Positive teaching

I went to a new MultiLit training session yesterday, called Positive Teaching for effective classroom behaviour management (primary schools), at their invitation, with another member of the Learning Difficulties Australia Council (thanks, Multilit!).

I'm not a classroom teacher these days, and I've mostly taught adults English (though I did have a few classes of pretty hardcore 16-year-olds years ago in Mexico), but kids in therapy can be ratty, just like kids in the classroom, and that can't be allowed to slow them down when they have a lot of literacy catching up to do.

I thought I could probably pick up some useful tips, and anyway when working in schools it's useful to understand teaching and classrooms. Plus, I thought the schools I work in might be interested in this training, as might my gentle blog reader.

Positive Teaching was an all-day course (9am to 4.30pm) in the city, run by a very nice chap and experienced teacher called Kyle Pitt. He remained calm and positive when I arrived slightly damp, having ridden my bike in, and not having windscreen wipers for my glasses (I'm still in denial about the start of winter), so we were off to a good start.

What is Positive Teaching?

Positive Teaching is about giving children lots of praise for good behaviour and keeping disapproval and reprimands to a minimum, to manage and shape behaviour, create a positive classroom culture and make sure lots of teaching and learning is done.

With which we all furiously agree, but living up to it every day is the tricky part, requiring periods of training and reflection.

Troublesome versus appropriate behaviour

The first unit of the course was about identifying troublesome classroom behaviour, and deciding when a teacher should intervene. Some rather hilarious and very familiar classroom cartoon characters were introduced:

  • The empty-handed (no pencil-case or books)
  • The twister (spinning around, rarely facing the teacher)
  • The wanderer (needs a seatbelt)
  • The mouth (perhaps talking in order not to have to listen)
  • The drummer (tapping and fiddling)

We agreed teachers need to address troublesome behaviour when it is a safety concern or causing damage, or interfering with learning or teaching, but not otherwise. The most effective way to stop a behaviour is often to ignore it, and instead focus relentlessly on the desirability and rewardability of things like bringing books, sitting still, listening and taking turns.

Teachers studied by the MultiLit team reported that children getting out of seats, talking out of turn and hindering other children were the most frequent troublesome behaviours in their classes. We analysed why these things might happen, and then zoomed in on the areas within the teacher's control, like how clearly they had communicated their expectations, the quality and layout of the classroom environment (Kyle said he used to work in a school under a flight path) and the kind of work and rewards being presented.

Then we analysed how teachers react to troublesome behaviour and watched some videos of teachers and children in a classroom. The kids were from a performing arts school so they were pretty good actors, and even the ones that over-acted did it charmingly.

Kyle got to play a grumpy negative teacher, then a calm positive one, and we counted praise and reprimands and discussed their consequences, intended and unintended.

Sometimes what seems like a reprimand to an adult (e.g. being sent out of class) could be rewarding to a child (escape from a task that's too difficult) so it's useful to take the time to think through the situation from the child's perspective, and carefully consider the antecedents and consequences of the behaviour.

Adjusting the classroom context and teacher praise and reprimands

In the afternoon worked on adjustments that can be made to things within the teacher's control to enhance positive student behaviour. Here the focus was the classroom context and the way class rules are negotiated and communicated plus the teacher's praise and reprimands.

I won't go into too much detail or I might get a rude letter from Emeritus Professor Kevin Wheldall AM about a breach of intellectual property, but it was a useful and interesting session.

We summed up with the Charter of Positive Teaching, and here's a picture of Kyle with  it. Sorry that I only took my iPhone along not my proper camera:

Charter for positive teaching

In case you're wondering what REX rewards are, they're those times when the teacher tells a child who is sticking to a rule (though sitting next to a child who is breaking it) exactly what they are doing right, and suddenly finds everyone (including the kid next to the praisee) is doing their best to stick to that rule and get a share of the praise too. Noice.

Course readings and notes were all in workbooks provided, the pace of the course was about right, and there was time to read everything during the session, so that we didn't go home feeling overburdened with things for the Must Read When I Get A Chance pile.

Most interesting factoids of the day (not to be taken out of context, she said):

  • Sitting children in rows rather than table groupings during teacher instruction can increase on-task behaviour by about 15%, but of course when children are doing groupwork, they need to sit in table groupings, so this is information for teachers to consider, not a seating prescription.
  • Children sitting in opposite-sex pairs also spend about 15% more time working, but kids often like to choose who to sit with, so again teachers can make informed decisions about this.
  • Teachers tend to give a lot of praise for good academic behaviour, but not much praise for good social behaviour, and lots of reprimands for less desirable social behaviour.
  • Boys get about 40 reprimands a week! Yikes! It's a miracle any boys want to stay at school at all, and no wonder some of them don't seem to care about being reprimanded any more. The other day one of the integration aides I work with quipped, after the usual pre-recess detention announcement, that perhaps the school could just play a recording before every break saying "would the usual suspects please come to the office?"
  • One of the most powerful rewards for children is sending a positive note home (Note to self: do that more).

Working with children can be stressful and difficult, and while the general gist of this training was covered in my university course, and no doubt is covered in teachers' degrees, it bears repeating once you're in the thick of it. I think today I gave out about twice as much praise as usual, and of course the kids responded well and it improved our sessions.

A version of the course for secondary schools is in preparation, and you can find out lots more about Positive Teaching from the MultiLit website.

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