Monday, February 17, 2014

What It Really Takes to Establish Productive Classroom Routines

When I was teaching, I gave my students a handout called "Our Blueprint for Success" on the first day of school. I asked my students to share their understanding of what a blueprint is, and we related the architect's plan for building a house to this plan for building a positive and productive classroom.

My blueprint contained the title of each of my required procedures, followed by three to five numbered lines on which the students would copy the steps to each procedure.

My required procedures were:
* How to Begin Class

* How to Come to Attention

* How to Be Dismissed

* How to Borrow Materials

The blueprint also included two other lists:
* Rules for the Classroom  (See What Rules Do We Need?)

* 4-Step Consequences  (See The Four-Step Classroom Consequences)

You can read my complete lists on this free download of Our Blueprint for Success.

On the first day of school, with each classroom, I wrote down each item on each list as I talked about it. What I wrote, the students wrote. I asked them to write neatly and carefully. I wanted their first assignment to be one they were proud of. I wanted to help my students to develop habits that would build their self-esteem and help them to succeed in school.

I could have typed in the lists for my students and just gone over the requirements while they listened. But that approach allows my students to sit passively instead of handling and thinking about each step of each procedure. Writing down the items on the list keeps them active in what would otherwise be a very boring activity.

The students' writing also gave me important information about my new charges' ability to pay attention and follow directions as well as to form letters and words on paper. While we copied the lists, I attempted to pull ideas or concerns from my students' experiences in school. "What will our classroom be like if everyone is allowed to talk whenever they want to?" "Why do I care how you behave in the classroom?"

How to Communicate Procedures

Deciding on your procedures and introducing them to your students is the easy part of classroom management. Many teachers think they have fully communicated their expectations by fulfilling these tasks. I maintain that effectively communicating your expectations to your students takes more than announcing them and listing steps. I have to get my students to practice the procedures, physically, in order for them to understand exactly what I mean for them do. Otherwise, I'm just another teacher talking about a rule or expectation that my students think they already know.

Most students also know that many teachers say they want a certain behavior or routine, but they never actually follow through to embed it, so students will wait and see if I really mean to enforce my plan. The depth of involvement I require from them to practice my procedures helps me to communicate how much I mean what I say.

For example, my procedure for How to Begin Class includes the following steps:

1. Enter the room walking, talking quietly. 
This means students will not bolt or run into the room. No one will be playing or tripping their classmate. No one will push their peer. They may be talking. After all, I will want to greet my students, and I will want them to return the greeting, but there will be no loud joking and yelling.

2. Walk directly to your assigned seat and sit down. 
This means that I will not see Marcus, who sits near the door, back in the far corner with James before class starts, because "directly to your seat" means Marcus walks from the door to this chair less than five feet away and sits down.

3. Read the screen and prepare to get busy on the bell work assignment. 
As soon as you sit down, check the overhead screen for your bell work assignment. Get out your paper and have your pencil ready. Apply your thinking to understand what you are required to do.

4. When the bell rings, all talking stops and every person is working on the bell work. 
I should not have to tell you to get busy or to start your bell work. I should not have to tell you to stop talking.

5. Store your backpack and all belongings beneath your desk.
No belongings will be in the aisles. Only what you need to complete the bell work will be on top of your desk, along with your agenda (student planner) and your completed homework.

How to Rehearse Procedures

To rehearse this procedure, I announced that we were going to play a game. One row of students at a time would go out into the hallway and pretend that it was the start of class. They would enter the classroom following every step of this procedure. The row that did it correctly would be the winner. I told my students to take 60 seconds to study the list and prepare to demonstrate the procedure.

This is typically what happened when I rehearsed this procedure with my seventh-grade classes. The first row of students went to the door and entered the room to demonstrate their understanding of the procedure. All of the students entered the room walking. They all went directly to their seats and sat down. . . and they waited, their faces beaming because they just knew they had done the procedure correctly.

I asked the others if this group of students followed the procedure. Almost always, the observers could say that someone left their backpack in the aisle, or someone talked or giggled. I pointed them to the steps.

"Are you allowed to talk as you enter the classroom?"

"Oh. Yes, you are."

"What did they miss?"

Eventually, someone pointed out that the students did not get started right away on the bell work. Exactly. And that is the whole reason to have this procedure in the first place. I did not want to remind my students every day to come in and get busy on their bell work. I wanted this to be a routine they followed without my nagging.

I asked every row of students to see if they could perform the procedure. The whole class got very involved in trying to catch their peers leaving out a component of the procedure. At the end of the class period, no student could claim they did not understand the requirements for beginning class. This is what it takes to communicate a procedure to a classroom of students.

