Classroom Management: Behavior and Cascading Errors

In 2010, I had the privilege of attending a USATF Level 2 Coaching School. One of the interesting presentations was by a field event coach using Dartfish. The video featured a world class rotational shot putter. He lost a competition despite tying with another competitor for his best throw. The tiebreaker goes to the next best throw. This shot putter fouled the other five of his six throws at the competition. Using Dartfish, the coach superimposed the video of the athlete's best throw with his worst throw - the throw in which the athlete fell out of the ring.

The video reminded me of playing Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo. After setting a personal record on a particular track, a player would race against his or her own 'ghost,' a recording of his or her best race. This throws video looked the same, where the best throw was the ghost. The software synchronized the two throws perfectly for diagnostic comparison.

A person could easily get lost in the details, wondering how it was possible for this elite athlete to fall out of the ring. The instructor encouraged us to pay close attention as he played the clip in slow motion reverse. The catastrophic error, the fall out of the ring, could be traced back to the thrower's first step with the left foot. The first step on the worst throw was roughly three inches different than the first step on the best throw. The instructor called this a cascading error. He stated many coaches spend too much time coaching later errors that are the result of the initial error. The trick, he said, is to diagnose and correct the initial cascading error.

This idea stuck with me. In my experience coaching football, basketball, and track & field, I have found good teaching and good coaching have a lot in common. Conversations with inexperienced and pre-service teachers often include classroom management strategies. Teacher preparation programs often point to classroom management as a struggle for new teachers.

These ideas bring me back to the notion of a cascading error. If your spider sense is tingling, and you sense a child is about to misbehave, try to diagnose the cascading error before the behavior blows up. Diagnosing a cascading behavior means identifying the root cause of the misbehavior and working to correct the child before misbehavior really gets started. Below is a wonderful exercise for both new and experienced teachers alike. Edward Sabornie at NC State has a video aimed at identifying good and bad behaviors by both students and teacher. Think about cascading errors while diagnosing the behaviors by both teacher and students. What would you do to prevent student misbehavior in this room? Click on the image below to access the video.








What does an effective classroom manager do differently than an ineffective classroom manager? The teacher skilled at classroom management:

  • Leverages student relationships to correct behavior and optimize conditions for learning
  • Communicates classroom rules and procedures effectively and efficiently
  • Creates and executes engaging lessons that reach all students
  • Maximizes and conserves time in class for learning
  • Lets administrators handle discipline but not before conference one-on-one with the student and placing a phone call home to the parent or guardian

My approach to classroom management is an amalgamation of ideas from many different sources. These are my views on effective classroom management.

  1. If your lessons are interesting and engaging, and the kids are thinking about the content, the probability of having a behavioral episode in your classroom approaches zero. Administrators conducting observations for evaluation purposes often record passive compliant behaviors as engagement. I have seen many students in my classroom and while observing other teachers feigning attention in a lesson. Passive compliance does not imply engagement. Even active compliance does not necessarily imply engagement in the lesson. If students are actively wrestling with the content, many issues resolve themselves. If you know a lesson may have a long lecture period (by long I mean more than 5 minutes), embed opportunities to socialize within the lesson (e.g. "Turn to your table partner and explain which of the three sampling techniques we should use in this experimental design to minimize bias; I will call on two people after the minute timer is up.")
  2. Establishing consistent procedures and high expectations translates to student success and teacher efficacy. I attended a presentation a few years ago by Harry and Rosemary Wong. They have a wonderful book titled The First Days of School. Harry and Rosemary Wong assert students coming to class on the first day have the following questions that a teacher must address to start the teacher-student relationship strong.
  • Am I in the right room?
  • Where do I sit?
  • What are the rules in this room?
  • What will I be doing this semester?
  • How will I be graded?
  • Who is my teacher as a person?
  • Will my teacher treat me fairly?

Another big idea I took from this book and presentation is the difference between classroom discipline and classroom procedures. Classroom discipline concerns how students behave. Discipline has penalties and rewards. I have yet to meet a teacher that felt truly triumphant after a power struggle with a student. Classroom procedures, in contrast, concern how things are done and have no penalties nor rewards. Procedures put the focus on what the students should do.

3. Assume everyone is on the same basic level. If students are to learn how to behave properly inside and outside school, we must maximize on the time students spend in our classrooms. It is gambling at best to assume students 'already know how to behave' or 'students should know how to behave.' Assume nothing and carefully communicate your expectations of your students. Students are bound to forget your procedures. Keep calm and gently remind students, particularly in the first three weeks of class, how you would like them to request to leave the room. Students tend to have several classes, particularly at the high school level. The student is not trying to offend you; he or she simply has a lot to remember. Model the behavior you want to see, and be prepared to teach students how to behave. As the old adage goes, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

 4. A phone call home is the single most powerful tool at a teacher's disposal. Use it early and whenever possible. I can remember feeling anxious and nervous calling home, particularly in my first three years of teaching. My view on the matter is definitely more complete now that I have a daughter of my own. If my child were misbehaving or struggling in school, I would want to know about it. I would want the teacher to call me. Calling home in week one, no matter how awkward the interaction, makes a tough conversation about academic performance in week six go more smoothly. Telling a parent or guardian you would like help connecting with his or her child gives you an ally at home, increasing the likelihood the student will correct his or her behavior in class.

5. Use positive reinforcement when students perform a procedure correctly. As one of my assistant principals told me this summer, "If we wanted to catch students doing something wrong, we could probably do that every single minute of the day." Here is an example of positive reinforcement In my classroom, I post the materials students need to have ready at the bell. As I walk in the room after greeting students in the hallway, I will quickly survey the room to catch students ready for class. "I see Ben and Alexis are ready for class. I know that because both of them have their graphing calculator and pencil on their table. Oh look! They even have their textbooks open to page 98. Man, that helps me out a bunch. Thanks for being ready." Kids won't see it as cheesy if you don't sell it as being cheesy. Make the comment and move the focus to the objectives for the day.

6. Any person visiting your classroom will know within 30 seconds whether or not you are effectively managing your students. Lew Romagnano, in his book Wrestling with Change: The Dilemmas of Teaching Real Mathematics, describes his experience as a researcher working with a practicing teacher. In the gap between theory and practice, Romagnano asserts while teachers do have problems to solve, there will also be unsolvable dilemmas in the classroom teachers must manage. Managing these dilemmas effectively will maximize the probability students will learn in your classroom.

7. Cold calling is highly effective in keeping students on task. Seasoned law enforcement agents and war veterans will say time almost seemed to slow down during firefights. As a teacher builds more teaching experience, the cognitive load during teaching does decrease slightly over time. I can validate this claim empirically; having taught how to solve a system of equations by substitution for several years, the cognitive load has gone down considerably from the first time I taught the lesson. Instead of being comfortable while teaching and going through the motions, I choose to focus on how many times I have called on each student. I am reading the body language of every single student in my room and looking for off-task facial expressions and body language. I will call on students I know do not have the answer. I will call on students I see change posture from sitting upright to slouching. I will call on students whose line of sight has drifted as soon as I identify it. I never let a student get away with saying, "I don't know." If a student knows they can be called on at any time, the student will likely choose to stay on task to avoid embarrassment in front of his or her peers.

8. Proximity is a powerful tool. More than management by wandering around, move with purpose about your room. Teachers that sit at the computer for the entire period lose out on valuable opportunities to assess students as they are working. Roaming the rows purposefully lets you spot both potential cascading behaviors and content struggles. Actively collect evidence as you roam the room on which students are getting it and which students are not.

Please share your effective classroom management strategies in the comments section.

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