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A Classroom Management Training Helps New Teachers Send Fewer Kids to the Office

Understanding and managing a room full of students is often a “trial by fire” for less experienced educators, according to Megan Ryan, the mentor coordinator for teacher professional development at the Louisa County, Va., public schools.

“A lot of new teachers have this slightly romanticized idea about what their classroom is going to look like,” Ryan said. “They were in a wonderfully managed classroom [as student-teachers] with their cooperating teacher, and I don’t think a lot of them got to see the work in the background that went into that. They just feel like all students are going to listen and be engaged—and they don’t.”

That’s why Louisa County and other districts nationwide are exploring ways to help teachers—and particularly novices—better understand students’ social and behavioral cues. With explicit training on classroom management—a skill often underdeveloped in teacher-preparation programs—the thinking goes that teachers will cultivate closer relationships with their students and better manage, or prevent, disruptions that might otherwise result in a student being sent to the office for discipline.

New research suggests teacher training like the program used in Louisa County can significantly improve class climate and reduce disparities that result in students of color being disciplined disproportionately.

Class discipline has proven a thorny problem for schools, particularly amid post-pandemic increases in student behavior problems and disengagement. In an EdWeek Research Center survey last year, 70 percent of educators said students were behaving worse than they did in 2018-19, and 68 percent reported student morale falling during the same period.

But punishments that remove students from class lead to lost instruction and often further disengagement. Civil rights data show Black students, for example, can lose more than three times as much instructional time as their white classmates from exclusionary discipline.

Some efforts to reduce racial discipline gaps have focused on training teachers to avoid implicit, or unconscious, bias when gauging student behavior. But studies suggest anti-bias training has limited benefits and in some cases worsens stereotyping of students. That’s where the classroom management training Louisa County and other districts are working on could prove more effective.

“By focusing teachers’ attention on their interactions with kids and really trying to read kids’ cues correctly, essentially you bypass some of the racial biases by focusing just on behavior,” said Robert Pianta, the director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia. “From the kids’ perspective, you are responding more accurately to their cues.”

Take what Pianta calls a “garden-variety misbehavior”: a student doodling or staring into space while a teacher is talking. Prior studies have found implicit racial biases can lead teachers to interpret the same behavior more negatively from students of color than from white students, particularly boys.

Teachers with less effective classroom management often interpret the behavior personally and negatively, Pianta said: “This kid wants to make life difficult for me.”

More experienced teachers are more likely to interpret the behavior neutrally—that the student may be confused or may need more scaffolding to be engaged, for example—and are more likely to ask the student questions about the behavior rather than jumping to discipline.

Classroom-management shortcomings worsen discipline gaps

Teachers who refer high numbers of students out of the classroom for discipline are more likely to be early in their careers, and they’re more likely than other teachers to refer students of color at higher rates than their white peers.

Jing Liu, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park, and his colleagues tracked office referrals for 2,900 K-12 teachers at more than 100 urban California schools from 2016 to 2020. They found that roughly 5 percent of teachers were responsible for nearly 35 percent of office discipline referrals.

These high-referring educators—overwhelmingly in their first three years in the field—sent a student to the office for discipline about once every four days, often for subjective misbehavior like defiance, a category found more frequently to be associated with cultural and ethnic bias. By contrast, other teachers on average sent less than one student to the office every other month.

The racial disparities in these high-referring teachers’ disciplinary referrals were so staggering that the study estimated providing better classroom-management training for high-referring teachers could halve racial discipline gaps between Black and white students.

(According to the most recent federal civil rights data, Black students made up 15 percent of all K-12 public school students but accounted for nearly 27 percent of students without disabilities who had to serve an out-of-school suspension at least once in 2020.)

Such wide discipline gaps “beg the question of the extent to which teacher-preparation programs are addressing issues with aspiring teachers about inequities in the use of discipline strategies in the classroom,” said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which reviews teacher-preparation programs for the classroom-management strategies they teach by examining program materials and syllabi and, in some cases, interviewing students and staff. “We know that the consequences of poor classroom management are often far worse for students of color. Better training in classroom management could help teachers head off behavior challenges before they become so problematic that a teacher would need to resort to disciplinary referral.”

