Over my few short years of teaching, I have tried many different strategies to deal with conflicts, behaviors and overwhelmed students in my classroom. I have tried everything from reward systems to clip charts. Each strategy has its own unique advantages and disadvantages. With all of these strategies, I continued to use one particular method - a break space. Last year, I along with several of my other colleagues, dropped all other behavioral tools and just used the break space. It was truly the best decision I could have ever made.
Before I go into showing how I create and use my break space, let me tell you how I came to the decision to stop using some of the other strategies I have used.
The Rewards System:
While beneficial in some respects, the rewards system can cause students to become dependent. My goal is to build intrinsic motivation in my Kinders. I believe that with some children, the rewards system hinders this process. Some students need this system in place to keep them on track, but I don't think it needs to be available to every child - back to the fairness is not always sameness philosophy. If you have a student who can do well without rewards and innately understands the difference between right and wrong, why train that child that everything they do that is expected of them, warrants a reward? In my opinion, rewards should be special and should be given when a child goes above and beyond expectations. One of the schools I taught at specialized in education for students with ADD and Aspergers. Many of my students at this school needed and benefited from the school wide rewards system we had in place. On the other hand, many of the general education students I had in that classroom used the system as a crutch and their behavior actually spiraled downward. It depends on the child, but having a rewards system in place for my classroom just doesn't seem to work for me. Of course, I can have them on an individualized basis and have them be successful.
The Clip Chart:
This system works very well for some teachers, I have seen it in action and I have seen it be successful. I used a clip chart on and off for the first couple of years that I taught. I quickly discovered that there are students out there who can easily manipulate that chart without you even knowing it! I know that there is a bucket of research on the clip charts discussing its benefits and the harm it can cause to a child's experience in school. I have used both the research and my personal experience to deduct that the chart doesn't fit in well with my classroom management style.
I believe that the clip system can cause the feeling of public shame and embarrassment for a child even if the teacher doesn't use the chart with those intentions. Some students are more sensitive than others and the effect of having to move down on the chart stays with them for much longer than for others. There was a child in my classroom that had a complete melt down because of a clip move that neither of us were prepared for. No matter how many conversations I had with that child throughout the day about how she could fix her behavior, the chart immediately became a point of contention for her and her behavior became out of control for weeks due to that one incident. This child actually refused to get on the bus to go home, even on "good color days" because she was afraid to discuss the chart with her family. I understand that this is an extreme case, but it can and did happen. And I can assure you, my chart was used positively and privately - I never publicly announced a change. Some children are just heavily affected by the charts.
On the other end of the spectrum, I had a child admit to me that he used the chart as a game and some days he'd come in to school with a goal to get to the lowest color just to see what would happen and how long it would take to get him there. After several conversations and incidents, we came to understand that this child was actually just afraid he couldn't get to the highest color, so instead aimed for the lowest. Heartbreaking.
I came to see that the clip chart (in my room), just didn't fit and caused too many distractions, unnecessary incidents and stressful expectations that I didn't know my little ones were making for themselves. I decided to eliminate it altogether, but knew I needed to create a safe place for my students to go when they were feeling angry so that they could reflect until they were ready to talk it out.
I talked to several colleagues and we came up with dropping all strategies that could be perceived as negative and embracing a positive strategy - a break space. My colleagues and I use this fantastic space created by Teaching in Progress on Teachers Pay Teachers.
My Break Space:
There are so many benefits to having a safe place like this in your classroom for your students! Students understand that this is a space for them to think about what has just happened. This gives them time to cool down and (depending on the incident) gives you a break, too. I include a number of things in my break space to make it a comfortable, happy place for my kiddos.
My break space is in a corner of my classroom that is near to my table, but also within view of anywhere else I might be. I use the side of my filing cabinet to put a timer, calming cards, our classroom expectations and a mirror along with a copy of the reflection page we use during our restorative conversation. As you can see in the yellow envelope, students can use this paper to fill out or to draw a picture on while thinking.
On top of the filing cabinet, I have a basket filled with some soft things for my students to hold or squeeze. Typically I keep a couple of beanie babies and some stress balls of different sizes and density. I keep a sand timer up there for students who don't know how to work the digital timer on the side of the cabinet. I keep a box of tissues in this space as well in case the students need it.
Although I only allow one student in the break space at a time, I like to allow multiple places for that child to sit. Some students prefer to be out of sight, so I provide pillows on the floor with a little nook behind the chair so they can experience some privacy during their break. Others like to observe the rest of the students while they calm down which is why I provide the comfy chair that is high enough for them to see what's happening, but signifies they are still in the break space and need time alone.
Other things to remember:
- Keep your space colorful! The last place a student will want to go when they're feeling upset is somewhere dark and dreary.
- Keep it simple - don't allow too many distractions in the break space. Otherwise, it may become more of a game and less of a place students use when they really need it.
- Keep it secluded. (Most) students don't like to be watched when they are afraid, sad, angry or upset. And even those that do need that time separated from others to calm down.
- Make sure you can see it at all times. Although students deserve their privacy, it is important for them to know that you can see them and that you will be there for them if they need it. They also need to know that because you can see them, this isn't another place they can be silly in.
If you are thinking about creating a space like this in your room, I highly recommend it! It has been the most successful tool I have used for conflict resolution in my classroom. I know that some of my colleagues would agree. A break space is a positive space that allows students to calm down on their own time. The result of the space is always a restorative conversation with me regarding the incident. The most important thing for us to remember is that after that conversation, the slate is wiped clean and we start on a new beginning!
