Dear Teachers,

What do you think of when you hear the term “classroom management”? Does it strike fear into your heart? While I may be trying to be funny, I understand classroom management is a major concern for many of my undergraduate students and many of the beginning teachers with whom I’ve worked. When I discuss various ideas connected to literacy, I often hear “But what about classroom management? How do we maintain discipline? If the students aren’t going to listen, how can we include writing or reading choices? Even though my undergraduate students watch me teaching third grade during the first week of school and see that I immediately establish the literacy environment and never wait until “they are able to listen,” they still express their apprehensions this way:

Cindy: But how do we make them behave?

Nina: What do you mean? Aren’t these children behaving?

Heidi: Yeah, but what if they don’t behave?

Nina: Why do you think they are behaving now?

Dana: I don’t know. I’m asking you what if they don’t behave?

Nina: I like to encourage people to look at the why’s of success first, just like looking at the strengths of a child before the weaknesses, so why do you think these third graders are behaving on the first day?

I know I sometimes annoy my students when I answer their questions with my own question. But as you know already, I don’t believe it is my job to dish out information; it is my job to help students to develop their own voice, to be a part of constructing the knowledge they seek. So why do you think students on the first day of school successfully and positively interact as the literacy environment begins to blossom? Think about our discussions focusing on purposefulness, choice, active learning, contextualization, scaffolding and building on individual student expertise.

I can hear you say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute! All I’m asking about is discipline, behavior management not all this instructional stuff. Just tell me how we make them behave!”

The solution requires a recognition that behavior management is part of instruction itself. As a matter of fact, it is also part of life. It is as complicated and complex as human beings are. To presume that we can manage human behavior, that we can “make” them behave, reduces children to the pets or robots that too many of us wish them to become. Is this what you wish for your students?

I hope you have chosen the profession to encourage independent thinking and to promote the growth of the uniqueness within all of us. Note the title of this chapter, “Classroom Interactions: Rethinking Classroom Management.”

What does this title encourage you to do? I intended that it challenge you to broaden your views on some of the terms, techniques and beliefs traditionally held in such high esteem. The change from “Management” to “Interactions” suggests an opening up of the traditionally narrow discussion of management to include the complex relationships and interactions that mark all of our lives. The one word or the other connects to the personal view we have of children. If we consider children basically evil, we will set up management techniques to quell their misbehavior and keep them on the path of righteousness. If we consider children good, we will trust them and their judgments within educational environments that support them, and help develop their inherent goodness.

Now let’s examine this issue of management versus interactions. The word “management” denotes a relationship where one person takes charge of another. This person applies the rules and distributes punishment and rewards. The word supports the idea that students need to be “managed” by an outsider because they are incapable of managing themselves.

More specifically, students need to sit in neat, manageable rows; they need to be punished when they ignore the prescribed rules of the classroom; and of course, they earn rewards when they follow the rules.

The rewards include candy or tickets or points convertible into treats or prizes. The word “interactions” indicates a more reciprocal relationship where rules form within a respectful environment. While at least one adult (the teacher) remains in the room, this adult does not hold all the power. He or she follows the rules of the community the same way all learners do.

All learners come to accept each other as complex human beings capable of personal and instructional choices. This foundation of respect and choice encourages positive interactions. The consequences and rewards within this environment revolve around feelings of pride, personal  power and success.

Do you trust your children’s inherent goodness? If so, what type of environment would you design to support this goodness? What type of environment might erase this goodness?

A few words serve nicely to characterize my success with classroom interactions, the same words that accompany my success with literacy instruction: love, respect, choice, responsibility, success.

Indeed, one cannot really separate classroom instruction from classroom interactions (formerly classroom management). Meaningful, purposeful, contextualized instruction means positive interaction between all members of the community. Thus, when college students observe me during the first week of third grade, they are amazed to find no “behavior problems.” Why not? The quick, easy answer is, “This is just a great group of kids, so positive, so cooperative.”

(But beware: This casual reply deflects from the examining of instructional decisions and design to the inherent nature of the children.) An answer that shows deeper thought might be, “The children feel empowered and engaged, and they have better things to do than present any “behavior problems.”

Recently, I thought of a more powerful way to convey this point to my undergraduate students. Now I make sure they observe these same children with another teacher. They are shocked to see the same “little angels” turn into “devils” as they call out, push each other on line, call each other names, are always off task.

When I visit classrooms as a consultant, the classroom teacher (or principal) often tells me that “these kids are horrible. They don’t listen. They never want to sit in their seats; they are always hitting each other; they never do their homework.” I sit and observe and find myself amazed the children can’t invent still more inappropriate behavior. I hear monotone reading aloud from material that is dry and irrelevant. I see stifling worksheets that take five minutes to finish but consume 20 minutes of deadening silence. I sometimes come close to falling asleep in these classrooms. I commend these children for not throwing their chairs at these teachers. The anger and frustration rise within me when I must sit for a half hour and listen to unconnected, boring lessons. How, I wonder, do the children control their anger and their frustration? They are continually assaulted with poor teachers, classrooms, and curricula and must sit and bear it. Most learn quickly that a “good child” sits silently and pretends to listen: They are considered the adjusted students.

