Positive Responses to Misbehavior

Kathryn Brady, Mary Beth Forton, and Deborah Porter

William takes a pencil from a neighbor’s desk and refuses to return it when asked by his classmate.

At recess, Annie grabs the basketball from two smaller children, telling them they’re not allowed to play.

Even when teachers carefully teach behavior expectations and support children throughout the year in choosing positive behaviors, students sometimes misbehave. They forget the rules, their impulses win out over their self-control, and they just need to test where the limits are.

When children misbehave, we adults need appropriate strategies for responding and help them learn positive behaviors. We also need to let their classmates know that we will keep them safe by insuring that rules are observed. The three strategies given here, from Responsive Classroom, a research-backed approach to elementary education that improves academic and social skills and decreases problem behaviors (www.responsiveclassroom.org), help adults do just that when children misbehave.

Holding onto Empathy for the Child

To respond firmly but respectfully when children misbehave, it helps to keep in mind the many reasons they might misbehave. Like adults, children have moments when impulse wins over reason, desire over logic, emotion over rational thought. As they learn to negotiate social expectations, children get curious and test limits, get carried away, forget, make mistakes.

Just as when we teach academic subjects, we can use students’ mistakes around social expectations as opportunities for them to learn—in this case, to learn self-control and responsibility. Holding on to our empathy for the child who misbehaves helps us keep our responses positive. Having empathy doesn’t mean letting go of accountability. The strategies in this article do hold children accountable, but with understanding and with faith that children can choose a better way when we guide them well.

The Goals of Responding to Misbehavior

In a positive approach to discipline, the overarching goal is to keep the focus on learning, while maintaining a classroom that’s physically and emotionally safe and orderly. With this in mind, when adults respond to misbehavior, their aim is to help children:

  • Stop the misbehavior and reestablish positive behavior as quickly as possible
  • Develop self-control and self-regulation skills
  • Recognize and fix any harm caused by their mistakes
  • Maintain their dignity
  • Understand that the classroom rules will keep them safe and enable them and their classmates to continue learning

Strategies for Responding to Misbehavior

One of the most important things for teachers to keep in mind when responding to misbehavior is to address the behavior as quickly as possible. When children’s behavior goes off track, they need immediate feedback from adults to help them break their momentum and get back on track. Although this might sound obvious, adults often let small misbehaviors go, waiting to address them until they’ve escalated and are much more difficult to reverse.

Three response strategies that are especially effective when used before misbehavior escalates (and that also meet the other goals named above) are visual and verbal cues, increased teacher proximity, and logical consequences. Knowing which strategy to use, and whether more than one strategy is needed, is a skill that comes with practice and depends upon the teacher’s knowledge of the children she’s teaching. One child who’s talking when she shouldn’t may need only a cue to correct herself. Another child may need a logical consequence for the same behavior. Or the same child may need a cue on one day and a logical consequence on another.

Helpful questions to consider: Which strategy will stop the misbehavior and restore positive behavior as quickly, simply, and kindly as possible? Which strategy will maintain safety and order for everyone? Which one will help the child develop understanding and self-control?

Whichever strategies are chosen, it’s important for teachers to remember to use them early, just as misbehavior begins. Doing so will prevent problems from mushrooming or becoming entrenched.

Visual and Verbal Cues

Once teachers have modeled expected behaviors and given children opportunities for practice, a visual or verbal cue will often stop children’s misbehavior and help them get back on track. Simply looking briefly into a child’s eyes can powerfully send the message that “I know you know how to do this; now let’s see you do it.” Other effective visual cues are a writing gesture for “This is writing workshop; get to work” or a finger against your lips for “Remember, silent lips when someone is sharing.”

Verbal cues can be as simple as saying the child’s name. Reminding language can also be highly effective: Sonya, what should you be doing right now? Dante, what do our rules say about sharing materials?

