If you’re reading this blog article, there’s a good chance that you’re a bit of a “learning-nerd” like me. You probably get excited over how you have just planned the perfect lesson with retrieval practice, sequencing concepts and purposeful questions. Yet, when you get to delivering your lesson, you realise that today is going to be a battle just getting your students to line-up properly before entering the classroom! Developing a positive classroom culture can be the key to unlocking the learning potential of your students.
In part 1, I wrote about the curriculum design process I went through this year. Step 1 looks at what sort of young person the school (and community) wants to produce and what sort of young person the student wants to be. Step 2 asks the question, “How can our curriculum lead to developing that sort of person?” It’s an important question to ask and one that we need to keep going back to, if we want our curriculum to be meaningful.
What barriers might get in the way of students learning and how can we address them
I will address Step 3 and 4 together as I have paired up each barrier with a strategy to address it. On first glance, some of these may not seem to be directly related to the curriculum, however if we don’t plan for the barriers to learning, how will we get past them? If we don’t build the classroom culture that we want, how will it happen? This is why we need to be intentional and purposeful with everything that we do.
When I first entered the teaching profession over 10 years ago, I didn’t put a huge emphasis on classroom management and naively assumed it would just happen as I got more experienced. To an extent this was true, but if I am honest with myself, some of my students were passively disengaged in their learning and a lot of that could have been changed if I was more purposeful in my teaching.
In this blog post, I will go over what the research tells us, notes I have taken from behaviour experts such as Tom Bennett, Bill Rogers and Paul Dix and look at how the principles of Daniel Coyle‘s, The Culture Code can be applied to creating a positive classroom culture.
Addressing negative behaviour by creating a positive classroom culture
Gratten Institute’s study on Engaging students: creating classrooms that improve learning, showed creating positive learning environments is still an issue in Australian schools, particularly in low-socioeconomic ones. Many teachers struggle with low-level disruptive behaviour and this causes them to feel frustrated and stressed. They then may not respond as well as they should or worse may even get aggressive. However, there is hope, as the research is quite conclusive in what works best in creating a positive classroom culture.
Part of being more purposeful is ensuring that you don’t just hope or wait for things to happen, but intentionally plan for it. This starts with creating a curriculum for behaviour. In Running the Room, Tom Bennett starts off by saying, “Being well-behaved is a combination of skills, aptitudes, habits, inclinations, values and knowledge. These can be taught.”
There are a number of studies that Bennett has looked at in Running the Room, that teachers should be aware of:
Social Proof Theory: how people will copy the actions of others because it is part of our DNA to want to fit-in. As teachers, it is our job to create the new norm so that our students are able to feel like they fit in and still able to learn.
Attribution bias: when we connect a students behaviour to their bad character, rather than just judging the actions. So, we need to use consequences fairly and judiciously. However, we can make exceptions when they are
– Internally consistent
Prospect theory: Everyone responds to rewards and sanctions differently depending on who we are and the context. Knowing this means that even when we set up rules, expectations and reward systems, not any one thing will work for everyone.
How do we create the culture we desire?
In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle studied a number of successful organisations from various industries around the world and highlighted these three skills to create a great culture:
1. Build safety
2. Share vulnerability
3. Establish purpose
In our classrooms, it is vital that every student feels safe, not just physically, but psychologically as well. This is created by having clear guidelines on your rules and expectations. One of the keys to communication is understanding that you can never assume anyone knows anything, if it hasn’t been taught, especially from 6-year olds! This means thinking about everything that could go wrong in an activity and trying to address it before it happens.
For example, if Student A laughs at Student B when they give a wrong answer, how do you think Student B will feel next time they are asked to respond to a question? Yet, this scenario can be prevented if you explicitly teach students how to actively listen in class through a process like Doug Lemov’s SLANT(Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer, Nod your head, and Track the speaker) or SHINE (used at my school). Model, guide and practice this routine as you would for any other area of the curriculum.
What is then important is to get on top of any behaviour that doesn’t align with the rules and expectations that you have set. Because as Doug Lemov says, “What you permit you promote.”
Part of ensuring safety is being clear with students as to what the “electric fence” is and what will happen when they touch it! In Running the Room, Bennett talks about detentions and what makes a good one:
- Must involve a mildly tiresome experience for the student
- They need to understand what behaviour has caused it
- Must feel like the slate is wiped clean at the end
- MUST NOT be interpreted by the student as a reward
- Not a time to catch up with them, explain that your time and focus is available for those who try to do their best
- When they leave they need to understand what the expected behaviour is
Part of feeling safe in a class is that students should feel a sense of belonging. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we have to lower our expectations or only have fun in class. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen (1968) performed a study on the effects of teacher expectations and found that teacher expectations influence pupil performance and described this phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect. Teachers were even shown to smile and nod more at students they perceived as being “bright.”While the Golem Effect is when our low expectations lead to a decrease in performance.
So, how do we set high expectations while still ensuring our students feel like they can fail? Daniel Coyle looked at a study that found a 40% increase in performance when these words were given as feedback: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them. You are part of this group. This group is special and we have high standards. I believe you can reach those standards."
“Create high challenge, low threat environments. We’re here to catch them, not catch them out.”Mary Myatt, Back on track
This is a part that many people can find difficult, especially if you haven’t established confidence within yourself. Yet, leading by example is one of the strongest ways to establish new group norms. This is achieved through telling stories of times when you have failed, made mistakes and importantly what you learnt from those experiences. Not only is it a learning experience for the students, but it also gives them an opportunity to connect with you as a person. If you are trying to build up a community of compassionate young people with high social-emotional intelligence, then it is vital they feel they can also be vulnerable and know how to react when other students display it.
