A teacher walks into the gym and notices that several students have not dressed for class. As she gives instructions for an activity, two students in the back of the class talk about their plans for an after school social event. During a game of team handball, two students accidentally run into each other prompting a verbal confrontation. The teacher is in the middle of a swimming lesson when one student sits off on the side of the pool instead of participating. A teacher leads a class in warm ups when two students arrive late. As the teacher moves around the gym giving feedback to students, he notices a student hitting the shuttlecock up into the rafters. One student refuses to follow teacher instructions during activity or refuses to participate.
Do any of these situations sound familiar? How should these situations be handled? While individually these situations do not appear to be a threat to the learning process in urban physical education classes, the cumulative effect poses difficulty in providing an environment where learning can occur in the gymnasium. Dealing with these types of behaviors day after day can place stress on a teacher, which ultimately can lead to burnout.
Behavior management or discipline of students in schools has consistently been reported as one of the major hindrances to educational success in the public schools in the United States (Rose, Gallup, & Elam, 1997; Supaporn, Dodds, & Griffin, 2003). Many secondary physical education teachers have voiced the complaint, "I wish that someone had told me how to deal with all the little problems that I face as a teacher in the gym." Teachers are often taught behavior management strategies such as establishing rules, routines, and expectations (Fink & Siedentop, 1989; O'Sullivan & Dyson, 1994). Other proacrive and reactive approaches to behavior management are often suggested (Perron & Downey, 1997; Rink, 2006; Siedentop, 1991), yet many urban teachers still feel unprepared to deal with the frequency and quantity of minor disruptive episodes that occur in physical education classes (Henninger, 2006).
The purpose of this article is to provide urban physical educators with a set of tools/behaviors that can be used to establish and maintain order in their classrooms. Readers may recognize some of the techniques but research has recently shown that the following strategies and behaviors can be especially helpful for physical educators in urban schools (Henninger, 2006). Order is the establishment of a classroom environment that supports desired learning processes and tasks (Doyle, 1986), and has been noted as being an important factor affecting learning in the classroom (Siedentop, 1991). Behaviors, big or small, that disrupt the classroom and take away from learning opportunities, are common in all classrooms (Rose, Gallup, & Elam, 1997; Supaporn, Dodds, & Griffin, 2003). The authors of this article believe that teachers in urban schools deal with more regular disruptions and would benefit greatly from some of the techniques suggested here.
Misbehavior does not always refer to major disruptions (e.g., arguments and fights). In fact, many of the managerial issues faced by teachers are of the mild yet chronic variety as described in the opening paragraph of this article. For example, as one teacher stated, misbehavior included, "not listening, not changing clothes, not participating, skipping class, not following directions, breaking class rules, and not paying attention" (Supaporn, Dodds, & Griffin, 2003; p. 333). Each occurrence of such "minor disruptions" may not really be a problem for most physical education teachers, but when constant it can drain and stress teachers. As one urban physical education teacher stated, "It is the consistency and the severity. It is the sheer numbers; it isn't just a couple kids doing it, it is a lot of kids in a lot of different ways, [and] often," (Henninger, 2006).
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One way to maintain order in physical education classes is through the process of de-escalation. De-escalation is a set of teacher behaviors that, when working in combination, help teachers limit the impact of students' misbehavior on the maintenance of order (Henninger, 2006). While the techniques mentioned in this article may sound familiar to experienced teachers, the combination of strategies, the long term nature of the process of de-escalation, and the specific contexts of urban schools make these techniques particularly effective in terms of reducing managerial problems that disrupt order.
De-escalation consists of two skill sets, proactive and reactive techniques designed to minimize or detract from the energy that disruptive situations add to the classroom (see Figure 1). Proactive techniques refer to skills used to gain and maintain mutual respect between teachers and students. Reactive techniques refer to skills used to deal with minor behavior disruptions once they've occurred in an effort to minimize the disruption and prevent it from escalating. Figure 1 demonstrates how knowing students is the first step to successfully using both proactive and reactive techniques.
