Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eight Skills Every Teacher Should Have (Latham, 1997)

Disclaimer: This article was written by Glenn Latham, who is a Professor emeritus of Special Education at Utah State University. These tips were based on his experiences and observations in more than 200 schools in US. This article was summarised from his book entitled Behind the Schoolhouse Door: A Look at Education from Within.

#1: The ability to teach expectations

In classrooms where teachers' expectations are reasonable and clearly understood, the behavior of students tends to be appropriate. From my observations, I have concluded that children must know exactly what is expected of them, and what the consequences are of meeting or failing to meet, those expectations. For expectations to serve the roles for which they are intended, I have observed six conditions that must be met, as follows:

Expectations should be taught "situationally." This means that children should be taught what is expected of them in the variety of situations and settings in which they find themselves. For example, John Reed (1993) of the Oregon Social Learning Center found that when students are taught exactly what is expected of them relative to their behavior while entering school and before class instruction begins, when going to the cafeteria and during lunch, and when exiting school, referral problems for inappropriate behavior were reduced by 40%. This means, simply, that not only are students taught what is expected of them, they are taught what is expected of them in the variety of situations and settings encompassed within the school day.

1. Expectations should be taught in a very formal manner using role-playing, modeling, and practice. Certainly, such instruction must be presented in an age-appropriate way. But no matter what their age, students need to be taught in a direct and formal way exactly what is expected of them, and in a manner that makes it possible for the teacher to know, by what the students say and do, that they understand those expectations perfectly.

2. Expectations should be kept to a maximum of 4 or 5. It is important that expectations be kept to a small enough number so that everyone, including the students and staff, can remember them. Long lists of expectations are counterproductive.

3. Expectations should be stated in instructive rather than prohibitive language. For example, rather than "Don't shout," the expectation would be "Speak quietly." When stating expectations, it is important for teachers to tell students what they are expected to do rather what they are expected not to do.

4. Expectations should be emphasized over rules. Though this is a subtle matter, it nevertheless reinforces an important point about classroom management; that is, the emphasis should be on positive things rather than negative, prohibitive things (Foxx, 1996, p. 226-227). Expectations should be respected by the teachers. It is not at all unusual for teachers to violate their own expectations. For example, an expectation might be that students are to raise their hands to be called on to speak. However, during a class discussion, a student blurts out an answer without raising his/her hand, and the teacher attends to that student by saying something like, "Right. That's a good answer. Thanks." True, the child might have given the right answer, but if in giving the answer, the child has violated the teacher's classroom expectation and has been rewarded for it by teacher attention, the probability is high that the teacher's expectations will not be respected by the students.

Skill #2: The ability to get and keep students on task

I have observed that a key to on-task behavior is to quickly engage students in the learning activity. I have found that the sooner teachers get students on task, the easier it is to keep them on task and the easier it is to get them back on task should they get off task. In classrooms where more than even a minute elapses from the time instruction is to begin and instruction actually does begin - during which time students get involved in a lot of distracting behaviors -it becomes increasingly difficult for the teacher to bring order to the classroom environment and to get instruction started. It is important, therefore, to begin instruction immediately. Secondly, to assure a high rate of on-task behavior, the teacher should engage in what Geoff Colvin (May 27, 1996) calls "active supervision." "Active supervision" finds teachers (1) moving around the class and being close to students, (2) looking around, and (3) interacting with students. This is absolutely consistent with what I have observed in classrooms all across the globe. In classrooms where teachers are up and around and physically close to students and interacting with them, students tend to be on task and productive. It worries me when I'm in classrooms where teachers give students assignments, then take their seats at their desks, not to stand up until the class period is over.

Managing by walking around is a powerful antidote to inappropriate student behavior. Regarding proximity, I have found that there is a direct relationship between how close a teacher is to students and how well students behave: the closer the proximity the better the behavior.

