The power of habits at school: is the school setting the tone or are the children dictating the terms in classrooms?

All poor schools are equal... Excluding the discipline of children?

I know there are many struggling schools, including primary schools, that cannot teach because the children are extremely ill-disciplined. Principals and teachers offer all kinds of relevant reasons for this situation, including poor parenting. While I agree that multiple factors impact on schools, there are many poor schools that have excellent discipline and their overall learner performance matches that of better resourced schools. Why do we have this phenomenon then?

Given that we cannot change many of the external factors that affect children's behaviour, we have to focus on the variable that we do have control over: the school and its classroom spaces. Strangely, very few schools that have a poor discipline record, will talk about the school's role in impacting on children's behaviour. Why is there this reluctance to reflect on possible internal problems that add to the lack of discipline across the school?

Let us tackle the bull by its horns. Let us examine how schools are contributing to the children's negative behaviour patterns by NOT institutionalising good, learning-rich behaviour as a school-wide culture .

The power of good classroom routines

All of us know that children can't learn effectively in classrooms that are noisy. Similarly teachers can't teach well where there is no order. A critical oversight to understand the root cause of this dysfunctionality in the class, is the power of habits. Good habits that support learning can be empowering while bad habits can be so destructive that learning is completely disrupted in schools that need it most. In schools, there are two layers of competing sets of habits: those of the children as opposed to those of the teachers.

You see, we are creatures of habit and we are inherently selfish. Our brains are wired to serve our own needs first. In classrooms where there is no structure, children will automatically occupy that vacuum and satisfy their own desires, whether those desires are physical, emotional or mental. When all these conflicting behaviours emerge in uncontrolled, confined spaces like classrooms, you have chaos. To restore order, the teachers have to spend an ungodly amount of energy and time. Such time wasters come at a high price: very little real teaching ( as little as 20%) happens and thus learning is severely hampered. Can we really blame the children in such instances or should we look at what is problematic in such classroom organisation?

Fundamentally, in dysfunctional classes, the teachers do not set the tone for teaching and learning in an assertive, shared manner. The missing link is the absence of classroom habits or routines. If there is no structure to regulate behaviour, chaos is a given. Children like structure and thrive in empowering environments where there is a consistent, familiar rhythm. In such spaces, children know what to expect and they will respond automatically and confidently, regulating their own behaviours accordingly.

Teachers need to understand this dynamic if they wish to manage their classrooms effectively. Like all human beings, children will only self-regulate if we model and lead them to adopt such a disciplined, learning mindset. If teachers fail to do this, classrooms will become fair game for power struggles between children and teacher.In short, teachers, NOT the children, determine how much learning will take place. Teachers must take charge and set the tone and the pace for learning.

This call goes beyond the display of classroom rules and the unrealistic expectation that children should know how to behave. The critical measurement of successful classroom routines will be when all the children can do routine tasks quickly and automatically. When these classroom routines or habits are in place as part of a school-wide culture, teachers will direct at least 90% of their energies,time and passion on teaching. This is after all, the core mandate of each teacher.

There we have spelled it out. Poor classroom discipline is largely dependent on how teachers take charge of their responsibility to teach the children. Teachers must create their own palaces to encourage learners to learn effectively without unnecessary distractions.

What is the way forward for schools that want to transform their classrooms? Below are four fundamentals that schools should consider to institutionalise a culture of positive discipline:

Four Steps to transform the school into a calm, disciplined, high performing school.

1. Dump the 'blame game' and 'We are the victims' stories. With these mindsets we lock in our dependency and we surrender our own agency.

2. School principals must be bold and acknowledge that the school culture regarding classroom teaching and management practices ( read: habits or routines) may be a major barrier to transform the children's negative behaviour.

3. If school principals at schools with a history of poor discipline and under 50% of real meaningful teaching and learning taking place in their classrooms, want to get the basics right, they MUST target what happens in the classrooms.

4. Ensure that there is a school-wide set of transformational classroom habits or routines that demand compliance from every single teacher on the staff as a matter of urgency.The process to establish the features of this rhythm can be determined by the school leadership, the staff and the children to promote inclusivity and democracy.

Now it's your turn...
Have you been in a similar situation at your school and how did you transform your school? Or, do you have other thoughts on this issue?


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