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Create a Classroom Culture that Reduces Unwanted Behavior
When we talk about classroom management, teachers often focus on how to change unwanted behaviors. But really, the focus should be on prevention. There are lots of ways that teachers can stop behaviors before they happen, and one of the most effective ways is creating a positive classroom culture.
This post is #2 in a series of classroom management and it’s all about building a welcoming, respectful, and developmentally appropriate environment for our littlest learners. Thankfully, I’ve had the privilege of working with a group of incredibly talented and passionate teachers who have really showed me what a positive classroom culture should look like.
Read the first post in the series to find out out how a well-organized classroom can reduce behavior issues and increase student independence.
Then subscribe to the Little Playful Learners newsletter so you don’t miss the last two posts in the series. Plus, you’ll get exclusive monthly freebies!
Classroom Culture Tip #1: Start the Day off Right
How your students feel when the school day starts is going to have a huge impact on how well it goes. That’s why it’s so important to make the classroom feel really welcoming when they arrive.
At a kindergarten conference, a presenter once said kids need time to ease into the day when they arrive. She said it was kind of like when adults get to work – most of the time, we want to drink a little coffee, chat with our friends, and have some time to settle in before we actually start working. Kids are no different; they want that too.
Use open-ended morning work tubs
That really stuck with me, and it inspired me to revamp how my morning arrival time looked. Instead of morning work packets, I started putting out fine motor morning work tubs that were more open-ended. Kids had to do what was in the tub at the table, but I tried not to make it too planned out for them. I also made sure the activities were things that didn’t have a definite end point. Oh, and I tried to make them enticing so my students wanted to do them.
By using these open-ended morning work activities, students have a chance to chat with each other. I think it’s so important for them to have that opportunity!
In the beginning, I got most of my inspiration for morning work tubs from Marsha McGuire at A Differentiated Kindergarten. She has tons of great ideas for fine motor morning work! You can read up on some of them here:
Play some inviting music
Another way I made my classroom more welcoming is by adding fun music. I created monthly playlists on YouTube with fun, appropriate, and positive music. You can read more about them here:
Suddenly, mornings were going a lot more smoothly. My room was much more welcoming for students when they came in, and that set the tone for the whole day. I even had adults stop in and say things like, “I just love the music!” or “I wanna hang out in here!”
I just really believe by giving them some time in the morning to ease into the day, you’re helping them feel more calm and in control, satisfying their need to socialize, and filling them with positive vibes. All that can only help regulate their emotions, right?
Classroom Culture Tip #2: Make it Developmentally Appropriate
Here’s the thing: we all know that the expectations for student achievement keep getting higher and higher. We hear all the time that “kindergarten is the new first grade” and it really is. The thing is, I do believe that students are capable of meeting those expectations.
But they don’t need to be pushed so hard. They need downtime. Playtime. Snack break. Recess. Rest time. And they can still learn everything they need to learn! I don’t just believe this, I know it – I’ve seen it done every year in 10 kindergarten classrooms in the school where I taught for 6 years.
I did teach in a district (for one year) with a very different idea about what kindergarten should look like. In that district, they expected my kindergarten students to be on task from 7:20 a.m. until they went to lunch at 11:05. That’s over 3.5 hours.
I was also expected to teach 150 minutes of literacy and 90 minutes of math every day, and I was having a hard time making my schedule at the beginning of the year. I was told by an instructional coach that if I couldn’t fit snack time in, they would probably just have keep working while they ate snack.
Umm…no. I would never do that to my students. As adults, are we expected to go 3.5 hours without a break? Without a few minutes to chat with our co-workers? Absolutely not.
Besides, some of these kids have never been asked to be on task for more than 5 minutes at a time, let alone 3.5 hours. Some students have never been to preschool or experienced any other structured learning environment.
Demanding too much from students can cause huge behavior issues
At home, kids generally get to choose what they want to do and when they want to stop doing it. So it’s very unrealistic to think that they’re magically going to be able to perform to our expectations for an entire school day.
And what happens when we don’t allow kids that downtime – when we ignore developmentally appropriate practice? They start to act out, either intentionally or unintentionally. They refuse to do their work, they mess around, they may even become destructive or out of control.
Not keeping expectations developmentally appropriate is probably the biggest factor contributing to behavior issues in the early grades. Let’s talk about what to do about it.
Schedule a snack break and let them socialize
No strings attached, no work to be done. Even if they didn’t finish their work earlier in the day. Let them sit by their friends and chat. Maybe get out some cards or board games. Give your students 15 minutes to eat snack and just be social.
Social interaction is good for us on so many levels. When kids have had a chance to interact with their friends, it’s like plugging in a battery – they get recharged.
Then, when it’s time to get back to work, students are feeling good and they’re more likely to stay on task. The work (usually) gets done more quickly with fewer behavior issues. Read this awesome post for lots more research-based reasons why,
Let them play
Kids are hard-wired to want to play, and they learn so much from it. In fact, here’s some info from the American Academy of Pediatrics about the importance of play.
Much like snack time, play time allows students to interact with their peers and take a break from academics.
Plus, when you plan your play time for later in the day, it’s an excellent motivator for students to get their work done. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve said, “If you’re choosing not to do your work now, you’re choosing to do it at play time.” And most of the time, it works!
That being said, I strongly dislike taking play time away from students…but sometimes it has to be done. Though I’ve found that for most kids, if they miss out on playtime once, it doesn’t happen again. They learn that valuable lesson pretty quickly!
If it happens frequently with the same student, well, there’s probably some bigger issue there. That would require more planning and some sort of intervention. If losing out on playtime once or twice doesn’t cause them to change their behavior, try something else. Let them have their playtime…it’s SO important!
What if your district doesn’t allow playtime?