The students who decide to show their anger and frustration as they hit, call out, curse and throw things are “maladjusted.” These children might receive referrals to special classes because they “cannot function” in the regular classroom. These are the officially weak students in need of more help. I challenge you to rethink these assumptions. Who are stronger, the students who passively accept all that is fed to them or those who express their anger over the disrespectful and oppressive situation they find themselves in? Interesting that our educational system would punish this strength. Do you see how, in fact, we might view disruptive behavior as a strength instead of a deficit?

When students in your classroom interact inappropriately, you can react to it in one of two major ways. You can blame the student with such talk as, “She can never control herself. No wonder she never gets her work done.”Or you reflect on what you can do to encourage more positive behavior. How do these two options influence your interactions? Think about the first one. What happens after you blame the child? Does blame help? Does it encourage any progress? Now what happens when you step back and reflect upon the situation? At the very least, this is a more positive approach.

Blame, in fact, inhibits growth. When we blame, we place an obstacle between ourselves and our own responsibility. Teaching is responsibility. Whether the student comes to you as a second language learner, from a home you consider less than ideal or from a classroom where only negative interactions occurred, you assume responsibility for that child. But are you the only one responsible? Traditionally, we have talked about teachers as ultimately responsible, and of course in some ways we are. For example, we are responsible for setting up a caring, safe, respectful and meaningful environment. Within this environment though you can help create a community where all students, not just you, take responsibility for encouraging and holding others accountable for appropriate behavior. So, for example, when a child turns away from another child who is addressing the class, I might say to the child next to him or her “Why are you allowing Frank to talk while Emma is reading? You need to make sure you help your friends.” Think about what this type of interaction encourages.

Am I giving negative attention to the child who is talking at an inappropriate time? Am I holding his or her friend accountable for community help? Does the child who is talking at an inappropriate time ultimately begin to listen?

When we begin to allow children to take care of each other in the classroom, a spirit of community emerges. Children begin to look beyond themselves to each other. They recognize that each is a valuable member of the community and each has an obligation to maintain the common rules. This type of classroom strikes a balance between recognizing individual talents and needs and strengthening a collective identity. Of course, the first thing to do is to set up a safe community where all are valued and none feels threatened by another. Sound familiar? How do we do this? Well first, we must examine strengths so that we as teachers become more accepting of our students. As we continue to work on ourselves, we can also set up our classrooms so that our children see each other in the same accepting way. Our community begins to talk about our rights and responsibilities as a community member:

Our Rights

1. We have the right to be listened to by our teachers and friends.

2. We have the right to receive caring from our teachers and friends.

3. We have the right to use the things in our classroom.

4. We have the right to call our families in cases of emergency.

5. We have the right to be decision makers in our classroom 

6. Our Responsibilities

7. We have a responsibility to encourage and be caring toward our friends and teachers.

8. We have a responsibility to treat all things in our classroom carefully.

9. We have a responsibility to participate in all activities and help our community to become strong and positive.

We have the responsibility to help others meet their responsibilities successfully.

What I do first is eliminate all the competition I can. It’s an interesting exercise to examine some of the interactions that take place naturally in our classrooms and pull them apart. Underneath well-intentioned practices I find powerfully competitive messages. Let’s examine some of these practices:

Line Leader

For some reason children covet the “line leader” position within the conventional classroom. To be a line leader is an honor so relished it often causes actual physical fights. Some might say, “That’s right. That’s why we need to assign line leaders. If we didn’t the children would constantly fight about who’s on line.”

But (as usual!) let’s think about this assumption. How do line leaders get assigned? Is this position on line a reward for good behavior or academic marks? If so, each child must compete for the privilege, knowing that power resides in this premium position. When teachers set up prizes to be won, active competition, hostility and even physical fights ensue. But isn’t this confrontation just a natural part of the competitive spirit? Well perhaps; on the other hand teachers who foster competitiveness and reinforce it through a reward system can hardly complain about the behavior such a system so clearly breeds.

Teacher: Wow, Henry, you really did an excellent job on the spelling test! You can be our line leader this week.

Steve: But Ms. Burke, he’s always the line leader!

Teacher: When you decide to get an A on your spelling test, you might be able to be the line leader.

Steve: That’s not fair!

While this seems a positive situation for Henry (it really isn’t, because he is being separated from the community), for the other students it is negative. Because Henry has an easier time meeting the teacher’s expectations, he is chosen line leader frequently. Unfortunately, the other students rarely get this chance because most of them fall outside the narrow band of acceptance and standards.

Teacher: On line for PE. (The students start to fight to be the line leader.) What is happening? Stop that fighting! Who did I say was the line leader?

