enter my room. Each person is a unique individual. You can't take that away from them. My comedian that cracks up the class might be the next Chris Rock. My talker might be the next radio talk host. You get the point. If it isn't taking away from academics or others, I can overlook a few things once in a while.

Management Tips You Can Take Back to Your Room

Expectations

Put Yourself into the Mix

The photo above is a good example of how I "manage" things. I put myself into the mix. If, for example, I want students to focus and read deeply during the workshop time, what do they expect of me? I let the students tell me their expectations for full accountability. In the above case, they said they didn't want me checking my email (I have a 3 minute clause for emergencies), they don't want me to talk to other teachers, and they expect me to speak at a whisper level at all times. The list has grown on my side, when a student complained about my noisy high heels (I have back-up sandals now). And you can bet, with my accountability being held highly I can have the same level of expectations for my students. After all, they created the chart and explained why each expectation is needed.

Incident Reports

Maybe it's just me, but my students LOVE to tell me about their concerns during transition times. It goes something like this, "Mrs. Bunyi, Jasper is bothering me." I can't give more than a second as we are lining up to go to related arts, but who's to know if this is a serious case of bullying or if Jasper is simply tapping his pencil on his desk? My worst concern is that the child will go home and say I did nothing to help the situation. From here the incident report was born. I have students' record any concerns they have on this form and keep it in a notebook for the year. It includes the date, witnesses, where the incident occurred, what they did, and how they believe the situation should be handled. I then take the report and use recess time to give the situation the time it deserves. Having all events recorded helps me see patterns, allows me to stop the true tattle-tellers, and aides me when I do have to take the situation to the office (e.g., Jasper has had 5 different reports from different students with the same issue).

Recess can be a vital component to building your classroom community and avoiding discipline concerns overall.

I utilize this time to subtly address any concerns I may have in the classroom, from the minuscule to the serious. I just find the student as we take a walk to the playground and strike up a conversation. I keep the tone casual with, "How's it going?" or, "Did you say you were starting karate classes?" before addressing a concern such as, "I've noticed you haven't been getting along with Will recently. Do you know why, and is there any way I can help you out?" Using this approach leads right to the issue at hand, but allows the student to see me as someone who can help the situation, not punish them. I have found a much higher degree of success and respect when I am talking casually with a student one on one sitting on a playground bench rather than giving marks and taking recess away. I do this because I worry that giving marks and taking recess time is like a band-aid. It's not really explaining how the cut got there in the first place. And I still expect the best from every student. I just trust that my respect to each student is mutually granted back to me and others in return.

Replace the Treasure Box: Personal notes and words of kindness

I don't have any trinkets or treasure boxes in my room. It's less of a hassle keeping up with stickers or treasure boxes when you genuinely want to thank a student for starting to put care into their work after having a talk the previous week. The time to talk to your students grants you the gift of really appreciating the improvements you see because you really know your students as individuals. A simple thank you card will serve you and your students better than any stickers, trinkets, or certificates could ever do in becoming a better student or person. It might take a second longer to write out a note, but the effects last the year and beyond. The authentic smile of a child opening up a card from you is priceless and parents are really impressed when they see you have taken that extra step to care for their child.

And even if it is not written or for promoting the good you see, I find myself addressing issues/concerns with the phrase, "I care about you," or, "I'm worried about you." I think that language and tone matters. So, as long as it is genuine, you will effortlessly find ways to intrinsically let your students shine and give their best.

Randomly Reward!

I love good surprises. Just for the heck of it. Like last year when it was really cold, I placed a nice hot cup of coco on each child's desk before school started. And yes, I threw in some candy stirrers and marshmallows too. Or I'll just say, "Hey, we need a PJ day." It seems more fun to me that way, and when I provide this upfront, the kids stay happy. I don't want to dangle the carrot along. I just hand the carrot first and know they will appreciate me more and go further knowing this. Which reminds me, I am going to create a PJ day next week. Really. See, I feel better already. :)

FYI: School-Wide Plan

Our school does have a required behavior plan in place. This includes an "R" for unsigned agendas, "T" for inappropriate talking, and "OT" for off-task (amongst a few more). All the consequences and rewards are built-in school-wide, with Character Counts. Be good and get some donuts. I am still adjusting a little, although I love a donut just like everyone else. I do feel assured that I will be supported should some serious concerns arise, so school-wide does provide some security in terms of problems. You might consider this at your school. If you have a school-wide plan, does it work for you?


