In my role as a behavior and learning consultant in our county, I assisted school teams in problem solving around individual students. It didn’t take long for me to see that the core issue was about the fit between the student and teacher, along with instruction, materials and environment. The problem was always about the “system” and not an individual.
Every classroom teacher has a variety of rituals, routines, rules and motivational techniques they use as a framework to ensure students are engaged and thriving. Some have frameworks that are tight; others prefer loose. This does not refer to how friendly or punishing the teacher is, but instead the degree to which the teacher orchestrates student behavior.
- A loosely structured classroom allows students to lead most things, including dismissal, beginning and ending routines, how homework is turned in and how much talking there is during reading. Teachers do not need to be explicit or consistent about expectations and the level of maturity and self-control of the students is high. Dismissal might happen all at once as the students are quite self-directed.
- A tightly structured classroom is one in which the teacher makes most decisions, including the amount of talking, how many students in the bathroom at a time, etc. The teacher makes expectations explicit and is very consistent in routines. Dismissal might happen with small groups being excused in a calm, orderly and quiet fashion.
The level of structure in your classroom will be based on two major things:
- Your own personal style
- The collective needs of your students from year to year
What is your personal style? Can you tolerate noise? Movement? Mess? Do you prefer quiet and calm? Are interruptions upsetting or expected? Can you multi-task or does that overwhelm you?
Teachers must be honest and true to themselves about their own preferences around such things as noise, movement and tolerance for multi-tasking and interruption. Those preferring a highly orchestrated day are encouraged to work that way, even if their students could responsibly handle less structure. Students are more likely to adapt and the “fit” will be better. Those who can tolerate more noise and movement can spend more time reflecting on the needs of the students. Tightening up on routines and structure can happen if student need dictates.
To reflect on the type of classroom setting a teacher needs, Randy Sprick from Safe and Civil Schools created a brief teacher questionnaire. The purpose of this questionnaire is to allow teachers to reflect upon their own unique needs. The teacher who knows they have a low tolerance for noise needs to specifically teach students to keep noise to a minimum and acknowledge when they have it “right”. This tool can be used with grade-level teams for discussion.
Next, teachers need to consider student’s needs and their risk factors. Randy Sprick’s Classroom Management and Discipline Planning Questionnaire is a way for teachers to assess their building and class regarding things such as age, number of students, and specific risk factors they might have. A class with many risk factors is more likely to have increased behavioral difficulties if the structure of the class is quite loose. A class with few risk factors may need low structure as the students are predominantly mature and independent students.
Considering both your needs and the needs of your classroom is a great way to ensure the fit between you and them is conducive to engagement and productivity. You can judge the appropriateness of your level of structure over time by the frequency and intensity of misbehavior. If there isn’t a problem, there is nothing to fix! : )