First of all, advocate for it with your administration! There’s a book that might help you plead your case called Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day by Kristine Mraz, Allison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler.
In the district that I mentioned earlier, we used this book to convince our principal to let us have play time. We were able to justify why play is valuable in the classroom. Plus it gave us a framework to use as “curriculum.”
Make the learning more playful
If unstructured playtime is just not something that’s going to happen in your district, you can find other ways to incorporate play into your day:
- Board games – they can have an academic component but kids still get the social interaction & less structured environment. Here are some clever ways to use them for learning from Tessa at Tales from Outside the Classroom:
- Game-based math & literacy centers (like this FREEBIE you can get in my TpT store):
- Sensory bins for math & literacy centers (check out these ideas from A Differentiated Kindergarten):
- STEM tubs – put out some STEM toys like Legos, K’nex, pipe cleaners & straws, etc. Read up on how Valerie from All Students Can Shine uses morning work tubs (they would be great for other times of the day too):
I could go on and on about how to incorporate more play into the classroom, but that will have to be another blog post. Or two or three. I LOVE making learning playful…hence the name Little Playful Learners, right?
But there are so many other ways to create a positive classroom culture that it’s time to move on now!
Classroom Culture Tip #3: Determine What Really Matters
When I think about the expectations I had for students my first couple years of teaching, I absolutely cringe. I mean, I actually had a contest to see who could stay sitting criss-cross applesauce the longest. I made my 5-year-old students sit in their chairs with their feet flat on the floor and their tummies touching the edge. Ridiculous, right?
Luckily in my 3rd year, I had a class that threw all my carefully constructed rules out the window. I had to reinvent everything:
- We did morning meeting standing up, stepping side to side the whole time because if I didn’t keep them moving, they would completely fall apart.
- I invited them to turn their chairs around backwards or sit on the floor and use their chair as a table because so many of them just could not stay sitting.
- I let them lay on their tummies during story time.
It was a tough year, but it taught me a lot! I found out kids could still learn even when they’re not sitting criss-cross applesauce or with their feet flat on the floor.
Just by making those few small changes, I found that I was doing a lot less hounding. I didn’t have to spend my energy trying to enforce rules that didn’t affect anything, and I could spend more time focusing on actually teaching.
As a result, I had students who I believe felt more respected. And they were more willing to comply when I gave directions because I wasn’t constantly on their case about every little thing.
I mean, have you ever had a boss that tried to micromanage everything? It sucks, right? That’s why I encourage you to examine your rules and expectations and let go of the ones that don’t directly affect how kids learn. You might even find that they learn better when they have more freedom!
Classroom Culture Tip #4: Offer Choices Whenever You Can
There are so many times throughout the day when it’s appropriate to offer choices in the classroom. The more opportunities students have to choose for themselves, the more likely they are to stay engaged in learning.
I’ve also found that when I offer my students choices throughout the day, they’re more willing to do the things I ask them to do that aren’t choices when the time comes.
And I’m not the only one who thinks choice is important – there’s lots of research behind it too! Click here to read a great list of reasons why in this excerpt from Mike Anderson’s book Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Then hop over to Amazon to pick up your copy of the book!
Math & Literacy Centers
The most obvious time (and probably the easiest) to incorporate choice into your day is during your center times. Instead of having students rotate through each and every activity that you’ve provided in a specific order, why not offer them choices?
There are a few ways you can do this:
#1: You could use the same centers as you’ve always had students rotate through, but just let them choose what order they want to complete them in.
#2: You could add a wider variety of activities that teach the same skill and let them choose which way they want to learn. I’m willing to bet we’ve all had at least one kiddo rip up a worksheet as soon as you’ve handed it to him or her, right? Some kids just hate worksheets for one reason or another. But maybe that kid would be more willing to do the work if you offered something that seems more appealing to them, like:
- Using manipulatives
- Playing a partner game
- Doing a movement activity
- Fun writing utensils like smelly markers or gel pens
#3: You could let them choose where to do the work. On the floor with a clipboard? Sure. At a table sitting next to a friend? You bet – as long as they stay on task!
#4: Try the Daily Five! This system developed by Gail Boushey & Joan Moser is all about fostering independence during literacy – and choice is a big part of that. While I’ve never used the Daily Five framework as it’s laid out in the book, I have read it a few times and have incorporated many of the concepts into my literacy tubs. You can grab the book on Amazon by clicking here or on the image:
There are many other times throughout the day when it may be appropriate for you to offer your students choices. Why not think through your schedule and come up with some other times where your students have a little more freedom to choose?
Classroom Culture Tip #5: Give Students a Sense of Ownership with Class Jobs
I assign jobs to several students every day in my classroom. They love to be helpers, and I’ve found that it really helps them feel like a part of the classroom community. Some teachers just have one helper of the day, but here’s why I like to have lots of jobs:
- Students love having a sense of responsibility, which I believe contributes to building a strong classroom community. Having jobs every few days helps remind them that they have ownership in the classroom.
- A helper of the day only gets their turn once every couple of months…and kindergartners are not always that patient! It can be hard for them to wait so long.
- Jobs can be used as a behavior management tool – for example, “You’re the Line Leader today. I know you can show the rest of the class how we walk in the hallway!” or “You’re not showing me that you can be respectful of our classroom when you throw pencils. Will you be able to treat our papers with respect when you’re the Paper Passer? Then please show me.” More students with jobs = more opportunities to manage behaviors.
Here are the job chart cards I made for my classroom. You just hang them up on your bulletin board and use a dry erase marker to write the names in each day. Click on the image to grab them for FREE!
How do you build a positive culture in your classroom?
I’d love to hear your ideas! Leave a comment below with things you do in your classroom that create a culture that reduces unwanted behavior.