Category Archives: classroom management

Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored

When I am in a meeting (and I go to lots and lots of meetings) and there are challenges to solve, or the speaker is entertaining and has something to say that I am interested in, and when I get opportunities to talk about what I am learning, I am totally engaged.  I don’t check my email.  I don’t text my friends.  I don’t secretly hope my secretary will call with an emergency.  I don’t drink lots of coffee so that I have to visit the restroom.  On occasion I have to remind myself to listen to others when I am excited about the topic and be patient with others who may have a different viewpoint. My level of engagement and my ability to attend, though, is more about the content and structure of the meeting and my social and emotional skills are secondary.

Now, when I go to a meeting that is not engaging it is a different story altogether.  At first I try to be attentive but soon my attention wanders.  I  look around.  I check my phone.  I read my email. I even do my email if it won’t look too rude.  I play with anything I can find to fiddle with.  I get up and get more coffee.  I frequent the restroom. If you watched me you might think I have very poor self-regulation skills.

Self-regulation does not mean being good when you are bored.  Grit, perseverance and resilience are not skills that you develop in environments that are not conducive to obtaining them.  I worry that we are jumping on the bandwagon of teaching students skills they seem to be lacking before we examine whether the classroom environment we create may be a contributing factor.

Lest teachers feel I am picking on them, administrators tend to do the same thing.  We often look at our staff meetings and see that no one is participating or attentive and think, “Those teachers just don’t care.”  But perhaps they are not engaged.  Teachers care.

But this is difficult to do because it means we need to examine our own teaching and facilitation practices.  And when you are leading or teaching, you are usually engaged.  It is hard to step out of our own shoes and look at it from the participant’s perspective.  We are deeply tied to our work emotionally and therefore it is extremely difficult to examine our own practices.  So we often tend to blame the lack of engagement or poor behaviour on the participants.  I know as a beginning teacher my go-to response to a bad day was to change the seating plan.

Do kids need to learn to manage their emotions appropriately?  For sure.  Do teachers need to teach and support students to develop self-regulation?  Absolutely.  Is it worthwhile creating norms for adult working groups?  Yes.  But don’t jump to blame the participants for not using those skills when things don’t go as you wish.  Check and make sure that the lesson or the meeting was the very best ever. Seven year olds aren’t going to sit quietly if they have been on the carpet for a long time.  Fourteen year olds aren’t going to ignore their phones and friends if you have been lecturing for more than 15 minutes.  Adults are not going to engage in professional development if it is not relevant and interesting.    Sometimes I hear “Well, everything in life isn’t fun and kids need to learn to behave in those situations.”  Really?  The job of school is to train kids to be bored?  Workplace meetings need to be boring?  I don’t think so.

As educators we know more about how people learn and how to engage others in learning than most.   We have an obligation to ensure that happens every lesson, every meeting, every day.

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Managing Differentiation in the Classroom

The question came upabout how you get students on an IEP started in class.  You have given the assignment, you were clear in the instructions but the first 10 minutes are busy and you realize that the students on the IEP have just been sitting, or sharpening their pencil, or in the bathroom, or causing a disturbance because they don’t know how to get started.  What to do?

Here are some suggestions.  There is no easy answer and different solutions might work in different situations:

