Behavior as Literacy


“Our first question about children should not be ‘How can we make them do what we want?’ but rather, ‘What do they require in order to flourish, and how can we provide these things?’” -  Alfie Kohn

I was recently asked to lead a workshop for a group of teaching artists on classroom management. While it has a been a while since I’ve had a regular teaching schedule, I did remember some really helpful strategies that I learned from an amazing theater educator.

Sean Layne is an actor, teaching artist, and founder of Focus 5 - a national arts education consulting company. Years ago, while working on a partnership program with the Kennedy Center, I was lucky enough to learn from Sean in a series of workshops he calls “Acting Right: Building a Cooperative, Collaborative, Creative Classroom Community Through Drama” (also now available as a book).

What I learned from Sean is that a great classroom environment is not one where kids are managed, but rather where productive behavior and collaborative skills are learned and fostered. In the same way that an actor or musician learns to contribute as important members of an ensemble, students must also learn that they offer a valuable set of skills and contributions to the classroom community. Here is a snapshot of some of the key aspects from Sean’s approach that I find most helpful in teaching Behavior Literacy:

Teaching is Not Managing:

  • We are often trying to manage something (behavior) that has never been taught. We don’t need to manage the classroom, but rather teach students to identify their own productive behaviors.

  • Traditional “Behavior Management” often means trying to suppress unwanted behaviors. Instead, let’s teach the behaviors that we want and help more positive interactions to surface with our students.

  • We need to assess students’ initial skill sets, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to guide and empower students to take ownership of and responsibility for their own learning and behavior.

 Student Directed Learning:

  • Learning is not passive - students learn better when they create their own understanding and have responsibility of thinking about their own behavior. 

  • Consider the multiple types of stimuli that can divert attention in the classroom. We need to help students (and partner teachers) become aware of distractions and triggers that cause certain behaviors to surface, and create strategies for coming back to calm, focus, and balance.

 Productive Classroom Vocabulary:

  • Often behavior we don’t want is a quest for power in front of peers or call for attention; labeling behavior as “bad” or “wrong” is often counterproductive – in many communities bad or wrong is perceived as strong; and teacher inadvertently empowers the student.

  • REMINDER: adjectives are used to describe CHOICES not the PERSON; E.g. not “Sam you are being weak for talking” – instead “Sam – it appears that you are making a weak choice.”

  • Change the vocabulary and directives to a positive – (e. g. Instead of “don’t do x, y, z” – show that you are in control of x, y, z.”)

    • “Your choices are strong or weak” instead of “Good or Bad”

    • “Show me you are in control of your voice.” instead of “Be quiet.”

    • “Is that energy helping or hurting our ensemble?” instead of “Calm down.”

To learn more about these and other classroom strategies by Sean, check out Focus 5, Inc.

Amy Kirkland