Monday, April 12, 2010

Classroom Management: Discipline or Redirection?

After two months of teaching Sunday School, I still had knots in my stomach every time I entered my classroom. Controlling my class was my greatest fear. How could I make this lively group of first, second and third graders sit down and listen to me?

It was the era when the time out corner was the MO of child discipline. Dennis the Menace ensconced in his corner clutching his teddy bear was etched on the mental disciplinary action plan of every teacher and parent. As a new teacher, I kept the corners of my classroom swept clean, ready for occupancy.

I don't even remember what horrible infraction those poor boys did that day to incur my wrath. First one, then another, and finally a third trudged to the designated corner at which my accusing finger pointed. I looked at the two remaining girls. "I have one corner left," I announced. "Who's it going to be?"

You could have heard an eraser wipe chalk off a blackboard.

I told this story recently to a friend. "Would you do things differently today?" she asked. No doubt! First I probably would have laughed at whatever goofiness those boys decided to do. Now, I have the experience to keep kids busy so they don't get into trouble. Finally, I've learned how to "redirect" kids so the issue never blows up into an issue.

In a church setting, our hands are tied as to how much discipline we can meter out to our kids. Parents are all too ready to hit the panic button if you dare make their child unhappy in your class. Unlike a public school, attendance is voluntary at church and a child and their parent can vote with their feet out the door never to return. We can't let public opinion deter us from doing right but as teachers, we also need to work hard to find other ways to control errant behavior before we get tough.

Redirection works best with preschoolers. Sometimes all it takes to get a disruptive child to stop taking toys from others, playing with toys when he should be listening or picking on his neighbor is to get him busy doing something else. But this works well with older kids too. If a child is too full of energy to settle down to your planned activity, refocus that energy into letting him be your helper. If your group squirms and wiggles, flailing arms like a demented octopus during story time, they are probably bored more than intentionally disobedient. Make your story more interactive. Have the rowdiest child help you with hand motions. Get the kids to act out the story.

If the chemistry between two children is as explosive as a warm, well shaken can of Coke, redirect one of the children to another group or another side of the table. Don't say anything about the misbehavior. Instead, put your hand on the shoulder of one child and say, "Why don't you come over here with me? Let's see if we can work on this word puzzle (or whatever project you are doing) together?"

A year ago, I had a child in my class who put capital letters on the term free spirit. No matter how I tried to involve him, he was intent on doing his own thing. I almost reinstated the Time Out Chair when he screamed in the middle of prayer, "He touched me!" referring to the boy next to him. Unfortunately, or fortunately, parents were starting to arrive. The next time he came, as he and the other boy started to roll their eyeballs at each other, I called my Free Spirit over to me. "I need a partner to stand by me," I invited, encircling him with my arm. I expected him to resist; instead, all through the prayer, he nestled against my side.

My prayer partner's reaction reminded me that often discipline problems occur not because we have bad kids, but because we have kids who are crying out for love, attention and activity. By redirecting their attention, we give our kids what they need most and we don't lose precious moments by stopping the teaching clock to reprimand the offending child.

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