Friday, February 24, 2012

Managing Behavior with Trust: An Assistant Principal Weighs In

Here's a 3-step process and one highly successful assistant principal's experience in helping students resolve their own behavior issues. Curtis Nightingale, assistant principal at Pratt High School in Pratt, Kansas, returns to the School Improvement blog to weigh in on issues faced by administrators and teachers alike. 

I believe the key to handling discipline, i.e. “classroom management,” is all about people skills. Conflict will happen—that is something we cannot control. But how we approach that conflict—that, we can control. Refusing to take it personal and making your students your allies rather than your opponents is the place to start.

Moment Management

behavior and classroom management
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If you will approach difficult moments (those moments where you as an educator feel challenged by a student) in very much the same way you approach teachable moments (when things don’t go as planned, yet a good educator will find a way to make even that event a learning experience) you can begin to see them more as a positive challenge rather than a negative one.

Helping them to break down the conflict in terms they can understand and the ability to see the other side is key to moment management. Many teachers do this through norm setting exercises, tribal councils, etc. The principle is the same. Helping them to recognize the roles in the room--the staff’s and theirs--can help them better understand the conflict. In other words, basic citizenship.

Building Relationships on Trust

I will admit, I rarely had discipline issues in my class. In fact, I am not sure I ever sent a student to the office—short of a fight in the hallway, of course. Now, that may be due to the fact that at 6’2” and 245 pounds I had a “calming effect” on my students, but I like to believe it had more to do with the relationship I developed with them.

I attempted to foster a “we” atmosphere in my room. “We” were going to attack the subject at hand and “we” were going to figure it out. At times I may have pretended not to know the answers, and quite frankly there were times I did not have to pretend, but I was attempting to foster a trench mentality…us against the world, the computers, the textbook, the test…you get the idea.

Many of my potential discipline issues were solved within the first few weeks of school just through the development of an actual relationship with my students. Through our give and take they didn’t want to let me down, thus there was never an issue of disrespect, defiance, or refusal to do what I asked. Did I have kids that failed my class? Yes. Did I have kids who served detentions for me? You bet. Did kids get mad at me? I am sure they did, but I also had to bar kids from eating lunch in my room with me…some of those same kids! I am a firm believer that there are days where the only positive adult contact some of our kids will have is that contact they have with us educators. Sad, yes; sobering, even more so.

How I Help Students Get Over It

As an assistant principal, I will get kids in my office for various defiance issues, and these are the steps I would follow:
  1. I always ask them their side first. I validate their viewpoint and then ask them what they believe he teacher’s issues to be.
  2. I may then read them the teacher’s comments and we then begin discussing the issue as if they are watching another student involved in the same situation. As we talk through it, I take away emotion, I take away personal viewpoint because of course we can’t know what a stranger is thinking or feeling. As we move through the exercise, they begin to recognize how the teacher/sub/staff member saw their behavior.
  3. We then look at the policy and I quote them the worst-case scenario consequence. I ask them how they would apply this to our subject in question.
The next time I deal with this student, the exercise is much more concise, because I have built both trust and a relationship already. And I have done this with one visit of most often less than 5 – 10 minutes. As a teacher I had them for 85 minutes every other day, all year/semester long.

If handled appropriately, imagine the relationship that could be developed with that amount of time!

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