Saturday, 29 October 2011

Poor-to-fit and Good-to-fit Behaviour

Working with Low-level Disruption

“Best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” and the rest of the quote might as well read because of the little bugger in the second row to the front. Low-level disruption is the most difficult type of disruptive behaviour to deal with in the classroom, not only for us but also for the students that want to learn. We want active learning, but there is a very thin line between active learning and the actions of one or two students that can tip the whole apple cart. I try to look at low-level disruptive behaviour in terms of good-to-fit and poor-to-fit behaviour.

Good-to-fit behaviour is the type of behaviour that is fitting to the situation and poor-to-fit behaviour hampers the successful outcome of the lesson or situation. For instance, playing with a basketball is good-to-fit behaviour in a Physical Education (PE) lesson but not in a science laboratory. Or we can also say that sitting quietly is poor-to-fit behaviour during a PE bleep test whereas sitting quietly is good-to-fit behaviour in the library. Both examples show how low-level disruptive behaviour (even sitting quietly) is not typical of only students with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD).

Knowing and understanding this did not make it easier to teach Shelly*. She was a very busy, loud and strong-willed 15-year-old when I was her English teacher. Trying to teach Leanne was like trying to tame the proverbial Bull in the China shop. After countless meetings with Shelly’s mother and after the school exhausted all the Behaviour Policy options, there was only one option left – Shelly had to go on “long-term study leave”. To my surprise, the next day, Shelly was back. To be honest I only noticed her some time into a calm and enjoyable lesson. I didn’t want to rock the boat and left her sitting there. After the lesson she presented me with a piece of outstanding work.

At the graduation ceremony of the Class of ’06, I asked Shelly what made her change. “I didn’t change.” I was astonished at her answer because clearly she did change. “I just realised that working during lessons doesn’t change me, it’s just another side of me.”

Adolescents, by nature, are on a mission to be independent, display their newfound identity and to receive recognition, especially from peers. This often places them on a collision trajectory with classroom rules and conventions. As I saw with Leanne, trying to change them is futile and if we think back to our own journey through adolescence, pointless. To facilitate good-to-fit behaviour during lessons I use four strategies:
  •  Negotiating rules for learning and sanctions
  • Battle the Boredom
  • Zone Out
  • Remove the stimulus

Negotiating Rules for Learning and Sanctions
As on any road in the world, there are not negotiable rules in schools and the consistent implementation of these rules are central to a calm and focussed learning environment. However, in lessons, I have seen that many of my colleagues follow an assortment of rules ranging from the near tyrannical to no rules at all. The inconsistency of this often causes confusion and especially where there are no clear expectations of behaviour, low-level disruption is common.

My very first lesson at the start of the academic year, as well as after every holiday, is to clarify mutual expectations (their expectations of me as a facilitator of learning and my expectations of their high achievement).

The most important of this clarification is negotiating the Rules for Learning and sanctions we are going to follow in our class. To do this I set up a group-work learning environment with roles for each of the group members. These roles include discussion leader, recorder, activity time-keeper and a person to give feedback. These roles are set out on the tables before the students come into class. I also divide the groups into colours and as they enter I hand out a coloured tickets to indicate in which group each student will sit. As they sit down they choose what role they will take during the group activity.

I provide a set of rules on separate cards that are not negotiable. These include:
  • being on time to lesson,
  • sitting according to the designated seating plan,
  • to show good manners,
  • complete homework and
  • show good-to-fit behaviour that I explain this before hand. 

During the lesson each group discusses  rules additional to my list and - most crucially - add sanctions that will be followed if these rules are broken. We usually settle on a list of about eight to ten rules. We take feedback and by the end of the lesson we ensure that we have set of democratically agreed rules. I type these up and by the next lesson these rules are pasted on the front page of their notebooks. I also have large poster created by an arty students and we have signing ceremony where each member of the class signs to indicate their agreement of the negotiated rules and sanctions.

Lessons learned:
We have had very interesting sanction suggestions in the past. Adolescents are often quite unforgiving and it does take some guidance before we can come up with realistic and I must add, legal sanctions. I have also had to veto some rules such as allowing gum and mobile phones in lessons by reminding students that these were rules for learning and placing emphasis again on good-to-fit behaviour.