I was recently in a classroom for behaviorally disordered students. There were 12 students in the class. During the hour I observed, there was not one incident of inappropriate student behavior. After the period was over, I asked the teacher how she accounted for the fact that though she had 12 of the school's worst behaving students in her class, I didn't observe one single behavior problem, nor were the students off task during the entire class period. She answered, "I never sit down. I am constantly walking among the students and interacting with them. As you will notice, I don't even have a desk in my classroom." I was startled when I looked around to note that, indeed, she didn't even have a desk and a chair for herself.

Skill #3: The ability to maintain a high rate of positive teacher-to-pupil interactions.

A basic principle of human behavior teaches us that behavior responds better to positive than to negative consequences. Most people understand this, but despite it, there is a strong tendency on the part of classroom teachers to attempt to manage the classroom environment coercively. There remains a strong inclination among teachers, particularly - though certainly not exclusively - above the third grade, to espouse the philosophy that you must never smile 'til Christmas - at the earliest.

I recently gave a talk to a large group of school teachers and administrators on the topic of non-coercive, positive methods of classroom management. Afterward, I received an anonymous note from a high school teacher. It read in part as follows: "Dr. Latham is a fine, funny, intelligent little gentleman (I liked that part) whose policies would work if tempered with severe punishment to stop the inappropriate behavior, with behavior modification techniques used afterward. There are no rewards for not running a stoplight - there's only punishment if you do run the light. That's reality" (emphasis not added). This mentality is destroying the quality of learning environments all across America, creating coercive environments from which students want to escape. As noted by Dr. Murray Sidman in his marvelous book Coercion and It's Fallout (1989) "Many students would leave school immediately if they had the choice." The fact of the matter is, about a million students a year do leave school, whether given the choice or not. They are called dropouts. And why do they leave? They leave because, in large measure, school environments, particularly at the upper grades, are becoming more and more coercive, a circumstance that encourages students to escape and avoid.

This sad situation exists not only in the secondary grades. Recently, a distraught woman in our community who volunteers a few days a week in a nearby first-grade class, called about her concern over all the "shouting and scolding and criticizing by teachers that goes on continually, even in kindergarten classes." The distraught parent of a second grade student called me wondering what she should do: "My son tells me every day he wants to die because his teacher is so mean to the students." A similarly distressing call came to me from the mother of a 15 year-old girl.

My data reveal that teachers allow over 90% of all of the appropriate things their students do to go unrecognized; yet, when student misbehave, teachers are 2 to 5 times more likely to pay attention to that behavior than they are to pay attention to appropriate behavior. Since teacher attention is one of the major variables that accounts for how students behave, the attention given by teachers to inappropriate behavior is typically of such a nature as to increase the probability that the inappropriate behavior will be strengthened; i.e. it will occur again and again and again predictably.

Conditions are even worse for students who are "different." A group of researchers reported that 82% of students who are developmentally delayed never receive positive feedback from teachers even when they comply with teacher requests, and that teacher disapproval statements directed at such students outnumber approval statements by a ratio of 15 to 1 (Shores, Gunter, and Jack, 1993).

Speaking to a gathering of special educators, called by the United States Office of Special Education Programs, Katherine Larson (1994) of the Graduate School of Education, University of California, Santa Barbara, reported that "many LD and SED students are afforded greater dignity when they are incarcerated in youth prisons than when enrolled in schools." Her experience in both schools and in youth detention facilities revealed that "staff in youth detention facilities are more courteous, more respectful, more compassionate, upbeat, and more friendly than educators in schools;" a circumstance she felt was "the result of a negative or adversarial relationship between students and adults in schools" (p. 8). (See Foxx, 1996, for a profound explanation of how such a thing can be.)

Dr. Sidney Bijou (1988) instructs us that "research has shown that the most effective way to reduce problem behavior in children is to strengthen desirable behavior through positive reinforcement rather than trying to weaken undesirable behavior using aversive and negative processes," (p. 444-451). This is what research has taught us, and this is what educators must learn to do. There is simply no alternative. So long as the notion prevails that "severe punishment" is the way to manage behavior, schools will continue to be coercive environments, and students will be anxious to get away from them, to perform badly within them, to strike out against them (countercoercion) and to be disinclined as adults to support them.

