Recently, a group of five girls in Monica Taylor-Fitoussi’s second – grade class were playing the You’re My Best Friend, and You’re Not My Friend game, and one of them had written a note that said We Hate You. Obviously, the situation was disturbing the class, says Taylor – Fitoussi, who teaches at Jackie Robinson Academy in Long Beach, California. She shepherded the girls to the room’s quiet corner and instructed them to talk it out and come up with a solution to the disharmony.
“It was amazing. Normally, students go to the quiet corner, spend a few minutes, resolve the problem, and come back to class,” she says. “This little group was there for 20 minutes, and there were tears and recriminations.”
Taylor-Fitoussi helped defuse the situation among the feuding girls as she does with just about every student behavior conflict she encounters. “When there are problems, generally the students are expected to work it out on their own, or they must write letters of apology, and they have to say what they did wrong and come up with an action plan as to how they are going to go about changing their behavior,” she says.
With the group of girls, she let them do “some critical back and forth, and I said, ‘Now you have to find solutions.'” With her guidance, the girls set their goals for getting along and being courteous to one another, exchanged apologies, and stated how they’d treat each other differently in the days to come. “I don’t know if just getting it all out was enough or not,” she says, “but they’ve all been playing well together since.”
Establishing Acceptable Behavior
This ability for her young students to resolve their own social conflicts with concrete, workable solutions is the result of her consistent message about civility and behavioral expectations within her classroom since the very first day of school. “At the beginning of each year, I teach classroom culture. The students and I set the rules for the class, and we establish acceptable and unacceptable behaviors,” she says. Because they help set the rules, students feel that the rules are theirs and “civility becomes an expected behavior, and it’s not something I have to deal with very often.”
Recording and Rewarding Behavior
The second-grade teacher also keeps a behavior chart on the wall. If a student misbehaves, his or her name goes on the chart. A different color is assigned to the number of times the students’ name is posted, and at the end of the week, students tally their own behavioral track record. “They can see that they may have started off with a bad week, but they got their act together later. If a student always has a bad Monday, we’ll sit down and talk about why that is, and decide if they need to go to bed sooner on Sunday nights.” She also doles out “character coupons” to students who have been helpful to other people. She says her students like the accountability of the color chart, and, of course, they enjoy the reward system that goes with it and with the coupons: they get to be the first to leave for recess.
Social Skills in the Curriculum
Taylor-Fitoussi says three aspects are integral to her teaching: a focus on citizenship, instilling good behavior without losing her cool, and dealing with issues right away so that they don’t become a gnawing frustration. “I’m consistent, which means I don’t get upset.”
Staying calm, says Fredric H. Jones, author of Tools for Teaching (Fredric H. Jones, Inc., 2000), is one of the most important strategies in maintaining a civil classroom: not just staying calm, but genuinely feeling calm. Bad behavior within the classroom—from incessant chatting among neighbors to blatant, foul language, and aggression—runs the spectrum from mildly annoying to a bit scary, especially if you aren’t used to it. “But whether you are used to it or not, in every case, calm is strength and upset is weakness. Being calm is the key to letting students know you mean business,” says Jones, a clinical psychologist. By the time kids are four years old, they have honed their ability to tune out nagging and realize that often all they’ll suffer for bad behavior is a short burst of anger, and it’s over. “If you get upset, you can’t think straight, and you may react with something like a snap of the finger, and that’s a lot of power—allowing yourself to get mad—to give a student.”
Consistency and Boundaries
Consistency, as with academic lessons, is just as important says Jones. “There’s a difference between being truly consistent, and very consistent. Never make a rule you aren’t going to enforce each and every time. Otherwise, you may as well say ‘talk all you want because dealing with your behavior is inconvenient to me.’
“The teachers who are naturals in promoting civil behavior never raise their voices or send kids to the office because they insist on training kids from the very beginning. They make enforcing good behavior a habit, and students have a very clear notion of where their boundaries are and respond to them.”
Taylor-Fitoussi has been teaching for more than 20 years and admits that, like most teachers, she spends more time on classroom culture than she’d like. “But, by underscoring the expectation of civility in the classroom from the start,” she says, “I do not have to re-teach the rules and I have far fewer disruptions and problems with civility.”