  • Planning for differentiation has to be part of the initial planning process not an after- thought. Sometimes we think that we will just wait and see how a student does with the class assignment and then if he or she is stuck, then we will differentiate.  It is better to have decided in advance how you will differentiate and start with that.  From the student’s point of view, it is easier to understand and do more than to be frustrated from the get-go.
  • When thinking about differentiation, think about the concepts not the task. Often it is that task that is too complex, not the concept; the task is too open-ended, not organized enough, the reading level is too high.  By determining, in advance, what concept the student needs to focus on and determining what the barriers to learning that are, you may be able to differentiate easier.  It is not about task completion.  It is about learning.
  • Know your subject matter so that you can see the continuum of learning. No matter what concept you need students to learn, there is something they had to learn first to get there.  Think about what knowledge the student might be missing that is inhibiting their understanding.
  • Have a rule that NO ONE can ask you questions for the first 5-10 minutes after you give a task. Lots of students ask questions that they can actually figure out on their own.  That gives you some peace and quiet to check in with those students you know need you right away.
  • Small group instruction is your first defense in differentiation. If you predict that some students are going to need extra support or a different assignment, call them to the guided learning table first.  Support them right from the beginning of the task so that frustration doesn’t set in.  You may need to use that few minutes to activate background knowledge for them, create a graphic organizer, reduce or chunk the amount of work.
  • Talk less, show more. Most of your students can process verbal instructions but many students on an IEP cannot.  Make sure that you are writing the instructions on the board as well as saying what they are.  And, identify that you are creating the visual support by saying “Everyone point to the instructions”.
  • In the first few minutes of the work period, find your struggling students and create a quick checklist of 3 (no more) things that they need to do to get started. Put it on a sticky note.  They need to come and let you know when those three things are done.
  • Strategic grouping of students can help. If you know that you will be available to work with a group of students, group your students homogeneously and work with the group that needs you most.  If you don’t think you will be able to work with students right away, group them heterogeneously so that everyone can get started.  Later in the period, pull students who may need support from their groups to check in with you.  If you don’t do this last step then you risk that those students are not getting the concepts.
  • Model with graphic organizers and then have them be optional. Students can choose the organizer or not.  Most students will choose what they need.  You may be surprised to see who needs what.  And, you are still the teacher.  If someone doesn’t choose the organizer who needs it, you can insist.
  • Create tasks that have multiple entry points into learning. The curriculum does not indicate how “hard” the work needs to be.  Tasks that are accessible to all are easier for all students.
  • You wrote the IEP. It gives you permission to have the student learn differently, less content or show the work in alternative formats.  It is fair to do that.  When you are planning, think of those IEPs and how you will manage those students. Differentiation becomes more difficult when we have not planned for it.


Filed under classroom environment, classroom management, Differentiation, pedagogy

High Expectations …for kids.

A group of teachers  and I went to a workshop and watched a video of a grade 6 literature circle.  We had a chance to discuss it in our group and we thought that the students had done a pretty good job:  they were engaged and lively in their discussion, they talked about the book, they made reference to the book and talked about their connections to the main characters.  It sounded rather like a book club meeting I would go to.  When it was time to share with other table groups we were surprised that others had thought it was not a good discussion.  They thought the conversation should have been deeper.  They thought that the students should have referred back to the text more.  They thought that all students in the group should have spoken.  They thought that students should have not interrupted each other and used politer language (eg. Have you thought about this point?)  We wondered if our expectations were too low or were theirs too high?

A student in our school who spends a lot of her day with one-to-one support has been very unhappy by 1:00 p.m.  When we met to talk about strategies we began to realize that this young lady has constant “teaching” all day long because of the individualized instruction.  None of our other students are “on” for that long every day.  She probably needs more down time.  Maybe our expectations were unrealistic—most kids get lots of down time at school.

The grade 3 team was doing some teacher moderation of student writing.  We used our rubric to examine each piece.  As we get better at teaching, we also get better at knowing how to improve each student’s writing.  We needed to remind ourselves that many times this was good voice, good plot development, good arguing for grade 3.  Maybe the description was a little overdone; maybe the plot didn’t flow well.    Of course we could do better.  But they are just learning.

Our math teachers do lots of group work.  They have noisy classrooms.  Upon entering my first reaction is that it needs to be quieter.  But when I listen in on the conversations, they are all about math.  The students are all talking about math, all the time.  I don’t think that 30 grownups could talk about math quietly, so I shouldn’t expect that 30 students can.  In fact, I am impressed that 30 students are all talking about math for 20-30 minutes at a time.  There is an expectation that the students will be mathematicians who argue, and figure and ponder together.

So I have been thinking about all these things and wondering about the expectations we have for kids.  We want to set high expectations for all kids.  We want students to set goals and reach them.  We want our students to learn that it takes effort and hard work to achieve goals.  But, they are kids.

