7 Ways Effective Educators Address Student Behavior

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Concerns about student behavior have always been a topic of fierce conversation. Student attitudes and actions often dominate discussions in meetings, at educational conferences, and in faculty lounges. There are almost as many philosophies (and programs) on student behavior as there are schools in the country, and getting agreement on how to address issues can spark a level of vitriol that rivals that of a presidential election.

I certainly don’t have all of this figured out, however I have had the good fortune to work with many exceptional teachers who excel at effectively managing a classroom to maximize student learning. While not an exhaustive list, here are seven strategies I have consistently seen these educators employ in order to minimize disruptive behavior. 

1. Assume the Best and Look for Underlying Causes

Effective educators always “assume the best” in their students and understand that behavior is often a manifestation of unmet needs, or underlying issues. They work diligently to determine, and address (with the help of others), the needs of the student, or the underlying cause of the behavior.

2. Teach The Behaviors They Want to See

If students don’t understand an academic subject, such as reading or writing, we teach them. If students demonstrate a deficiency in understanding appropriate behavior we typically punish them. Hmm. Good teachers understand that they must teach students the behaviors they want to see and provide lots of modeling and opportunities for practice. Many of our students who exhibit poor behavior simply don’t understand what is expected, lack models of socially appropriate interactions, and rarely practice skills that foster good behavior. We can change that.

3. Consistent Routines, Procedures, and Structure 

Familiarity helps us feel safe. Regardless of individual personalities, a certain amount of structure is comforting. This is definitely  true for students — especially those who have experienced (or are experiencing) trauma in their daily lives. Great teachers provide a safe learning environment by establishing, and consistently implementing, clear routines and procedures. Their students regularly review and practice these expectations throughout the school year and they are able to follow them with limited direction from the teacher. Students feel safer, and behave better, when they know what to expect.

4. Focus on Relevant and Engaging Lessons

If, on a daily basis, a class is boring it is extremely likely that some students will misbehave. The most effective teachers invest time in planning lessons that are engaging, purposeful, and relevant. They require students to be active participants in activities and plan opportunities for interaction, collaboration and brain breaks.  This isn’t to say that teachers must be stand-up comedians, or put on a daily “dog and pony” show, but the days of lecturing, worksheets, and PowerPoint presentations for the entire period should be in our past. We know these practices do not correlate with student growth and they often lead to disruptive behavior.

5. Relationships

This list is not in order of importance. If that was the case, relationships would come first. Positive relationships are the lynchpin of effective classroom management and student learning. Students who know their teachers care about and takes an interest in them will typically invest in their learning and work for the teacher. Without meaningful relationships teachers are fighting an uphill battle. Enough said.

6. Patience and Persistence

Effectively managing student behaviors doesn’t really come naturally to any educator. It requires a great deal of planning, practice, trial, error, and serious reflection. Just as we have to accommodate to meet the individual learning needs of students, we must recognize that each child’s behavioral progress will be different. Some kids will prove to be significant behavioral challenges. In these cases, it is an educator’s job to stand by our kids (with the support of others) and exhaust efforts to teach appropriate behaviors. As with most educational endeavors, patience and persistence are essential.

7. Responsibility Does Not End with a Referral

I will preface this by saying that teachers who effectively address student behavior routinely engage colleagues, parents, administrators, and counselors in their efforts to meet the needs of their students. We all have a responsibility to work together for student success. Teachers do not need to do this work on their own. That being said, there are certainly times when a behavioral referral and consequence are in order. However, effective teachers understand that a behavioral referral is not the end of their efforts. If student behavior is to change, there must be some form of restorative action and students must understand that making a mistake, or poor decision, and receiving a consequence is not the end. Teachers are the gateway to a second (or third, or fourth…) chance. It can be a challenge, but demonstrating grace to a difficult student can result in a more positive relationship.

As we see a decline in civility in our society, and as our students continue to deal with a myriad of social and emotional challenges, student behavior will undoubtedly continue to be a topic of discussion. However, there are many strategies we can use to help our kids grow in this area, and there are many educators out there who can offer assistance and solutions. 

Success for ALL includes our behaviorally challenging students. Don’t give up!

You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. – Father Greg Boyle

Tough Conversations

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Speak the truth, even when your voice shakes.  – Author Unknown

A quick confession: I am a “people-pleaser,” and it has, at times, hurt my school. I want my students, my parents, my teachers, and my administrative team to be happy — all of the time. This might seem like a noble cause, but it is neither reasonable, or in the best interest of our school community. Civility, respect and humility are all essential skills for a leader, but there are certainly times that addressing issues will leave someone disgruntled. 