Students: Maria but she’s absent!

Teacher: Then Nancy, you take her place. Now all of you, stop it!

As I’ve said repeatedly, everyone wants to feel powerful and in control. If power in your classroom means “line leader, “ naturally then the children will struggle for the position. I encourage you to rethink this common practice. Do we need to set up these competitive situations? Think about the students who never get a chance to be line leader. Is their hurt worth it?

Let’s think about the whole line leader concept. Do we have line leaders in the real world, or do we just form lines in a respectful way? When we wait on line in a bank or a supermarket, we tend to patiently wait behind those in front of us. We hear no talk of line leader, and we rarely feel any pushing! Shouldn’t we be helping our children with the real protocol they will practice in the community?

Meanwhile, when in later life do we ever walk in perfectly straight and silent lines? So what is the reason for all the energy teachers spend on this lining up? The same thinking allows reading to proceed through pre-planned packages called “Reading.” It’s a simple and easy to manage curriculum, just like straight lines in the hall.

Door holder

It amazes me to see how many efficient door holders our school systems produce. Like line leader, door holder is a coveted position. Now that I think of it, though, the same person usually fills both positions. The line leader usually seems to hold the door, and once the whole class is through the door, the holder runs up to the front of the line! Outside of our schools, the way most of us hold the door is go through it and hold it for the person behind. Why not let our children practice this common courtesy?

Helper and messenger

Certain children seem repeatedly to win the privilege of helping in the classroom. Traditionally, a helper has eamed the power through compliant behavior and acceptable work. Like the line leader they have earned the feeling of power we all need. When a student becomes teacher’s helper, he or she is positively recognized and placed above the other children. Here again, the message of competition is subtle but strong. It reinforces competitive behavior and ultimately disturbs and disrupts the community as a whole. While teachers think these techniques help with behavior management, and maybe in the short run they do, they still set up relationships based on competition and separation, giving some access to power and denying that access to others.

Star of the day, week or month

The student stars have usually met the academic and behavior standards of a conventional classroom, and once again, the same children are the perennial classroom stars. No doubt, these children also head the line, hold the door, and help the teacher. Some of you might be thinking, “Oh but I would do it so that everyone has a chance to be a star by the end of the year.”

I know that teachers have these good intentions, but we need to go beyond good intentions and think about the messages we sent. When I deconstruct these privileges and prizes, I see subtle support for the competition that stifles and alienates our students. “Star of the Month” implies that everyone can’t be a star, and the rest of us must wait to be valued. It also implies that this recognition must come from an outside source, in this case the lofty teacher. Actually, all these techniques strongly suggest this: To be a star, a helper, a door holder, a messenger, a book collector or a line leader, we must first be recognized by an outside authority who validates us with rewards. In a classroom based on competition (intentioned or unintentional) these rewards are limited and only a few can share the pleasure.

My way

My children receive no special helping positions or star status. My rules are clear and to the point, and they involve the whole community. Yes, my students walk nicely and quietly down the halls so that we don’t disturb others. No one leads, no one fights for position, and we all follow these same rules:

Line Rules

We stand with hands at our sides.

We stand directly behind the person in front of us.

We look straight ahead.

We walk silently so we don’t disturb other classes.

We help the person in front of us follow the line rules.

Because I base my curriculum on the children’s individual strengths and uniqueness, I see all students as stars. We know each other intimately since we share our personal writings, readings and thoughts. We know that Alba loves horses and that Alex loves Spiderman and that Michael loves horror stories. When children help each other as they edit written work, we learn who the experts are in various areas. If you need to work on quotation marks, go to Keisha. If you need a drawing of a dinosaur, go to Arnold. Here we are all stars because we are all special and want to share our gifts with the community.

All my children help because it is their obligation as a member of our community to be actively involved in its positive maintenance. Our community obligates us to serve others. Helping is not a special reward but a duty all share. Therefore, no matter what behavior a child might exhibit, he or she is still a part of our community and is empowered to help others. Whether Pedro has a bad day or not, he still is asked, “Please help the people at your team find the right page.” A child loses no power because he or she just happens to have a bad day. Of course a child may occasionally have to pay “the consequences,” but a natural consequence is not the stripping of helping behavior from the child. Indeed, when we do this we take away an activity that might help redeem the student.

Do we want to teach our children that only a few can enjoy the privilege of helping, or do we want to teach them that all are obligated to help as active community members? I contend that part of our job is to nurture cooperation and service. It is selfish of us to deprive any of our students of the joyful feeling of service to others. Remember the motto of the Knights of the Round Table: “In serving each other we become free.” Do we have the right to deprive this sense of freedom to our children? We do not.