Knowing each student will allow the teacher to anticipate how each will respond under certain circumstances, therefore creating a learning environment which limits potentially disruptive situations. For example, the teacher knows that Joe and Dave are unable to work together in a small group because they stay off-task. When forming small groups for independent work, the teacher can use this information to his advantage by not placing these two together in a group. This may prevent having to address their minor off-task behavior thus allowing the teacher to focus more on teaching. Knowledge of students also allows the teacher to make appropriate choices about the most effective de-escalation strategy once a minor disruption has occurred.
Each time a teacher addresses a disruptive situation, the goal should be to stop the disruption without interfering with learning. However, the reverse often occurs and in many cases the way a teacher approaches management problems actually serves to escalate the disruptions. De-escalation skills and strategies (both proactive and reactive techniques) allow teachers to effectively deal with minor disruptions and re-establish order by extinguishing the flames. Think of disruptions like grease fires. In many cases when a grease fire occurs, the first response is to spray it with water. While the intent is to put the fire out, water actually causes splatter that accelerates the fire rather than extinguishing it. The appropriate response would be to carefully place a lid on the pan which limits the oxygen to the fire. The de-escalation process acts much the same way as the lid--it minimizes the energy that fuels disruptions, which allows teachers to get back to teaching and promoting learning.
The proactive components of de-escalation consist of the ongoing process of establishing and maintaining a mutual respect with students (see Figure 1). Mutual respect has been shown to be an integral component of establishing and maintaining order (Henninger, 2006). Teachers can not get respect without giving it, nor can they give it without getting it back.
One way that teachers can actively help to demonstrate their respect for students is by personalizing their relationship with each student. Students perceive this as a gesture of respect and thus are more likely to believe that the teacher cares for him or her. This can be done by asking students questions about after school activities, family members, or likes and dislikes. Another way to establish respect is by finding out what is important in the lives of students. For example, one teacher suggested that she occasionally eats lunch with students in an attempt be a part of what they are talking about. When students know that the teacher respects them, they are more likely to cooperate with requests such as changing for class, arriving to class on time, and listening while you talk. These types of behaviors can be couched in terms of respect. For example, pull aside a student who talks during instruction, and point out that talking is disrespectful. Speaking to the student individually rather than in front of his/her peers shows respect for the student. If the student understands the level of respect, he/ she will most likely stop talking. Any genuine attempt to demonstrate respect toward students will go a long way toward establishing respect.
Another way to give and get respect is by taking the time to know and use students' names in and out of class. For example, a student teacher, Joni, took pains to learn students' names as quickly as possible. At a football game she encountered two students who often created disruptions in physical education. She addressed them by name and engaged them in conversation. The students were genuinely surprised that she knew their names and took the time to chat with them. With that small gesture Joni had demonstrated her respect for students and in turn received their respect. Subsequent interactions with these students in class were much more pleasant and less disruptive.
Reactive skills are required when, despite a proactive approach to behavior management, a teacher must address the inappropriate behavior of students (see Figure 1). When a student misbehaves, teachers often react in a confrontational manner which can increase the possibility that minor disruptions will escalate into major problems that negatively affect learning. When reacting to disruptions in a confrontational manner, teachers are in effect fanning the flames. Reactive skills that seem to be most effective are non-confrontational in nature. Non-confrontational skills include the use of soft imperatives, re-direction, patience, and humor and serve to put a lid on minor disruptions, thus limiting their effect on learning.
Soft imperatives are like invitations to misbehaving students to engage in more appropriate behavior. For example, when the student in the swimming lesson is sitting on the side of the pool unwilling to participate the teacher can mandate that he/ she participate. Unfortunately this tactic often pushes the student into a corner causing the student to retaliate and possibly escalate the situation. Instead, the teacher can invite the student to participate through the use of a soft imperative. This tactic can help de-escalate the situation by providing the student with an opportunity to make a better decision without confrontation. In addition to de-escalating disruptive situations, continual use of soft imperatives can help a teacher establish a climate of mutual respect where students learn to make responsible decisions about their participation, rather than feeling that all decisions are mandated by the teacher.
Using redirection provides a disruptive student with information about more appropriate behavior without embarrassing or calling attention to the student. For example, when two students on opposing teams begin to engage in a verbal confrontation, one option is to run over to them yelling adding emotion to the situation which will likely escalate the situation. A redirection strategy would be to calmly walk over to the students, explain to them that the rest of the class needs them to participate in the activity and then place them on the same team so that they must work together.
