Classroom Management with a Mindful Touch
As a teacher educator who works closely with local public schools, school leaders, teachers, and teacher candidates guess what the most frequent topics that arises from conversations on how to prepare future teachers? Yup, you got it! Classroom management comes up all the time. It is understandable why classroom management comes up so often. If a teacher doesn’t have a good understanding and command of the classroom environment and students’ behavior then teaching and learning cannot occur.
When I observe a veteran teacher at work classroom management is not even noticeable. She seamlessly transitions from individual work, to clean up, to whole class discussion, then story time all with grace and ease. Students respond to her gentle requests and bell signals with joy. They clean their desks and organize their little areas putting supplies away and gladly walk to the carpet. She chimes the bell again and catches an invisible air bubble, and presses her index finger against her lips. Tiny hands burst through the air to catch their silent “bubbles” just before the the teacher introduces the day’s topic and begins her class discussion. Students hands pop up, like in the arcade game, whack-a-mole, to answer her questions. She gently reminds a couple of students to her left to cross their legs on their square by simple looking at the children and crossing her index finger, while listening to a student respond to her question. She doesn’t miss a beat. She’s constantly aware of her students, while leading an engaging lesson. Does this skilled teacher have some kind of super human power? No. She simply is aware. She’s aware of the classroom layout, her needs, her students’ needs, students’ socio-emotional and intellectual development.
The real question is: how can all teacher bring this level of awareness into their own classrooms? I’ll provide a few general tips that I like to share with teachers and also incorporate some mindfulness techniques that can really elevate your classroom management style and skills.
Bring awareness to your teaching practice
Practicing mindfulness in your daily life, including in your teaching practice, is about bringing an awareness to what is present in front of you. For instance, it’s about being aware of how you feel or what you’re thinking when students are OR are not meeting your expectations of them.
The next time students are not meeting your class expectation just pause for a moment. Sense what is happening in your body. Is you stomach aching? Is your chest tightening up? Perhaps, you feel the tension in your shoulders, neck and jaw? You might even notice a shift in your breathing. Then ask yourself what emotions are arising as I watch my students not meet my expectations? You may notice anger, frustration, and maybe even some sadness.
As you’re reading this you’re probably thinking, “Paula, I don’t have time to pause, connect with my body and emotions! I have to stop the chaos.” Well, if students are chasing each other with scissors then of course you have to stop the dangerous activity, but in most cases it’s nothing that chaotic or dangerous. And, the pause doesn’t have to take a long time. With practice you’ll be able to quickly notice these sensation arise and be able to identify what it is you’re feeling with greater ease.
The pause is for you to digest what is happening when you see and hear your class not meet your behavioral expectations for them. This is a starting point to now understand when you feel frustrated and what types of behaviors really get on your nerves. You might be surprised to know that each teacher has a different level of tolerance and expectations. For example, some teachers are annoyed when students get up in the middle of them giving directions or presenting content to sharpen a pencil. Such teachers have various reasons why it gets on their nerves. Some find it distracting to themselves and other students, while other teachers believe it’s disrespectful. Whatever the reason this particular action is not tolerated in certain classrooms. While other teachers don’t mind if students get up to sharpen a pencil. It wouldn’t even cross their mind to get upset about such an action.
I write all this to make the point that you are an individual with your own individual expectations of your students and rules. So, set your expectations that fit your comfort level and your students’ needs. However, you’ll only know what your expectations are if you are aware and recognize what behavior annoys you, what behaviors will not be tolerated, and what behaviors are acceptable. Keep in mind, though, that all of this is relative to your students’ age.
Have clear, consistent and age appropriate expectations
It might be time to dust off your human development textbook from college and review what’s appropriate for the group of children or teens you are working with. For instance, it’s not reasonable to expect preschoolers to sit quietly for a thirty minute lecture on the alphabet. They are going to get restless and start to misbehave because the expectation is just unreasonable and the learning modality is not appropriate for this age group. In order for you and your students to be successful you have to set reasonable expectations for your students.
Another common mistake I see is having too many rules. Remember the scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Dolores Umbridge orders the caretaker to post up new rules and the school wall has rules from ceiling to floor. Obviously, this is an exaggeration, but sometimes teachers have a lot of expectations and it can be overwhelming for students. If you have more than 3 to 5 rules it’s time to revisit your priorities. Ask yourself the following: What’s the most important expectation? What’s reasonable for this age group? You’ll notice that you only need the basic rules.
