Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 7: Classroom Management and the Learning Environment/Responding to Misbehavior
Responding to Student Misbehavior
So far we have focused on preventing behaviors that are off-task, inappropriate, or annoying. Our advice has all been pro-active or forward-looking: plan the classroom space thoughtfully, create reasonable procedures and rules, pace lessons and activities appropriately, and communicate the importance of learning clearly. Although we consider these ideas to be important, it would be naïve to imply they are enough to prevent all behavior problems. For various reasons, students sometimes still do things that disrupt other students or interrupt the flow of activities. At such moments the challenge is not about long-term planning but about making appropriate, but prompt responses. Misbehaviors left alone can be contagious, a process educators sometimes call the ripple effect (Kounin, 1970). Chatting between two students, for example, can gradually become chatting among six students; rudeness by one can eventually become rudeness by several; and so on. Because of this tendency, delaying a response to inappropriate behavior can make the job of getting students back on track harder than responding to it as immediately as possible.
There are many ways to respond to inappropriate behaviors, of course, and they vary in how much they focus on the immediate behavior of a student rather than on longer-term patterns of behavior. There are so many ways to respond, in fact, that we can only describe a sampling of the possibilities here. None are effective all of the time, though all do work at least some of the time. We start with a response that may not seem on the surface like a remedy at all—simply ignoring misbehaviors.
A lot of misbehaviors are not important enough or frequent enough to deserve any response from the teacher at all. They are likely to disappear (or extinguish, in behaviorist terms) if simply left alone. If a student who is usually quiet during class happens to whisper to a neighbor once in awhile, it is probably simpler, less disruptive, and just as effective to ignore this rare infraction of a classroom rule. And some misbehaviors may not be worth a response even if they are frequent, as long as they do not seem to bother others. Suppose, for example, that a certain student has a habit of choosing quiet seat work times to sharpen her pencil. Yet this behavior is not really noticed by others. Is it then really a problem, however unnecessary or ill-timed it may be? In both examples ignoring the behavior may be wise because there is little danger of the behavior spreading to other students or of become even more frequent. Interrupting your activities—or the students’—might cause more disruption than simply ignoring the problem.
That said, there can sometimes still be problems in deciding whether a particular misbehavior is indeed minor, infrequent, or unnoticed by others. Unlike in our example above, a student may whisper more than “rarely” but less than “often”: in that case, when do you decide that the whispering is in fact too frequent and needs a more active response from you? Or that student who taps her pencil, whom we mentioned above, may not bother most others, but she may nonetheless bother a few. In that case how many bothered classmates are “too many”—five, three, just one, or…? In these grey, ambiguous cases, you may need a more active way of dealing with an inappropriate behavior, like the ones described in the next sections.
Sometimes it works to communicate using gestures, eye contact, or “body language” that involve little or no speaking. Nonverbal cues are often appropriate if a misbehavior is just a bit too serious or frequent to ignore, but not serious or frequent enough to merit taking the time deliberately to speak to or talk with the student. If two students are chatting off-task for a relatively extended time, for example, sometimes a glance in their direction, a frown, or even just moving closer to the students is enough of a reminder to get them back on task. And even if these responses prove not to be enough, they may help to keep the off-task behavior from spreading to other students.
A risk of relying on nonverbal cues, however, is that some students may not understand their meaning, or even notice them. If the two chatting students mentioned above are too engrossed in their talking, for example, they may not see you glance or frown at them. Or they might notice but not interpret your cue as a reminder to get back on task. Misinterpretation of nonverbal gestures and cues is a little more likely with young children, who are still learning the subtleties of adults’ nonverbal “language” (Guerrero & Floyd, 2005; Heimann, et al., 2006). It can also be more likely with students who speak limited English and whose cultural background differs significantly different from yours, because the students may be used to communicating nonverbally in ways that literally “look different” from the ways familiar to you (Marsh, Elfenbein, & Ambady, 2003).
Natural and Logical Consequences
Consequences are the outcomes or results of an action. When managing a classroom, two kinds of consequences are especially effective, at least when the conditions are appropriate: natural consequences and logical consequences. Natural consequences are ones that happen “naturally” or without any deliberate intention by anyone. If a student is late for class, for example, a natural consequence is that he may miss information or material that he needs to do an assignment. Logical consequences are ones that happen because of the responses of others, but that also have an obvious or “logical” relationship to the original action. If one student steals another’s lunch, for example, a logical consequence might be for the thief to reimburse the victim for the cost of the lunch. Natural and logical consequences are often woven together and thus hard to distinguish: if one student picks a fight with another student, a natural consequence might be injury to the aggressor (a natural risk of fighting), but a logical consequence might to lose friends (the response of others to fighting). In practice both may occur.