Battle the Boredom
Boredom is often at the root of most low-level classroom disruption. From the gifted and able student to those who are learning a new language to supporting those with special education needs (SEN), it is inevitable that even super teacher will have gaps in facilitating learning in mixed ability settings. And as we all know, adolescents will find ways of entertaining themselves if the learning is not entertaining enough.

Never underestimate the power and magic of the word search. It is a strategy that works. At the front end of the class, I installed a shelf case, made from covered boxes. Each shelf is labelled from Word Search Light, Standard, Genius and Gotcha. I confess that I did not create the word search activities, I went to WH Smith and bought four activity books and made copies.

The magic of the word search is that students may only access the word search bank once I’ve seen the work they have done and I am happy that they have achieved the outcome of the lesson. For the enthusiastic there is a wealth of word search and word game creation tools on the web. My favourite is Puzzle Maker:

Word Search Maker
Number Blocks and Maths Squares

Zone Out
Vova was a 13-year-old lad that arrived in London from an industrial town just south of Warsaw. He was a likable young person with a very basic command of English and lots of energy. His personality made him very popular with his peers. With his propensity to get English very wrong (and a normal dose of adolescent laziness), he was more often than not the source of low-level disruption. Vova loved the new friends and attention he got and often confused the borders between learning and playing.  To help Vova, I set up a corner of my class as a Zone Out area. I convinced the caretaker to give me an old single-seat school desk and I glued a rebuilt second-hand laptop to it. I asked a colleague from the IT department to help me set up the laptop to limit the Internet browsing to language game websites I googled beforehand. I also had two very old CD ROMs with Rosetta Stone Level 1 and 2 English on that we installed. I printed Zone Out Vouchers and whenever Vova kept with the negotiated rules, I gave him Zone Out time.  Most importantly, Vova would not receive these vouchers to just keep him quiet. They were only given when he followed good-to-fit behaviour and could show that he completed good quality work.

Lessons Learned:
Not all went smoothly in the beginning. It did take some time to get the Wi-Fi set up (we ended up using a wired network connection) and I had to call in favours from the ground staff.  It was also a challenge to get Vova to understand that Zone Out was a privilege and not a right and of course I had a chorus of “it’s not fair” from the rest of the class. We looked at the purpose of the Zone Out area and after a discussion Vova was left to get on with his learning. I also underestimated Vova's ingenuity once or twice and had to set up the browsing restrictions again, but the strategy worked. My colleagues in Maths and Science are using similar strategies, albeit without the laptop.

Remove the Stimulus
This is my most controversial strategy. It is based on Skinner’s understanding of stimulus and response and any teacher who has worked with disruptive adolescents will agree that the most disruption takes place because peers react, often in frustration, to what the disruptive student does. Zone Out worked effectively for Vova but Sam and Chris still loved the attention they got from poor-to-fit behaviour.

I communicated with the class that I would not be giving sanctions to Sam and Charlie, but rather to those that react to their disruptive behaviour. We agreed on the sanctions for responses as a 10-minute detention.  I was consistent in giving the detention to those students that responded to the disruption. After a couple of lessons, I started to see a result: the students realised that by not responding to Sam and Charlie, they could actually continue with their learning and the Sam and Chris realised that it was not that much fun to be off task and not have an audience.  

The Magic Bullet
Finally, nothing is as powerful in managing a class full of adolescents like a well-planned lesson. This is the most effective strategy in our bag of magic tricks.

A few questions I always ask myself about the learning that I have planned:

  • Have I pitched the lesson at the right level?
  • Have I planned the activities clearly?
  • Are my lessons clearly structured?
  • Do I know what the students must be able to do or know by the end of the lesson?
  • Do my students know where to start, what to do next and what they are supposed to know by the end?
  •  Are the activities short and outcome specific?
  • Is the time I give for the completion of tasks effective?
  • Is my seating plan effective?
  • Do I know my students and does my differentiation meet their needs?

Next week I will be looking at Working with Asperger’s Syndrome and creating an understanding of how to support students who disrupt because of ASD. 

*(All names used in the blog have been changed.)