Q & A With Angela

Q 1: Loved this! Found it through Google looking for anyone taking a stand against a marble jar. Looking forward to reading more! — Pamelamama

A: That is great to hear! I'm imagining your Google search - "No more marbles!" That is funny. Best to you, Angela

Q 2: Hi Angela, I enjoy your blog! I went to Alfie Kohn's page and can't find any specific information about his education. I was also wondering where his research is coming from or is this just his point-of-view? What kind of background or experience has he had, since he doesn't feel this is important to share on his web page? Thanks! — SusanG.

A: I love checking other teacher's websites, and took a peek at yours. It's great! Anyway, here is the copied and pasted background on Kohn. You can find this info on his books as well: Kohn was born and raised in Miami Beach, Florida. He earned a B.A. from Brown University in 1979, having created his own interdisciplinary course of study. He received an M.A. in 1980 from the University of Chicago in the social sciences. He has taught at the high school and college levels in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and currently lives in the Boston area. Keep up the good work on your site! Smiles, Angela

Q 3: It is so refreshing to hear that it is all about trust. As a parent, I never believed in rewarding my son with toys, etc. for good behavior and I certainly wasn't raised that way. Since I have started teaching, I have come to realize that that is all that most teachers do. I do not agree with it and totally feel like it is wrong. A police officer isn't going to say, "I will give you a candy bar if you do not steal one." No, he says, "I am going to read you your rights...." We are teaching our children that they are owed something for good behavior, instead of teaching them the consequences of their bad behavior. I am just so sick of people pushing rewards. Now, when children compete in competitions everyone gets an award. Even for coming in last place, just because it is politically incorrect not to give one to everyone that competed or they are afraid to hurt the child's feelings. You know, if it wasn't for me not getting an award every time that I failed, I would not have such motivation to succeed. Motivation is what keeps America prospering. Competition is what an economy thrives on. If I were to receive an award, I might say, "Why do I care what place I came in? I still got a ribbon." I would have no desire and would never achieve my true potential. When judges give out awards/ribbons to everyone, they might as well as say to the child/person, "It's okay, you don't have to put forth any effort to get an award, because I will give you one anyway." What's the point of the competition, if everyone is a winner?

I was told that research shows that kindergartners respond better to stickers and rewards. Excuse me, I was once a kindergartner and we didn't get a sticker every time we were caught being good. It was expected of us and we did it. It's okay to reward students occasionally, but let's get real. America has gone overboard! My opinion is that they do more harm then good. Where do you draw the line? Anyway, I will get off of my soapbox. I absolutely agree with you and totally love your ideas and can't wait to try them with my kids — especially the thank-you card. Much Respect, Melanie.

A: I enjoyed your soapbox ride. :) I think you would really be interested to read Alfie Kohn's work. In fact, he has a short article I bet you would really enjoy, "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'" It's posted under www.alfiekohn.com. You will see an article link on the side. And I'm happy you are going to try out some of the ideas posted here.
Smiles — Angela

Q 4: I have worked hard to make my class run with or without me. My students have a running calendar. It starts in August and goes through January. There are no surprises. They know what's due and when. They run themselves. I just put up the warm ups. Oh, and do read aloud...though they fight me for that as well! — Jeanne.

A: Good point! I tell my kids that I want to have the kind of trust that if I walk out of the room, things will run as usual...not because they are afraid of the consequences, but because they know it's the right thing to do. I also agree that predictability helps maintain an environment of high trust. That really makes a difference! — Angela.

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