Dysfunctional Classes, Part V: Pursue an Idea, Use Minor Consequences

This is the fifth part of a series from John Jensen on how to effectively manage dysfunctional classrooms. [Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV]

Pursue an idea. To work toward a connection with a recalcitrant student, set a time when you can talk with no pressure. Ask him/her ahead of time to write out these topics: 1) things I’ve enjoyed now or when I was younger, 2) things I’m good at, 3) things that made me who I am, and 4) what others see in me. You may come upon startling leads into a discussion: “Kids think I’m mean,” or “I’m good at embarrassing others.” Often their skills and interests open conversation about current activities or aspirations for later.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

Your aim is to let students know you’re personally interested in them, and to provide content for positive comments you can make. Every day there should be some way you see them in a favorable light even if it was embedded in something that didn’t go well.

This personal knowledge and your ease of exchange with them makes it feasible to introduce a thought for them to ponder: “I notice something that might be useful to you. Could we talk about it after school? Or how about tomorrow morning?” Where possible, give them a say over whether and when you will talk. If they’re in a defensive, depressed posture, be more explicit asking permission: “It looks like something is weighing on you. Is there sometime this week we could talk that fits your schedule?” You approach them as having power at least equal to yours in the matter. In fact, they have decisive power over the key issue of whether or not to “let you in,” which they determine solely by how you treat them.

Talk out the issue and try to express an agreement in one sentence: “Would this work: ‘Whenever those kids show up, I just quietly go somewhere else.’”? Or “Whenever I’m upset, I remember I can bring balance to my feelings.” Or “My attention will wander forever unless I take charge of it.” Soon afterward, ask “What was our agreement again?” Every couple days, ask, “How’s the idea working?” You reaffirm exactly what it was, get it smooth and complete in their mind, and encourage and praise its application.

Use minor consequences. You want minor consequences that bite just enough so students want to avoid them, but not severe enough to upset anyone if they endure them. A careful accounting of distraction time matched exactly by consequence time often serves the need.

It presumes that methods like those above have corralled the main energy of the class, but students may still burn up time in getting down to work, verbal distractions, gratuitous comments, rising from their seats and moving around, and urgencies they feel they must resolve with friends. Prepare by obtaining a kitchen timer graduated in seconds. A wall clock with a sweep second hand can work, but you’ll need to tally individual times on an index card or a scrap of paper. Explain ahead what you’re going to do and then carry it out reliably:

“We appear to be taking time in distractions that eat into learning. To remind everyone, I’ll raise this timer, say ‘Your attention please,’ and give you five seconds to return to your seat, finish your sentence, or end whatever off-task thing you’re doing. Then I’ll start the timer and stop it when the distraction ends and you’re ready for the current task. Through the day (or period) I’ll continue adding up all the distraction time on the timer. Then we’ll devise ways to spend exactly that amount as consequence time, such as staying here after the bell, returning at the end of school, or some other consequence we can talk about.” Maintain a game-like quality with this direction, and speak with a light, positive, but impersonal tone. If you yourself are upset about their behavior, you place yourself in opposition to them. Think of it rather as a minor problem you’re helping them solve.

Students respond well just to subtracting distraction time directly from recess, lunch, or afternoon dismissal. Have them sit silently in the classroom with books closed and no conversation, and watch the clock for the specified time. Even a couple minutes of this may be uncomfortable enough for many to change their behavior the next day because it directly impinges on their own high-value time when they’re poised to be off and running.

You might also offer them bonus time for periods of substantial learning and cooperation, and subtract the distraction time from their bonus time. As they accumulate bonus time, you and they together might choose games, a movie, or other things they might enjoy.

Some will object that only a few may habitually be distracting. Your preference however is to ask the class to bring them in line. ”If some is distracting, it affects everyone’s concentration, so just remind people about what they’re doing.” You want them buying into a group norm and applying it to each other. Absent that cooperation, you can apply accurate record-keeping and consequences for the few.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.

References. “At Manual Arts High, a caring teacher is at the end of his rope,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 24, 2011, and also, “A Teacher’s Worst Nightmare, “ Walt Gardner, Edweek, Sept. 27, 2011.

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at jjensen@gci.net.