Teacher education lacks lessons on positive behavior reinforcement

Research-based classroom management approaches are being included more in college programs for future teachers, but the strategy with the most research behind its efficacy is least likely to be taught.

The good news: Elementary teacher preparation programs are making progress on including training related to classroom management. About half of these programs now turn to classroom management strategies that are strongly rooted in research, according to a report from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). That’s an increase of 26% in the number of programs doing this, compared to when NCTQ first began measuring this area in 2013.

The not-so-good news: In the analysis of five specific evidence-based classroom management strategies that are considered universally effective (regardless of student age of the subject being taught), only about one-quarter of programs mandate practice and feedback on “reinforcing positive behavior,” which has the most research behind its efficacy.

The report, “2020 Teacher Prep Review: Clinical Practice and Classroom Management,” includes data on the training provided by more than 1,000 elementary teacher prep programs in how to manage a classroom, as well as in efforts to assert quality control in clinical practice experiences (e.g. student teaching and residencies).

Previously, the predominant approach to classroom management instruction for most programs was establishing classroom rules and planning great lessons, said NCTQ President Kate Walsh in a statement. The thinking was that such efforts prevent student misbehavior. But, she added, “as any teacher can attest, engaging classes alone are seldom enough.”

At least one state considered a leader in teacher preparation and evaluation of teacher candidates, Missouri, has opted not to include reinforcing positive behavior as a favor, notes the report. The omission of emphasis on student praise may be the result of concerns that it will reduce students’ self-motivation to learn. But research has shown that praise, when used well, improves student behavior and also increases self-motivation.

For example, a student who struggles to focus in class may feel destined to fail and stop trying to do well. With sincere praise from a teacher on sustained effort on a project, the student will feel capable of succeeding in school and that effort is worthwhile.

Research has also shown that when students are praised effusively for something they can already do or that represents less than best effort, they don’t get the benefits of the praise. Not using praise well can even result in students believing their teacher doesn’t think they are capable of improving.

What future educators need to know about classroom management

How to establish rules and routines that set expectations for behavior

How to maximize learning time by managing time, class materials, and the physical setup of the classroom, and by promoting student engagement

How to reinforce positive behavior by using specific, meaningful praise and other forms of positive reinforcement

How to redirect off-task behavior through unobtrusive means that do not interrupt instruction and that prevent and manage such behavior

How to address serious misbehavior with consistent, respectful and appropriate consequences

Source: National Institute for Excellence in Teaching

Effective praise, the report explains, is highly specific, focuses on the student’s actions, and targets a behavior the student is in the process of improving.

The NCTQ data also reveals issues in the selection of classroom mentor teachers. While more than two-thirds of elementary teacher prep programs make sure their elementary teacher candidates are observed frequently, only 3% require the classroom mentor teacher to be both effective with student learning and skilled in mentoring other adults.

But college programs face an obstacle in adopting more rigorous screening of mentor teachers: tradition. Programs traditionally defer to school districts in the selection of mentors, and schools typically allow any classroom teacher to volunteer for the mentor role. Until that practice stops, “many prospective teachers will continue to be deprived of the most valuable professional development opportunity of their careers,” said Tom Lasley, former dean of the School of Education and Health Sciences at the University of Dayton, in the report.

The report acknowledges the major impact COVID has had on what happens in schools, including on clinical practice and classroom management training for aspiring teachers. And the practice of essential classroom management strategies can’t be converted to a remote teaching environment. But because the basic principles of quality clinical practice and classroom management still stand, related training is critical to the success of aspiring teachers.

NCTQ has also studied top-scoring programs in clinical practice, including examples of how they select mentor teachers.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.

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