On any given day, you might walk into Beth Richardson’s fourth grade classroom at North Godwin Elementary and see students and teacher having conversations about behavior: Was it a good day? Just OK?
“They might say, ‘I think I did OK today’ and I’ll usually say, ‘yeah – I agree with that.’ They’re pretty aware of their behavior,” said Richardson.
If it needs improvement, Richardson offers her students a novel approach: a subtle teacher-student conversation in which students evaluate their behavior and choose their own consequences.
There’s no red mark on a board next to a student’s name, no reprimand, no “time out.”
“Classroom management styles with consequences that are visible to the class sometimes cause more anxiety with students and exacerbate inappropriate behavior,” said Richardson. “I wanted to make a way for students to still be accountable without broadcasting behaviors to the whole class.”
A Forum for Decorum
Richardson taught first grade for six years before switching to fourth grade this year. By this age, she said, students generally are aware of their typical behavior — why advertise it? It seemed like a good time to implement some new classroom management ideas.
At the beginning of the year, the class worked together to create a chart listing specific behaviors and potential consequences. A great day might include encouraging a classmate and the consequence could be extra recess. A not so great day might include mean words and the consequence could be a call home or detention.
“This way, it’s not all abstract,” said Richardson. “They have something specific they can refer to when they reflect on their behaviors. I also wanted to focus a lot on positive behaviors. Whenever I see students doing the right thing, I reward them.”
Richardson has the final say in all matters, ensuring that students don’t reward themselves with candy for kicking over a chair, for example.
And she does her best to give them the space they need to regroup or correct behaviors: They flash a special hand signal to let her know if they’re stressed and need a five-minute “stress break” — a time to journal, sit quietly, or squeeze a stress ball. Those five minutes can be enough to help a student refocus his or her energy on learning.
Fourth grader Marc Icizanye said, “I like that my teacher lets me take a break and look out the window. It helps me feel calm. That’s when it moves my stress so I am not angry anymore.”
Richardson has midday check-ins with students who need extra behavioral support. During a check-in, she might share a student’s “blurt tally” — how many times they talked out of turn during carpet time — that she has tracked in the morning, in hopes that they’ll improve in the afternoon. (They almost always do, she said.) Other times, she might just tell them to keep up the good work.
“Sometimes they come in with a lot of things that teachers don’t have to deal with at their own houses, so sometimes I don’t understand what they’re going through,” said Richardson. “I want them to know that they’re safe here and it’s okay to feel the things that they’re feeling.”
A Fresh Outlook
So how has this collaborative approach worked so far?
“I have seen huge improvements from the beginning of the year,” said Richardson, who used to go home feeling stressed and anxious about the next day. “My mind set has completely shifted. I am enjoying coming to school.
“I feel like the kids are using the strategies the right way, but it took time for the students and it took time for me to figure out what works for them and iron out some of the kinks. I feel better and my students are performing better both academically and behaviorally.”