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The Teacher/Student Game: Competitive Behavior Management

Randi Saulter and Don Crawford

The Teacher/Student Game: Competitive Behavior ManagementYou touch a flame. It burns you. You learn to stay away from fire.

You smile at someone. They smile back. You learn to be friendly. 

Almost all of human behavior is based on reaction to consequences.

Despite this inherent truth, the trend in education is veering away from using methods of reinforcement or punishment to improve effort, motivation, and behavior management of their students. This opinion indicates an inadequate understanding of the principles of behavior. Every interaction that we have involves reinforcement or punishment, whether the process is overt enough for us to be aware of or not.

Psychologists, scientists and education professionals have determined a “magic ratio” for behavior management in others - student and adult alike. By following a 3:1 positive to negative interaction ratio, you can ensure better behavior and long term success in the classroom.

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To make the most of these universal truths, I’d like to bring back the classic Teacher/Student game for the To Do Today!

Let the Game Begin

To set up the game prior to class starting, the adult draws a “score board” somewhere (anywhere: paper, white board, blackboard, etc.) so that it is both visible to the students and easily accessible, so the teacher can award points to the class or him/herself as frequently as needed.

At the beginning of the lesson, the teacher explains the Teacher/Student Game with students and reviews rules and expectations as part of how the game will work.

Students should be taught rules/expectations to mastery at the beginning of the school year. As the year goes on, the expectations are mentioned as a “reminder.” The initial set-up with the kids could go something like this:

  • “We’re going to play a game, me against you. I think I can win because I’m really smart and I win this game A LOT! Here is how it works: You get points for getting things right, and for following the rules which are (Replace with your expectations here.) everyone responding, everyone keeping their eyes on the lesson, and everyone waiting their turn to talk. But I get points whenever someone forgets the rules or makes a mistake. I bet I’m going to win. I’m really good at this game!”

Right away, as you are naming your expectations, the children will straighten up and pay careful attention. Immediately give their team a point, dispiritedly, saying something like:

  • “You guys have your eyes on me so well I have to give you a point. You’re already ahead! But I know you’re going to forget the rules and then I’ll win!”

Of course, the children immediately begin enjoying their lead in the game and begin feeling proud of their accomplishment. And if you are disappointed and ham it up a bit—the children begin to have fun, while they try even harder to beat you.

As soon as the lesson starts, give the students points for meeting all of your expectations—before they have a chance to forget. Give them points for answering correctly, keeping their eyes on the lesson, etc. and tell them what it is that they did to earn the points.

  • “Oh my! I’m going to have to give you another point because everyone is paying attention. Darn! You’re ahead, but I’m going to catch up soon!”

Give yourself a point energetically, obnoxiously and gleefully whenever, even one child, needs a question repeated, doesn’t have his/her eyes on the book, interrupts you, talks to a neighbor, etc. When you give yourself the point (Keep the score board VERY public!) tell the group:

  • “Yea! I get a point because someone talked out [or whatever the misdeed is]. I knew I was going to win!”

Be obnoxiously cheerful about getting a point. Make sure that you are so annoying that they really want to beat you! If you do this right, they will hate letting you have even one point and so will be motivated to monitor their own behavior closely and follow the rules carefully.

We have seen many teachers who were reluctant to give themselves points and who would ignore minor misbehaviors. We assume this was because they were afraid to discourage the children or they wanted the children to have more points and be enthused.   However, this is exactly the wrong way to play the game. Instead, the teacher should catch EVERY infraction and take EVERY point possible. This will enforce high standards and make the children adhere to excellent behavior. To keep the children encouraged and enthused you must be even more vigilant to “catch ‘em being good!”

Remind yourself that you want to increase the positive behaviors, so you have to notice them and give points for them. Catch the group being good at least three times as often as you have to give yourself a point. Focus hard to catch students answering correctly, demonstrating attending behavior, tracking in their books, looking at the teacher, answering quickly when called on, etc.  Positive comments must be brief, exciting, and clearly identify both the behavior and the student.

The rule is to keep the ratio of positives up—at least 3 times more responses to good behavior than infractions you catch. Catch every infraction, but then catch three times more instances of students doing the right thing. The less mature the group, the more frequently you are going to have to reinforce correct behavior—until they get into the groove. A teacher working to bring a primary age group under control might need to find 50 or 60 instances of students doing the right thing, and give them positive comments in a 30 minute period.

This is hard work, but it pays off, because student behavior will improve to the point that lessons will go smoothly.

Remember, you must “ham it up” and act discouraged when you give the group points and they continue to beat you. Adapt you explanations and comments to the age group with which you work.

***THIS IS NOT FOR YOUNG STUDENTS ONLY*** If you play up your competitive side and really appear to be “playing hard,” this “game” works with ALL age groups. You’re always going to lose the game — but you will be winning in your classroom.

What tips do you have for teacher/student games? Share in the comments section!

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