Teacher-student conversation key to classroom behaviour

To Alan Edmunds, classroom management can be a bit of a carnival game.

“Teachers are playing Whac-A-Mole and consistently busy putting out fires, because they’re the only person in the room responsible for the rules and their enforcement,” said the Faculty of Education professor. “You need it to be a more collective method.”

Edmund’s approach, entitled Dymanic Classroom Management (DCM), focuses on changing how students think about their actions – emphasizing teacher-student conversations to establish classroom rules, routines and rewards. In his program, teachers and students set the rules and help enforce them together. It’s this co-operation that drives buy-in.

“Punishment doesn’t work,” Edmunds said. “Part of the problem is attitudinal on behalf of the educators, and I mean this in the kindest way because I am a teacher and educator. There tends to be this misunderstanding that children of a particular age should know better.

“And that’s not the case at all.”

There is a misconception teacher should expect children to be well-behaved; when, in most of our lives, good behavior is rewarded – someone saying ‘good job,’ a pat on the back or an extra 10 minutes of computer time.

“You put those together and you have a bunch of children who are expected to come to school, know what all the rules are, know how they were supposed to behave, and for that to never be rewarded,” he said. “And yet, as soon as they step out of line, they would have problems with the teachers and receive punishment. To me, that’s not good.”

He felt previous methods used to address these problems didn’t always measure behavioural outcomes. A lot of researchers would go in, deal with behavioural change and measure academic performance – which seems logical, but doesn’t tell you if behaviours changed, if the tone of the classroom is better or the teacher is getting more time on task. And that bothered Edmunds.

“A lot of other programs are primarily punishment-based,” he said. “And the problem with that is as soon as you take away the punishment (or the threat of punishment) the behaviour returns. You haven’t solved the problems.”

While DCM is a reward-based prevention program, Edmunds says the approach doesn’t get into the ‘puppy syndrome,’ where every single action is rewarded.

“What determines what will get rewarded – again a difference from other ideas – is that it’s an open, democratic conversation that happens between the students and the teachers,” he said. “What should we do in the class? Should we get a reward for that? What they want and what they think should be rewarded in the classroom are reasonable.”

Along with requiring teachers and students to re-evaluate classroom rules every five weeks or so, Edmunds demands every adult in the school participate. Every teacher, administrator, custodian, secretary, supply teacher and even parent needs to be on board to send students the message that rules matter.

Test runs have been conducted in four schools in the Thames Valley District School Board. So far, teachers continue to send emails touting the effectiveness of the approach and how actual teaching time has grown exponentially just days after beginning DCM.

“Behaviour issues in classrooms is a very real issue,” Edmunds said. “They would love nothing more than to be able to reduce problematic behaviour children, reduce the number of times you have to send children to the office, reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions. Our data shows that’s exactly what happens. Reduction in the number of office referrals is phenomenal; it’s in the 70 per cent range, month after month.”

By June, a comprehensive Behaviour Management Network website will make all DCM materials accessible to elementary and secondary schools across Ontario. Edmunds received a $100,000 grant from the Knowledge Network for Applied Education Research to facilitate the development and dissemination of his research.

“A lot of previous programs seemed to be canned,” he said. “While the basis of this (DCM) is one size fits all, after that it’s completely adaptable and flexible to suit the demands of any particular school.

“Good behaviours are increasing. Better communication is happening in the schools. And the big reason is they are giving the children a voice and a purpose. It takes a lot of courage (for schools) to ask for help but you have to have faith in the children as well.”