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A positive learning environment approach to middle school instruction.

Middle school teachers must be prepared to educate an increasingly diverse population of young adolescents (Manning, 1999/2000). Most of these students will respond positively to instruction, and will interact appropriately with both peers and adults. However, some students have persistent behavioral problems that, if unchecked, can intensify and become more complicated. It is critical to intervene early with these students; failure to do so puts the student at increased risk for conflicts with classmates, teachers, and family members (Asher & Coie, 1990; Patterson, Capaldi, & Bank, 1989; Webster-Stratton, 2000). That risk, in turn, is associated with academic problems. Indeed, mounting evidence indicates that a strong relationship exists between Student academic performance and classroom conduct (e.g., Cantwell & Baker, 1987; Delaney & Kaiser, 2001; Kaiser & Hester, 1997). Research also demonstrates that students who do not perform well in class often have an increased incidence of discipline problems (Nelson, Scott, & Polsgrove, 1999). Other classroom factors, such as improper curricular placement, negative management styles, and ineffective instruction, can exacerbate an already difficult situation (Kauffman, 2001). Given these circumstances, it follows that school personnel need to reconsider young adolescents' needs and create a learning environment that contributes to positive behavior as well as academic achievement.

In recent years, various researchers (e.g., Dodge, 1993; Kaiser & Hester, 1997) have underscored the critical role that early intervention plays in preventing behavior problems in schools. While few persons would argue against the idea of prevention, educators sometimes unwittingly hinder efforts to address student learning/behavior problems (e.g., by withholding specialized supports until a student fails) (Kauffman, 2001). Prevention/ intervention is neither simple nor easy, and it often requires collaboration among various school personnel. It is important to recognize that the concept of "early intervention" is independent of a student's chronological age or grade level. Successful preventive intervention hinges on establishing a learning environment that supports students' positive and adaptive behaviors, identifying students who require more individualized programs, and determining ways to better serve all students. In the following discussion, the authors examine some common behavior problems in middle schools and then explore research-based implications for establishing a positive and supportive learning environment. Finally, they discuss the emergent role that school personnel play in promoting positive academic and behavioral outcomes for all students.

Understanding Young Adolescents' Behaviors

The current education scene in the United States is marked by changing demographics, declining resources, and increasing pressure to produce positive student outcomes. Despite these challenges, many schools have reported improvements in student performance. Yet, we know that some students suffer disproportionally from the consequences of these forces--academically, emotionally/behaviorally, or both.

What responses do young adolescents demonstrate, and what might be the underlying reasons for misbehaviors that impede instruction and socialization? How can educators convince young adolescents to assume greater responsibility for their own behavior? Assuming that the burden of appropriate behavior is a shared responsibility, how can middle school educators best promote positive behavioral responses?

Charles (2002) listed several categories of student misbehavior: 1) goofing off, 2) class disruptions, 3) defiance of authority, and 4) aggression. While the most serious offenses (e.g., physical assaults) are more likely to make headlines, teachers most often deal with far less significant problems such as noncompliance, calling out, and inattention. Although these problems may seem to be relatively innocuous, they routinely interfere with instruction and challenge teachers to come up with strategies and techniques in response (Charles, 2002).

In examining Charles's four categories of behavior, the most misunderstood problem is what Charles (2002) called goofing off--students sit idly, they talk to friends, and/or they fail to complete their work. The reasons for such behavior are many and varied. For example, whole-group instruction often fails to account for diverse student abilities. This can result in frustration and lead some students to withdraw from, or actively avoid, instruction. In other cases, the curricular content may lack relevance to students; or, it may be at odds with students' cultural and linguistic backgrounds (Cartledge et al., 2002). These and other factors can set the stage for what appears to be goofing off behavior.

Creating a Positive Middle School Learning Environment

Media headlines appear to suggest that schools today are hotbeds of aggressive and violent behavior. In fact, statistics show that these incidents, fortunately, occur very infrequently, and that schools remain the safest place for middle school students. Nevertheless, school personnel have a responsibility to recognize the effects of lesser yet more predictable misbehaviors on learning, and to take deliberate action to create a positive school environment. There is a growing consensus that a positive and safe learning environment is one that emphasizes cooperation, collaboration, and peaceful existence, and is one that is free from threats of psychological or physical harm--that is, an environment that reflects caring and concern for all students (Manning, 2000).

The current significance being attached to the school environment stems from several sources. First, several middle school documents (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Jackson & Davis, 2000; Manning, 2000; National Middle School Association, 1995; Payne, Conroy, & Racine, 1998) underscore the benefits of a positive school environment on young adolescents' academic achievement and positive socialization. Second, a burgeoning amount of information on early adolescence suggests that 10- to 15-year-olds have a critical need for a positive atmosphere in which to socialize and learn (Manning & Bucher, 2001). Third, mounting recognition exists that schools must accept a larger responsibility to establish and strengthen positive interpersonal relationships between students and teachers, as well as among learners themselves (Kerr & Zigmond, 1986; Manning & Bucher, 2001).

