Have you ever walked into a primary school classroom and seen all the children sitting on the floor in front of a teacher, except for one? And that one, is sitting on a special seat and looking like the proverbial “cat that got the cream”. That scene is probably replicated in the majority of primary schools throughout New Zealand. The child on said chair is more than likely enjoying the opportunity to be the ‘Star of the Day’ or ‘Teacher’s Helper’ (or any variation of label thereof). This is most likely an example of a strategy often employed by teachers as a way of managing student behaviour. It is used as both an inducement, and as a reward. It’s a pretty effective strategy because most children are motivated to sit in ‘that’ chair. Mostly.
For some students, inducements or rewards are just a bonus. They are already internally motivated and able to self regulate. For others, it will operate effectively at helping them move towards internal motivation and self regulation. For some children though, being chosen to sit on the special chair is not a sufficient motivator to get them to do, or behave as the teacher requests. That’s why it’s
important critical to be able to determine the intent and impact of using particular behaviour management strategies. Is the intention to achieve compliance or self regulation? Of course, the target of any intervention should be about helping children to self regulate, rather than simply creating children who are compliant. That’s because self regulation and internal motivation are the foundation stones of effective learning.
I think it is also worth stepping back and seeing this from a wider angle. The real problem here is that this is not just a child’s problem. That is, for most normal human beings, self-regulation does not come easily. But so often I conclude that adults place higher expectations of self regulation on children than they do on themselves. As far as I can see, I suspect that the society we live in is run by adults who, by varying degrees, are poor at self regulation and display a considerable paucity of emotional intelligence. So while it is honourable to have these high expectations, these need to be matched equally with support, guidance and opportunities to learn how to self regulate. As I have said before, first and foremost, teachers need to be mindful of their own mindset.
Over recent years, I have become better at choosing and adapting the strategies I employ to manage behaviour. That’s come about as a result of applying a research/evidence based teaching practice. I am always seeking an honest answer to the question: “How am I/we doing?” The best solutions/pedagogy come about by responding to the needs of the children, rather than by blindly following the received conventional wisdom. In terms of managing behaviour effectively, expectations of how to behave and how to engage need to be clear and consistent. That’s why I am always looking for opportunities to reinforce these expectations. And that’s also why I am willing and prepared to play the ‘long game’. The research reveals to us that the best learning for all students is self generated and takes place over a sustained period of time.
The research is now also making it abundantly clear that the level of rapport in the learning environment is the closest thing teachers can have that represents a ‘silver bullet’. Based on my own personal experience of testing the research in the classroom, I can unequivocally claim that there is a clear and undeniable link between the level of rapport and the quality of the learning taking place. Is it the cause or simply a correlation? I’m not sure and it may be difficult to prove but I for one, would be very keen to find out. By implementing the research and making this self discovery, it has given me more confidence to play around with how I approach my role as a teacher. It has resulted in me embracing this teaching manifesto with open arms. One of my primary roles has now become one of creating a learning environment that is full of joy and empathy.
As a result, my teaching day looks very different to what it used to. The day starts with singing and dancing. In fact, singing and dancing feature regularly throughout the day. I have also managed to democratise the process of managing behaviour. Happy children are contagious. Empathy loves company, it would seem. A primary focus of mine these days is to have a conversation with the children about how we are all part of a learning environment that values respect and kindness; that we are a kind and caring community. The day is full of opportunities that I have created deliberately, to put these values into practice. Pro-social experiences is what I call them.
The intention is to make the learning more meaningful and more ‘visible’. If we are going to make academic learning visible as a way of improving learning, then the same should apply to social learning. As a result, the positive impact of the ‘Teacher’s Helper’ role has become super charged. Previously, I used to choose the ‘helper’. I would pick the children who I thought were deserving. Now I choose the helper “randomly” so that every child gets to take a turn on a regular basis. This is a significant change in thinking and practice. I now realize that every child wants to be good and appreciated. It’s just that they may not have learned the skills of managing themselves yet. There are social skills that they need to learn. My job is therefore, to give them opportunities to learn those skills. They need opportunities to practice. Just like I give them all equal opportunities to learn to read and write and count.
I also added another element to the ‘helper’ role that contributes to the task of moving students to being internally motivated and self managing. I invite the ‘helper’ to come to the front of the class and invite them to seek feedback from fellow students. It means that everyone gets to hear positive comments about the person standing in front of them. At the beginning of the year I will most likely prompt the process by providing a model starter sentence along the lines of…”what I really like about Jane is….” But eventually it becomes a genuine child-centred activity. I note that some teachers choose to take a more hands on approach.
It is so amazing to hear what they come up with. Things such as, “She is a kind and caring friend and we are lucky to have her in the class.” “She is a good friend to play with and when I am hurt she takes me to the sick bay.” “She plays nicely with me and is a good reader.” Mostly it is variations on the same ideas of kindness and friendship. In effect, I have put these ideas and words in their mouth. Often when I hear their descriptions, I will reinforce their observation by agreeing with them. Sometimes I hear stuff that surprises me. Stuff that requires me to change my perceived view of that child. This process allows me to develop quite a different perspective of the children. It allows me to triangulate. That’s formative assessment at its best; quick, informative feedback.
I also notice that the children are incredibly honest. If they think another child is not so deserving of praise, I will hear a discussion and some murmurings. I think it is important for the child in question to hear that feedback directly and for the children to get a sense that their concerns are being heard. I hear this described as ‘Reintegrative Shame’. At the same time, children are incredibly forgiving. In these situations I will ask if we can give the person a chance to ‘join the fold’; to choose to get back on track, the answer is always a resounding ‘yes’. Being a helper comes with special privilege and expectations. And the good thing is, those expectations can be continually and gradually ramped up. This ‘system’ also provides opportunities to ‘induce’ improvement in other areas – those next steps – both academic and social.
I invite you to embrace the power of rapport. Play around with it. Notice the impact. How you choose to go about achieving it is not the critical factor. But build up those teacher/student relationships as well as the student/student relationships. And do let me know of your success stories or questions you may have. Love and laughter are essential ingredients for creating a great learning environment and great learning outcomes for the students.
Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.
Inspiration and analysis for this blog post come from “The Parking Ticket Experiment | The Science of Empathy”. Note the impact of language in creating an empathetic environment.
You may also be interested in reading about how effective teaching and effective interrogation share the common ingredient of rapport.
You can find the links below.