If you're anything like me, you're already thinking about the upcoming school year. You're thinking about how to set up your room, what new activities you can tackle, your new group of little loves and what they will be like - and most importantly - how do you get that new group to form a strong class community? I think about this every year. It is so important to me to keep my class tight knit and supportive of each other. Nothing warms my heart more than to see my students care for each other and form genuine friendships.
The question is - how do we get there? I look at it as part of my job to prepare my students to be caring, responsible citizens of their community. I have put a lot of thought into my approach to setting up the expectations of my classroom - I am constantly modifying and tweaking things to make it appropriate for each of my classes personalities. I have found that I always rely on a few simple basics to lay the foundation. Read below to see how I form my classroom family and log onto Teachers Pay Teachers to see my product on classroom expectations.
1. Be simple and clear.
Imagine that you're back in kindergarten. You're taking in your new surroundings, the new people, the new smells, and all. the. shiny. bright. colors. On top of all of that, your teacher sits you down with all your new friends and starts listing all of the things you can and cannot do, can and cannot touch, yes, yes, yes, no, no, no. We as teachers can get so excited to get started that we might forget the sensory overload we're placing on these little ones. I've come to find that if I keep it short, but clear, I'm more likely to keep my students' attentions.
My school, like many schools, uses the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports system (PBIS). We have the same three expectations throughout our entire building. This makes it so simple for all students because the basic expectations of Be Respectful, Be Responsible and Be Safe apply not only in their room, but in the hall, the gym, the bathroom etc. These expectations are also very clear to the students and can be modified as needed for each environment of the building. Consider sticking to 3 and no more than 4 expectations for your students, especially if you're teaching primary. Have these expectations posted and review them often!
2. Get the students involved!
I have learned from watching some of the best - I seriously work with some of the greatest kindergarten teachers on the planet! These teachers are so effective because they get their kiddos up and moving - especially when learning routines, procedures and behaviors! Have your students act out scenarios. My suggestion (and the most effective strategy I have found thus far) is for you to play the "bad kid." Kids will LOVE to tell you everything you're doing wrong and just exactly how YOU need to fix your behavior! It sets them up for success and also gives them the courage to speak up when they see something happening that is out of place.
Getting students involved in learning these expectations also allows them the opportunity to form trust with one another. It shows them that their classroom is a safe environment for them to be silly, to express their feelings and to speak up when something is wrong. Involving students in this process opens many doors for community building. This was a picture taken during the first week of school last year shortly after we discussed "Be Respectful."
3. Model the behavior you want to see.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's very important. We can't expect our students to follow the directions or be kind to others if they see us bend a rule or snap at people. Yes, everyone snaps, but if you do, turn it into a teachable moment. Explain to the students how emotions can get the better of you and share how it could go better the next time. If students see that you are willing to show your vulnerability and mistakes, they won't feel ashamed about making their own and then having the courage to fix them, like you do!
There was a day going into the spring of this past year when I lost my temper on a student and it could have been completely avoided. I immediately apologized to him, explained that I should have handled my emotions differently and asked for a hug. While hugging me the student said "It's okay Miss Lord, we all lose our tempers, I know you'll do better next time. Just like you tell me." My heart! It's days like that when I realize just how much of an impact we teachers can have on our students. It's also days like that when I realize my kindergarteners sometimes handle their emotions better than I do!
4. Communicate with the families.
It is imperative to get the families involved in your students' learning as much as possible. Especially right in the beginning of the year when students are starting to learn the basics of school and your classroom. If the parents are in the loop with these procedures and expectations from the beginning, they will be more likely to practice them at home with their child. When a child sees that you and their parents are working closely to keep them on track, they will naturally want to follow the expectations put in place for them.
I communicate with my families in a number of ways - newsletters, emails, notes, phone calls, you name it. At the beginning of the year, when I'm teaching my expectations, I send a note home with each child explaining what we've learned and ask for the family's help in implementing it. I have received an overwhelmingly positive response from families because it allows them to be involved in their child's learning from the start.
Other important things to remember...
I also find it important to choose what kind of language I use with my students in regards to my classroom community building. I use the word family. Many of my kindergarteners look at me at first as if I've grown a third head - you may receive the same reaction. I even had a student shout out "I DON'T KNOW YOU LIKE THAT!" in disgust one year (and I'll have you know that the same child was hugging all of his "school brothers and sisters" goodbye on the last day of school). Do not panic! Own it. Trust me! A family is a unit - a group of people who are there for each other no matter what - and that's what I expect of my students. In my classroom we work together as a family, we support each other as a family, we fight as a family and we love as a family. Since I switched to using this language with my students, I have seen a huge change in the way they view each other. I cannot count how many times I hear my students saying "We are a Room 5 Family" when sticking up for each other or when they're having normal conversation. It gives the students the sense that they belong to each other and it lets them know that our room is a safe place.
Another important thing to remember is to stay as positive as possible and to model ways for students to express their emotions effectively. I give my students sentence starters such as "I don't like it when..." or "It hurts my feelings that..." The classic "I" statements keeps the blame off of others and allows students to feel safe when confronting or being confronted. After apologies, students always end it with a handshake, high five or hug as a symbol that they're moving on. This gives closure to the conflict and makes each student start clean on a positive note.
The more diligent you are about setting up your expectations, practicing them, reviewing them and reviewing some more, the more smoothly your class will run. Students will feel safe, happy and comfortable and they will want to do their best for not only you, but for themselves. Because YOU set them up for success! And when you set up a strong classroom community...I mean family... You will be able to see true, genuine, supportive friendships in your students which will inevitably facilitate an amazing learning environment.