Discipline Packages: Token Economies

School districts now purchase packaged discipline methods and use them extensively. These packages provide step-by-step instructions on how to manage a classroom. Many teachers use these programs, handing out points, stickers, candy, toys and more in hopes that their students will remain obedient. These teachers, therefore, spend a lot of time and money organizing when, why, where, how and to whom points are given. At first, the teachers usually get good results. But if you’ll look closely, you’ll see that some children walk away with prizes and some do not.

My way

Discipline packages raise the same anger in me as the curriculum packages supposedly focused on literacy. They would have us believe that a couple of checks by a name encourage everyone to behave. We can talk endlessly about the insult to our intelligence when we are told that one program can meet the needs of all our children. But when we eliminate competitive situations, our behaviors and interactions begin to change drastically. When all children feel safe and respected by all others, positive behaviors supplant misbehavior.

I do not use material prizes or rewards to keep my students under control. Indeed, I consider token economies disrespectful, insulting and degrading. How would you like to get an M&M every time you did something right? What message does that send about you? Are you so simple, so mechanical, that a piece of candy can get you to do whatever the authorities want you to do? I hope not. I know our children are not that simple. Checks and tokens might work for a while, but that doesn’t mean they are either right or ultimately effective. A smoldering anger permeates many of our classrooms (and society), kindled by the demeaning treatment so many of our students receive. Children aren’t stupid. Children aren’t pets. They are human beings and should be given the dignity that is their right.

     I maintain an environment where a student’s dignity as a human being remains intact. Students enjoy continual opportunities to control themselves and help maintain the smooth, positive operation of our community. The power, success and confidence my students feel far outweigh a sticker or a piece of candy. My children relish the personally meaningful work in which they are constantly involved. They savor their power as they help create the respectful, just and positive rules and consequences our community follows.

Classroom Rules

1. We try our best.

2. We listen and look when others talk.

3. We are kind and helpful to others.

4. We help others remember the rules.


1. We feel proud.

2. We have parties and free time.

3. We tell and write our families about our work.


1. We feel sad and disappointed.

2. We lose parties and free time.

3. We tell and write our families about our problems.

Notice the rules are broad and oriented toward individual and community growth. The consequences are clear and personal. Yes, you’ll notice just a hint of tangible rewards: party and free time. What do you think my rationale is for this kind of reward? Think about what we do in real life? After a long hard week of work, what do we need? Rest and relaxation. So at the end of every school week, my children have this opportunity, too. If they choose to follow all the rules, they participate in the end-of-the-week activity. If they choose to ignore the rules, they do not participate. But that’s okay. We make our choices and children should have theirs. Some choices have consequences, and then we all need to accept these consequences. No matter what choices we make, however, we are still human beings deserving of dignity.

Other Stories

A friend of mine works in a parochial school and sometimes shares her struggles and concerns about the students. For example, she tells me that the whole faculty considers the seventh and eighth graders unusually difficult, rude, unmotivated and defiant. When I asked her for a few more details, I found a couple of factors liable to account for this. First of all, like the k-6 students, they must walk in a single line silently down the hall. How do you think these older students feel about this? Imagine being forced to do something so juvenile, so babyish. Rather humiliating, don’t you think?

Second, several sixth, seventh and eighth graders had been caught in a cheating situation. A teacher suggested the consequence that the guilty students stay home from the end-of-the-year trip. But as the date of the trip drew closer, the teachers suspended misconsequence and all the children went. What message about discipline did these students receive?


Let me tell you about Shanika, and let me start at the end. Shanika played the Good Witch of the North in our class production of The Wizard of Oz, We performed this play in front of the whole school at the end of third grade. Everyone took special notice that Shanika was the Good Witch of the North. It seemed a paradox. First, Shanika is a black girl and who ever heard of a black girl being the Good Witch of the North. A blonde-haired blue-eyed Anglo girl should have that part; it’s only natural. To top it off Shanika was the “terror” of third grade. In the eyes of my classroom community, however, only Shanika and no one else could play this part.

I met Shanika on the first day of third grade, but her reputation preceded her—a tragic circumstance for many students—but perhaps a fortunate one for Shanika because I had requested that she be placed with me. Everyone seemed happy to comply. During our first class discussions, Shanika mimicked whatever I said, made faces behind my back, muttered words of defiance when asked to do something, and once or twice threw a chair. This type of behavior lasted about a week in our classroom and then stopped, though it continued in other settings like Spanish and P.E.

What do you think happened? Why do you think Shanika had lost her need to behave this way in our classroom? Why do you think children might behave negatively? Think about some of the issues we’ve spoken about at the beginning of this chapter. Traditionally, children receive an enormous amount of negative attention as their teachers apply discipline packages that advocate writing namesof misbehaving children on the board, placing a check behind their name when they continue to misbehave, and finally bringing in outside sanctions after three checks (Canter and Canter, 1979).

