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Addressing Behavior Problems in Math Class

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this behavior management tip from Solving Behavior Problems in Math Class: Academic, Learning, Social, and Emotional Empowerment, Grades K-12, by Jennifer Taylor-Cox. This article uses a realistic example to reveal practical strategies for eliminating teacher-student tensions related to power struggles.

Tonya Tantrum
Today during the math lesson, Tonya threw the pattern blocks across the table, fell on the floor, and began screaming and kicking her feet. Tonya’s teacher tried to ignore this behavior, but it was too distracting to the rest of the class. How could she teach when Tonya was making such a scene? So she yelled at Tonya to get her to stop screaming and kicking.

Possible Strategies
Tonya needs to know that she is allowed to ask for help when she does not know what to do. While we do not want Tonya to ask for help every minute, we do want her to begin recognizing oncoming frustration and seeking solutions. Tonya and the teacher can establish a signal that lets Tonya express her feelings and communicates the situation to the teacher. The signal could be a note card with a question mark on it that she is allowed to keep in her desk and post in a designated area when she needs the teacher’s help.

Tonya needs to understand that the teacher is not at Tonya’s every beck and call, but that she will prioritize Tonya when she sees the question mark note card. If during the first couple of days, Tonya over uses the signal, the teacher and Tonya can meet to set a reasonable limit for how many times the signal can be used during the class time. This solution empowers Tonya within a manageable structure for the teacher.

Other strategies, such as asking a friend for help, may also be beneficial for Tonya. We want to teach Tonya to ask a question about the task, not simply announce, “I don’t know what to do.” Initially, the teacher may need to model some example questions that Tonya could ask. Asking task-related questions will help Tonya take charge of her learning.

To address the temper tantrums, Tonya and the teacher need to talk about appropriate ways to express frustration. It really is okay to be frustrated; it happens to all of us. We just need healthy avenues for expressing the frustration (not throwing things, falling on the floor, and kicking and screaming). Clay or play dough is sometimes helpful for children. They can squeeze it to release their frustration. Some children respond better if they are allowed to go get a drink of water or take a short walk when they feel frustrated. Tonya can try some of these releasers, and Tonya and the teacher can evaluate the effectiveness and plan accordingly.

Formative Assessment
To find out the source of Tonya’s frustration and learn her misconceptions and gaps in knowledge associated with today’s lesson, the teacher uses a high-quality, yet simple formative assessment. Tonya’s teacher modified the independent task Tonya was originally working on and used this as a formative assessment to gather information about Tonya’s visualization and spatial reasoning.

The original task (at right) was too frustrating for Tonya. She did not know where to place the pattern blocks to complete the assignment. The modified task (below at left) allowed Tonya to complete the assignment. Using the lines and shading, she was able to place the pattern blocks in the correct locations. Tonya was engaged in the task without frustration. Using both the original task and the modified task as formative assessments, the teacher now knows the appropriate instructional level for Tonya. The modified task is appropriate for Tonya to work on independently. The original task needs more direct instruction from the teacher.    

Productive Instruction
Using a different template (without lines or shading), Tonya’s teacher works with a small group of students to teach them how to use different pattern blocks to fill the same templates. Each student has a template and some pattern blocks. They are asked to fill the template design in different ways. After each student is finished, they compare the different ways each one filled the template. Some of the students’ comments include, “I used four yellow hexagons, but you used eight red trapezoids.” I tried to use as many green triangles as I could. I have a lot.” Tonya announced, “Everyone is different, but everyone is right!”

Final Thoughts
The next day, Tonya’s teacher allowed Tonya to choose which type of pattern block template she wanted to work with during independent practice: a template with lines and shading or a template without lines and shading. This choice helps Tonya take responsibility, serving to empower Tonya emotionally and academically. Interestingly, Tonya chose the template without lines and shading because she wanted to try “the tricky one.” Because she was empowered, she was ready for the challenge.


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