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Keeping Kids
Above the Line

Above and below are concepts most children grasp at a young age -- so that is the basis for the "Above the Line" behavior management approach, which stresses teaching children appropriate behavior and encouraging them to self-correct when they fall short. Included: Suggestions for using Above the Line in classes.

Daily -- probably multiple times -- teachers and principals remind students to lower their voices, walk more slowly, wait to be called on, be polite, or take responsibility. But far less frequently do educators explain how they want students to walk, talk, or act so they can avoid further admonishments.

If teachers take the time to outline and demonstrate expectations and give students opportunities to practice appropriate behaviors, then compliance becomes easier, according to the Above the Line behavior management approach developed by former teacher Corwin Kronenberg. Once students understand and see behaviors that are above the line (acceptable) and below the line (unacceptable) they have fewer excuses for not toeing the line.

"It's very simple," said Debbie Malueg, principal of Marion (Wisconsin) Elementary School, in explaining why her school adopted the program this year. "Sometimes we make the assumption that kids know what appropriate behavior is. Above the Line stresses that you show kids exactly what you want. It's an idea that works with kids."


Kronenberg, a former teacher who worked with students he called behavior-disordered, told Education World it became clear to him while he was teaching that he needed a new way to instill more responsible behavior in his students.

"I came up with the idea to keep it simple," Kronenberg said. Above the Line is respectful, Below the Line is disrespectful. Teachers start implementing Above the Line by defining bigger beliefs, which are to be respectful, responsible, and safe, and then giving examples of what constitutes Above and Below the Line behavior. (There also is Bottom Line behavior, which includes safety risks and illegal actions, and those automatically draw principal intervention.)

"Once you create expectations, you talk about Above the Line, Below the Line, and Bottom Line behaviors," said Craig Trautsch, principal of Grand Avenue Elementary School in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. "You practice them [expectations] with kids so they understand what you're asking for and then work with them to make sure they stay Above the Line."

If a student suggests saying, "Sorry, I won't do it again," that still doesn't fix the problem.

Among the reasons teachers need a simple classroom management tool is, through no fault of their own, many teachers lack experience in dealing with the spectrum of behaviors seen in today's classrooms, noted Kronenberg. They are not prepared to deal with the range of abilities and sheer numbers of kids in class.

Trautsch said he and other Grand Avenue staff members investigated other behavior management programs before settling on Above the Line. School officials had Kronenberg give a presentation to the staff of the grade-two-to-five-school and got such a positive response that Trautsch decided to implement the program this year. Now five elementary schools in the district are using Above the Line.

"One thing that led us down that road was consistency," Trautsch told Education World. We thought it would be important to all have similar expectations and communicate to students in the same way. This is user-friendly and very easy for teachers to implement. It is also very practical in how you can apply it to different situations.


The other key component of Above the Line is giving students input into correcting Below the Line behavior. Teachers ask students if they want a fix-it or a consequence. If they choose to fix the situation, they brainstorm with the teacher or administrator for remedies for the infraction. But a fix-it needs some meat to it.

"If a student suggests saying, 'Sorry, I won't do it again,' that still doesn't fix the problem," said Trautsch. The key goal is for them to take responsibility. Fix-its are usually very incident-specific, he continued. If a student is caught running in the halls, he or she may need to practice walking in the halls during recess for a few days. If a child shuts a door on someone, he or she might have to spend time holding doors for other people. If students throw food in the cafeteria, a logical thing to do is clean it up. If a student is talking too loudly, an adult needs to demonstrate the appropriate speaking volume. They [the fix-its] are reasonable and make sense, according to Trautsch.

It empowers kids, added Kronenberg, about the fix-it or consequence approach. Most want to fix it. Kids have a negative picture of consequences. If they fix it and make it right, I no longer have a problem. It's teaching them to take responsibility for irresponsible behavior.


Malueg decided to adopt the program after several staff members, all of whom were on the school improvement team, attended a presentation by Kronenberg last summer. They returned to school very excited and said Grand Avenue needed Above the Line.

They spent some time convincing me, Malueg said. We are in a low-income area and more families are struggling economically, which is leading to more conflicts at home and in school.