Allowing students to share vulnerability in the classroom is particularly important because when we learn, we are being vulnerable. There is the very real possibility that we won’t get something straight away. Whether it be a mathematical equation or presenting a speech in front of a class, students have to take risks in the classroom. The culture of the classroom can be the difference between whether a student feels comfortable in showing their understanding or not.
Coming from a sporting background, I really appreciate the importance of culture. The teams that I played in that had the best culture were the most enjoyable to play in and generally also the most successful. However, in sport and in the classroom, there needs to be an emphasis on moving away from just being outcomes based and shifting to a purpose of improvement.
Daniel Coyle uses the example of Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs, as someone who tells his players the truth, but also loves them to death. Coyle writes about how you can develop purpose through creating stories such as how the Spurs use “Pounding the rock.”
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”Pounding the rock, Jacob Riis
As a physical education teacher at a new school with high expectations on sporting performance, the overarching purpose I came up with for my students is:
“The people we play with, are more important than the games we play.”
Ways that I have promoted my purpose have been through:
- Creating learning opportunities when disagreements have come about in class and on the playground
- Speaking about it at whole-school assemblies
- Putting up posters
Always be the adult
- Remain calm and rational
- Use adult language and positive framing
- Refrain from using sarcasm, idle threats or personal remarks
- Don’t take negative behaviour personally
- We need to understand disruptive students are disconnected
- Praise in public, reprimand in private.
- Keep consequences – Reasonable, Related, Respectful
- Tune in. Check in with how they’re feeling
- Give them a right of reply
- Tactically ignore the secondary behaviour.
- Give them take up time
- Point out the poor behaviour and what they should be doing.
- Often when we are reactive with our response, we usually give the student what they want
- Ask yourself, why is it happening in a specific context?
- Need to connect the consequence to the behaviour
Ollie Lovell has put together this great flowchart of some of Bill Rogers’ tips on how to respond to disruptive behaviour.
The NSW Department of Education has also put out a great overview of Restorative Practices and ways we can respond to negative behaviour. You might also be interested in knowing how to communicate with children like an FBI negotiator.
Consistency is key
As I have written about previously, systems and routines enable us to ensure consistency. “Decreases the cognitive load on our working memory for both students and teachers. Anything that is not stored in our long term memory, takes up space in our limited working memory. So, we want to automate the things that have to happen, but don’t add value to the students gaining new knowledge. If every student knows that they have to line up a certain way, enter a classroom a certain way and move between activities a certain way, then this procedure can automatically happen.”
What things do you need to systemise and create routines for? Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion goes through exactly this, but here are a few things to think about initially:
- How will you recognise and respond to positive and negative behaviour
- Transitioning between activities
- Entering the classroom
- How they present their work
- Answering questions
- Actively listen
- What students do when the work is difficult
- What students do when the work is completed
- Beginning and ending a lesson
No student has the same story
Often we as adults can put the blame on the children and forget that they are the product of their background and experiences. The NSW Department of Education summarises it well with this graphic:
Within one classroom we can have students with a range of abilities and from different backgrounds. How are you challenging your high potential and gifted students so that they do not experience the expertise-reversal effect? While also taking into account the needs of those with special learning needs?
Quarmby et al’s 2021 paper, “Developing evidence-informed principles for trauma-aware pedagogies in physical education,” presented five principles of trauma aware pedagogies in PE (although it’s pretty relevant for any teacher):
- Ensuring safety and wellbeing
- Establishing routines and structures
- Sustaining positive relationships that foster a sense of belonging
- Facilitating and responding to youth voice
- Promoting strengths and self-belief
These principles can realistically be followed by any teacher and would benefit all students in the classroom. You can read Dr. Ash Casey’s reflections on the article here.
Berry Street Education Model recently put out this mind-map designed by one of their alumni, Matt Handley that goes over a number of strategies that can be implemented to support students in being ready to learn.
Last year I spoke about bringing the cafe (Calm, Attention, Fun, Empathy) to the classroom due to the impact of COVID-19. The importance of Social-Emotional Learning was also highlighted by Evidence for Learning. They put together 6 recommendations:
- Teach SEL skills explicitly
- Integrate and model SEL skills through everyday teaching
- Plan carefully for adopting a SEL program
- Use a SAFE curriculum. Sequential, Active, Focused and Explicit
- Reinforce SEL skills through whole-school ethos and activities
- Plan, Support and monitor SEL implementation
What to do when all of that doesn’t work?
Now, in a perfect world after we’ve developed our positive classroom culture, we would never have to deal with another behaviour issue again! However, teaching isn’t quite so simple! Things will still go wrong and we need to be prepared for it.
Have you completed a Functional Behaviour Assessment?
Are you familiar with the whole-school behaviour management policy? Does your school follow a framework like Positive Behaviour for Learning (PBL) also known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)?
What should you do if you need to exclude a student from the classroom?
As you can see, there is a lot to think about when it comes to creating a positive classroom culture and it certainly will not just happen. Remember to:
- Explicitly teach the behaviours you expect to see
- Follow through with the rules you set
- Understand that most the time, there are good intentions behind the bad behaviour
- The adults need to create the right environment, so that our children can succeed
Further reading and listening
NSW Department of Education
NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
The Australian Education Research Organisation