In general research has found that natural and logical consequences can be effective for minimizing undesirable behaviors, provided they are applied in appropriate situations (Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, & Curran, 2004). Take, for example, a student who runs impulsively down school hallways. By the very nature of this action, he or she is especially likely to have “traffic accidents,” and thus (hopefully) to see that running is not safe and to reduce the frequency of running. Or think of a student who chronically talks during class instead of working on a class-time assignment. A logical outcome of this choice is to require the student to make up the assignment later, possibly as homework. Because the behavior and the consequence are connected directly, the student is relatively likely to see the drawback of choosing to talk, and to reduce how much he or she talks on subsequent occasions. In both cases, the key features that make natural and logical consequences work is
- that they are appropriate to the misbehavior and
- that the student sees or understands the connection between the consequences and the original behavior.
Notice, though, that natural and logical consequences do not work for every problem behavior; if they did, there would be no further need for management strategies! One limitation is that misbehaviors can sometimes be so serious that no natural or logical consequence seems sufficient or appropriate. Suppose, for example, that one student deliberately breaks another student’s eyeglasses. There may be a natural consequence for the victim (he or she will not be able to see easily), but not for student who broke the glasses. There may also be no logical consequences for the aggressor that are fully satisfactory: the misbehaving student will not be able to repair the broken glasses and may not even be able to pay for new glasses for the victim.
Another limitation of natural and logical consequences is that their success depends on the motives of the misbehaving student. If the student is seeking attention or acceptance by others, then the consequences often work well. Bullying in order to impress others, for example, is more likely to lose friends than to win them—so this sort of bullying is to some extent self-limiting. If a student is seeking power over others, on the other hand, then consequences may not work well. Bullying in order to control others’ actions, for example, may actually achieve its own goal, and its “natural” results (losing friends) would not affect it. And of course, students may sometimes act from combinations of motives, with the result that natural and logical consequences may succeed, but only partially.
A third problem with natural and logical consequences is that they can easily be confused with deliberate punishment (Kohn, 2006). The difference is important. Consequences are focused on repairing damage and restoring relationships, and in this sense consequences focus on the future. Punishments, in contrast, highlight the mistake or wrongdoing and in this sense focus on the past. Consequences tend to be more solution focused; punishments tend to highlight the person who committed the action and to shame or humiliate the wrong doer. (Table 7-2 summarizes these and other differences.)
Classroom examples of the differences are plentiful. If a student is late for class, then a consequence may be that he or she misses important information, but a punishment may be that the teacher scolds or reprimands the student. If a student speaks rudely to the teacher, a consequence may be that the teacher does not respond to the comment, or simply reminds the student to speak courteously. A punishment may be that the teacher scolds the student in the presence of other students, or even imposes a detention (“Stay after school for 15 minutes”).
Conflict Resolution and Problem Solving
When a student misbehaves persistently and disruptively, you will need strategies that are more active and assertive than the ones discussed so far, and that lead to conflict resolution—the reduction of disagreements that persist over time. The conflict resolution strategies that educators and teachers advocate and use usually have two parts (Jones, 2004). First, the strategies involve a way of identifying precisely what “the” problem is. Once this is done, they require reminding the student of classroom expectations and rules without apology or harshness, but with simple clarity and assertiveness. When used together, the clarification and assertion can not only reduce conflicts between a teacher and an individual student, but also provide a model for other students to consider when they have disagreements of their own.
- Step 1: Clarifying and Focusing Problem Ownership: Classrooms can be emotional places even when its primary purpose is to promote “thinking” rather than the expression of feelings as such. The emotional quality can be quite desirable: it can give teachers and students “passion” for learning and respect or even good feelings for each other. But it can also cause trouble if students misbehave: at those moments negative feelings—annoyance, anger, discomfort—can interfere with understanding exactly what went wrong and how to set things right again. But gaining a bit of distance from the negative feelings is exactly those moments need, especially by the teacher, the person with (presumably) the greatest maturity.
- In one widely cited and used approach to conflict resolution called Teacher Effectiveness Training, the educator Thomas Gordon discusses this challenge as a matter of identifying problem ownership: deciding whose problem a behavior or conflict really is (Gordon, 2003). The “owner” of the problem is the primary person who is troubled or bothered by it. The owner can be the student committing the behavior, or the teacher, or another student who merely happens to see the behavior. Since the owner of a problem needs to take responsibility for solving it, ownership makes a difference in how to deal with the behavior or problem effectively.
- Suppose, for example, that a student makes a remark that the teacher finds offensive (like “Fats kids are stupid”). This could be primarily the teacher’s problem because it is mostly the teacher who is bothered by the remark. The student may not believe that anything serious is wrong with the remark. On the other hand, suppose that a different student complains repeatedly that classmates refuse to let him into group projects. This is less likely to be the teacher’s problem than the student’s: the student’s difficulty may affect the student’s ability to do his work, but not really affect the teacher’s ability to do her work. Then again (on the “third” hand?!), a problem may affect several people at once. That student who criticizes “fat kids” may discover that he is offending not only the teacher, but also classmates, who therefore avoid working with him. At that point everyone shares in some aspect of “the” problem: the criticizing student is prevented from doing his group work, and many classmates and the teacher are offended.
