The Right Response

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.I’ve noticed that teachers who are learning about the Responsive Classroom approach to discipline often worry a lot about choosing the “right” response to student misbehavior. “Is there a list of logical consequences that match up with specific misbehaviors?” is an often-asked question, and I see how disappointed they are when I say no. Explaining that there’s simply not a one-size-fits-all solution—different children and situations require different responses— doesn’t seem to help.

Recently I had an insight that I think might help. Experienced teachers tend to feel pretty confident about knowing what to do when a child needs help with an academic skill. When we see a child struggling with decoding, or multiplication, or spelling, we choose a response that we think will help that particular child. It’s the same with responding to misbehavior—you have to ask yourself, “What does this student need to be more successful?” The only difference is that you’re likely to be focusing on social and emotional skills.

Here’s an example from my own first grade classroom:

When I noticed that Ryan had difficulty reading and remembering sight words, I decided to give him extra help with developing that skill. To make the best choice about the type of intervention that would benefit Ryan the most, I thought carefully about what I knew about him as a learner: He was a boy on the go who enjoyed action. When learning new skills, he was more confident in a small-group setting. He had a great support system at home, so I could count on his family to help.

Based on this knowledge, I introduced a sight word flashcard game to Ryan and one other classmate. Then, Ryan made a set of cards so he could play the game at home. This required some independent writing, which gave Ryan even more practice with sight words. I also sent home sight word books for him to read with his family. Before long, the strategies worked—Ryan’s sight word knowledge increased, and he was on his way to grade level reading.

Ryan’s classmate Bobby also needed some extra help, but with a behavior issue. He interrupted every lesson by calling out. He’d blurt out his thoughts and derail our work. “When is it recess?” he’d shout during Morning Meeting. “How long will this take?” he’d call out after I gave directions for independent work. “Are we going to have quiet time today?” he’d ask loudly in the middle of a Writer’s Workshop mini-lesson.

At first, each time Bobby shouted out, I responded with an action that simply addressed the misbehavior. Bobby was moved off the carpet, sent to Take-a-Break, and had a special spot by me during whole-group lessons. However, although those responses conveyed that Bobby’s interrupting was a problem, they didn’t help Bobby learn how to stop blurting out whatever was on his mind. To choose an intervention that would actually help him learn, I had to look carefully at what I knew about Bobby, and I had to understand the reasons underlying his behavior.

First, I looked for patterns. I realized that Bobby most often shouted out during whole-group lessons, and that he mostly asked questions about what was going to happen—a clue that he felt anxious in those situations.

With that in mind, I created a plan that allowed Bobby to ask two questions anytime the class gathered as a group. However, the agreement we made was that he’d ask his questions privately—for instance, as the children transitioned to their work spaces. This approach honored Bobby’s need to ask questions, but allowed him to do so while practicing self-control and without disrupting the flow for everyone. Over time, as Bobby gained control over his impulsivity, we changed the plan to allow only one private question. Eventually there were times when he didn’t have a question for me at all. Success!

I was able to determine how to help Bobby stop interrupting because I understood his particular needs. He needed help with self-control, but he also needed a personal check-in. Developing a plan that honored both needs helped build a sense of trust between us—a very different relationship than if I’d simply stopped his interruptions by sending him to Take-a-Break and not tried to address the underlying issues.

The approach I used to address Bobby’s misbehavior was the same as the one I used to address Ryan’s academic weakness. In both cases, the boys were making mistakes that indicated a deficit—there was something that each boy needed to practice and learn. I used what I knew about each child to craft a response that would help with that learning. You can do the same thing! Start by asking yourself, “What does this child need?” and “What do I know about this child?” and use your answers to develop a solution.

Candace Roberts is a Responsive Classroom consultant, kindergarten teacher in Rhode Island, and Early Childhood Generalist.

Tags: 1st Grade, Listening Skills, Misbehavior, Quiet Time, Waiting

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