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Structuring Classrooms to Encourage Positive Behavior

EducationWorld is pleased to present this professional development article contributed by Rachel Lissy. Lissy is Senior Program Officer at Ramapo for Children, an organization that helps youth align their behaviors with their aspirations through adventure-based experiences, residential summer camp and other programs and services. She has worked in residential care, in addition to serving as an out-of-school-time program director, substitute teacher, reading intervention specialist and other roles.

Ms. M. had a headache and a sore throat. We were seated at a desk in her ninth-grade English classroom following a raucous period involving a lot of yelling and not so much learning. As a coach with Ramapo for Children, I had observed Ms. M.’s fifth-period class and was about to give her feedback. Before jumping into feedback and suggestions, I opened with a question: “Was today typical?”

“Yes!” she exclaimed in exasperation. “I don’t understand it. All of my other classes LOVED today’s lesson. But this fifth-period class is so hard to manage.  They’re behind my other classes. It takes me 20 minutes just to get them seated and quiet enough for my lesson. They socialize while I’m teaching. And I know that the same students who talk all through class are going to come to me unhappy when they fail.”

Ms. M.’s fifth-period class was different from her other classes. A handful of students in the class were sophomores repeating the course after having failed the year before. The class included a few students with special needs. Perhaps most importantly, Ms. M.’s fifth-period class was right after lunch. 

As a coach at Ms. M.’s school, I had observed lunch periods. They were chaotic, loud and short. Students were rushed through the cafeteria line and then had less than 15 minutes to eat, socialize and transition to their next class. Ms. M. complained that students often came late, that conflicts emerged during lunch that spilled into fifth period, and that some students who refused to eat the school lunch complained of being hungry. 

At Ramapo for Children, we believe that student behaviors adults consider “difficult” are often the result of young people’s unmet needs and lagging social and emotional skills, which can manifest in undesired behaviors. In the case of Ms. M.’s class, some of her students came to class with unmet needs for movement, freedom, fun and—in some cases—food. 

Other students came to class with lagging social or emotional skills. Perhaps they struggled with transitions—adapting their behavior to two widely different settings. Or, they did not know how to calm their voices and slow their bodies down. It was also quite clear that a handful of students in Ms. M.’s class had lagging academic skills and struggled with her text-heavy assignments.

Successful teachers create environments that recognize unmet needs and teach, promote and reinforce social and emotional skills for positive behaviors such as coping, self-calming and resilience. Ms. M.’s morning classes were successful because her lesson plans were appropriate for those students’ needs and skills.  However, what worked for Ms. M.’s morning classes did not work in the afternoon. 

One of Ramapo for Children’s truisms is: “We structure classrooms for students, not students for classrooms.” With this idea in mind, over the next few weeks, Ms. M. and I set out to create a classroom structure that would be responsive to the needs and skills of her fifth-period class.

In looking at “structure,” at Ramapo for Children we focus on four variables: space, materials, time and people.   

Space:  Morning classes sat at tables, but this was too stimulating for after lunch. So, we arranged desks into pairs and assigned seats.

Materials:  We explored ways to make the classroom a calming environment. Ms. M. dimmed the lights. She played quiet music. She had a “Do Now” assignment printed out and placed on students’ desks so they could get started immediately.

Time:  Ms. M. set a visible timer for the “Do Now.” When the timer buzzed, she circulated and checked off students who had completed the work. She praised them and reminded them that classwork would influence their final grade. On some days, she rearranged her class schedule and put independent work before her mini lesson. This gave her more time to circulate, check in with students and set a quiet tone before beginning whole-class instruction. 

People:  Ms. M. met with the students who were failing her class. She talked to them about their behavior and what led to their behavior. With the students, she identified appropriate ways to manage those triggers. Students who were excited from lunch could ask for a break to get a drink of water or 10 minutes on the computer. Students who came to class with conflicts had a journal to write down their concerns. She also made checklists for a few students that clearly identified the assignments they needed to turn in to be able to pass. She directly emphasized for those students the importance of their classroom participation grade.

It took a few weeks, but slowly things in Ms. M.’s room started to change.


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