Classroom Management: Teachers’ Affective Styles

09/01/2014
Social and Emotional Learning
Donald F. Perras

Nationally, schools are required to establish standards of appropriate behavior that promote a safe learning community. This assumes students are prepared to achieve, are receptive to authority, and are amenable to rules and consequences. Though prevalent in some locations, these traditional expectations are being altered by a greater proportion of students with challenging histories. Relying on conventional management procedures, like detentions and suspensions, has proven inadequate to reverse this trend. Consequently, classroom management continues to exert a persistent stressor on public school educators, many of whom lack adequate preparation in this fundamental skill.

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Pre-service training typically emphasizes instructional strategies to foster student achievement. While essential to teachers’ effectiveness, reliance on instructional expertise is insufficient to maintain a productive classroom. Of equal importance is teachers’ self-awareness to comprehend students’ complex personal, family, and social-cultural profiles. This “psychological dynamic” shapes teacher-student interactions that directly impact learning and group commitment to normative behavior.

A positive classroom environment is dependent on facilitating teachers’ understanding of their interpersonal relationship with students, especially regarding behavior management. Imposing school-wide behavioral standards is often negated by students’ excessive desire for self-expression and resistance to authority. This responsibility is laden with multiple factors, including teachers’ personal expectations for students’ learning potential and behavioral maturation. Lacking this insight contributes to a pattern of stressful interactions that expose teachers’ emotional sensitivity. To counteract this reality, teachers must identify their level of self-awareness associated with improving student conduct. A balance must be attained between students’ developmental needs and teachers’ personal gratification. Otherwise, professional competence will be compromised, which frequently produces burnout and chronic staff turnover.

All teachers have psychological needs that require daily satisfaction. Feeling a degree of “power” is essential to create a sense of control regarding student learning and behavior. Lacking power results in extreme disruptiveness, as students’ respect for authority is eroded. These classrooms are nearly impossible to manage unless teachers’ assertiveness is expressed. Instituting class rules is mandatory to define behavioral expectations that imply a level of control.

Another primary need is to feel “successful” with students. This implies both academic progress and social-behavioral development. Teachers become annoyed and defeated if students’ apathy and non-compliance interfere with this requirement.

Adolescents are especially adept at disrupting teachers’ need for success as academic standards intensify. This is a partial explanation for the challenges of educating high school students with chronic achievement problems. Teachers must adopt a long-term perspective to strengthen their determination and commitment. Setting realistic goals and employing motivational incentives generally maintains a sense of persistence to succeed.

All teachers also value a sense of “belonging” during their interaction with students. Establishing interpersonal attachments with students is paramount to attaining instructional outcomes and social-behavioral expectations. While teacher-student bonding is a natural aspect of most classes, at-risk students often misbehave to frustrate satisfaction of this need. Though difficult to confirm, students generally prefer respectful, emotionally receptive teachers who display enthusiasm, empathy and confidence during their encounters. Expressing these qualities, among others, increases teachers’ “attractiveness” to students, which ultimately motivates reciprocal interactions that produce greater behavioral compliance. These attributes are more significant than professional skills acquired during certification training, as evidenced by comparing student responses to the variety of teachers with whom they routinely engage. This is validated in secondary grades where students attend multiple classes taught by teachers with contrasting affective styles. The rate and severity of disruptive behavior, in particular, reflects students’ preferences for personality traits that compel orderliness and respect.

Mr. Bristol’s calculus students always relied on his empathetic nature to resolve classroom issues. A compassionate, resilient teacher, Mr. Bristol was especially skillful at defusing student-student disruptions. Using humor, subtle comments to redirect students to task, and an engaging instructional demeanor, Mr. Bristol balanced his personal talents with progressive teaching practices to achieve a harmonic relationship with students.

Teachers rely on varied personal reactions to the pressures of engaging students to learn and behave. An aggressive, dominant style reflects an obligation to control student conduct with punitive strategies. This style is predicated on a belief that predictable deterrents are necessary to punish transgressions. Excessive energy is invested in emotional confrontations, threats and removal from class to suppress misbehavior. Anger, facial frustration, physical tension, and elevated speech are indicators of an aggressive reaction. Problematic students scrutinize these tendencies to exhibit manipulative behavior, which creates a repetitive cycle of interactions that sabotage teachers’ positive intentions. Changing this cycle requires teachers to assess what disrupts their emotional nature during stressful situations. Since behavior management typically provokes non-verbal responses, learning to minimize these impulsive reactions will eventually neutralize students’ misbehavior.

Although popular in schools with chronic acting-out incidents, there is minimal objective data to indicate this style is effective because disruptive students typically become defiant to escape accountability. Additionally, teachers’ frustration steadily increases with each failure, further contaminating their proactive interactions with students. This style is not recommended unless student misbehavior is dangerous or self – destructive.

An inexperienced eighth grade language arts teacher relied on yelling, arguing with students in class, and writing office referrals to manage her fifth period class. Her reactive style of discipline expended considerable energy to gain control and instruct. Instruction was paused to reprimand disruptions, names written on the board as a warning and parents contacted seeking support. This mode of interaction was impossible to sustain for an entire school year, which eventually depleted her physical and psychological energy.

Other teachers project a passive style of engagement regarding student behavior. Directly opposite the aggressive approach, these teachers are intimidated by misbehavior because of issues with self-esteem and confidence. Avoiding conflict is their first priority. Instead, they depend on their instructional expertise to maintain order. Academically superior students perform in these classes in respect for excellent teaching. Students struggling with various learning issues, however, manipulate these teachers’ laissez faire demeanor by overt work avoidance and disrespectful conduct. Projecting an emotionally vulnerable personality fosters chaotic behavior that routinely becomes unmanageable. Administrative or designated personnel are required to maintain a semblance of decorum, particularly with adolescents.

Finally, a generally smaller cluster of teachers have mastered a composed, emotionally stable approach to nurturing appropriate behavior. Teachers’ empathy, trustworthiness, respect, and humor are hallmarks of this group. This proactive style implies an understanding that learning responsible behavior is dependent on completing different stages of growth, which cannot be altered. These teachers accept students’ striving to reach self-control as a function of their maturity. Classroom management promotes a sense of collaboration and ownership by teaching students responsible behavior that benefits everyone.

Individual self-gratification is replaced by group cohesion to maximize learning and achieve collective success. Setting behavioral standards, modeling peers’ performance, and rewarding class accomplishments reinforce self-regulation.

During his 12-year special education position at a rural middle school teaching math, Mr. Rodriquez was recognized as an exemplary teacher. Relying on his inherent sense of compassion and respect for students, Mr. Rodriquez expressed responsiveness to their neediness and immaturity. Daily student interactions were cordial, nurturing, and non-judgmental. Students felt comfortable and assured of Mr. Rodriquez’s unwavering dedication and accountability.

It is imperative teachers learn to identify the interaction of their unique personality traits and emotional needs related to managing student behavior. Career longevity is a function of understanding the interpersonal exchange with students to develop a behaviorally responsive classroom.

Donald F. Perras has been an educator since 1967. He specializes in programs to help educators deal with students who have serious emotional disturbance (SED) and related behavior disorders. For information visit www.donperras.com.
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