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Learner-Led Classroom Management: IgnitED Research Insight

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Saro Mohammed

The Learning Accelerator


Welcome to another installment of IgnitED Research Insights, which aim to build stronger connections between learning science and instructional practice.

We may know a lot, in theory, about effective classroom management. But putting it into practice requires giving students authority, along with responsibility, for co-creating classroom norms and routines.

In this installment, we take a look at how to engage students to establish and reinforce rules, routines, and positive behavior by:

  • presenting content using modeling and opportunities for practice.
  • using a variety of activities and materials with different pacing and levels of difficulty.
  • encouraging collaboration among students.

Let's Face Facts

An end view of a tall stack of hardcover, thick books.Researchers have studied the ways in which classroom environments, norms, and routines are related to students’ behavior for decades. From this research, we’ve learned a lot about how to foster the types of learning environments in which behavior enhances learning. In well-managed classrooms, students exhibit positive behaviors more frequently, are more engaged in learning tasks, and show increased fluency with content.

  • American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK-12 teaching and learning. http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf
  • Epstein, M., Atkins, M., Cullinan, D., Kutash, K., and Weaver, R. (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008- 012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/PracticeGuide/4

Research has also shown that effective classroom management is a complex series of activities, requiring relationship building, that frees up time and cognitive resources for teachers and students to engage in learning.

“Clearly classroom management is a multifaceted endeavor that is far more complex than establishing rules, rewards and penalties to control students’ behavior.”

Carolyn M. Evertson, Ph.D., and Carol S. Weinstein, Ph.D.: https://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Classroom-Management-Research-Contemporary/dp/0805847545#reader_0805847545 (p. 5)

“We believe that the intended modern school curriculum, which is designed to produce self-motivated, active learners, is seriously undermined by classroom management policies that encourage, if not demand, simple obedience. We advocate that a curriculum that seeks to promote problem solving and meaningful learning must be aligned with an authoritative management system that increasingly allows students to operate as self-regulated and risk-taking learners.”

Mary M Mccaslin, Ph.D., and Thomas L. Good, Ph.D.: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0013189X021003004

“One of the things that became very evident was that the teachers who were effective instructors were also good classroom managers.”

Carolyn M. Evertson, Ph.D.: https://youtu.be/Ba8jUw6R2Bw?t=134

Hear from a Practitioner

Sam Scroggins, a third grade blended science teacher at Cisco Independent School District in Texas, has seamlessly integrated these strategies into her classrooms by jumping in alongside her students, modeling her own areas for growth, and empowering each learner to take ownership of classroom norms and expectations.

Q: I know you have a couple of very fun, but concrete, ways to bring these strategies to life in your classroom. Can you share these with us?

A: When we begin the first six weeks, the very first things we establish are our class family rules. Our rules that we state right away are that we want to feel safe in our learning environment, and that [means] physically safe, and emotionally safe to take chances and risks. [We] embrace that struggle. We want to be respectful to our own selves, to our teachers, and to our peers, and we want to be responsible so that we can learn. So, we establish that as our family rule, and then we establish our family meetings, and then they “anchor” [these rules]. I have an anchor chart for our family rule – that family rule is a large umbrella in my classroom that everything else stems from.

We then will build a recipe for success. What does success look like? Well, we’re going to collaborate with our peers – we actually have an edible mix. I usually do this recipe for success on day two or three of school, and we basically build a trail mix. It has one cup of effort – and that’s our Cheerios. We talk about what effort is, what effort looks like, and how we apply effort. Then, there’s endurance – sticks of endurance, which are basically pretzels. We talk about keeping on going and building our third-grade stamina. It goes on to curiosity [sprinkles] and how we build [curiosity] and what that looks like. We just model [collaboration] through that recipe. Kindness is in there – I [use] some chocolate chips, and we talk about what that looks like when we’re using kindness with our peers and with ourselves. Then, the M&Ms [show] the diversity of a classroom coming together. When the students all eat the trail mix, they realize how great that all tasted and that they were very successful building it.

Q: What is one thing you want other educators to know about classroom management?

A: I started noticing that the best thing that I could do for my students was not to control them, but to empower them to control themselves. Student empowerment became a driving force behind my classroom management.

I do lots of modeling at the beginning. I demonstrate success in something that I’m very good in. I bring my road bike in and ride it, I show them how to shift the gears [as] a very “experienced” bike rider. And then I’ll also show them my gymnastic skills, which are - in my classroom, we would classify that as a “newbie” [level]. They aren’t bad or good; I just don’t have a foundation on that. We build on a traffic light system and say, “Am I a newbie at this? Or maybe I am avid (I just need some practice), or am I experienced and could be a coach?” That is how the first part of my class is set up – the onboarding of this positive environment.

Q: Is there anything else that you were struck by?

A: It’s a very positive setting, and the students really self-reflect to fix a problem. It’s no longer the adult constantly telling them what is wrong. I just do a mini-conference – some take 30 seconds – and they go, “Oh, I know what I’m doing.” I ask them how they’re going to fix the problem, and they tell me their solution out loud, then they go show what they know. That has helped them in their own management which, in turn, has helped the entire class work better.

It takes a lot of time and consistency on our part to re-anchor them, and we use a visual anchor in the classroom. The generations of students that I am working with now are becoming desensitized to the auditory corrections. The visual anchors are a very concrete way for them to realize what’s [not working] right then. If they’re stuck saying, “I don’t know,” I will guide them and say, “Well, just by my observation, this is what I’m seeing. Do you feel that that might be something that’s [not working]?” At first, just taking the time to onboard, train, and redirect – no matter how many times it takes – creates consistency that allows students to flourish. Your room will thrive at that point

Hear the interview with Sam Scroggins in this video:

Relevance to Blended & Personalized Learning

Blended or personalized practices in a classroom can support student empowerment through classroom management strategies.

  • Teachers can co-establish and facilitate classroom norms and routines in blended or personalized ways, like holding personal conferences for self-reflection on a student’s own behavior.
  • These classroom practices can give students different types of opportunities to collaborate with their peers.
  • Technology can also facilitate setting goals and monitoring each student’s progress toward them at the level and pace appropriate to their own needs.

Learn More

Profile photo of Saro Mohammed

Saro Mohammed

The Learning Accelerator

Saro Mohammed is a Partner at The Learning Accelerator.