The use of patience will help teachers to minimize the emotion brought to many potentially disruptive situations. This can be difficult since a teacher's first instinct is to squash the misbehavior and bring back order to the class. Talk to students who are causing a disruption to better understand why they are acting out. Take the time to understand students' reasons for their behavior, and provide them with important information they may need to make better decisions. One technique for patient handling of a minor disruption is that of a broken record. By calmly repeating directions and consequences for not following them, the potential disruption will be minimized by placing the burden on the student. It then becomes their choice to behave appropriately, or live with the consequences. In many cases the first instinct of teachers is to command obedience, but being patient and realizing that students often don't hear the first time directions are given can help prevent the unnecessary escalation of minor problems.
Use a sense of humor to limit the disruption of many minor discipline issues. When approaching a student to discuss a potential behavior problem such as not dressing for class, options include: yelling at them, punishing them with exercise, or sending them out of the class. All of these options will cause more problems than they will solve by embarrassing students and sending them the wrong message about physical activity. An alternative would be to tell a joke or funny story about the stylish nature of their physical education uniform or by referring to the loaner uniform box as the "fashion closet." It would be inappropriate to make fun of a student but finding appropriate ways to make students laugh will de-escalate many minor disruptions. It is difficult to be angry or continue to disrupt class if a student is laughing at a joke.
There are no magic solutions or foolproof methods to deal with every classroom disruption. Different students will respond to different techniques. Nevertheless, Table 1 consists of seven suggestions to effectively deescalate minor disruptive situations. The list of techniques is not all inclusive, but represents a variety of simple and practical ways teachers can begin to gain and maintain control of minor disruptions in the classroom. Techniques are categorized as knowing students (K), being proactive (P), and using reactive skills (R). Regardless of how teachers choose to approach minor behavioral disruptions in class, they should always try to put a lid on them to limit their impact on the learning process.
This article has defined proactive and reactive techniques teachers can easily use to take back control in their classes to maximize learning and relieve stress that may ultimately lead to burnout. Once teachers have regained control of their classroom, they will be able to return to the important business of teaching.
Doyle, W. (1986). Classroom organization and management. In M. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching (3rd ed., pp. 392-431). New York: Macmillan.
Fink, J., & Siedentop, D. (1989). The development of routines, rules, and expectations at the start of the school year. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 8, 198-212.
Henninger, M. (2006). How veteran urban secondary physical education teachers facilitate the maintenance of order. Manuscript submitted for publication.
O'Sullivan, M., & Dyson, B. (1994). Rules, routines, and expectations of 11 high school physical education teachers. In M. O'Sullivan (Ed.), High school physical education teachers: Their world of work [Monograph]. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 13, 361-374.
Perron, J., & Downey, P. (1997). Management techniques used by high school physical education teachers. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 17, 72-84.
Rink, J. (2006). Teaching physical education for learning (5th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.
Rose, L., Gallup, A., & Elam, S. (1997). The 29th annual Phi Delta Kappa/ Gallup Poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 79(1), 41-56.
Siedentop, D. (1991). Developing teaching skills in physical education (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
Supaporn, S., Dodds, P., & Griffin, L. (2003). An ecological analysis of middle school misbehavior through student and teacher perspectives. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 22, 328-349.
Mary Henninger is an assistant professor at Illinois State University, and Margo Coleman is an associate professor also at Illinois State University.
Table 1. Suggestions for Putting a Lid on Minor Disruptions K, P Get to know something about each student that does not pertain to physical education, and thus establish a personal relationship with that student. P, R Talk to students, not at them. Talking connotes respect; telling evokes authority. R Provide students with opportunities or invite them to make good decisions and choices about behavior, rather than directly confronting their poor behavior. R Diffuse disruptive or tense situations with humor. A problem can't escalate if the student is laughing. P, R Use patience in dealing with students. Remember they are just young people who are at a difficult stage of development. R Sometimes it is better to just be quiet. Yelling at students serves to heighten the conflict. K Know the students well enough to anticipate their reactions to certain situations, which can avoid problems. P: Proactive Technique R: Reactive Technique K: Knowing Students…