The Engaged Classroom Isn’t “Managed”

In the early 80’s when my teaching career began, the term “classroom management” was widely used to describe the multitude of things teachers do to minimize disruptions and maximize learning.  I learned to increase my effectiveness through trial-n-error as almost no time was spent discussing and practicing the variables that mattered.  Courses designed specifically to support student teachers with “management” did not exist; the conversations were about the subjects and the “how” of teaching.


During the early 90’s, as a school psychologist, I was called in when individual students were communicating displeasure about their situation by acting out, physically and/or verbally.  They had “behavior problems” in need of  “fixing”.   Classroom management was the cure.  A rigid behavior system that included appropriate consequences was the focus.  I have been a primary author of thousands of individualized behavior plans, and yet I could see the forest behind the trees.

The forest was problematic.  



To help solve the real problem, I had to set my eyes on a larger concept that included not only the humans in a classroom and school, but also the physical environment itself.  I reject the term classroom management and have adopted a more appropriate, supportive and prescriptive notion

Classroom Culture


The culture of the classroom teaches

Ron Ritchhart, Principle Investigator for the Cultures of Thinking Project at Harvard Graduate School of Education, believes there are 8 cultural forces  that define our classrooms:

  1. Time
  2. Opportunities
  3. Routines and structures
  4. Language
  5. Modeling
  6. Relationships and interactions
  7. Physical environment
  8. Expectations

These cultural forces exist at all times.  The argument is that we should intentionally design the culture with the students so that what we value and believe around teaching and learning is immediately evident.  The culture does,  indeed,  teach.  Some important questions to ask:

  • Who holds the power for decision-making?  Students, teacher or both?
  • Have we anticipated variability in advance, offering options for students to engage with new content, master the concepts and show understanding?
  • Does thinking and learning trump work completion and grades?
  • Are there consistent routines in place to help students think and engage in meaningful conversations?
  • Does the physical environment provide options for seating?  Is there adequate natural light and ventilation?
  • Have we created an inclusive, interdependent tribal community where we learn from one another?
  • Do we take time to thoughtfully solve conflict together, as it arises? Do we help ensure equitable resolution?
  • Do we show that we value understanding by taking the time to adequately explore topics?
  • Do we avoid unhealthy competition, shaming, blaming and other interactions that are defeating?
  • Is there plenty of opportunity for time spent solving real problems?  Do all students experience mastery?
  • Do we have lists of teacher-generated rules or have students identified norms for how we will be together?


Students in thriving, engaging  classroom communities do not need to be managed. 



Creating A Supportive School System

teacher teaching_jpg

This week I spent a few hours learning about one school’s journey to create a supportive system for the academic and social/emotional/behavioral development of their students.  The purpose was to understand  how their system worked and to problem solve around areas of need.  Our work revolves around helping schools implement comprehensive and supportive systems that are tailored to the building’s specific needs.

To guide the conversation, we have a principal packet with key forms and information.  The important document is our Multi-Tiered System of Support Planning Tool (fondly referred to as the “Plan-O-Rama“.

The first section is vital as it is an area where the specific data-based needs of the school are clarified.  This, essentially, is the school’s own ‘story” around discipline and behavior.  All of our work together is designed with this in mind; creating calm, predictable and engaging environments is the goal.

Here is what I learned about this school

  • They are a large elementary nestled in a large district with a fairly “needy” population of students (compared to other schools in their district)
  • They have a dozen newly hired teachers and more seasoned teachers as well.  All  are bright, innovative and dedicated
  • They were able to hire two educators to develop a tier-two plan for supporting the teaching of social/emotional and behavioral skills to students in need. They work directly with just under 100 students.   These educators also provide coaching and support to classroom teachers.  They support the Success Room.
  • Students who do not respond well to  tier-two interventions  are taken to the next level of support with a highly individualized plan just for them.  They have a team that meets regularly to help classroom teachers design these support plans.
  • The school has a well-detailed body of expectations that are taught to teachers, students and parents.  The entire discipline system is embodied in their expectations.  Many pro-active and supportive pieces exist within this framework, pulling from the philosophies of Conscious Discipline and other programs.
  • They collect and use data around referrals, analyzing the types of problems the school experiences as well as where problems occur.  Interventions are created based on need.  The entire staff participates in these problem solving sessions.
  • As with most schools, many difficulties happen in the classroom.  It is possible that teachers are inconsistent in how they prevent and respond to mild disruptions.  Routines may not be established.  Teachers may benefit from discussion and learning around classroom organization, routines, expectations and teaching and practicing  what they want to see.

