Is it worth “picking your battles” in the classroom?

“Choose your battles.” – It is something you have heard a thousand times, and have probably applied it in your classroom or on the playground. But is choosing your battles really worth it in the long run?

The short answer is NO! Absolutely not. But why?

When you set a boundary, like make sure you push your chair in whenever you get up from your desk to avoid tripping, etc., you have to stand by it. If you want it to ALWAYS happen, you have to ALWAYS enforce it. If you have a “no calling out on the carpet” rule, even if you have a child who has a behaviour plan and has an IEP goal to only call out 3 times per carpet time, you still have to address it when it happens. In my classroom, we spend all of September establishing these classroom rules, or boundaries, and we make sure they are solid.

One of my biggest pet peeves is lining up. I hate it when kids just slam their chairs in and run! So all of September we practice. We work on how to stand up all at once (I even have a palms up, pushing up towards the ceiling in front of my body signal for them) and push in our chairs. We try it once and if someone forgets to push in their chair, I address it, and we all sit down and try again. This works best if they are getting ready to go to something they LOVE like recess, gym, snack, etc. They are eager to get it right! Go over it a few times until they get it right. There is always a positive you can point out. “Addressing it” doesn’t necessarily mean saying, “Jimmy didn’t push in his chair and Amy was talking.” You can address the same problems by stating, “Erin pushed her chair in so nicely and Marc was so quiet as he did this!” Jimmy and Amy will (hopefully) recognize their mistakes and correct them the next time. Once they have successfully done that, let them line up. As you move through September, add in steps – silently push in chairs and stand behind them. Wait for the signal to go to the door and WALK quietly. Again, if there is a mistake, go right back to sitting and try again. It doesn’t take that long to perfect and they will love to show off their mad skills to other teachers, classes, principals, really anyone who will watch!

We practice walking down the hall quietly, getting our lunches out, how to leave the coat hook after recess, how to leave the chairs and desks at the end of the day – really anything!

But why do we not just pick our battles. If we are running late to start gym and someone didn’t get into line properly, why bother stopping to correct it? Why not just get to the gym so we can move on? I’ll tell you why. Routine, clear expectations, and boundaries. Children need these things. If most of they have to line up properly, but sometimes they don’t, they will never know when they have to do it properly, and when they can just do it however they wish. This will result in chaos. Children need clear expectations. They need to know that if they do X, the response will ALWAYS be Y. This way they know exactly what your expectations are and can behave accordingly.

If you want kids to put their hands up but then when they call out you accept their answers and don’t address the issue, they learn that it is okay to call out sometimes. They cannot necessarily establish a clear idea of when it is okay, but they know sometimes it will be okay so they sometimes do it. If it is NEVER okay, they don’t need to wonder what the expectations are.

But what if you want kids to be able to call out sometimes? You need a visual or verbal cue. I always had a special hat, or signal. I found a hat or prop was tricky because you don’t always have it. I would put an open palm up to my ear after I asked a question if it was okay to call it out. This is something we also practiced – kind of like Simon Says. You don’t have to make a negative statement when someone slips up, you can address it in a positive manner or joking manner, as long as you don’t belittle the expectation.

Children thrive when they know what is expected of them. If you mix it up and “choose your battles” with them, you will lose many of them. There will always be the students that amidst all of the chaos, will still wait quietly with their hand up because they know that is what you want, but if you don’t reward them by calling on them and pointing out to the others that you are calling on those students because of their positive behaviours, you will undoubtedly lose them all in the end.

Classroom management can be a struggle and it can take years to find something that works for you. But whatever your system, be consistent. If you only follow through sometimes, your students will be moving through your class blindly, never knowing when they will be “on” and when they won’t be. That feeling of uncertainty is overwhelming, especially for young ones. Set clear boundaries, teach them how to work within them, and uphold them. This is sure to set your class on a positive note!

And don’t forget, sometimes you need to modify! If your class can’t handle the stand up, push in your chair, wait quietly behind your desk until you get the signal, then modify it to suit your class. If they can only handle it without the pause at their desk, but do everything else flawlessly, cut that part out. And don’t hesitate to take some time to teach any other teachers that work with your class your classroom magic tricks. I will often even close my eyes and tell the other teacher that the “classroom fairy will move my class from their desks to the door without a peep – watch!” and do the signals and when I open my eyes, they are there. The young ones love this too!

Whatever you do, just be consistent and uphold the “law” all the time! It doesn’t help anyone when you are too lax with the rules.

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The Author

Lisa.Taylor

I am a teacher in the Upper Grand DSB. I have worked in classrooms from K-8 and have worked as a classroom teacher, planning teacher, teacher-librarian, resource/special education teacher, self-contained special education teacher, and this year I am starting a new role as Chief Negotiator and Staff Officer at the Upper Grand ETFO Office.

2 Comments

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  1. scott says:

    Nice post!

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