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Working with Parents

Meeting with Charlie's Mum

One of the most difficult aspects of working with disruptive adolescents is ensuring the support and cooperation of parents. Quite often, and rightly so, parents ask really difficult questions in meeting about their child and often I see teachers and counsellors come out of meetings frustrated and despondent.

"It is as if Charlie's mum doesn't believe that we really do want to find a solution for his problems," I remember a colleague saying. "She thinks we are in a conspiracy against him, despite praising us for the quality education his elder sister received at school."

This ambiguity in parents' perception of how we work with their children is most often the source of teacher frustration in working alongside parents to help the disruptive adolescent.

Developing Trust
Developing trust is the most important aspect in building a cooperative relationship with Charlie's parents. Remember, parents do not see what teachers see, both physically and in the eye of the mind. Be gentle with their dreams for Charlie; these dreams are sacrosanct.

As teachers, we often have the reputation of being target-driven and uncompromising. (Another thing we have to keep in mind is the residual perceptions that parents have, based on their own experiences of school.) Keep in mind that you have to establish a sense of professionalism amidst such views.

Be Prepared
Walking into a meeting with Charlie's parents unprepared is the biggest mistake you can make. Armed only with speculation and anecdotal evidence about Charlie's rude and abusive behaviour does not establish trust and a sense of professionalism.

Keep clear and sufficient records of Charlie's Special Education Needs, support provided, incident records and previous meetings. Also check Round Robin reports from teachers about Charlie; remember that under the Freedom of Information Act, parents and carers are allowed to see documentation regarding their child. Sarcasm and sardonic comments do not speak of professionalism.

Timely Communication
Do not wait until Charlie's disruptive behaviour becomes untenable before you initiate communication with parents. Prevention is better than cure and in many cases the child's behaviour in class is an indication that the situation at home or in the community has changed.

In cases where the news of disruptive behaviour was left too late, parents feel overwhelmed by the large number of incidents, paperwork and sheets of evidence. With modern communication, sending an e-mail or even a text message is quick and easy. A word of warning, though: it is always best to pre-agree with Charlie's parents that these modes of communication will be sufficient to stay in touch about their child's progress.

A Balanced Approach
Parents need to know that you know their child. Traditional advice is to always start with a positive before you present the problems. This approach can often sound a bit manufactured and it is important that you do actually know something about Charlie's personality, likes, dislikes and hobbies. A short discussion to find out a bit more about these hobbies is positive and friendly, and can take the place of the insincere "Charlie said good morning to a teacher today, that was really nice" and then laying into the list of rude comments made by Charlie.

Teachers often find it difficult to know where to start talking about the problem areas, as we can be very aware of the impact of such a discussion on the parent or carer. I always try to relate the disruptive behaviour to age-appropriate behaviour. This is often difficult when we look at typical adolescent mood swings and their drive for respect and independence. Often a juxtaposition between acceptance and independence is at the heart of the BESD behaviour. However, never be shy to place emphasis on high expectations of behaviour and achievement and acceptable social behaviour with in the school setting.

Share Responsibility
To help Charlie focus on academic progress and social skills, his tutor has placed him on a daily report with three or four SMART targets. At the beginning of each lesson Charlie gives the report to the subject teacher and at the end of the lesson the teacher rates the progress on these targets. A 1 represents minimal progress and a 5 represents "target reached", with gradual progress in between. Ideally the teacher and Charlie have a short discussion about the outcome before moving to the next lesson.

The best way to share responsibility between Charlie, his mum and his teachers is to each set a target for the daily report. At the end of every day, Charlie reports back to his tutor and his mum on the progress made on his report.

Charlie's parents believe that he should face consequences for his poor behaviour and the tutor suggested that Charlie and his mum choose the appropriate sanctions for disruptive behaviour.

Empathy v. Strategy
Teachers are constantly driven by strategies, targets and expectations of management. Parents see this target-driven approach as counterproductive in their expectations of how we work with their children.  As teachers we should never forget to consider the social and emotional factors that have an influence in the "real world" the disruptive adolescent lives in. Empathy and flexibility within the strategy is one of the key features of developing a sustainable working relationship with Charlie's mum.