Perhaps one of the most challenging responsibilities of leadership is having the courage to have difficult conversations — to address poor behaviors, stand-up for a teacher (or a student, a staff member, a parent), or challenge the status quo. I was reminded of this during Jimmy Casas‘ opening session at The Model School’s Conference when he asked, “What would you do differently if you were not afraid?” How would you go about addressing the “average” in your school.

For me, the answer to these questions lies in having the courage, the timing, and the tact to have tough conversations that are in the best interest of our school community.  As I listened to our staff members in attendance at the conference discuss “the average” at our school that could be moved to excellence, I realized that addressing several of these issues effectively would require me to lead challenging discussions. In order to move us to excellence I need to have the courage to step up and do what is right for our students, teachers, and community — even when that means making decisions or having discussions that run the risk of ruffling feathers.

In my time as an administrator, I have had many of these conversations, and I have rarely regretted them, but that does not mean I find them easy — or enjoyable. In fact they are often extremely draining and cause me a great deal of stress. I don’t enjoy conflict, I want others to enjoy school and their work — I want people to be happy.  But, I also understand the importance of seeing the big picture, making decisions, and taking action for the greater good. I could be wrong, but I think I have established the level of trust with my staff needed to speak directly to areas of concern (with a gracious tone) and keep people “in the boat” with me.

So, even though I am sometimes afraid, I am going to challenge myself to humbly take on tough conversations that will benefit our school community.

Who? Me?

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If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. – Mother Teresa

In his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Father Greg Boyle describes several individual interactions with young gang members who, when asked a direct question, respond with, “Who? Me?” At first glance, this is mildly amusing, since the only people in the room were Father Boyle and the person responding to the question.

However, Father Boyle writes that this response (Who? Me?) is an indication of a severe lack of self-esteem. An individual that feels so devalued and unimportant that they are unable to imagine a situation in which another human being would be interested in them. “The story of a self being made to feel to small from being bombarded with messages of shame and disgrace.”

I have witnessed, firsthand, young people who are so convinced by poor test scores, failing grades, and repeated messages that they are no better than their poor behavior that they have thrown in the towel on their future. As an educator, and a fellow human being, I believe one of my most important roles is to notice the individuals who are asking, “Who? Me?” — the empty vessels — and doing all that is within my power to fill them with an understanding of their value. 

It’s not a particularly challenging task, but one that requires intentional action. Call people by name, ask about their interests and passions, listen (don’t just hear) when they are talking, work to find and recognize their contributions (to their school, job, community, and/or world). Many of us are in a position to help replace messages of “shame and disgrace” with words of hope, grace, and encouragement. 

How will you make this happen In your daily life?

Out of the Wind

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Quiet does not come naturally to me. Even when I am able to escape the rush and chaos of daily life, the noise in my head can be overwhelming. A rerun of the day’s activities, a mental review of a to-do list, or pondering problems that may, or may not, exist. Figurative noise that keeps me on edge and makes rest a challenge.

While I wish I could write that I have learned the secret to silencing the mental clutter, I can only say that I have an idea of where to begin. In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote the following about the deliberate practice of pursuing quiet:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

I can certainly relate to the idea of my day beginning with hopes, ideas, problems, and lists “rushing at me like wild animals.” There are many days where it feels like the entire zoo shows up once. Lewis’s words provide a prescription for finding peace in the chaos of our daily lives — an opportunity to be intentional in our pusuit of quiet.

For a few minutes each day,

  • Shove “the zoo” aside
  • Listen to the other voice – calm, peaceful, and assuring
  • Consider a different perspective
  • Stand back from the noise – quit fretting

…come in out of the wind.

A Simple Plan to Improve the World

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All human beings have immeasurable value. Treat everyone you meet with this in mind.

It’s a pretty simple concept, but the execution can be extremely challenging. There are no exceptions to the rule of value. Infinite worth is not limited to those we agree with, people who are friendly to us, people who look like us, or those who behave the way we think they should behave. 

Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health has said that, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” You see, as fallible human beings, it is not our place to assign value to others, and there are simply not people who are expendable.

In person, on social media, or wherever we are brought into contact with others, perhaps the most significant thing we can do to improve our world is to treat others in a manner that acknowledges their worth. Behaving harshly, or speaking with hatred and venom when our values are challenged does not require skill. Demonstrating grace, patience, kindness, and respect in these difficult situations is likely the best way to remain grounded in our beliefs. 

Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson