“Seeking the Why” to Effectively, and Empathetically, Manage Classrooms

“If a child cannot swim, we teach them to swim. If a child cannot ride a bike, we teach them to ride a bike. Why is this not the same for a child needing help following expectations in the classroom?” This is Mr. Devon Jackson’s mindset that he brings into practice as the Dean of Students at Classical Charter School IV.

As educators, one of the most critical questions we ask and answer is “Why?” In the first days and weeks of school, we establish classroom expectations and routines. Embedded in our directions should be a clear rationale. When students know what we are asking of them and why we are asking it, we see better internalization of school rules and buy-in from our students and families. We also ask “Why?” when observing student behavior. It helps us identify the root of off-task or undesirable behaviors so that we can make informed decisions about how to proceed and seek support and solutions.

In the former example, we are leveraging “why” proactively within expectation setting. Mr. Jackson shares how he establishes norms in his classrooms using this technique. One of his personal pet peeves, which we likely all share, is when others speak as he is speaking. This communicates that what others are saying doesn’t matter and we cannot fully hear and learn from one another. Instead of simply naming the rule for students, especially in the lower grades, Mr. Jackson engages them by requesting that they speak to one another as he and other students are speaking. The result is a little bit of chaos and a “teachable moment” that we miss valuable information when we do not attend to the speaker, and we feel disrespected when others do this to us. As much as possible, it is encouraged for teachers to share or even model the rationale behind rules as they introduce them. When our students can see our rationale in practicality, they better understand the significance of the ask, and its place in fostering strong classroom culture.

Often adults become frustrated when expectations are not adhered to in their classroom. Their frustration is mostly misdirected. Mr. Jackson often poses the question to teachers he works with, “And what did you expect (the student) to do?” We must bear in mind that we are working with children, and children very often need reminders about our expectations of them. It is imperative that expectations are repeatedly taught, modeled, and practiced within the first six weeks of school and revisited (even for only a few minutes!) following each weekend, holiday, or at the frequency your classroom may need it. Frontloading expectations and giving frequent reminders helps us to proactively minimize disruption to the learning we have planned for the day.

There are other instances in which students demonstrate patterns of repeated behaviors that need adult attention. It is primarily the teacher’s responsibility to identify these patterns when they arise and persist, and to lean on their resources at school for support – team leaders, deans, instructional coaches, counselors, etc. While we do want to hold students to high expectations, it is our obligation to dig into the why for that child. We can ask questions like, “Why is this child failing?”; “Why are they consistently falling asleep in class?”; “Why aren’t they in uniform?”; “Why are they missing homework?” When we dig into these questions and speak both with the student and their family, we can better understand their circumstances, we can empathize, and work together to seek solutions. With these types of efforts, Mr. Jackson has seen uniform compliance at his school site improve by 12% and has helped families work through other obstacles such as improving their child’s sleep to ensure a more productive school day.

Recognizing the importance of digging deeper, Mr. Jackson urges teachers he works with to constantly seek the why behind expectations set and children’s responses to them. As adults, we must clearly and consistently communicate rationale for the children we work with and be cognizant of their behaviors and what might be occurring to cause them to go off course. We must refrain from feeling frustrated and imagine instead what might be frustrating for the child or holding them back from meeting our expectations. Taking this approach, proactively seeking the why, and partnering with students and families will enable us to create a more empathetic and, in turn, effective classroom management system and culture in our schools.



This post was contributed by Mr. Jackson, our Dean Of Students and Ms. Emanuele, former Kindergarten teacher/Grade team leader, Instructional Coach, and current Specials Project Manager). As a non-CMO charter network, we rely on the thoughts, opinions, and innovations of our staff to move our mission forward and provide an excellent academic option to families in the South Bronx. To hear more from our staff, check out the next post! Or, click here to learn more.


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