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[Classroom Management] The Power of Behavioral Narration

Friday, September 8, 2017 -- Madison Michell

When it comes to behavior management, teachers are in search of the silver bullet—an effective means to set expectations, hold students accountable, and build classroom community so that teaching and learning can take place without interruptions. But, how many educators out there have actually figured it all out? Cultivating a behavior management system that works for all of your students and keeps them on track for the entire year is an art, not a science.

I’ll be the first to admit that classroom management was my biggest challenge as a third grade, and later kindergarten, teacher. Most of all, I struggled with consistency. It only took one student (and we all have one) who was constantly off task for me to see my classroom management system being tested to its limits. When I’d pulled out all the stops with warnings, loss of class privileges, calls to parents, and sticker charts, I STILL wasn’t seeing consistent results, the loss of learning time started to add up. My patience was waning day after day, and the whole class felt it. Quickly, students who had always followed the rules started stepping out of bounds as well, and my vision of a class of peacemakers dissolved into 20-plus peacebreakers.

After consulting articles, buying a few books, and sharing my struggles with other educators, my confidence was restored. While there are many different tactics you can try, sometimes the simplest ones work the best. For me, one key to turning my classroom management strategy back around was exercising behavioral narration.

For those less familiar with the approach, behavioral narration is a technique described by Lee Canter in Classroom Management for Academic Success. While not a new technique (the book was first published in 2006), it stands as true today as it did then. And, it’s far from complicated. Start by verbally describing positive behaviors you’re witnessing without sentiment as a reminder to your students of the expected procedure. These comments on acceptable behavior then encourage others to follow suit. For example, point out,  “Jacob is waiting quietly for instructions,” or “Corinne and Maribel have packed away all of their supplies.”

If you’ve never tried it, this technique might sound a little strange at first. So, before you stop reading, think about how many times you’ve said, “Jordan, sit down. David, sit down. I’ll wait here until everyone is sitting down. *Pause* Ethan and Carly are still not sitting down. Please sit down. I need everyone in their seat.” This broken record can feel like it’s on repeat all day, every day when students don’t follow procedures. What if you didn’t have to do that?! Behavioral narration could be the key for you, just as it was for me. Here are three reasons why this method works:

1. It takes the focus off the rulebreakers.

Students come to you with their own unique strengths and abilities. For some, possessing the skills to follow directions the first time and maintain focus throughout the day doesn’t come easily. Your narration gives those who might only be off task because they missed instructions a chance to catch up without being called out (avoiding any meltdowns that may have followed!).  By pointing out behavior that is actually taking place, your verbal reminders now have a visual cue to accompany them, giving some students just the right amount of reinforcement they need as you redirect their behavior.

2. It saves praise for learning accomplishments.

One key to behavioral narration is to take out phrases like “I love” or “good job.” When you’re narrating student behaviors, it’s not about giving verbal praise every time students make eye contact or put their homework in the right place. These are your classroom expectations! By narrating them aloud in a neutral tone, you’re simply using student behavior you witness as opportunities to model what others should also be doing (without jumping straight to negative reprimands). Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recognize the growth, progress, and achievement of your students—it just allows you to save that level of recognition for learning, not rule-following.

3. It uses expectations to build classroom community.

It’s easy for your “rule-follwers” to become your favorites. And, guess what? Your students are smart enough to figure this out! If you’re constantly complimenting one student for always being on task while frequently calling out a handful of others, students will notice these patterns. While some may get teased for being the “teacher’s pet,” others may be ostracized for “never being able to do anything right.” Don’t let behavior tear down your classroom community! Recognize narration as a way of supporting your students while helping them build their own self-control. Your reminders will encourage all to self-correct, and keep both you and your students focused on the positives.

This year, don’t underestimate the power of behavioral narration in your classroom. Check out this video from kindergarten teacher Kyle Thain to see behavior narration in action. Interested in learning more about classroom management? Check out this blog post on establishing effective classroom culture from the first day!