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How to stop controlling students and start helping them control themselves

Terrance was a third grader whom teachers described as “impulsive.” He couldn’t — or didn’t — stay quiet in class, calling out while the teacher was teaching, during silent work time, and when the class was supposed to be walking silently through the halls.

In the 23 years I’ve been working in schools, including when I was Terrance’s teacher Lauren’s principal, I’ve learned that most teachers have at least one Terrance, if not more. Like most teachers of impulsive children, Lauren wanted him to stop calling out when his behavior interrupted the flow of work in the classroom, over and over again. What’s more, Lauren knew Terrance had to learn to control himself for his own success and for her own peace of mind in the classroom.

More and more teachers are aware that students’ social emotional skills influence their success, alongside their academic ones. But how those skills are taught is crucial and too often, educators turn to what they see as a quick fix.

One typical response focuses on rewards: Give a student like Terrance a “ticket” each time he raises his hand to speak so that he can earn 20 tickets, select a prize from the treasure chest, and eventually, internalize the desired behavior.

Another common response is to issue penalties. That’s the strategy Lauren initially chose. In Terrance’s case, Lauren had him start the day with a pile of colored cubes at his work space. Each time he talked out of turn, she took away a cube. The repeated visual cue, she thought, would teach that he did something wrong.

But in my experience, neither the carrot nor the stick truly works. In both responses, teachers are controlling the child’s behavior rather than teaching the student the skills necessary to manage his behavior on his own. This is a fundamental confusion in so much of the instruction that I see. The end goal should be focused on the student: What skills am I teaching you so that over time, you don’t need me anymore?

This is an important thing to do because there’s ample research that socially and emotionally competent students behave better, perform better academically, stay in school longer, and have better job opportunities. The research also tells us that social and emotional skills need to be explicitly taught — by educators who know that they must go beyond a quick fix to change behavior for the long term.

That’s where I came in. I’d been a teacher and a principal for long time and had seen many challenging students come through my classroom. Finding a way to devise a strategy that works for every student is an almost insurmountable challenge. A good place to start is talking to the student themselves.

So now, Lauren starts with a conversation: Does he know he calls out repeatedly? Is he aware of when he does it or how frequently? Is he aware of its impact on others? Does he know why he does it?

Then, we developed different strategies to address students’ particular situations. Those ranged from having him keep track of his calling out to encouraging him to research what kinds of talk is appropriate in different places—when do we whisper, shout or be silent. In class, she made sure he had a chance to practice the different kinds of speech and that he had time to talk without holding back, too.

Certainly it can be a slow process and it’s tempting to hope for a quick fix—a ticket, a stop light, a demerit—that will change student behavior. But teaching the emotional and social competencies that will make a student successful takes patience, skill, and repetition. I hope more teachers will turn to less controlling forms of classroom management and focus on developing self-aware students who can decide what is right for themselves.

About our First Person series:

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