Big Success with Consistent Behavior Guidance

A science class has a good year

For Middle Level

What do we do when our efforts to help students improve their behavior are not successful? Do we revert to punitive responses? Do we plead, rant, or rave? Do we give up? Or can we use growth, action, and objective mindsets to continue to teach our students to grow? Scott Diedrich, science teacher at Manchester Elementary-Middle School, offers us an example of the grit and determination it takes to remain steadfast in our belief that all students can and will learn to do things the right way when taught the right tools and when provided with good leadership.

During much of the calendar year, most of my students are in tune with school. But there are parts of the school year that tend to throw us off track a bit. The first day back after a long weekend tends to be trying, for example, as does the month of May. The mid-year doldrums are a challenging period. Many of my students tend to be less productive after the New Year, especially while working in groups. The problem often starts with a couple of students, but before long it seems to permeate the whole class. Last year, as January approached, I wanted to help my students avoid the doldrums by staying on task, productive, and invested during our science investigations. Like any good scientist, I needed to be disciplined and consistent as I planned and implemented my approach to the midwinter blues. Changing any one of the variables alone would not lead me to success.

Best practices
I used a number of best practices to help me in this process, including democratic rule-making, modeling and practicing behavior expectations, and the cycle of planning, working, and reflecting. These were my variables, the tools I would try to consistently use to keep my students headed in the right direction.

After winter break, I invited my students to discuss what behavior would support learning in our science class. We talked about what rules we should keep intact from the fall, which ones we should redefine or enact, and what behaviors would demonstrate the rules in action. Following our conversation, we posted the revised and agreed-upon rules in the classroom as a reminder to everyone. When students needed to be redirected, I first instructed them to look over the list to reacquaint themselves with their rules. They were responsible for thinking about what it would take to get back on track. Rigor and a heightened consciousness had been brought back to the rules. After I redirected them, my job was (potentially) done.

Review and remodel
With the first investigation of the New Year, I took care to clarify and apply behavior expectations for this specific instance. The inquiry was called the Water Penny, wherein students determine how many drops of water would fit on a penny. Before the students started the lab, we talked about what we wanted it to look, sound, and feel like as we worked. As our discussion progressed, we talked about what each behavior should look like during the experiment. I had each table group model correctly for the rest of the class one of the specific behaviors.

I provided a refresher on redirection protocols, as well. I prearranged with a couple of students to demonstrate taking a break to collect and correct themselves and get back to work. The demonstration worked very well. Each demonstrated an incorrect behavior (one that didn't follow our agreements) and I quickly, neutrally told them to take a break. We watched. I had made sure beforehand they would model take a break according to the guidelines. They did, and I noticed their audience watched them very carefully.

Getting started
When I felt we had completed our planning session, and after referencing our agreed-upon behaviors a final time, we began our work: the investigation. I selected two student observers to make observations of the group; they were instructed to not single out individuals but rather record what people were doing together. As the students began the lab, I immediately had to remind a few of them not to run while they gathered their materials. During the lab, a number of students attempted to look at the data collected by other groups, so I reminded them that they were all instructed to stay in their own groups and that we would share our findings later. I doled out most of my reminders when we had to clean up following the lab; some students were all over the place, leaving materials scattered on the floor, over their work stations, and in puddles of water they left behind. Clearly, we had some work to do.

Not good enough
During our next class, we spent time reflecting on how successful we had been during the Water Penny exploration. Most people felt they did a good job of following the correct behaviors. Our two class observers, however, pointed out that there were a couple of groups off task during the activity, and that cleanup had not gone well. While I agreed that much had improved, I couldn't be satisfied with only most students supporting an optimal learning environment. We needed to find a way to ensure that everyone completed all their tasks-including cleaning up-in a timely fashion and using acceptable behaviors.

I decided to isolate the part of the lab time that needed the most work: cleanup. We planned for next time by collaborating on a Y-chart that focused on what it looks, sounds, and feels like to have everyone clean up after completing lab. Would it stick the next time? I wasn't sure.

Looks like:

  • people putting away equipment
  • students cleaning up tables

Sounds like:

  • very little talking
  • water running
  • paper being ripped from dispenser
  • paper being thrown in trash

Feels like:

  • a team working together
  • hard work

Another try
During the next investigation, we were outside collecting water data. Before we started in the field, we spent several minutes talking about how we would walk out to the stream, how we'd behave once we arrived there, how we'd clean up, and how we'd return to class afterward. We spent the most time discussing cleanup time. I reminded them that we had had a similar talk during the Water Penny investigation but failed to deliver on the promise we had mapped out. We needed to improve on carrying out our plans and obeying our rules, and I challenged them to work to get better at both tasks.

When we went to the stream, the students did an excellent job on their transitions, and their work at the stream was very productive. Cleanup went much better, too! The extra time spent planning paid off. I believe the students in part wanted to do a good job because they enjoyed doing experiments outside, and understood it to be a privilege they had to continue earning.

More problems
Later in the year, I created an additional Y-chart to help us rebound from another problematic incident. As we were walking to the science lab one afternoon, my students became so loud and disruptive that they could not hear my direction for silence when we arrived. After settling down in the room, we discussed the proper procedure for walking in the hallway. Students provided appropriate solutions, and we quickly listed these behaviors on a chart. We then walked back to my room and then back to the lab, to practice doing it right.

I had intended to practice this only once, but, as we were getting close to the lab, a small group of students started talking. Once the entire group arrived at the lab, other students suggested that we practice again. They wanted it to be quieter, to be better. It was good to see students dissatisfied with their performance as a whole, electing without prompting from me to repeat the process until they did it right. This was a wonderful sign-they were taking ownership of their own class, of their own behavior.

With persistence, success
Our final investigation called for students to collect data in groups and work independently. As I watched students come into class and set up their own equipment, discuss how the day's work should be separated, and engage in scientific discussions, I was impressed by their progress. Students also did a much better job of cleaning up after themselves than they had following earlier experiments.

Once again, we spent time reviewing behavior expectations. While I saw students occasionally grow weary of this review, their greatly improved performance was worth persisting through their resistance. By March, every now and then I had to remind students what was expected in class, but disruptions had decreased steadily since September.

By the end of the year, I looked back and thought about why, in general, students violated routines during their work time. More often than not, a lack of clear planning on my part was a critical aspect of student missteps. I've learned from this experience the importance of determined, consistent, clear behavior guidance on the front end to build a productive work time.

Scott Diedrich teaches math and science to 7th and 8th graders at Manchester Elementary-Middle School in Manchester VT.

Published January 2010