Minimize or Eliminate Classroom Disruptions and Defiance
Your overall attitude toward classroom disruptions must be, “I won't permit anyone to disrupt the educational process of those students who want to learn.” This mantra may seem harsh, but it's the only one that will guide you through your darkest times as a teacher. Ask yourself, “Why do the kids and I come to this classroom every day?”
In a nutshell, you're teaching kids how to survive. In some tribal societies survival training might include hunting skills or learning to distinguish beneficial plants from poisonous ones; but in our modern society, education encompasses reading, writing, mathematics, science, history, geography, law, economics, technological skills, and more. This kind of survival training is essential to the well-being and prosperity of society's individual members. Survival knowledge must be comprehensively and efficiently transmitted from those who have the knowledge to those without it.
That's where you come in. You're in the classroom every day to teach kids how to survive and they're in the classroom to learn survival. You're not there to waste time, suffer abuse, play mind games, or quarrel endlessly. And your students are not there to learn slovenliness, cruelty, and irrationality. You've got limited time to impart your hard-earned wisdom and they've got limited time to acquire it. Therefore, even though you're brimming with affection for your students, you're nevertheless prepared to crack down on all disrespectful nonsense at all times. This isn't a form of heartlessness; it's a form of love.
Above all, never ignore disruptive behavior and hope it'll just vanish. Only a fool would just ignore a glaring problem. You're no fool, and you won't ignore classroom disruptions.
What does this mean in concrete terms? Suppose a student has been talking and giggling for many minutes during your social studies lesson on California's ancient Chumash Indians. Eventually, you have no choice but to waste some of the class's valuable time asking the student to quiet down and pay attention to the lesson because a quiz will follow. The student rudely talks back, protesting that he wasn't talking — which you and your students know is a lie. Don't be intimidated. Interrupt the student by courteously but firmly reminding him, “Yes, you certainly were talking,” and inform him that such rudeness will not be not tolerated. For many students, this kind of chastisement is sufficient to modify the misbehavior.
Accentuate the Positive
Strongly consider the power of positive reinforcement before you move on to equally powerful negative consequences. Positive reinforcement is a term formulated by the eminent American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (or B. F. Skinner). Positive reinforcement means that a person who exhibits a desired behavior should instantly receive a reward for that behavior to induce a repetition. Skinner asserted that positive reinforcement can often solve problems more easily and quickly than punishments if a student is receptive and reasonable and not too firmly entrenched in a years-long pattern of classroom disruption. Skinner recommended that teachers use positive reinforcement in the following manner:
Make sure that each concept that is taught is broken into easy-to-understand steps.
Progress from the easiest concepts to more difficult concepts.
Reteach the concept as many times as necessary until kids get it right.
Instantly let kids know what they've done right and what they've done wrong.
Instantly give a reward when kids exhibit a desired behavior.
The crassest kind of instant reward would be to throw the kid a piece of candy when he does something right, whereupon the kid would catch it and shove it in his mouth. But since human beings aren't trained seals, a more effective form of positive reinforcement is to praise, praise, praise. You might think that kids find praise phony or embarrassing, but they love it — just as adults love it. You probably don't enjoy being told by your principal, “Jones, your classroom isn't stimulating enough for your students.” But you probably love hearing, “Jones, I want you to know how much I appreciate your arriving half an hour early every day. You're really dedicated. Keep up the good work.” What a difference! And if you crave this kind of praise, your students will crave it, too.
Consider one of your worst troublemakers: she suddenly raises her hand one day and answers a question correctly. Praise her. “Miss Smith,” you say, beaming, “that's the right answer. Excellent work.” You don't have to go on for ten minutes, but a few seconds of praise will doubtless persuade her to listen even more carefully and answer a few more questions correctly. Or consider another of your rebels: he raises his hand and informs you that he's just received 100 percent on his history test. Praise him. “That's great, Mr. Lee. Magnificent work.”
When Disruptions Persist
However, some of your students just won't conform sufficiently if all you use is positive reinforcement. Sometimes, such students are emotionally immature; and sometimes, they come from challenging home environments where poverty, divorce, or abuse can cause them to develop into combative individuals. If you find that such students are persistently engaging in time-wasting tantrums, you'll have no choice but to warn them of a punishment to follow then impose that punishment if it becomes necessary. Various types of punishments have already been discussed earlier, but they bear repetition here — along with many other ethical penalties you may devise:
Counsel a disruptive student on the inappropriateness and consequences of disruption.
Write a note in a disruptive student's agenda informing his parents of the problem.
Mail a memo home to a disruptor's parents informing them of the problem.
Send disruptive students to a buddy teacher with a behavioral essay to complete.
Have disruptors briefly sit in an isolated time-out area to contemplate proper behavior.
Revoke one or more of a disruptor's special privileges, including recess or a field trip.
Issue one or more after-school detentions for repeated or egregious disruptions.
Send disruptors to the school psychologist or counselor for behavioral counseling.
Send disruptors to the principal or other administrator for behavioral counseling.
Write a suspension for chronically disruptive, defiant, disrespectful, nonrepentant students.
Never punish a student by sending her to sit out in the hallway. If the student gets disgusted, decides to walk home, and then gets hit by a car, what can you possibly say in your own defense? “I thought she'd stay outside the classroom! I never dreamed she'd leave!” Such unprofessional negligence rightfully constitutes grounds for termination.
Here are some punishments that you will never use as a professional educator:
Battery, meaning unwanted or offensive touching, beating, and corporal punishment
Assault, where a student is placed in psychological fear of injury
Screaming tirades and unprofessional verbal abuse
Gross personal insults and crass remarks about family, friends, relationships, hygiene, etc.
“Standards,” where mindless statements are written over and over again
Ejections, where students are forced to loiter outside classrooms, often in inclement weather
False imprisonment, meaning locking students in closets, etc.
Torture, such as forcing students to stand upright for long periods, kneeling on sand, etc.
Incitement, where other students are encouraged to ridicule or attack a particular student
When you punish you do so because positive reinforcement hasn't produced the desired result and because your little rebel might yet modify his misbehavior if penalized properly and because the vast majority of your students deserve to learn in a reasonably quiet, problem-free classroom. You are the moral arbiter in your classroom — make sure you use your disciplinary powers to maintain an atmosphere of intellectual stimulation, camaraderie, support, security, and even a little fun.