Perhaps, Shanika had become accustomed tothe attention she usually received when she misbehaved

In our class, however, she received no attention while exhibiting these behaviors. I mean none. I ignored all her outbursts. That is, I made no response at all; I neither spoke with nor looked at her. If I happened to be giving a full-class lesson at the time, I continued without any change in my body movement or voice quality. If she yelled or screamed-which at times she did-I would keep my voice at the same level. The one time she tried to hurt a classmate physically,

I continued my lesson as I walked over to block the attack. The children soon sensed what I was doing, and at one point when Shanika was out of the room, I explained to the children what we had to do to help her:

I know Shanika makes a lot of noise sometimes when we’re trying towork or when you’re trying to listen to me. What I’m trying to do is give her a lot of attention when she behaves and helps, and soon she willfeel happier about being in our classroom. You can help by making sure you treat her nicely so that she begins to feel happy and safe.

The children began to ignore Shanika’s outbursts and modeled my positive interactions with her. No matter what kind of day she had the day before, she received a genuine smile and hug the next morning.

Nina: Good morning Shanika. I’m glad to see you today. I bet we’re going to have a great day. What do you think?

Shanika: Uhmmm, yeah (smiling).

Nina: I see you’re smiling! Can I give you a hug? (Even if she wasn’t smiling, I would give her a hug, thus sending her the message that she was loved no matter what her behavior or mood.)

Similarly, whether Shanika had an excellent or difficult day, she got the samewarm goodbye:

Nina: I’ll see you tomorrow, Shanika. (I try to hug her.)

Shanika: (pulls defiantly away from embrace) Leave me alone!

Nina: Okay, Shanika. Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.

During the first weeks of school I lavished lots of attention and caring on Shanika. She received constant praise for positive interactions and work. During literacy instruction, she received the respect and acceptance all children receive in all areas of the program—that is, her work was accepted as valid contributions, she received positive and constructive responses, she had the right to give and accept help from her peers, and she shared responsibility for writing, reading and publishing what she chose. Gradually Shanika helped create the rules with the entire community. She began to follow them because she noticed they kept things running smoothly. Because all her work was personally meaningful, Shanika lost her reasons to disrupt the rhythm of the community. She got caught up in this rhythm and quickly became a part of it. When she realized she was safe and loved and powerful, she flourished. Within one week Shanika smiled, ran and danced into our community. In other words, she became our Good Witch of the North inThe Wizard of Oz.

My friend, Beth, is a special education teacher in a resource model. Her school pulls children out of their regular classroom, and she meets them for two hours of language arts or mathematics instruction. These two journal entries describe Beth’s feelings when she began taking one of my classes on writing process instruction:


“Overwhelmed” “Miserable” 12:30-2:00.

“Afternoon class falls apart (15 at one time, too much)”

“behavior deteriorates in the afternoon”

“another difficult afternoon.”


“I have to go home and try to think of something to make tomorrow afternoon more enjoyable for the students and me as well.”

As I began working with Beth in her classroom during the middle of the year, she confided that she had been having an extraordinarily difficult time:

Beth:   Nina, I have to admit this class in the afternoon has really gotten me feeling anxious. I feel guilty

about it, but I really dread when they come in.

Nina:   I know that feeling. I remember the beginning of my first year of teaching. I always had a knot in my

stomach in the mornings.

Beth:   Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel with this class. To be honest with you, I just can’t stand the sight of

some of them, and I feel really guilty about this. With the fourth-grade class I am much more cheerful

and relaxed.

Nina:   Do particular students stress you more than others?

Beth:   Well, a few set the class off, but at this point I can hardly separate them out. I just have this generally

negative feeling toward the whole class. What really concerns me is that I usually look forward to teaching, and I get scared I’m going to turn into one of those negative, bitter teachers.

Nina:   Don’t worry. One thing about you is that you are reflective and open, and these characteristics will help you find solutions to difficult problems. You know, not many teachers have the courage to step back and examine some of the negative feelings they might be having toward some students.

Beth:   Well I know how positive you are with the children as they’re writing, and they are really under control when you are here. But when you leave, they go back to really negative behaviors.

Nina:   Yeah, the writers’ workshop with TAG really helps them become positive with each other.

Beth:   I know, but when I do it with them when you’re not here, it doesn’t work so well. They’ll try and make negative comments and they’ll laugh at each other’s stories.

Nina:   Well, how about the next time I come in I just sit within the community and watch, and then after they leave we can talk about what happened.

Beth:   Okay, I really appreciate it. So then I guess I’ll see you Wednesday afternoon. As I watched Beth for the whole afternoon with this class I jotted down these notes:

Saying “hello”

Because this was a pull-out program, the students in Beth’s class came from various homerooms and therefore arrived at staggered times in groups of two, three or four. As the children walked into the room, I saw them avoid eye contact with Beth or their peers. As they went to their desks, they bumped into each other or threw their bookbags on the floor or on top of their desks. Beth watched them arrive while she organized papers. Once in awhile she would look up to correct or reprimand a child.


As the children walk in, greet them at the door positively with a smile, hug and encouraging words: “Hi, Luis. You’re here today! We missed you yesterday.”

