Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pt 1 At Risk Classroom Management: Rules, Expectations, Exceptions, and Consequences

The key, as any education student could tell you, to quality behavior management is setting rules and expectations.  For this portion of "Classroom Management in At-Risk Educational Environments," I will focus on rules, expectations, exceptions, and consequences. This is a fairly general post, and the future posts will be more specific to at-risk behaviors.  I feel, however, that it is important to outline how the tone of my classroom is set in order to authentically discuss specific behaviors in the future.

First, I believe each class is a community/family and that everyone in the community must contribute and help so that we can have a healthy classroom.  I begin every term with the community/family class talk. The kids often joke it off and make silly comments, but when I remind them to clean up (etc.) materials that aren't theirs and remind them of the family policy, they clean up mess that isn't theirs.

Buuut, (Second), I am (and you must be) the god of the classroom.  You are not running a democracy; you are running a dictatorship.  It can be friendly dictatorship. But, you must be the exhaustive and unquestionable authority figure in your classroom. You must love and own your autonomy. Revel in it.

Rules (and Expectations?)
In a broad sense, when it comes to rules, less is more.  Kids appreciate brevity, and if you have more than five rules, chances are things are getting complicated for the natives.  There are a lot of books and philosophies about how expectations and rules are separate entities, and that a teacher can have only a few rules but lots of expectations and vice-verse. Intellectually speaking, I understand this, but it is all same to the students.  So, if it is all the same to the students, why have so many?   And, my at-risk students are always looking for the loopholes.  Succinct, general rules are inclusive of many scenarios (and loopholes).  Once you give students too many rules, they are able to find a loopholes (but [my totally insane behavior] isn't in the rules, you can't give me [consequence]).

BUT, the rules need to make sense.

One (not my current) at-risk school I worked at had only one rules:  Be a Good Citizen. The administration was really proud of that rule; they felt that rule covered everything.  And, uh, I guess it does if everyone has the same definition of "good citizen." I mean this one rule concept worked for Soviet Russia and Cuba, right? My definition of "good citizen" behavior "is to constantly question and subvert the hegemonic status quo." That is probably not what my previous administration had in mind. Furthermore, most of the students I taught at that school had no idea what citizen really meant, anyway. So, as a rule, it was an overwhelming failure.

When devising rules for you classroom, consider your students, consider yourself, and consider what are your absolutes. It is also important to appreciate that rules are not set in stone, and you don't have to wait until a new year, new term, or even new week to change rules. It is common to hear teachers say: "I wish had done XYZ, but that will have to wait until next year," and imply that changing rules amidst ongoing classroom activities is impossible.  But, kids are flexible and adapt easily; they can easily appreciate new rules.

I teach two classes of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade every day.   I have different sets of rules for EACH class. Different groups of students need different sets of rules.  It sounds complicated, but it isn't. I have a poster for each class, with their rules.  Sometimes, students will complain about a rule and/or comment on a rule from another class, to which I reply: "That is their rule; you have yours." I don't negotiate about posted rules. At all. Ever.

I keep the total number of rules for each class to no more than five or six. 

Here are a few of my general rules:
-Electronic devices are to be used only at appointed times
-Treat everyone with respect and kindness
-Respect class materials
-Do not talk when I am talking to the whole class
-10/10 water/restroom rule (no hall passes given during the first and last 10 minutes of class)

Here are a few of my more specific rules:
Do not tap
Do not run
Do not throw materials
Do not visit other tables

Having said all of the above, there is one exception. . .When you have lost all control of your classroom, you need to "lock it down." The most straight-forward way to do this is to set a rule for each and every behavior alongside a specific consequence for each broken rule. You need a lot of rules to avoid the loophole situation mentioned previously.  This is a process outlined by The Essential 55 by Ron Clark.  I used his process during my second year teaching when, as a naive teacher, I had lost all control of a particularly rowdy group of students.  My then colleagues laughed at all the posted rules, but the behavior in my classroom turned around in a week. It was amazing. It is time consuming, not conducive to creativity, and sometimes exhausting, but it really works.

Consequences should make sense to the students and should align to what your school's policies are towards behavior management. Now, that doesn't mean you should just apply whatever blanket consequences the school uses, as that is often too general to suit specific students and/or classrooms. But, you don't want to give a kid a detention for a behavior that the administration recognizes as suspension-worthy either (also, your colleagues will want to kill you).

I like to use an escalating scale of consequences that resets every class period.  I don't want to reset every week etc., because I am dealing with so many consequences that I would never be able to keep track of where each student is at on the consequence scale. Also, my everyday-reset means that if a student messes up, s/he receives an immediate consequence; no second/third/fiftieth chances.  Contrary to popular opinion, I believe students in Title I schools are often afforded too many "second chances" and that it is actually damaging to their development. I think we -as the collective adults in the society- want to understand at-risk kids are coming from a different place, and want to help. . .But, multiple chances, in my opinion, are often more harmful than not.

