When I was in working as a student teacher in Canada I had the privilege of working with a very talented Grade 1 teacher. It was a pleasure to walk into her classroom. Her desks were leisurely placed around the classroom in groups of four, student artwork decorated the walls and most of her lessons were taught at the back of the classroom on the mat. But what made it such a pleasure to be in her room, was the exceptional behavior of her students. They sat attentively during lessons without moving about restlessly, they were engaged and interested in the material being taught, and they work cooperatively during classroom activities.
So how did she do it? What type of reward or punishment system did she have? What did she give as prizes? How loud did she raise her voice at the beginning of the year? She had no complex reward or punishment system. She simply used positive reinforcement and praise with her students when they exhibited good behavior, and when they would misbehave she would have them sit next to her. She was always calm and caring and her students wanted to behave well.
"Well I would like to try that," you might say. Well, be careful. Because I tried to do just that this year and it failed miserably. I just lack the ability to run that type of class. It had occurred to me that this might be a problem, that I might not be able to implement such a program in my classroom, but I felt a teacher has to start sometime. And a rewards and punishment based system of behavior management cannot be used simply because we lack the skills to effectively manage a classroom without it. Surely the teacher in the example above had to start somewhere, and so I felt would I.
Of course there are innumerable reasons why this behavior management system did not work with my students here in Thailand. The simplest explanation is that I am an inexperienced teacher. I will be the first to admit it. However, I am a committed teacher and a teacher who is committed to learning and becoming a better teacher. And so perhaps this is something I can learn from.
But most importantly, this behavior management system did not work because it lacked a respect for Thai cultural differences. An effective behavior management system must take into consideration the students it hopes to influence.
Rewards and punishment
Any behavior management system must have a system of rewards and punishment. Even the Grade 1 teacher utilized a rewards and punishment system, though in her case the reward was positive reinforcement and praise. Students need to be encouraged to behave appropriately and discouraged from acting inappropriately. In order to do this a teacher needs to take into account what motivates his/her students. What do they want? What do they like to do? What do they consider punishment and what would discourage bad behavior?
Many teachers will use a complex system of rewards and punishment, such as awarding stars for good behavior or writing a students name on the board if they misbehave. Some teachers now even use monetary reward systems where students are awarded fake money for good behavior and penalized by losing money for bad behavior. Students can then purchase items at certain intervals. And while some systems are effective, others are not. I think it is important to keep any reward system simple, so that students are not confused. Students must always know what will happen if they behave and what will happen if they don't.
For foreign teachers working abroad this presents a particular problem. Many new teachers simply do not know enough about the new culture they are living in to know what their students would consider a good reward. Well in the first weeks of class you must make an effort to find out. Ask students what they like to do. Find out about your students and their culture in classroom activities.
It is always a better practice to reward good behavior, then it is to punish bad behavior. It can improve your rapport with your students, focus students on good behavior rather than bad, and make your job that much easier. Positive reinforcement, or praise as it is more commonly referred to, consists of no more than acknowledging good behavior. When you see a student is working well, commend him for his good work. It encourages that student to continue the behavior and if used in front of the class, will encourage other students to model that behavior. Most positive reinforcement is used in collaboration with a more complex system of behavior management, such as the ones mentioned above.
This is the great irony of being a teacher. A teacher, it is said, must always adapt and learn from their mistakes, constantly improving their teaching practice as they discover what works and what does not. This does not work with behavior management. The more times a behavior management system is changed the more ineffective it will become. Why? Because students need consistency in order to implement a system designed to modify behavior. As I mentioned, students need to know that if they do this, this will happen. If a student learns that every time they talk during class they will be given detention then they will be less likely to talk, but if they find that they can get away with it sometimes, they will continue to talk.
This is why it is important to implement your behavior management system on the first day of class and use it consistently throughout the year. Changing the system each week to make improvements will only cause problems and confusion.
Your classroom rules should be clear and easy to understand. Students need to know how to behave in your classroom. Your rules should be visible to students so that they can always be reminded of what is expected of them. And you should make use of your rules whenever a student misbehaves. Point to the rule on the bulletin board, have students read the rules aloud, ask students what rule they did not follow. Students need concrete examples to understand.
Classroom organization and lesson preparation
These are important in maintaining good behavior in your classroom. Your classroom should be organized in such a way as to allow lessons to run smoothly and without interruption. Similarly, your lessons should be fluid and engaging so that students have no reason to become bored and anxious. Always provide clear instructions so that students always know what is expected of them.
In Thailand many schools require that students take off their shoes before sitting down. A place should then be set aside in your classroom to make room for students shoes, and organized in such a way as to not impede regular classroom activities.
My school has a list of school rules which they would like to be used in the classroom. It is important for foreign teachers to find out what is expected of you and your students. Ask the school. Find out what students should know and what expectations they have been taught before. It is always a good idea to build upon a foundation.
Different cultures have different expectations when it comes to learning. Parents and school administrators and even students will have expectations of you. It is extremely important in maintaining an effective learning environment that you respect these cultural differences and tailor your classroom to accommodate them. Ask other teachers, school staff and even parents if you do not know what is expected.
One of the most significant differences in teaching in Asia is the importance of recognizing achievement. But it is not enough to simply acknowledge achievement. Achievement must be recognized through tangible rewards. Parents expect a report card with high grades, school administrators expect work product, a clean and well decorated classroom, and students expect prizes for good behavior. Keep this in mind when planning your behavior management strategy.
Some Interesting facts
• Behavior problems is the main source of teacher-related stress
• Behavior problems are the main reason former teachers cite having left the profession
• Ineffective discipline is the main reason citing for not rehiring teachers