Teaching is hard these days. Between the planning and assessments, hybrid and virtual, and student needs both inside and outside of school… our days are BUSY! Our students are struggling, too, and that comes out in a variety of behaviors that we observe in the classroom. Raise your hand if you can think of some things that your class is struggling with right now? And if you’re like me, you’re always on the hunt for behavior management strategies that can help support students and curb the chaos.
We want our students to make progress, to feel safe and part of the community. And we want behavior management strategies that work! So much of teaching is trying strategies with our students and adjusting as needed. And behavior management strategies are no different. We want them to be effective, and believe it, I know the struggle when something is just not working with your students.
The thing is, some of these behavior management strategies- whether intended or not- have negative impacts on our students (even if it appears like we’re getting the results we’re hoping for).
That’s a deal-breaker for me.
Why Should We Think About This?
I’m coming from the place of a struggling student, often feeling the negative impact of behavior charts or public praise of other students. Those moments affirmed for me that I was a failure, I would probably continue to fail, and my peers knew it, too.
As we dig in, I want you to know that I am sharing these ideas from a place of continually learning. We are all doing the best we can in our classrooms and for our students, and as we learn more, we adjust our practices. This is not meant to put down teachers that use these strategies, and believe me, some of these new strategies took years and effort to work into my routines and practice. My hope here is that you find a few things to think about and some manageable things to add to your teaching bag of tricks.
Public Praise and Shaming: Negative Impacts
For today, let’s stick with public behavior management strategies, those things that we might say or do that ALL of our students can see and hear.
Clip Charts and Tracking Systems
This can be a clip chart, writing student names on the board, or a system that pits students or groups against other students or groups. While it might be an OK behavior management strategy for those students that usually do the right thing, can easily access the curriculum, or are super competitive… We know that those students would also be fine without it, and it can be incredibly detrimental for the rest of our students. Not only do they have to internalize the shame and embarrassment of flipping their card to red, moving their clip down on the chart, or seeing their name written on the board with a checkmark, but their classmates see that, too. This affects our classroom community. Students see their peers in a negative light, and those kiddos begin to feel like, “What’s the point? I’m always going to be stuck on red!”
I can tell you from experience, these types of public shaming behavior management strategies do not work for the students we are targeting.
Beyond that, the fear of moving to red, or the threat of getting your name on the board, doesn’t actually help our students learn HOW to manage their feelings and behaviors. Even if it helps for that moment, we aren’t helping our students build those life skills and strategies to help them participate fully in the classroom community and address their feelings and concerns effectively. If students are struggling to access the curriculum, or are experiencing anxiety or trauma, or just having a bad day, flipping their card to red will not help the root cause of the behavior we are observing. So we will likely see that behavior again.
Ok, I get that, but they’re not all bad, right? What about positive praise and sticker charts?
Yup, those can have some (unintended) negative impacts, too.
Calling out one or two students, or a whole table to publicly praise them may seem like a great way to share a specific example of what we want our students to be doing. I’ve said these things, too. “I LOVE the way John is standing quietly in line.” Or, “Wow table one has gotten down to work right away”. However, this praise is not actually praising those students. We’re using them as an example to manipulate the behaviors of the rest of the class. We are saying it with the intention of EVERYONE else hearing it and changing their behavior.
Another unintended negative effect of this type of praise is that it can make those students that we are praising (and likely give this kind of praise often) feel uncomfortable. They may not want that spotlight; they are likely not following the directions for the glamour of praise. Their peers pick up on this, too, and we run the risk of setting up a dynamic of students that often get public praise and students that rarely get public praise. In fact, our students already deeply know this. This type of public praise further confirms those beliefs and pigeon-holes our students into continuing to live up to those roles.
When To Use Private Praise
If I’m really blown away by something that a student or a group has done, I will absolutely give that student or group-specific praise. But, I will be sure to do it privately. It means so much more to them that way and I know that I am praising them for the amazing thing they’ve done.
*For some of our students, monitoring their progress towards a goal is VERY motivating! Similar to reading logs, I would encourage us to think carefully about our students and, when it makes sense, choose personal and private ways to track progress towards a goal. (Maybe it’s an individual sticker chart, or a post-it with an accomplishment note that goes home, etc).
Whether positive or negative, these types of public behavior management strategies impact our relationships with our students. Our students begin to see us as gatekeepers to rewards and punishment rather than feeling empowered.
What Can We do Instead?
My goal is always to create and foster a safe classroom environment. This safe classroom community has some built-in practices that serve as effective behavior management strategies:
- One-on-one conversations to offer specific praise and support
- Asset model of thinking: Making the mindset shift to looking for things that students do right and positive qualities they bring to the classroom. When our students feel valued, safe, and seen, they are willing to give things a try, rather than fear making a mistake
- Logical Consequences: These allow students to learn from mistakes because consequences are directly connected to the action- not arbitrary and shaming
What About Rewards?
What about Rewards and Incentives? Maybe that will help! Now, we know in a pinch, sometimes a big, exciting reward or incentive will get the class motivated or help us get through until the holiday break. But you know what? It just doesn’t last. After we reach that goal, we’re back to square one and noticing those same behaviors again. It’s not sustainable.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I do not reward students for expected behavior. Of course, we spend LOTS of time learning and practicing those routines and expectations at the beginning of the year (and throughout the year as needed).
The Whole Class Solution
Instead, we work towards whole class goals and incentives. This behavior management strategy allows us to celebrate when students exceed expectations. We use our class marble jar to acknowledge acts of bravery and smart thinking as we work towards a whole class celebration. When we work towards filling that marble jar, students look for the good in each other and encourage their peers. We’ve created a community where students feel safe taking academic and social risks. And, as the marble jar fills, there are no names attached to the marbles. Students cheer as the marble jar fills, rather than noticing disparities in stickers or clips.
I hope you’ve found a few things to think about and some ideas to support your students. I am always growing and learning in this area. And I’m so glad to keep this conversation going.