In this way, no matter what might have happened the day before, the children know that you still care about them. Even if at first this seems unnatural, push yourself to do it. Over time it will become natural and genuine. Perhaps, allow children to greet each other (you might need to model this, at first) and talk to each other until the whole community is present, then begin a community activity. Because these children come from various classrooms, it is important to help them feel safe and connected in your classroom. This positive greeting will lay the foundation for safe and positive interactions. What might also help is a favorite song or choral poetry activity that allows the children to work together immediately before they go into the more specific work at hand.

Assertive discipline

During the whole two-hour class session, Beth relied on assertive discipline techniques (Canter and Canter, 1979). If a child acted inappropriately, Beth wrote his or her name on the board as a warning. After each subsequent misbehavior, the child received a check by his or her name, and after the third check more dire consequences followed. Her options include a letter to the family, a phone call to the family, a principal’s office visit, detention and suspension. Soon at least five names were on the board with various numbers of checks after them.


Turn assertive discipline around. Look what happens during these types of interactions. What type of behaviors receives recognition, positive or negative? Every time a child misbehaves, he or she gains an immediate reward: the name on the board. Yes, I said reward. We all like to see our names “up in lights.” Imagine, Beth stops what she is doing and takes the time to write clearly and boldly—usually in beautiful manuscript letters —your name! And, if you act up again, your name becomes the center of attention once more. Then, if you are lucky, you get to leave the classroom and talk with an administrator. You might even miss two worksheets!

Students who need attention (and they and we all do) will do what they have to do to get it. If they get attention only when they act inappropriately, that’s what they’ll do. But what if they receive positive attention, too? Won’t the traditional approach work then? Well, think about it. Even if it did work, within your positive community why would you want to adopt a negative way of responding? Wouldn’t this threaten to undo the positive environment you’ve established?

But what if my school district requires me to use this program? As I suggested to Beth, turn it around. Instead of posting the names of children who are acting inappropriately, put up only the names of children who interact positively. For example,

Teacher:   Wow, Sean. You are really helping Carlos. (She writes his name on the board. Then three minutes later she observes Sean.) Sean, I see you opened up your silent reading book right away! (She puts a check next to Sean’s name. Then after silent reading she writes the names of children on the board who read well during silent reading, she checks the names already on the board, including Sean’s.) Sean you already have three checks next to your name. Take a pass to the office so you can call your mother at work to share with her the beautiful afternoon you’ve been having! Congratulations!

Sean had the chance to call his mother with exciting news. Many family members react with surprise when they receive encouraging news this way. Also, you can give a congratulatory note for home, or they can write the note themselves. Thus, the children receive recognition for their positive interactions. Some might protest, “But it will take me all day to write names on the board and send letters home.” I guarantee, the little time it takes is truly worth it.


As time went on, Beth’s voice became louder and louder and conveyed higher levels of frustration:

“Sean, take that bookbag off your desk.”

“Carlos stop playing with that pencil!”

“Keep your hands off him, Luis!!”

“Sean, I said stop it, now!”


When Beth reprimanded her students, notice she always used their names to begin the reprimand: “Sean, take the bookbag off your desk.” Once again, Sean receives attention for inappropriate behavior. He both successfully upsets his teacher, and he forces her to say his name, loud and clear. Such power, the feeling we all desire. When you reprimand a student state your sentence clearly, firmly, evenly, quickly, and without the student’s name. “Take the bookbag off your desk.” As you say this, continue doing what you are doing and give the child little or no eye contact. In this way, the child reeives minimal negative attention.

Think carefully, as well, about the battles you choose to fight with your students. Like the definitions we adopt in our literay program, we should be clear about what we consider appropriate behavior. If your definition of appropriate behavior is narrow, fewer children will meet your expectations. Moreover, certain children nrecieve constant reprimanding because every little thing they do will become intolerable, and they will force you to correct every minor infraction. Overcorrection can easily start a pattern of negative interactions that becomes difficult to break. But as you will see, Beth succeeded in breaking that pattern.

Before you reprimand, ask yourself some quick questions: Is it really important in the long run that the child touched the pencil? Do I want to stop what I’m doing and interrupt the whole class? Can I ignore the behavior, pretend I didn’t see it? The answers to these questions depend on the presence of positive recognition in your classroom.

Positive Recognition

I noticed that Beth withheld positive recognition during the entire observation session. She seemed tense around the children and on the lookout for inappropriate behavior to be quelled. Unless she was reprimanding or explaining something to the class, she interacted very little.


Just as we eliminate chances for children to gain attention for misbehavior, we should systematically include positive interactions so as to meet their continuing need for some attention. I do this by recognizing all my students positively and in many ways. As we have seen, one way might be to write the children’s names on the board or allow them to call home or dispatch notes of recognition. Actually, I do not write names on the board s ince I don’t believe in such a mechanistic approach. I do allow children to call home and write letters if they choose. What I do consistently is provide positive recognition and invite the children to recongnize each other positively in various contexts and forms. For example, we respond to each other’s work with TAG (tell what you like, ask questions, give ideas) and recognize each other with such comments as

Carrie is ready to listen.

