One of the most vexing dilemmas for teachers is finding the best way to respond to students who misbehave. Experts argue over whether the best classroom-management approach is a consistent, strict discipline or a more forgiving response where students discuss their grievances with an adult’s guidance, a process called restorative justice. For-profit software companies sell systems to encourage teachers to award points or stars for good behavior and deduct them for misbehavior, but critics complain that the constant monitoring can feel too controlling and public shaming can be discouraging. Who can blame new teachers for feeling confused and ill-prepared to manage classroom disruptions?
Education researchers have been studying ways to prevent behavior problems from erupting in the first place, much like the field of preventive medicine aims to help people live healthier lives to minimize incidence of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Generously doling out praise has proved to be somewhat effective in previous studies. In this column, I’m going to explain an idea that steals a page from marriage counseling: perspective taking. Its advocates advise teachers to put themselves in the shoes of their most perplexing, misbehaving students and simply imagine what they are thinking and feeling.
It might seem far-fetched that a simple, imaginative exercise inside the mind of the person who isn’t misbehaving – the teacher – would make any difference to the classroom atmosphere. But Johns Hopkins education professor Hunter Gehlbach found that students of teachers who were briefly trained in this thought experiment reported better relationships with their teachers and earned higher grades.
“We know, unequivocally, one of the best things that anyone can do for classroom management and for teachers to be effective at their jobs across a whole array of outcomes, is to improve teacher-student relationships,” said Gehlbach.
His theory, and hope, is that students’ need or desire to misbehave might be reduced if they feel a positive connection with the teacher at the front of the classroom.