Limited classroom-management training

In policy, schools have been attempting to move away from discipline that takes students out of the classroom, but most teachers receive little preparation in implementing more positive and inclusive classroom-management approaches.

Inclusive discipline approaches like restorative justice depend on strong teacher-student relationships, but the National Council on Teacher Quality finds many teachers get little preparation in the best practices for building those relationships.

The council’s reviews of teacher-prep programs include an analysis of their emphasis on what NCTQ considers to be five key, evidence-based instructional practices, including praising students’ good behavior, articulating and applying clear consequences for misbehavior, and engaging students through interesting lessons that provide ample opportunities for participation.

“Reinforcing good behavior with praise stands out to us because it’s the least likely to be taught and the least likely to be practiced in teacher prep, even though it has the most research behind its efficacy,” Peske said.

Only 27 percent of teacher-prep programs required that aspiring teachers learn to reinforce positive classroom behavior, according to NCTQ’s most recent, 2020 review of classroom management practices in teacher prep programs.

In a nationally representative survey of 953 educators conducted from Jan. 31 to March 4 of this year, 39 percent of K-12 educators told the EdWeek Research Center that they had never received explicit classroom-management instruction in their teacher-preparation program. Another 8 percent of educators said they had never participated in a formal teacher-training program.

Even among educators who told the EdWeek Research Center that they did have classroom management training, its quality and usefulness varied widely.

“We had one semester of classroom management,” one teacher recalled in an open-ended section of the survey. “It felt helpful at the time, but didn’t much prepare me for an actual classroom.”

One veteran teacher who participated in classroom-management training in the 1990s, said it focused “primarily about ‘what’ and not necessarily about ‘why’ or ‘how,’” the teacher recalled. “We are now very aware of the importance of creating an inclusive community of learners (the ‘why’) rooted in behavior modeled by adults (the ‘how’) for respectful communication, emotional regulation, and active engagement in the learning process.”

Requirements for teacher prep programs vary significantly by state, field of study, and accrediting group, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. The Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium‘s 2013 model standards for teacher preparation do call for teachers to understand how to create a positive learning environment and suggest a teacher should understand “how personal identity, worldview, and prior experience affect perceptions and expectations,” and recognize “how they may bias behaviors and interactions with others.”

Building teachers’ self-reflection

Ryan, the mentor coordinator in Louisa County, located northwest of Richmond, is trying to help teachers understand the how’s and why’s behind classroom management.

Since 2018, the district has participated in the My Teaching Partner program, developed at the University of Virginia. Participating teachers learn to record and analyze their own lessons, looking for and analyzing students’ social cues and behavioral triggers.

Ryan said new teachers often don’t take enough time at the start of the school year to get to know their students and explain the purposes behind class procedures and routines.

“They may feel like it’s taking away from instructional time, so we really try to focus on the fact that if they put in that time at the beginning of the year, the benefits and the payoff down the road are going to outweigh losing some instruction time,” she said.

In two-week cycles throughout the year, Ryan records and analyzes lessons with each of her teachers. She seeks three, one-minute clips in which the teacher uses strong, effective, and specific communication with their students, rather than general critiques.

In one clip, Ryan said, a teacher “gave a little grace” on an assignment after learning that a student was late because he had been caring for six siblings. In reviewing another, Ryan called out a strong content discussion, “where the teacher and the student are in a good feedback loop, and they’re having a really deep conversation with good questioning skills.”

Rachel Post, a 6th grade math teacher at William Wirt Middle School in Prince George’s County, Md., who participated in the My Teaching Partner training in 2020, said recording her lessons helped her be “honest” and catch student reactions she would otherwise miss.

“I may be working one-on-one with a student or managing some behavior problem, but there’s so many things that I miss,” she said in one program video. “The thing about watching yourself on video is that you see all of that and you can’t really hide behind excuses.”

After eight of these two-week cycles, a study found teachers who participated in the mentoring program were referring fewer students for discipline outside the classroom and had no discipline gaps between Black and white students. Participating teachers’ students, across all races and achievement levels, also had higher engagement.

“You watch these shifts in the teacher’s behavior and then you also watch shifts in the kids’ behavior,” Pianta said. “They’re paying attention more. They’re looking like they’re enjoying the classroom more, participating in the classroom to a greater extent. … It’s like the classroom becomes a more active environment.”

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