Drawing upon the accumulated literature, we found evidence that effective learning environments usually:

* Recognize and accept the differences among young adolescents' physical, psychosocial, and cognitive development, and provide developmentally appropriate instruction

* Place value on gender, sexual orientation, cultural, and linguistic differences, and provide classroom organization and instructional approaches that account for these differences

* Provide curriculum that enhances young adolescents' acceptance of self and others, and that enables them to accept differences and similarities among people

* Provide instruction that ensures a high degree of academic engagement and success for all young adolescents

* Utilize management procedures that emphasize the idea that students constitute a community of learners, all of whom should accept (or be taught to accept) responsibility for their behavior

* Provide direct instruction to sub-groups or individual students who are unable or unwilling to comply with schedules and routines of instruction

* Recognize the importance of self-esteem and its influence on academic achievement, socialization, and overall personal development

* Encourage a sense of collaboration among students and educators

* Emphasize teamwork and trust, predicated on the principle that being fair to everyone means treating no two students exactly the same

* Recognize that each student brings diverse experiences to the classroom and possesses varied strengths and interests

* Help teachers teach more than academics so that students feel a commitment toward each other as well as a positive affiliation toward the school. (Manning & Bucher, 2001)

Table 1 summarizes strategies that teachers can use to prevent behavior problems among young adolescents.

Educators seeking to achieve positive educational outcomes face the challenge of making fundamental, systemic changes in schools. At the middle school level, education personnel must work to create environments that support young adolescents' social, academic, and emotional development and blunt the onset of behavior problems. Administrators and teachers can be made aware of the benefits associated with building-wide and classroom-level student supports and social interactions with parents, teachers, and peers. They also can recognize the importance of taking specific steps to rectify a problem situation (e.g., a focused intervention plan stemming from an assessment of behavior when so-called "universal supports" are not effective).

Specific Developmentally Appropriate Management Strategies

Creating school environments that are conducive to learning and positive behavior may require school personnel to redefine both the structure and culture of the school (e.g., Gable & Manning, 1996). In redefining the school environment to accentuate positive aspects of students' behavior, the focus shifts from dealing with inappropriate, unacceptable, or disruptive behavior to creating a setting that supports the learning and practice of more appropriate behavior. This is accomplished in various ways. Typically, educators reframe classroom and school rules/expectations for behaviors and directly teach all students specific expectations (Horner, 2000). Coupled with this strategy is the prolific use of positive affirmation (at least four times as many affirmations as there are acknowledgments of negative behaviors) with students adhering to these expectations (Lewis, Sugai, & Colvin, 1998). Some teachers have found it necessary to abandon longstanding practices (e.g., nagging or reprimanding students) (Shores et al., 1993), and instead directly engage students in interactions that support social/ communication skills (Kaiser & Hester, 1997).

A review of the literature indicates that in order to create the most appropriate learning environment and apply the most effective classroom management practices, middle school educators should consider young adolescents' developmental characteristics. Ample evidence indicates that the behavior of young adolescents is affected by changes in self-esteem, as seen in greater desire for increased socialization, peer approval, and general social interaction (Manning, 1999/2000). These and other developmental characteristics can have a powerful impact on young adolescents' behavior. For example, a low self-esteem stemming from academic failure or subsequent peer rejection might cause a student to bully others in an attempt to feel more powerful. A strong need for peer approval might motivate another student to disobey a teacher. Furthermore, a longstanding pattern of academic problems may lead some students to avoid (either passively or actively) tasks that they perceive to be irrelevant or too challenging. By understanding how overall development, along with specific contextual events, affect student behavior, teachers can better organize classes to promote opportunities for socialization and collaborative learning--both of which can benefit young adolescents, especially those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (Cartledge et al., 2002).

Effective middle school educators increase the predictability of daily routines. By providing clear schoolwide expectations and consistently acknowledging appropriate student behavior, teachers can eliminate a major obstacle to effective instruction--namely, the lack of stability and predictability over time. And, in establishing a stable teaching/learning environment, educators are able to make better use of limited instructional time, energy, and resources. In short, predictability in daily routines/expectations; consistency in implementation of intervention strategies; and proactive, systematic, and situational support of appropriate social/communication skills are fundamental to preventing student behavior problems (Colvin, Sugai, & Patching, 1993; Gable, Quinn, Rutherford, & Howell, 1998; Kerr & Nelson, 2002).

Most teachers recognize the importance of providing students with a structured classroom environment (e.g., Kerr & Nelson, 2002). Such a setting includes a clearly defined schedule, preparation for student transitions, delineation, and instruction in appropriate responses to adults and peers, along with regular opportunities for students to learn and practice positive social/ communication skills. Indeed, these classroom attributes are prerequisite to effective academic and nonacademic instruction (Kerr & Nelson, 2002; Reitz, 1994).

