Advice for teachers to help prevent misbehavior in their classroom

Dr. John Bailie Assistant Professor and Director of Continuing Education International Institute for Restorative Practices

Being a teacher with students who regularly misbehave can be a troubling aspect of the academic world. It can cause you to lose hope with your students and ultimately become unhappy with your job in general. Fortunately, there are ways in which you, as an educator, can encourage your students to behave in and outside of the classroom, without simply sending them to the principal’s office or to detention. And it all starts in the classroom.

You should actively encourage a personal relationship between you and your students, and do what you can to foster a collaborative learning environment. Your students aren’t just mindless workers in a factory, they are individuals who want to learn and grow into functioning adults. To help you help your students, here is some advice.


Do

Do use affective (emotionally rich) language when praising or confronting students

If you decide to use your personal relationship with students as your primary means to ensure healthy behavior, then you need to make sure that your relationship is personal. In praising, “You did a good job today,” is OK. But, “I’m really proud of how you sat down and got right to work today as soon as class started. I really feel heard by you,” is much better. In confronting misbehavior, “This is unacceptable,” is OK. But, “When you raise you voice and talk over me, I feel really angry and frustrated, because I’m trying to help you and it feels like you don’t care,” is a lot better.

Notice also that in the affective examples there are feeling words and references to concrete behaviors. This explicitness serves two purposes. The young person knows that you are talking about his or her behavior and not him or her as a person. The explicitness also communicates clearly which exact behavior to repeat or not repeat in the future.

Do use collaborative practices

The most effective way to lower behavioral referrals is to prevent misbehavior from happening in the first place. Sure, you can scare people into to doing the right thing, but it’s much more effective to get them to do the right thing because they want to. Young people (and adults for that matter) are much more likely to treat others well when they know and feel connected to the people around them. So, use collaborative practices, such as restorative circles, to build relationships and encourage the student voice in the learning process.

The Shakespeare unit or math quiz won’t accomplish this by themselves. However, you could arrange chairs in a circle and ask a unit-related question to which all of the students respond. Instead of a teacher-led lecture followed by some Q&A, perhaps instead ask everyone to answer, “What was the most difficult decision that one of the characters in Romeo and Juliet had to make and how could you relate to them?” They are learning Shakespeare, but they are also learning about each other. More than likely you’ll see fewer discipline referrals from the classroom where that is happening frequently.

Do focus on repairing relationships rather than impersonal sanctions and punishments

Punishments reinforce the power of authority figures, but do little to help students solve the problems that led to the incident or misbehavior. If a student tends to fly off the handle and threaten other students at the slightest criticism, how exactly does an hour of detention or a three-day suspension help that student or make them less likely to repeat the same behavior in the future? How does it meet the needs of the students who were affected? Instead, use informal and formal practices such as restorative questions.

For those who harm someone, ask:

  • What happened?
  • What were you thinking about at the time?
  • What have you thought about since?
  • Who has been affected by what you have done? In what way?
  • What do you think you need to do to make things right?

For those harmed by others ask:

  • What did you think when you realized what happened?
  • What impact has this incident had on you and others?
  • What has been the hardest thing for you?
  • What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
     

Do spend 80% percent of “discipline” effort on proactive relationship building as primary prevention

Discipline starts with what we do before children misbehave. Strong positive relationships with staff and other students are the number one most effective preventative measure. A relationship is more than whether students “like me” as a teacher or whether the students know each other’s names. We need to know about each other as people. What we like. What we don’t like. Know something about each other’s personal lives such as whether you have children or siblings. Know the names of their parents or caregivers. Remember their hobbies and share yours. The more you do all of this strategically while you teach, the more likely students (and you) will be to do the right thing and treat others well.


Don't

Do not use impersonal punishments

Other than what was already noted above, the cycle of ever increasing punishments is draining for educators and students alike. And far from letting children off easily, you’ll find that practices such as restorative questions are far tougher and more effective in holding students accountable. It is great when students would ask, “Could you please just suspend me?”

Do not avoid face-to-face engagement

Sure, you can just send the student to the office. And you can rationalize it by telling yourself you are saving instructional time for everyone else, but the student is going to come back. Sooner or later (and sooner is better), you need to personally let the student know how their behavior affects you. Not just how their behavior affects your agenda and lesson plan, but you, personally. It’s the only way they’ll ever really understand the impact of their behavior. And it’s a far better way of meeting your own needs than just sending a student to the office.

Do not discipline for other staff

You likely have staff members who are both good at, and enjoy, jumping into the fray when there is a behavior crisis. These staff might be teachers, administration and counselors or even support staff. These people are a great asset to the building. However, these people can also become the dumping ground for other people’s crises and conflicts. Most people don’t like conflict and will gladly send their troublesome students to someone else in the building to “get fixed”. But when you refer your conflicts to someone else or enable others to do so, everyone is robbed of an opportunity to learn and build relationships. The best role for those people who both like and are good at managing conflict is to model what they know with other students and staff so that the skills spread.

Do not stop believing that children can learn and change their behavior

Some teachers use what is called “basic concepts.” These are for staff, not the students. Each basic concept is something that all staff agree to uphold and get better at putting into practice. An important one for teachers to keep in mind at all times is, “We believe that all students can grow, learn and change.” Think about it. If you don’t believe this, everything above is really pointless. It’s true that some people won’t change, but that’s a choice. It has nothing to do with the child’s innate ability. The more you believe that everyone can grow, learn and change, the more you will see it happen.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

Instead of relying on easy impersonal punishments, what works to prevent student misbehavior is for young people to have to face the real personal impact of their actions. For this to be practiced well and consistently, educators and students must be immersed in an environment that focuses on proactively building relationships and providing high levels of engagement and collaboration. This is true of students of all ages, from preschool through college, and indeed, of people of all ages. When people are given regular opportunities to take responsibility for their actions and be heard, they feel respected, they are really held accountable and misbehavior is less likely. And the data agrees.


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Dr. John BailieAssistant Professor and Director of Continuing Education

Dr. John Bailie directs the Continuing Education programs for the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in the U.S. and abroad. With the IIRP's SaferSanerSchools program, he has brought restorative practices to hundreds of sch...

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