Martin is looking at me.

Sean, I see you’ve really gotten to work!

Jessoca, you really must love that book! You’re always reading it!

I bet you are proud of this draft, Lisa!

You’ve really improved, Maggie, on your oral presentations. Congratulations!

Laura, how do you feel about your progress today?

Christine, are you proud of how you stayed focused during presentations?

Notice the way I provide positive recognition. It isn’t exactly praise, is it? I could say, “I like the way you are listening while Luis reads, Carlos.” Or I could put this in another form: “Carlos, you are really listening when Luis reads!” Do you note the subtle difference? In the first example, I connect praise to me: Carlos is pleasing me. In the second example, I still recognize the behavior, but I avoid connecting it to my pleasure. Why do you think I try to recognize the student in the second way and not the first? Do I want my students to interact appropriately just to please me, or do I want them to be positive members of the community whether I ‘m there or not?

You already know the answer. I always work to motivate children from within. When they feel good about themselves and what they do, they need fewer outside incentives to “keep them in line.” Therefore, my belief that students have the innate desire to learn and be involved in meaningful and positive interactions and activities influences all my instructional decisions. An environment that allows these types of interactions eliminates the need for manipulative and teacher connected tactics and praise.

Token economies

I saw Beth kept prized in her room for those children who earned enough points for work and deportment. These points accumulated during the week, and on Friday, the children cashed in their points for trinkets and candy. During the time I observed, Beth awarded no points.


The token system rests on the belief that children need extrinsic motivation ans awards to behave properly. Indeed, because these exchanges are so entrenched in our system, it can be hard to believe that children will interact appropriately without materialistic incentives. We need to re-examine what we do when we hand children M&Ms when they complete a worksheet. We tell them that we can expect them to do what they are told only if we give them a treat. How disrespectful an assumption! It places children on the learning level of trained pets. In some ways worse. At least our dogs avoid completing the endless number of meaningless worksheets! Over and over again, I find that a respectful environment where students do meaningful and purposeful work makes tokens unnecessary. Personally connected work is motivational in itself. Students want to do it and require no treats to get it done. Personal satisfaction and accomplishment become the rewards.

Collective accountability

While Beth interacted only when she needed to reprimand and explain, her children interacted only within a negative context—for example, “Get your hands off him, Luis!” No opportunity arose for helping behaviors or positive academic interactions.


Behind every set of rules in my classroom, you’ll find the premise, “We help our friends follow the rules.” This way I am only one person obliged to maintain the community’s positive equilibrium. All members share the obligation to hold each other accountable for appropriate interactions. I reinforce this obligation often with directions like these:

Please make sure the person next to you has what he or she needs on the desk.

Look at the person’s paper next to you and make sure the date is on the paper.

Please make sure everyone in your team is ready to listen.

Please make sure everyone in your team is listening.

Henry, you need to help Javier remember what belongs on his desk now.

Aurora, are you helping the person in front of you follow the line rules?

These directions continually reinforce the fact that all take responsibility for each other. Moreover, the children who need help remembering what is appropriate receive no attention so that negative behavior is not reinforced. The children are empowered both to help themselves and to help others. When all children feel powerful and responsible for the community, negative interactions disappear. We have too little enough time for negativity; everyone is too busy helping each other.

Strengths perspective

As Beth’s journal entries and her own reflections suggest, she had become anxious about this class. She could not see beyond their negative behavior to who they really were.


I suggested that Beth take the time every day to force herself to name one good quality in each student. If she couldn’t do it during class, she had to do it at home or sometime during the day before the children arrived. As she began to find the strengths in each child instead of weaknesses, her positive recognition and interactions became genuine. Students immediately sense when an adult is sincere. All the forced praise and recognition in the world cannot help if it is designed only to manipulate behavior      


Beth had begun to implement a writers’ workshop as she learned about it in

the class she was taking from me. She adopted the positive elements of TAG, choice and authorship, but while her children often behaved well during their workshop, Beth wasn’t getting positive results consistently.


All curricula must connect personally and meaningfully. Why would a child want to do boring work? Would you? What do you do to avoid boring or potentially unsuccessful experiences? One way children avoid them is to act inappropriately. We must continually examine our curriculum decisions so that the work remains both consistent and interesting throughout the day. If only one segment of the day encourages choice and positive interaction—if all the other segments use such negative and mechanistic techniques such as assertive discipline—the children, too, will interact inconsistently. All our decisions must send the clear and respectful messages our students deserve.


Beth tried hard to implement writing process but found outside pressures causing her to defer it for other more traditional requirements. Thus, while the environment in her class was often positive, it occasionally regressed to the established negative patterns.


