Manage the Students, Not the System

By Michael Bradburn, intervention and instructional coach in Alcoa City Schools


“How was your day?” is a common question that family members ask their students when they are picked up from school. Often, elementary students answer with a color, number, reward, or other response based on the behavior management system set up in their classroom. While the question is appropriate, I often wonder if these answers may be indicative of an issue with school management systems as a whole. Positive behavior management systems are established in many classrooms to help support students in making their best choices. However, there is almost always a system to help achieve a “rating” for how a student is behaving in class. This type of thinking will lead the students to care more about their ratings than about their behaviors.

As an educator, I wonder what would change if we focused more on managing and teaching our students appropriate choices and less on the management of a behavior system. System based management may be more prevalent at an elementary level, but it’s important for all teachers to reflect on their current practices. What if we could completely remove a management system and focus on teaching our students through conversations, relationships, and logical consequences? I believe that moving from managing a system to teaching students can have a significant impact on what students learn and do in our classrooms.

Here are three ways that we can ensure we are focusing on growing our students and not just adding another classroom system.

  1. Label the behavior: It is imperative that students know what choices they made to receive praise or redirection. No matter which system you use, students must know what they have done. If you change colors, move a clip, or use a token system, you should label that behavior for the students to make a connection between the choice and how they should behave in the future. For example, when a student interrupts the group, the student may have to change his or her color to receive a warning. They will most likely know they had to move a card, but may not be able to communicate to their family why they had to lower his card. This, in itself, defeats the purpose of a system to communicate to families. An easy switch would be to always state why a student is moving their card and have an individual conference about their choice.
  2. Focus on students’ future choices: We want our students to be successful humans. We want them to know which choices are appropriate and, if they make a poor choice, what to do in the future. When we conference with a student, this is our chance to develop a deeper relationship and focus on future choices. If a teacher simply takes away tokens for poor choices, then the token becomes the most important factor rather than the choices and behaviors. When we see that a behavior needs to be managed, we can implement a quick conference during a transition, recess, or independent working time in the classroom. These conferences can be the key to impacting and shaping behavior.
  3. Discuss Consequences: The idea of consequences has a negative connotation for many people. However, consequences can be positive or negative and don’t have to come in the form of a reward or punishment. Positive consequences can be a feeling of pride, being selected as a role model, or a simple compliment. Negative consequences could be the loss of privilege or other natural consequence. For example, when a student chooses to be unsafe while using a flexible seating stool that student will not be allowed to use that chair for future lessons. Or, when a student chooses to talk and play during a working time, he or she would have to complete the task while the class transitions to recess. Natural consequences such as these help students learn life-long lessons about making good choices rather than simply comply with rules.

This type of management allowed my students to not only learn appropriate ways to behave, but also encouraged the students to help their classmates improve their behavior. For example, I had students who were able to label their behavioral choices and self-correct their choices without my intervention. One student that was in my class would constantly call out and interrupt whole group instruction. After several reminders and conferences, this student started apologizing for this behavior to myself and the class as a natural consequence for being disrespectful. After consistent expectation and reminders, this student did a better job of being respectful and also learned that apologizing for this misbehavior was an important part of being a respectful person.

A teacher has to manage, control, and make decisions about so many things during a school day, and there never seems to be quite enough time to do all that we want to do. Would the removal of a management system allow you to spend more time teaching your students about choices and consequences? Could you spend more time building relationships and helping your student be more productive humans? If so, I urge you to reflect upon your current management system and how well it’s working for you and your students, both in the short- and long-term. We need to ensure that we are labeling the choices that our students make, conferencing with each child when they make appropriate or poor choices, and spending time discussing what makes consequences positive or negative.