Reminding language works best when a child is just beginning to go off track—about to open a book instead of getting out math materials, or beginning to reach to take the blue crayon away from a tablemate. If, however, the child is well into the undesired behavior, reminding language loses its effectiveness. At that point, a clear redirection is needed: Sonya, put the book away now and get out your math materials. Dante, choose another color. It’s Ellen’s turn to use the blue crayon.

Increased Teacher Proximity

Sometimes all that’s needed to reestablish positive behavior is for the teacher to move next to a child. If children have been taught how to sit safely in chairs, the teacher’s closeness to Maria, who’s just started tipping her chair back during direct instruction, can communicate “Sit safely” without drawing undue attention to Maria or disturbing other children. Once Maria sits safely, the teacher’s staying nearby for a bit helps the child understand that she must continue to sit safely.

Bringing the child closer to the teacher, instead of the teacher going to the child, is another option. Suppose Darren turns around and begins fiddling with items on a shelf during Morning Meeting. The class has learned meeting rules, and they also know that their teacher will sometimes direct them to change their seats if they’re beginning to misbehave. A quiet “Darren, come sit next to me” brings Darren to his teacher’s side in the circle and gets his attention back on his classmates, without breaking the meeting rhythm.

Logical Consequences

Logical consequences are another strategy that teachers can use to stop misbehavior while helping children see and take responsibility for the effects of their actions. The three types of logical consequences are “you break it, you fix it,” loss of privilege, and positive time-out. (See sidebar on page 59.)

Logical consequences differ from punishment in that, unlike punishment, logical consequences are relevant (directly related to the misbehavior), realistic (something the child can reasonably be expected to do and that the teacher can manage with a reasonable amount of effort), and respectful (communicated kindly and focused on the misbehavior, not the child’s character or personality).

Suppose Robin scribbles on her desk. Having her clean the desk would be a relevant, realistic, and respectful logical consequence. Having her miss recess would be irrelevant. Having her clean every desk in the classroom after school would be an unrealistic amount of work, and the uncleanness of the other desks is irrelevant to Robin’s behavior mistake. And saying “You’re so rude–you just don’t care about anyone but yourself!” would be a disrespectful attack on her character.

Introduce the Approach to Children

This approach to responding to misbehavior is most effective when children know in advance what to expect from their teachers. It’s not necessary to name the strategies. What’s important is that the teacher conveys her belief that children can and will learn to choose positive behaviors and that her responses to their mistakes will help them do so. The teacher’s choice of words, along with a friendly, matter-of-fact tone and a few specific examples, will help get this message across. For example, when introducing logical consequences, a teacher might say,

“We’re all working on following our classroom rules because we know that we learn better and feel safer in our classroom when we do that. But we all make mistakes sometimes—we forget a rule or choose not to follow one. In our class, when you don’t follow a rule, it’s my job to help you get back on track, fix any problems you caused, and learn to follow the rule next time. For example, if you’re running in the classroom and knock down someone’s block tower, I might tell you to help them rebuild ... [give more examples showing use of other strategies].”

It’s also important for the teacher to let children know that at one point or another, everyone makes behavior mistakes and needs support to get back on track, and that’s OK—just as it’s OK to make mistakes when learning academic skills.

Try, Try Again

Responding to misbehavior is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. Even the most experienced teachers make mistakes. But just as we allow students to make mistakes, we must allow ourselves to make them, too. And then, just as we do with students, we must allow ourselves to try again without judgment, but with the spirit of learning to do it better next time.♦

Kathryn Brady, a specialist in the education of students with emotional impairment, is the principal of Reingold Elementary School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.. She can be reached at info@responsiveclassroom.org.

Mary Beth Forton is the director of publications and communications for Northeast Foundation for Children, developer of the Responsive Classroom approach. She can be reached at info@responsiveclassroom.org.

Deborah Porter was a preschool and primary grades teacher at Heath Elementary School in Heath, Massachusetts, for many years before becoming a Title One math support teacher in that district. She can be reached at info@responsiveclassroom.org.

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