For instance, I taught a student who broke a boy's leg on purpose, was caught dealing drugs at school twice, was disciplined as a frequent bully, and was never kicked out of school or arrested (and he did not fall under the Special Education umbrella that makes expulsion difficult).  The kid was charming as hell, lied smooth as silk, and was given multiple chances.  Ultimately, the kid learned nothing and had no regrets about his behavior no did he have any intentions to end his poor choices. 

Here are my consequences:
1. warning
2. call home
3. call home and detention
4. administrative referral

My consequences are posted on the main wall of my classroom, and I also include a few loophole-ending lines:  "I can change the order of consequences at any time based on your behavior. If you argue about a consequence, I will immediately escalate to the next consequence."

I also keep an active Word document of anecdotal notes made for each class.  Instead of tracking it by student, I track it by date. I list the student's name and then list his/her behavior and my assigned consequence.  I can look at all of then notes on a student by clicking "CTRL F" and typing in the student name; Word will track all instances of the student's name in the document.  This way, if I need to talk to a parent and/or administrator, I can authoritatively and specifically talk about a student's in-class behavior.  It is also helpful for when I fill out an administrative referral form.  Instead of writing "Student A is continually disruptive in class," I can write something like "Student A exhibited behavior A on this date, behavior B on this date, and behavior C on this date. Student A has received consequence A, B, and C." 

Oh, lawd. The list of exceptions could go on for miles.  But, I just want to tell you: "Don't sweat the small stuff."

The students at my school are frequently tardy to class, chew gum, wear their pants down under their rear-ends, curse, and have a hard time staying seated and on-task.  None of these behaviors are permissible according to my school's rules; we certainly don't endorse them. . .But, we don't really enforce them either.  It is easy to say and think: "Well, if every teacher started enforcing those rules, those behaviors would stop; those teachers have just given up."  It is true; we could start aggressively enforcing the rules about gum chewing and pant wearing.  We would also enrage our students, make them hate school even more, lose what little student respect we have, and spend weeks on nothing but enforcing pant codes.  There would be little teaching, but we could get them to wear their pants around their waists! And, what about the kids who refused to start wearing their pants appropriately and choose to subvert the rules? We would have to escalate the consequences for those students; eventually we would have students suspended for sagging pants. 

At a certain point, you just have to ask yourself: "Are pants really worth it?"

(They're not)

Additionally, some kids are defiant and have tons of other ongoing issues. . . And, you asking them to raise their pants is going to set off a whole situation wherein you will be dealing with far more harmful secondary behaviors. You know the kids I'm talking about. Look, one of their faces just popped into your head!

Also, if you begin to hand in administrative referrals that are derivative of the breaking of these sorts of rules, most principals feel you are wasting their time.  These issues are small, and perceived as being the type you need to handle inside the classroom.  Administrative referrals should be used for big issues, and repetitive behaviors that are disruptive to the learning environment. You gotta keep the boss man happy, yes?

I simply ask gum smacking students to spit out their gum, ask students to raise their pants when it becomes indecent (most of them wear soccer shorts under their pants rendering the whole thing moot -and ugly- anyway), and ask students to sit down without a consequence. I make it a request.  If I have a student who is repeatedly and defiantly ignoring my request, I begin to hand out consequences. But, I discuss the consequences with the student and explain they are in trouble for disrespectful and defiant behavior, not saggy pants.

I apply the same principle to a whole myriad of annoying behaviors.  You have to ask yourself:
-Is this behavior damaging to the learning environment?
-Is this behavior emotionally or physically harmful to other students?
-Is addressing this behavior worth a secondary situation
-Is this really worth my time?

Unless the answer to one of those questions is "Yes," then let it go. 

1. make rules simple and meaningful to students
2. make the consequences simple
3. don't sweat the small stuff

What are you at-risk environmental educational setting rules, consequences, and exceptions? How do they work in your environment?


  1. Oh my gosh! I feel like I work in a school like yours. Thank you for being straight-forward about working with difficult students and what is and is not worth it when dealing with them. Letting kids be real (not freaking out when a swear slips out), express themselves authentically in their art work, and having a HUGE sense of humor helps as well. Luckily we can do this in an art classroom more easily than in a content room.

  2. Great post! I don't work in a school like yours but we do have our moments and issues! I agree, you need to make the rules simple, have clear consequences, and I don't sweat the small stuff! And ALWAYS, ALWAYS do what you say you are going to do! Do not be wishy washy EVER with the rules and consequences! The kids know if you are going to do what you say! Again, great post! Thanks! :)

  3. Great post. I admire your backbone. I wish I had your series my first year of teaching art.

  4. Hi, Amy!
    I just started a classroom management blog for Alabama art teachers, and I am highly recommending reading this series. Your words cut to the chase, and I greatly admire your ability to specifically describe the ways you handle your students. I serve a blue-collar community in metro. Birmingham, a middle school of about 800. I am the only art teacher at my school. If you get a chance, check out the website:

  5. Thank you so much for your advice and guidance. I am a new teacher and hearing your experiences from a school similar to my own is comforting, reassuring and always encouraging. You are my virtual "shoulder to lean on."