Leading with Positivity: Preventing Misbehaviors in the Classroom Without Being the Bad Guy

By Petra Claflin

There are the old teaching adages, ‘Don’t smile until Christmas’ and ‘They don’t have to like me, they just have to respect me’ that I remember hearing when I first started teaching.  And many new teachers are led to believe that they can’t be themselves and they have to be strict and maybe a little mean the first few weeks in order to set the right tone.  But as many of the best and most seasoned teachers know, this is not the case.  If you love teaching, you can’t help but smile and be happy when you see your new crop of kiddos walk through the door! 

While all teachers know you have to be consistent with consequences in order to prevent and stem misbehaviors, there are other techniques that many outstanding teachers use to prevent misbehaviors that they may not even know they’re doing.  That’s because many of these are a natural result of gains in ‘teacher confidence’ as well as a genuine desire to get to build relationships with your students.  As a newer teacher, though these may not come naturally, they can give you a leg up if you learn to apply them now.

  1. Greet each Student at the Door – If you give a student a genuine smile and positive eye contact, it’s hard for them not to smile back.  And boom, you’ve had a positive interaction with that student.  The key is making sure you make that positive eye contact even if it means jokingly stopping a student who’s trudging past you to make sure you catch their eye.  And if you end up being goofy and laughing a little, even better, they probably will too!  It’ll be hard for them to overtly engage in off task behaviors when you were working so hard to win them over at the door.
  2. Stand Still & Tall when Stating Expectations – With so much going on the first few days, a teacher can easily find themselves giving directions while they’re taking attendance or passing out papers, but try to resist this.  Stand still and tall in front of the class and make calm eye contact with as many students as possible while you’re speaking.  Every eye you catch is a student you’re engaging with and they know you’re paying attention to them, in a good way!  If you’re looking at the screen or going through a stack of papers, you’re disconnected from the students and they’re less likely to heed your directions.  As teachers gain more experience and confidence, this starts to come naturally, but if you’re just starting out and are a little nervous, it’s a concrete way to help project some confidence into whatever you’re saying and encourage the students to meet those expectations confidently, as well.
  3. Stop, Stand & Scan – I love this strategy!  There are two excellent times for this.  As soon as you finish stating an expectation and in the middle of practice time. For the former, remain standing still where you are and scan the room, making positive eye contact with kids as they get started on whatever you asked of them.  And if a student is off task, don’t be afraid to give them a smile when you catch their eye and they’ll likely break into a little smile and do what you asked.  The sooner you start moving, the sooner they have the opportunity to think you might not be engaged and paying attention, which can open the door for off task behaviors.  The other great time for this strategy is during practice.  As you circulate and touch base with students, stop periodically and just stand and scan the room.  This lets the kids know you’re engaged with what the class is doing, paying attention to them, and allows you to nudge them back on task with positive eye contact if they’ve drifted off task.
  4. Give Lots of Specific Praise – Take as many opportunities as possible to praise your students.  If 100% of your students are engaging with their lab, praise them!  If a student who is often off task is participating actively with her group, praise her!  Depending on the age and the student, public praise can backfire, so for students that you don’t yet have a positive relationship with, you may want to say it in a more private way.  For example, if you have an 8th grader who you aren’t on good terms with yet and you praise him publicly, he may get embarrassed and blow off your comment (or worse, say something snarky) whereas if you say it quietly and none of his peers hear it, he’s more likely to accept and appreciate it.  After a few of these positive interactions, it’s unlikely the recipients of your praise are going to actively misbehave because they are building a more positive relationship with you!
  5. Script & Practice your Directions – The quickest way for your class to get off task is for you to give unclear or overly long directions.  Being succinct and clear gets easier with time, but during the first few weeks of school, it is time well spent to plan out the directions for every stage of the lesson so that things run smoothly and students know exactly what is expected of them at all times.  A couple of disorganized lessons can send the message that you aren’t taking class seriously since you’re not taking the time to be well-prepared for it, so maybe they don’t have to take it seriously either.  Again, it comes back to engaging with the students.  If you are incredibly well-prepared for class and maximize their learning time, they know you respect and care about them, their time, and their learning, and so they will give you that care and respect in return.

What other strategies do you use to build positive relationships and/or prevent misbehaviors in your classroom?

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