The Plan

This is a great school.  Much thinking has gone into the culture they have created.  There are so many strengths; areas of need appear to be located at the classroom level.  While teachers are motivated and engaged, there may be some areas for them to grow.

  • a needs assessment will be sent to individual teachers around the systems and organization of their individual classroom environment
  • two days of professional learning will be tailored specifically to the self-identified needs of the school
  • a plan for “roll-out” and follow-up coaching will be designed with the entire staff
  • coaching will be designed with a way to evaluate  effectiveness using original goals as the target

We look forward to learning and growing together!  

CHAMPS with Special Education Teachers

We were delighted to be invited to explore Randy Sprick’s CHAMPS  (Classroom Positive Behavior Interventions and Support) with the resource room teachers from an entire district.


We provide this two day professional learning at our Intermediate School District.  We have customized the learning for entire schools.  This would be the first time taking it to the special education teachers from an entire school district.  We were excited to support this group of dedicated teachers.  

In order to meet the needs of the individuals, we sent out a needs assessment survey prior to the face-to face interaction.  The learning design for the 3 hours incorporated these needs every step of the way.  These teachers spend the majority of their time with students who have the greatest academic and social/emotional/behavioral needs.

The Agenda

  1. Overview of CHAMPS and the book (video)
  2. Assessing teacher needs/student needs in terms of structure
  3. Creating explicit expectations for activities and transitions
  4. Creating structure for independent seat assignments while teacher is with students
  5. Early and late stage corrections
  6. Plan for further professional learning next year
  7. Feedback about the learning
Teacher Need/Student Need

Two brief reflection rubrics were used to get people thinking about their tolerance for movement, noise and chaos; the needs of their students.  So often, when behavior problems arise, there is a mismatch between the two.  The conversation was lively; teachers were brutally honest about their needs.

So often, teachers feel they don’t need any kind of assistance with the structure and organization of their classroom.  This exercise revealed some pretty strong preferences.  Teacher needs impact how they arrange the day; how they interact with students.

Creating Expectations for Activities and Transitions

People found this section most useful.  They were asked to create a list of activities they might have during the day (whole group instruction, small group instruction,  independent seat work,  group time, etc).    The CHAMPS acronym was used to help them determine their expectations

  • Conversation:  Can the students talk?  How loud?  
  • Help:  What do they do if they need help?
  • Activity:  What, specifically , should they be doing
  • Movement:  How mush movement is “ok”?
  • Participation:  What does engagement look like?

Telling Isn’t Teaching    This was a consistent take-away:  people felt that students should KNOW expectations because of their age OR because they were told.  Indeed, telling isn’t teaching.  Explicitly teaching and giving feedback repeatedly is what it takes to create routines that are predictable.  Students can do it if they know, for certain, what we want.

The last step to this part has to do with creating lesson plans to teach the expectations for every activity/transition.

The Rest

We moved into the rest of the content with deep conversation.  The remaining discussions were around creating structure for independent seat assignments while teacher is with students and early and late stage corrections

The group discussed possibilities for further learning throughout next year.

To help provide feedback for us, we decided to do the “I used to think…..Now I think” routine.   from Project Zero’s Cultures of Thinking.

Take Aways:

1.  Teachers THINK they are consistent and that students KNOW what the expectations are until they look at it deeply.  Most often, expectations change often; students aren’t clear about this.  Clever fellas push the envelope to learn where the boundaries are.

2.  Teachers often feel there is little they can do to improve the situation with their most difficult students.  However, there is MUCH they can do to make it better.  The relationship is the first place to go.  Consistent routines  are then pivotal.

3.  When confronted with a mismatch between our needs and the needs of students, it is easy to feel frustration.  However, our task is to do our best to support the child as needed.  As Rita Pierson says:  Every Kid Needs a Champion because “kids don’t learn from someone they don’t like”.

Staying hopeful when things get complicated in the classroom is important.  We can make a difference if we own the learning of students and create predictable environments for them to thrive.  Many aspects of the CHAMPS framework can be helpful guides for teachers looking to improve their craft.  

Tools To Assist Classroom Teachers with Structure: How Much?

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:

  1. Your own personal style
  2. 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!   : )