If a teacher wants to truly embed a procedure so that it becomes a routine, her work on procedures is still not finished.

What It Takes to Establish a Routine

Even though my procedure had been clearly communicated, and every student eventually demonstrated that they understood every detail of the requirement, would they all perform that procedure when they entered my classroom the next day? Absolutely not. By the next day's class, I was the only one thinking about the procedure.

If I allowed any student to enter my classroom without performing the procedure, I sent the message that I did not really mean what I taught about procedures. So I prepared to monitor the entry of the students, knowing I would ask many of them to return to the hallway to demonstrate the required procedure. Because I already knew that it would take me all of my first week, and probably my second week too, to embed this procedure, I was not discouraged or agitated at all that I had to remind students to follow my procedure.

For at least two week's time, my attention was on establishing productive routines more than it was on academic instruction. One of the most effective classroom managers I ever knew explained that she spent 90% of her time on procedures and rules and 10% on instruction during August so that she could spend 90% of her time on instruction and only 10% on discipline the rest of the school year.

I planned for reminding my students about the procedures. I prepared for it. "Please go back and do it again," is the best way to correct a student who does not follow the procedure.

Over the first two weeks, more and more students performed the procedure perfectly. As their peers got into the routine, the stragglers began to adjust to what the majority of their classmates did, and the procedure became an embedded routine. In fact, it was so routine, that my students performed it even when I had a substitute (just like Harry Wong promised in The First Days of School)!

What to Do With Students Who Still Don't Comply

Once the majority of my students performed the procedures routinely, I had to begin issuing consequences to my resistant students. Resistant students are those who purposely disregard the teacher's direction, either to get attention from their peers or to maintain control. Some resistant students just don't change their behavior unless they are made to change, through pressure.

When it was time for this intervention, I simply announced, "Nearly everyone is doing a great job every day with the procedures, so I know everyone can do it. From now on, if you choose not to follow the procedures, I will assume you are choosing to have a consequence."

As always, I had to be vigilant to prove that I meant what I said. Since I had made this announcement, I had to watch for the first student who chose not to follow the procedure, and I had to do . . . what? Remind him again? Tell him to go back and do it again? Express my exasperation that my threat of a consequence did not get him to do it correctly? No. I just needed to follow through with what I said I would do.

I went to the student privately and said, "Jacob, you did not follow our procedure today. I will be calling your parent this evening. You will want to think carefully about the procedures today. If you fail to follow them, you will be choosing to have a detention." Did that make Jacob follow all the procedures? I had to be prepared to issue the detention if he did not.

If Jacob struggled with letting the adult be in charge, he would probably argue that he didn't do anything wrong or try to assert that he did not know the procedure. Don't fall for the student's objections by trying to convince him that he did violate the procedure or by re-explaining the procedure, especially if you know he should know it. I would say to him, "Can you accept your consequence, even if it is hard?"

If the student cannot accept the lighter consequence, I would issue my next discipline step. "Jacob, you now have step three. Your detention is today or tomorrow. I will make arrangements with you before the end of class, and we will call your parent." If you have these conversations privately, a rebellious student is more likely to be able to accept your correction. If you correct him within hearing of his peers, however, he will most likely escalate, and you will have a power struggle on your hands.

It's a hassle to have a power struggle, but you cannot be derailed by any student behavior. You have to be ready for a power struggle, and it should not affect you any more than a student who forgot to put his backpack under the desk. (I will fully address power struggles in another post.)

How Long Does it Take to Establish a Routine?

It is easier, and takes less time, to establish a classroom routine if you start on the first day of school and don't let up until you have the routine embedded. It takes much longer, and is more of a fight, if you allow students to do anything other than your procedures for any prolonged period of time. Why? Because they simply don't take you seriously. You proved to them that you do not mean what you say.

The only way to correct your students' perception of your leadership is to turn around and truly mean what you say. That means you will have to stop threatening and explaining and take action - swiftly and repeatedly - until your students forget that you ever let them get away with dismissing your requests or disrespecting you.

Not only that, but you will have to do it without complaining about your students' behavior, without expressing frustration or agitation, and without sarcasm. Why is it necessary to avoid these negative expressions? If you register that you are upset, then you communicate that you are, or have been, the one who is out of control, the one with the problem. If your students can blame your behavior, they don't have to look at their own behavior.

To be large and in charge, you have to put on a different persona than the one you have been displaying. You have to act like the confident, grown-up, consummate professional until you become the adult young people will follow.

Your students want you to be that teacher. They will push you with their passive-aggressive behavior, with their veiled disrespect, and with their outright defiance until you step up.

That's what my students did for me.

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