Kronenberg has visited the pre-K to grade-six school twice and given presentations to teachers and parents. Teachers helped provide babysitting so parents could attend, often giving them a rare night out.

"It's good parenting and good teaching," said Malueg of Above the Line's appeal. "It puts students in control -- if they do something Below the Line, they always have the opportunity to fix it. [That's important] because throughout their lives, they are the ones who have to make appropriate decisions."

The whole world has become very uncivil -- we don't need to do all that yelling and punishing -- just correct it and move on.

That includes being responsible. So many parents bring things to school that kids left home that Kronenberg joked that parents should charge them the Internal Revenue Service mileage rate for doing it. "It's because they want to be good to their kids -- but if they continue to enable them, they will keep repeating the behavior."

Now about 80 percent of the school staff is on board, she added. In classrooms where it's being done, teachers often just have to look at students and say, "Is that Above the Line or Below?"

Other school employees are being integrated into the program as well. We are working with bus drivers, playground aides, maintenance people, and janitors, Malueg told Education World. "We want everyone to understand the common language."

As part of that approach at Grand Avenue, at the end of each month each classroom teacher names between one and three Above the Line leaders who exhibited exemplary Above the Line behavior. Photos of the students and descriptions of their behavior are posted on a wall near the cafeteria so everyone in the school sees them on the way to lunch. The goal is to have every student up there, Trautsch said. "It's positive reinforcement."


An aspect of Above the Line that some educators find challenging is developing the right questions to ask students about correcting their behavior, since many teachers are accustomed to just handing out consequences.

Teachers are not used to talking to children that way, Malueg noted. And kids are not used to thinking that way; it does take some practice. During in-service sessions, teachers discuss questions to ask students to help them think, such as, "What are you going to do this time to fix it? What are you going to do next time in this same or a similar situation?"

While kids develop the fix-it with direction from teachers, only adults administer consequences, Malueg added.

An aspect of Above the Line that some educators find challenging is developing the right questions to ask students about correcting their behavior, since many teachers are accustomed to just handing out consequences.

Several teachers in Trautsch's school were frustrated because some students were not completing homework and the only way to fix that is by -- doing homework. To make implementing Above the Line in these situations easier, Kronenberg recommends teachers build strong relationships with students so they can learn why certain tasks like homework are not being done. "That's very critical," Kronenberg told Education World. "When you build relationships and bond with kids, they don't want to disappoint you."

In the case of incomplete homework, teachers do sometimes have to use consequences, such as eliminating recess. Trautsch also has been encouraging teachers to get to know their students better. For a favorite teacher, a kid will run through walls, he said. You have to show how much you care, keep the dialogue going, and keep taking time for kids.

Sometimes when teachers learn what is going on at home and with students' families, they have more compassion for kids, Trautsch added. "Maybe there is so much stress at home that homework is not a priority."


Both Malueg and Trautsch said they are eager to continue expanding the program and have been pleased by the community's response.

"If you are at that point where you are frustrated and looking for help with behaviors, I think this is a realistic option to consider," according to Trautsch. "There is not a manual telling you how to fix things -- you do still have to work at it and lay the foundation."

Kronenberg is giving a two-day workshop in Marion this summer for educators, but lots of parents and community members are attending as well, Malueg said. Even some of the local church groups want to use Above the Line with kids, she said. "It's something we have to work on sustaining. We want to have him back to keep it going and fresh in our minds."

Grand Avenue also has hosted Kronenberg several times to talk with teachers about implementation issues, Trautsch said, and he plans to continue using Above the Line. "It gives us a nice direction," he said. "It's been a wonderful tool with us. Our goal with kids is to try to help them learn from their mistakes. We want to create respectful, responsible, safe individuals."

In keeping with that, Above the Line's idea of educating rather than punishing children for mistakes makes even more sense, Malueg said. At some point in everyone's education career, there was a teacher who did something to you that was hurtful or disrespectful, and we remember that all our lives, she noted. "The whole world has become very uncivil -- we don't need to do all that yelling and punishing -- just correct it and move on."


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    Article by Ellen Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2010 Education World

    Updated 05/14/2012