Everything I learned about classroom management, I learned from my students. My first teaching job – in the days before free and reduced price lunch – was in a school where children came to school hungry. English was not spoken at home and programs to help students transition into an English-speaking world were in their infancy. Many students landed in special ed simply because they had too much stacked against them to succeed. I wish I could find each of the students I had in those first years and thank them personally for what they taught me about the importance of positive reinforcement in the classroom. Lessons learned by trial and error led me to embrace a philosophy of Catch Them Being Good and, eventually, I replaced classroom rules with a short list of statements for student and teacher alike:

         …mistakes are the best teachers.
         …everyone gets a turn.
         …your voice is your instrument. Take good care of it.
         …working together is the only way it works.
         …Mrs. Van gets cranky when she can’t hear!

That last one was a fair warning, and I told my students often that I loved them too much for them to ever met “Mrs. Van Grumpten!” During my 40 years in the in the classroom, I never met a student who was not good. I did meet many students who did not feel good about themselves. And I met a lot of students who didn’t know what “good” in the classroom looked or felt like. It was my responsibility to be sure students knew how to behave in ways that would allow us to arrive at that place where “working together is the only way it works.” Toward this end, my goal was to catch them being good so that I could identify that behavior immediately, and be sure the student knew what a brilliant thing he had just done. What follows is a way to use Catch Them Being Good in your classroom.

Keep a “Bravo” list where children can see it and add a child’s name as soon as you see a behavior that you want to reinforce. Identify the child and the behavior for all to hear. Or name the child and offer just enough clues to allow the class guess the behavior; this allows the child a few minutes to bask in the glow of success…perhaps he doesn’t even know what he did right! Make it clear to the class that this student made a really smart choice. Don’t feel compelled to always catch “Johnny B. Good” and “Suzy Sunshine” doing the right thing, but do let them know in private that you value what they routinely do to make the class successful. Initially I also had an “Oops” list where I used a 3-strikes approach; students who landed in time-out also had a follow-up teacher conference. But over time I no longer needed the “Oops” list. My students had been excellent teachers and I finally got it: they want to be good! Here are examples of good things to “catch” kids doing:

Showing that they know the expectations for entering the classroom by following your entrance routine—This implies that you have taught a routine in fun and playful ways so it is clear to all students what is expected. Reward the student who has had a hard time with this transition the instant you see her make even a small choice that respects expectations. Don’t wait for perfection; honor the steps along the way. There is no need to worry that other students, who did everything right, will feel slighted if you honor this student who only got it partly right. Part of “working together is the only way it works” is learning to support each as they discover how to contribute to the success of the whole class.

Choosing to partner with, or sit next to, a student who is not their best friend—Ask students to choose, as a partner for an activity, someone they haven’t worked/played with before. Give the kids a count-to-ten to accomplish the task and “Bravo” the students who succeed in an orderly way. If you look around and see that several kids did choose a good friend as a partner, simply say, “Oops, I see several people who choose a BFF. Let’s do it again and see if more of you can find someone new to work with today.” When the whole class can make wise partner choices quickly and quietly, “Bravo” them all! This is a great time to let the students practice cooperation. If you always choose seats or partners, they won’t learn to make the type of choices that promote working together.

Waiting for a conductor cue to play an instrument—If you have a student who needs to start playing the minute mallets are in his hand, stand near him so he will be less likely to make that choice. Then give a “bravo” for working together by waiting to be part of the ensemble experience.

Showing body awareness and control during movement—So many children really don’t know how to do this! If a movement game or activity starts to teeter on that edge between control and chaos, identify a few students who know how to control physical impulse and ask them to demonstrate how to do the game or movement while the others sit and watch (this could be something as simple as showing how to quickly step aside in order to NOT to bump into someone). Give these kids a “bravo” for modeling such a brilliant solution…but also keep an eye out for students who modify their behavior after the demonstration and be quick to “bravo” them as well.

Teaching others how to avoid a disruptive behavior—Often, as children play a music game that involves contact, some students just cannot resist the temptation to contact too hard. Choose one of the offenders (without stating why they were chosen) and ask the child to help you teach something to the class. Have a quick aside during which you tell the student to use too much force while playing the game with you. Demo the activity for the class as the child plays the game improperly and put on a great act of being caught off balance, or dealing with the unexpected physical force. You are going for an Oscar here…make an impression! Then ask the same child to play the game again with you correctly, and to explain to the class how it feels to use an appropriate amount of energy. If you have done your part in the act, you probably don’t need to ask students how it feels to be on the receiving end. “Bravo” students who make good choices when the game resumes, especially your student “teacher.”

After the class leaves, erase the “Bravo” list to start fresh for the next class. There is no need to accumulate points for good behavior, or offer rewards other than honest praise for making really great choices. Children are fully aware when you know they can do good things…and they rise to meet your positive expectations. The more frequently you “water the flowers and not the weeds” (thanks to Rudy Benton, amazing P.E. teacher, for those wise words), the more you will find that neither consequences for negative behavior, nor reward “goodies,” do as much to help students make wise choices as the internal motivation that comes from knowing what “good” feels like.