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A City Education: Improving Student Behavior by Thinking Without Boxes

Getting a fourth grader to behave takes some counterintuitive thinking.

In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

When I think of the word "challenge," a fourth grade student the City Year team at Normandie Elementary in Los Angeles has nicknamed Miss E comes to mind. Miss E delivers a brand of misbehavior none of us have ever seen. She once made a to-do list with one item: "disturb others." One corps member described our interactions with her like this: "Basically, she's Bugs Bunny and we’re all Elmer Fudd."

For four weeks of afterschool programming, we tried to reach Miss E with traditional disciplinary strategies—and we fell flat on our faces. When we reprimanded her, she simply smiled. Giving her warnings didn’t work. Talking to her grandmother produced few results.

The teacher I work with at Normandie has been around for a while. She's developed a tough love approach to discipline and her students know she can’t be crossed. As a result, her class is one of the most well-behaved in the entire school.

This teacher brings the experience from her years in the classroom to the table to create a stable environment for our students. Meanwhile, no one on my team has worked at a school for more than a few months.

So what do we bring as City Year corps members that can help Miss E?

The answer is a little counterintuitive: we bring our newness. Our role differs greatly from the role of a teacher. We're not in charge of entire classrooms; we're here to target individual students who are in danger of dropping out, and each of those students has completely different needs.

It's not that we think outside the box—it's that we barely have a box in the first place. Our idea of how school ought to be isn't firmly set. The fact that corps members have to apply between the ages of 17 to 24-years-old is no accident. Our ability to stay flexible in the face of challenges is central to City Year's power.

Were we discouraged by Miss E’s behavior? Definitely. But we realized that the point wasn't to copy the style of the classroom teacher, but to create a new plan for reaching her.

Thus began our positive reinforcement campaign. Negative feedback is easier to deliver—people tend to focus more on what's going wrong—but it puts students on the defensive. Positive feedback, on the other hand, encourages students to see themselves as role models.

These days, when Miss E comes to the afterschool program, we tell her that we're excited for her to finish her homework. When she defies rules, we tell her that she's going to do what she's supposed to do as if it's obvious that she'll follow along. Certain corps members also give her pet names like Lovely Lady and Sweetness. She responds to these names more happily than she responds to her real name; they make her feel special.

We can still count on Miss E to shake things up, but if nothing else, we've improved our relationship with her. Perhaps she doesn't always listen to us, but she no longer sees us as the enemy.

Plus, if her progress starts to reverse, we'll know what to do. If she can't adapt to us, we'll simply adapt to her.

Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

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