- Step 2: Active, Empathetic Listening: Diagnosing accurately who really has a problem with a behavior—who owns it—is helped by a number of strategies. One is active listening—attending carefully to all aspects of what a student says and attempting to understand or empathize with it as fully as possible, even if you do not agree with what is being said (Cooper & Simonds, 2003). Active listening involves asking a lot of questions in order continually to check your understanding. It also involves encouraging the student to elaborate or expand on his or her remarks, and paraphrasing and summarizing what the student has said in order to check your perceptions of what is being said. It is important not to move too fast toward “solving” the problem with advice, instructions, or scolding, even if these are responses that you might, as a teacher, feel responsible for making. Responding too soon in these ways can shut down communication prematurely, and leave you with an inaccurate impression of the source of the problem.
- Step 3: Assertive Discipline and I-Messages: Once you have listened well enough to understand the student’s point of view, it helps to frame your responses and comments in terms of how the student’s behavior affects you as a teacher. The comments should have several features:
- They should be assertive—neither passive and apologetic, nor unnecessarily hostile or aggressive. State what the problem is, as matter-of-factly as possible: “Joe, you are talking while I’m explaining something,” instead of either “Joe, do you think you could be quiet now?” or “Joe, be quiet!”
- The comments should emphasize I-messages, which are comments that focus on how the problem behavior is affecting the teacher’s ability to teach, as well as how the behavior makes the teacher feel. They are distinct from you-messages, which focus on evaluating the mistake or problem which the student has created. An I-message might be, “Your talking is making it hard for me to remember what I’m trying to say.” A you-message might be, “Your talking is rude.”
- The comments should encourage the student to think about the effects of his or her actions on others—a strategy that in effect encourages the student to consider the ethical implications of the actions (Gibbs, 2003). Instead of simply saying, “When you cut in line ahead of the other kids, that was not fair to them,” you can try saying, “How do you think the other kids feel when you cut in line ahead of them?”
- Step 4: Negotiation: The steps so far describe ways of interacting that are desirable, but also fairly specific in scope and limited in duration. In themselves they may not be enough when conflict persists over time and develops a number of complications or confusing features. A student may persist, for example, in being late for class, in spite of diverse efforts by the teacher to modify this behavior. Two students may persist in speaking rudely to each other, even though the teacher has mediated this conflict in the past. Or a student may fail to complete homework, time after time. Because these problems develop over time, and because they may involve repeated disagreements between teacher and student, they can eventually become stressful for the teacher, for the student, and for any classmates who may be affected. Their persistence can tempt a teacher simply to announce or dictate a resolution—a decision that may simply leave everyone feeling defeated, including the teacher.
- Often in these situations it is better to negotiate a solution, which means systematically discussing options and compromising on one if possible. Negotiation always requires time and effort, though usually not as much as continuing to cope with the original problem, and the results can be beneficial to everyone. A number of experts on conflict resolution have suggested strategies for negotiating with students about persistent problems (Davidson & Wood, 2004). The suggestions vary in detail, but usually include some combination of the steps we have already discussed above, along with a few others.
- Decide as accurately as possible what the problem is—Usually this step involves a lot of the active listening described above.
- Brainstorm possible solutions, and then consider their effectiveness—Remember to include students in this step; otherwise you are simply imposing a solution on others, which is not what negotiation is supposed to achieve.
- Choose a solution, if possible by consensus—Complete agreement on the choice may not be possible, but strive for it as best you can. Remember that taking a vote may be a democratic, acceptable way to settle differences in many situations. If feelings are running high, however, voting has an ironic by-product: it simply allows individuals to “announce” their differences to each other and therefore maintain the conflict.
- Pay attention later to how well the solution works—For many reasons, things may not work out the way you or the students hope or expect, and you may need to renegotiate the solution at a later time.
- Kounin, J. (1970). Discipline and group management in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Guerrero, L. & Floyd, K. (2005). Nonverbal communication in close relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Heimann , M. Strid, K., Smith , L., Tjus , T., Ulvund , S. & Meltzoff, A. (2006). Exploring the relation between memory, gestural communication, and the emergence of language in infancy: a longitudinal study. Infant and Child Development, 15(3), 233-249.
- Marsh, A., Elfenbein, H. & Ambady, N. (2003). Nonverbal "accents": cultural differences in facial expressions of emotion. Psychological Science, 14(3), 373-376.
- Weinstein, C.,Tomlinson-Clarke, S., & Curran, M. (2004). Toward a conception of culturally responsive classroom management. Journal of Teacher Education, 55(1), 25-38.
- Kohn, A. (2006). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Reston, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- Jones, T. (2004). Conflict resolution education: The field, the findings, and the future. Conflict Resolution Quarterly, 22(1-2), 233-267.
- Gordon, T. (2003). Teacher effectiveness training. New York: Three Rivers Press.
- Cooper, P. & Simonds, C. (2003). Communication for the classroom teacher, 7th edition. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Gibbs, J. (2003). Moral development and reality: Beyond the theories of Kohlberg and Hoffman. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Davidson, J. & Wood, C. (2004). A conflict resolution model. Theory into Practice, 43(1), 6-13.