Imagine the following:

  • You have to sit on a hard plastic chair all day long. I hate long meetings.  I can’t wait for the break.  Sometimes I go to the bathroom just for a break, not because I have to.  Sometimes my head hurts because I have been concentrating so long.  Do we let our students stand, get up and move, go for a run around the school?  Should we purchase more exercise balls to sit on?
  • Your best friends are sitting right beside you but you can’t talk to them. Have you ever been to a meeting with your friends?  Don’t you talk to them?  Does your group at a PD session always stay on topic?  Do you ever laugh and joke around?
  • After you have worked a really long day, you have to take more work home (I know, you usually do; you’re teachers) and there is no research to prove that the work you do at home makes any difference whatsoever. A little bit of homework is ok.  But, in the grand scheme of life, is homework going to make or break a kid’s life?  And what if everyone else at work didn’t have to bring work home except you, because you didn’t really get it?
  • You’ve just been introduced to something new. You don’t quite get it. It’s new.  It’s different.  It doesn’t quite make sense.  Don’t you want someone to sit with you and explain it again?  Don’t you want some time to struggle with it before you have to show anyone?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have some feedback as you go along?  Don’t you want someone to maybe show you exactly what they mean?
  • You have to write a test. You have studied.  You paid attention in class.  The questions on the test don’t look like what you did in class.  You’ve never had to think like that before.  Some of you will relish the challenge but many of you will panic.

We are doing a great job of having high expectations.  It is always good to remind ourselves that they are just kids.  How does school look from their perspective?  High expectations are important; we want to make sure that the expectations are also reasonable for children-children who are curious, anxious to please, have lots of energy and short attention spans.  High expectations, yes; but not unreasonable ones, not ones that we wouldn’t expect of ourselves, not ones that don’t celebrate and recognize that they are children.

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What happens when students choose their partners?

As a principal I get to go into classrooms in different ways than as a teacher. First of all, everyone sits up straighter! Sometimes, a hush falls over the room. But, what is interesting for me to reflect upon are the practices which have been around forever because I get to see them as an observer instead of as a teacher. One of those practices is picking partners.

There are many activities we do every day where kids need a partner or a group. And, as a teacher, I often didn’t give that a lot of thought. The quickest way for me to manage was to say find partner, find a group. Of course there were always kids left over but I fixed that and my lesson went on.

As I have observed classrooms more than I have taught them over the past few years (although I still love the teaching, so do ask me in when you want a break), I have noticed things about picking partners that I thought I would share.

1. The minute the teacher says there are going to be groups or partners, kids stop paying attention and start making eyes at each other to make sure they get in the “right” group.

2. Some students, in every class I’ve been in, immediately look at their desk or the floor. Their shoulders hunch in. They look unhappy.

3. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, some students have multiple people coming up to them asking to be their partner. Often that person spends a lot of time deciding exactly who to take. There is often begging. There appears to be a lot of power on the part of the partner of choice.

4. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a few students run about madly asking a number of people to be their partner. They seem a bit desperate. I wonder if they aren’t worried about being left out.

5. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a couple of students hang back and don’t say anything. Sometimes they are approached. Sometimes they are not approached by anyone at all. They make no effort to find a partner. They are usually hanging out at the back or edge of the group.

6. At the end of the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, there are students without partners or group members. The teacher then intervenes and places these students in groups or together. In every class I’ve been in, someone has made a face or rolled their eyes, or said something negative about their group member.

So…what is a teacher to do in order to have this process go smoothly and make everyone feel included and welcome?

 – Start with having your students understand that a working relationship is not the same as a friendship. Mutual respect in the classroom means that we can all figure out how to work together. Have very direct conversations about the types of comments and behaviours that will not be tolerated when students are asked to work together.

-  Mix up your groupings frequently so that kids have the opportunity to work with many different students all the time. For some activities you want homogeneous groups but for others heterogeneous groups might work.

-  You know who the friends are, so let them be in the same group sometimes, but not always.

-  You always choose the groups whether it is random or by design. Never leave choosing groups to the students or someone will feel left out.

 – Random groupings can be chosen by handing out coloured cards, by assigning numbers, by colour of hair, by height—there are lots of ways.

 – I suggest that working groups are created by the teacher and that students work together long enough to develop trust.

-  It is often handy to create partners for the month. You could even do it by homeroom so that no matter which class students were in, the teacher could say—find your partner—and it would be done. The next month, new partners.

The easiest thing for us, as teachers, is to say “find a partner”. But, guaranteed, someone is going to feel left out and lonely. I’m sure you aren’t planning for left out and lonely in your lesson plan. It is easy to avoid.

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