We need to strive for consistency in all our interactional and curricular decisions. Positive interaction and purposeful work occasionally fail to produce perfect days in all children. But that doesn’t mean we accept defeat and say, “I knew I should have kept those M&M’s.”

We need constantly to remember what we believe to be educationally right for children and proceed from there. The stronger our philosophy, the easier it is to prioritize classroom decisions. If we believe that children need to feel respected and empowered, we can adapt all the activities and materials that enter our classroom to complement this belief. Initially, it will take time. But the time is worth it, because gradually we will turn to what works making sure that it is also right! As I often tell my college students: Corporal punishment works. Whatever that child is doing immediately stops. Yelling at the top of your lungs also works. The behavior immediately stops. The question is, “Is it right?” What do you think? I think not. Respectful, positive, consistent interactions are right; we need that kind of interaction in all our classrooms.

Beth’s Words

Beth implemented many of my suggestions and here is some of what she subsequently wrote:


Dear Nina,

Well I tried some of your suggestions, and they really worked! I made a conscious effort to praise a lot today- I tried to praise about one time every three minutes as you said, and I turned that assertive discipline around. This really helped. Scott, Manny, Kevin and Luis took home notes telling their parents how beautifully they behaved and it worked. Another thing I tried is not to use their names when reminding them what to do. I used their names only when I praised them. I had to keep reminding myself of this because I caught myself using their names to reprimand a couple of times. I also made sure to say something positive to each child before he or she left. I found this to be very important for mebecause it helps me resolve any anger I may have. It helps me to get over my anger so I think it may do the same for the students. All in all I had a very good day. Yes, I got angry a couple of times during the day and I did have to ask a couple of students to leave the room, but I did not feel exhausted and defeated at the end of the day. The atmosphere in the room was 100% better. In the beginning I’m sure they were shocked and some of them may have been a little frightened because only a couple of them tried to push the boundaries, but I know they felt good at the end of class because I asked them how it felt before they left and they all said they felt good. Now is the hard part: CONSISTENCY. I’m going to read those reminders I posted on the wall and maintain the following attitude “I am not taking any garbage from anyone but I will praise a lot for good behavior.” I kept thinking about what you said about this situation being a great learning experience and I know you’re right. If I survive this, and Iwill, I’ll be much better in the end.

Thanks, Beth


Dear Nina,

And another great afternoon with the 5th graders! Only two incidents could have set the whole class off, but that didn’t happen. Manny, Mario and Scott ignored it when Carlos fell off his chair. This is a big step for them, especially Manny, who used to laugh loudly and make comments. I immediately praised each of them for ignoring. I made Carlos stand since it was obvious he couldn’t sit. It has now been four days of incredibly improved behavior for that group.

I’m learning to take it one day at a time, but I am beginning to get really excited and happy about the change. They are trying so hard! As each day passes I feel closer to them and realize how true it is when they say that teachers learn from their students. Although they have been a difficult challenge, this group has taught me a great deal. I’m going to try something else you suggested. I’m going to let them write their parents notes telling how well they worked and behaved. This shifts control over to them. It is not me writing the notes and the emphasis is on writing to communicate.



2/ 17

Dear Beth,

Here I sit in your room a week after we talked about discipline. You have done an excellent job using praise to turn these children around. I am amazed! I knew all the techniques we talked about are effective, but I didn’t realize that they would work so quickly. Amazing! The girls are sharing now, and you can hear a pin drop. Everyone is listening, even your aide!! What did you tell her? Have you required her to be part of the reading and writing community? What a step, the boys not laughing when Carlos fell off the chair! I am so proud of Manny and Scott and Jonathan. You must be so excited and proud of yourself!




Hi Nina,

Behaviorwise we’ve had our ups and downs, but overall things are definitely better. A big test came when I changed the seating arrangement. I wanted them to work in teams so I grouped the desks together. I was concerned about this since their behavior seemed to be better when they sat in rows, but I really want them to learn how to work together so I gave it a try. Everything has gone well so far. I now praise individuals and teams frequently. I know this is the key, no matter what the seating arrangement is.

Sincerely, Beth

So what would you prefer to do in your classroom, manage behavior or encourage and facilitate respectful and caring interactions? This may be the most important decision you will make as an educator.

Keep thinking!



Here is a message I received recently about this posting and I wanted to share it with you:

"I absolutely loved your blog entry about classroom interactions. As a
recent college graduate and first year teacher, I feel like it is just the
thing that many new teachers (or student teachers) like me really need (and
want) to read. I've always wanted a classroom built on respect and
expectations rather than rewards/punishments and while I have read a lot of
research on the subject, I have never found something quite like your
entry. It truly showed how it could work in practice without reducing it
into one of those tacky "packaged systems."
I am going to send the link to my professors and all of my first year
teaching friends. I also hope that you will continue to write your blog as
you have great advice."