Nineteen years ago I was working as the Crisis Intervention Specialist at a summer camp for all-star behavior problem children. There were about 280 children that came from all over the country and a few from other countries. Most of them had been thrown out of several camps and schools before coming to us.
That summer I noticed that the biggest problems came up in the “Education Department”. The teachers couldn’t keep any control or get anything done, there were constant arguments about behavior, and the kids hated being there. I think I understood the sources of the problems so the next summer I came back as the Director of Education in charge of the program for myself and six other teachers.
There were three problems I sought to remedy. First, the nature of the curriculum focused on learning in the modalities that were most difficult for them (sitting still, waiting your turn, keeping your hands to yourself, being quiet, etc.). Second, there was judgment attached to the consequences and too much argument about behaviors. Third, there was no effective means of reigning in the constant disruptive behavior in order to get anything satisfying done.
So I created a curriculum that required the children use their hands, move around, build things, call out, act things out and run around. We built 12-foot tall freestanding dinosaur skeletons, played casino games with poker chips to learn math, acted out scripts to practice reading and learn history, and ran all over the camp during science and math scavenger hunts.
The next change I implemented was a clear behavior management system that utilized short breaks (time-outs) as its primary motivator. If Billy kicked Jason under the table I’d say, “Billy I need you to take a break for a minute just over there.” I wouldn’t engage any argument or discussion about the behavior. If the child attempted to argue or got upset I’d tell them, “You’re not in trouble, and it’s no big deal, but you do need to take a break for a minute and I’m not discussing it.” If they continued to argue I would double the break time. If they needed to be taken from the room then the break was five minutes.
On the second day of class I’d add a warning prompt when a behavior was starting to become disruptive, “Do you need to take a break for a minute?” This was a serious question, not sarcasm. Children could always choose to step out of the lesson. Occasionally, a student would say, “yes” to needing a break and take one. The method communicated to the children that if they didn’t want to be in the lesson that was okay. It was the student’s prerogative to choose to participate in the class or not. It was the teacher’s prerogative to set and enforce the parameters of the lesson.
It took one or two hours of class time for this behavior system to start working smoothly. At first the children got upset about getting a consequence and wanted to argue or tried to offer an apology or promise to stop the problem behavior in lieu of taking the one-minute break. But soon they realized how simple and easy the small consequence was. Because there were no long-term consequences when the break was over they returned to the activity of the group with fresh with a clean slate. There was also an emotional relief because problem behaviors weren’t being pointed out or even mentioned at all. These were children who were used to hearing about or discussing what they were doing wrong all day long. If a child was upset about being given a break or didn’t understand why we would be happy to talk tot hem about it after they had taken the short break. On average, once a week a child would choose to talk about he consequence they had just gotten. I’d assumed correctly that these children would be able to figure out for themselves what had caused the small consequence.
By the third day of class the children would happily take the breaks that were given with very little argument, resistance or upset. Sometimes in a class of 12 eight-year-old boys I might give 10 or 15 one-minute time-outs in a single lesson. They would take the break at the end of which I’d ask them, “Are you ready to come back?” “Yes” “Come on in” and they’d return eagerly to the lesson.
Classes became enormously productive. The children were proud of what they were accomplishing. There were no lectures, and almost no arguing, about behaviors.
Some of the most satisfying days occurred when the first half of camp ended and half the campers went home and were replaced with campers coming for the second half only. The new classes were now composed of some children who were used to the program and some who were new to it. When a new camper would become irritated or attempt to resist the one-minute break the veteran campers would coach them through it with, “It’s no big deal. He’ll let you come right back” or “Your not in trouble. You should take the minute” or “Don’t argue. Joe never changes his mind.”
On visitor’s day many parents were shocked that the first place their children dragged them to see was Education.
The emotional judgment had effectively been taken out of the consequence. The teachers had an effective tool with which to manage behaviors and teach. The children were free from the emotional weight of constantly being reminded about what they had done wrong. Great things were accomplished in class that every child was proud of. The children did their best to self-regulate and respect their teachers and peers.
I’ve seen classrooms that have a clear and effective behavior management method but curricular content that is dry and boring. I’ve also seen classrooms with exciting, well-varied curriculum and a poor or ineffective behavior management method. And neither of these comes close to motivating and inspiring like a classroom that has both.
In the 18 years since that summer I’ve taught dozens of teachers to use immediate, nonjudgmental, short consequences to manage their classrooms. And at the same time taught them how to drop the use of harsher, more punitive consequences, reward and point charts, behavior contracts, threats and judgmental or moralistic language.