I love to ask students what the expectations of the class should be. By the way, this works for any age group. Sometimes they’re surprised that you want them to come up with the class rules, and they will take this job very seriously. You can have students individually, in pairs, or small groups come up with their own expectations of themselves and classmates and then as a class develop a list of class rules. First, list the rules students created and then decide which are the most salient. At this point you’ve narrowed the list down to just a few rules. At this point it would be a good time to have a deep conversation about what each of the rules means and can look, sound and feel like in the classroom. This is when having an honest class conversation about these expectations is so important, because if students don’t understand what “be respectful” means, looks like, sounds like, feels like in YOUR classroom then the rule is meaningless. Once you have your class rules everyone in the classroom (even you) signs the rules, and this becomes the class’ contract. This gives students’ ownership of the expectations, the classroom environment, and accountability to you and each other. This is my favorite way to set up class expectations.
Just know that sometimes you’ll have to remind individual students or the whole class of the expectations. It’s okay if in the middle of the school year to have a class discussion about behavior. This doesn’t mean you or your students have failed. It just means you need to reestablish the classroom norms again. Once the classroom routines and behaviors have been established or reestablished it’s imperative that you’re consistent with your expectations. So, if the expectation is that students are to be silent at the carpet during individual reading time and Anna and Greg are talking and you warn Anna but not Greg guess what’s going to happen? Yup, Anna’s going to be upset that she was the only one to be called on when another student was also talking. But more importantly students are going to get mixed messages and be inconsistent with their behavior.
Organize the classroom and transitions mindfully
When you design your classroom flow be sure that students’ desks are in a way that you can access each student at any point of the day. Be sure that students’ material are easily accessible to students and consistently in the same location during the day, such as paper, pen, pencils, markers, etc. This will make your life easier so students aren’t constantly asking you for supplies and learning material, and then you can focus on what you love to do, which is teach.
The other aspect of management you need to consider are transitions. In one lesson there can be several transitions. Students can start the lesson with a quick individual warm up, to group work, to stations, then to a class discussion, etc. Since lessons can be complex with many moving parts it’s essential for teachers to plan out every movement and how he will give directions.
Something a simple task like turning in homework can became a chaotic act. Students running to staple pages together; students going to their backpacks to retrieve their homework,; students just staring off in the distance; students running up to you tell you that they forgot their homework on the kitchen table….you get the point. So, you have to think of what every routine will look like, plan it, explain the routine to students, and sometimes you’ll have to revise the routine because students can be very creative. You’ll realize that you’ll need a routine for nearly everything, especially the daily tasks.
In addition to routines, transition strategies will become your best friends. Students cannot read your mind and don’t know when it’s time to transition to another activity or clean up if you don’t give them a clear and consistent signal that it’s time to transition. Many times I’ll see novice teachers yell, “Okay guys!” or “Hey it’s time to move on…” These tend not to work. So, use a distinctive non-verbal cue, such as raising your hand in a particular spot in the room, or using a sound effect like a chime. Remember your job is to talk all day, every day, so your most precious tool is your voice and you don’t want to lose it by screaming above thirty shrieking voices. I love using mindful techniques, such as using a Tibetan singing bowl, a gentle chime, or a physical cue. The key is to find a strategy that you and your students feel comfortable with, teach the students what the transition sign is, and then use it consistently. Once you find your transition strategies you’ll be amazed at how quickly students move from one activity to the next.
Model and teach mindfulness techniques
As a mindful teacher it’s important to teach students the tool to self-regulate, remain focused, and not overreact. Many times the field of education forgets that we are working with human beings, who are complex and have various strengths and challenges. It’s difficult teaching content when we don’t address the whole child. As a result, part of classroom management should be modeling and explicitly teaching mindfulness techniques to our students. For instance, instead of having a time out corner, have a meditation corner. Of course you have to explain to students and teach students (in an age appropriate manner) what meditation is, but once you practice this daily or weekly you can introduce the meditation corner as a place where students can choose to take a moment to connect back with their breath, body, and emotions and settle into what’s happening in the present moment for them. You can also incorporate mindful breaks throughout the day, such as mindful breathing, body scan, mindful movement, or yoga. There are so many ways to incorporate mindfulness with your students that supports their development and your classroom management. Check out a more comprehensive list here and a deeper explanation on mindfulness techniques in a post I wrote in August .
There isn’t just one strategy that will “fix” your classroom management challenges. So, be patient with yourself and with your students. Remember to respond to their behaviors with compassion. Many times what may seem inappropriate behaviors may be a student asking for help, a student just having a bad day, or maybe a child who just didn’t get enough sleep. Now that you will fail at times and to hold yourself with compassion when you do. We are just human trying our best each day. When something doesn’t go the way you anticipated, just pause, reevaluate, revise and try again.
Have an engaging lesson
Finally, be sure to constantly engage students in learning. If students are too busy engaging in the learning and enjoying their learning experience they won’t have a reason to become distracted and misbehave.
There are no real tricks or special charms for an effective classroom management plan. However, thinking about classroom management through a mindful lens will help you evaluate and develop strategies that support teaching the whole child. It just takes time, practice, reflection, and patience.
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