We know exactly how to create a positive learning environment where students behave well to enjoy the positive consequences of behaving well rather than to simply avoid the negative consequences of behaving badly (Johnson and Layng, 1991). Once teachers learn to create an environment that is free of coercion, where appropriate behavior is properly recognized, student behavior will improve, student performance will improve, and students will remain in school.

I have observed that in classrooms where the ratio of negative to positive interactions is never greater than one negative interaction to eight positive interactions, the learning environment tends to be noncoercive and student behavior tends to be appropriate. This is quite consistent with the recently reported data of Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd Risley (1995) regarding their research on verbal behavior in families. Low risk homes were characterized by environments in which parents said five times more positive things to their children than they did negative things. High risk homes were homes where parents said twice as many negative things as positive things. The research is clear on this matter! Teachers have simply got to learn to be much more positive and encouraging than negative and discouraging.

The literature on positive reinforcement in classroom settings is abundantly clear on this matter (Eisenberger and Cameron, November, 1996). Our college of education teacher training programs have simply got to access that literature and teach it to students who are preparing to become teachers. Contemporary student behaviors are simply too complex to be dealt with on a trial-and-error, conventional-wisdom, back-to basics basis. It is irresponsible for our college of education teacher training programs to graduate students who have not been thoroughly taught how to manage behavior in the classroom using scientifically sound, positive rather than coercive and aversive, methods. Ignorance is the parent of coercion. Only those who do not know a better way persist in using coercive methods to maintain - or attempt to maintain -order in the classroom.

When teachers skillfully acknowledge appropriate behavior using positive verbal and nonverbal interactions, dramatic things can happen. I observed such an effect while doing some work for a school district in a nearby state experiencing difficulties in retaining high-risk students in the regular education classroom. The district served a large population of high risk students, and was concerned that a disproportionate number of those students (80%, in fact) were classified early in the school year as mentally retarded, behaviorally disturbed, socially maladjusted, attention deficit hyperactivity disordered, and so on. I was asked by the school district to see what could be done to reverse this problem. After observing in classrooms for a few days, the problem became evident to me. I found that teachers and their aides were averaging 34 negative interactions during each class period, while having only 9 positive interactions. I simply taught the teachers and their aides to reverse their approach to interacting with students by properly paying attention to the things students did well, while ignoring the inconsequential, annoying things students did (98% of which could be ignored without problems arising). After training, teachers and their aides were averaging 167 positive interactions per class period and only 4 negative interactions. The result was that during the next school year, placement of students in special education dropped dramatically from 80% to 11% (Latham, 1992). The ability to do this is a skill that is remarkably characteristic of teachers whose classrooms are generally devoid of outlandish and inappropriate student behavior, and where student achievement is high.

Skill #4: The ability to respond noncoercively to inappropriate behavior that is consequential.

Occasionally students will do things in class that are so disruptive and potentially dangerous
to person and/or property, that they can't be ignored; something has to be done, now. It has been my experience that such behaviors are rare, spontaneous, and when responded to properly, are quickly over and instruction continues with only a slight interruption. The following event exemplifies such a response. It occurred in an alternative high school classroom while the students were engaged in individual seatwork. The room was quiet as the teacher circulated among the students.

Without any warning whatsoever, a student leaped to her feet and began wildly cursing another student she was accusing of "tormenting" her. As I typically do, when assessing the effects of treating such behaviors, I quickly set my stopwatch to record how long the disruptive behavior continued, given the teacher's response to it.

To my delight, the teacher retained his professional dignity beautifully. His face registered not the slightest annoyance. In complete control he approached the enraged girl and quietly said, calling her by name, "It seems that you are upset about something. Would you care to tell me about it?" All eyes were glued on these two disparate figures standing before them, one with
face flushed, trembling, loud, profane, and out of control. The other serene, composed, calm, and quiet. In the presence of such a teacher, the girl, though trembling and very angry, grew slightly calmer.

To be continued, Insyaallah. Another four skills :)

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