Effective middle school educators give clear instructions, demonstrate consistency, model behavioral expectations, and follow through on consequences. Research in classroom management demonstrates the value of offering precise instruction, spelling out the consequences for both compliance and non-compliance, and consistently implementing these procedures (e.g., Alberto & Troutman, 1999). The most successful teachers give simple, straightforward instructions so that students know exactly what is expected of them. Then, teachers follow through each and every time. Although teachers must recognize that different students have varying capacities to respond appropriately, failure to react in some way to inappropriate behavior gives the student tacit approval to repeat it. For example, if a student ignores a specific direction (such as, "Kevin, please pay attention to your own work"), the teacher might have to repeat the direction. If Kevin fails to respond to the direction the second time, the teacher might: 1) move into closer physical proximity, 2) verbally prompt him to comply with the direction, and 3) acknowledge the appropriate behavior of a classmate. If Kevin demonstrates the requested behavior, the teacher would praise his cooperation. While consistency and predictability are critical supports for all students, teacher expectations should reflect pupils' specific strengths and weaknesses. Teacher decisions regarding specific demands should be predicated on a careful review of all available information about the students. Educators can elicit positive behavior by encouraging students to participate actively in the rule-making process, to develop a rationale for specific rules/expectations, and to model behavior expectations for one another.

Effective middle school educators teach students appropriate replacement behaviors that serve the same function as the misbehavior. Absent more appropriate strategies, adults' attempts to address inappropriate student behavior sometimes are reactive and consist of some kind of punitive consequences (e.g., reprimands, time-outs, revoked privileges) (Conroy, Clark, Gable, & Fox, 1999). While these strategies temporarily may serve to suppress an inappropriate behavior (e.g., calling out), they fail to teach students more acceptable replacement behaviors (such as raising one's hand in order to be acknowledged). Accordingly, there is a high probability that the misbehavior will recur. Unless a student is taught alternative strategies to accomplish a particular outcome (e.g., gain attention)--one that works better than the inappropriate behavior--he or she will likely persist in behaving inappropriately. Classroom interventions will be effective only to the extent that they successfully compete with and triumph over "existing contingencies" that support inappropriate behavior (e.g., calling out gains more attention than correct answers) (e.g., Gable, Quinn, Rutherford, & Howell, 1998; Mace, Lalli, & Lalli, 1991). Therefore, the traditional distinction between academic and non-academic instruction may need to be blurred, so that school personnel will routinely teach both academic and non-academic behavior (Gable, Hendrickson, Tonelson, & Van Acker, in press).

Knowledge of students' academic and non-academic needs can be gained in various ways. For example, by observing students throughout the day, teachers can identify "early warning" signs of problems and determine how best to intervene proactively and instructionally before the little problems escalate and become major challenges. Such a proactive approach to instruction (or to non-academic issues) may be applied to a group of students or to an individual, depending on the behavior. For instance, some young adolescents may lack the necessary skills to negotiate a particular social interaction (e.g., initiate a positive verbal exchange with a classmate). To successfully address this problem, students must be directly and systematically taught the appropriate social skills (Reitz, 1994), usually through teacher modeling, role play/behavioral rehearsal, and individual interaction sessions in which the student learns specific communication skills for interacting with others (Kaiser & Hester, 1997).

In that there are a range of possible skills to be taught, selection of specific skills should depend on which behavior best fits the situation and is most likely to be reinforced not only in the classroom, but also beyond it. Another criterion relates to efficiency--how much effort must go into teaching/learning behavior "X" versus behavior "Y." The more manageable both students and teachers perceive the instructional process to be, the greater the likelihood of a successful outcome (Gable et al., in press). Some skills that educators see as important may have little or no significance for students at home or in the community. We must acknowledge that fact to the student, underscore the need to make choices according to the setting, and teach students different skills for different settings. Indeed, such discrimination skills are a critical part of the socialization process. We know that these goals exceed the scope of traditional instruction. Nevertheless, teachers often discover that students' behavior improves as they experience greater feelings of success and higher rates of positive peer- and teacher-student interactions (Shores et al., 1993).

Effective middle school educators affirm positive behavior. Social reinforcement can be a powerful way to teach more accept able behaviors. For example, specific praise can help facilitate everything from spelling and math skills to positive communication strategies and self-help skills (Alberto & Troutman, 1999). Despite its documented effectiveness, teacher use of social reinforcement to acknowledge appropriate behavior and promote specific skills is often at such low rates as to be essentially ineffective (Gable, Hendrickson, Young, Shores, & Stowitschek, 1983; Shores et al., 1993). It is also important to recognize that neither praise nor punishment alone teaches students new behaviors (Kerr & Nelson, 2002). A positive comment or verbal command may signal that a certain consequence will follow a specific student response. But in no way does it ensure that the student will engage in the behavior if she or he does not know it, or if he or she sees it as less reinforcing than another response. In other words, direct instruction of a particular behavior, coupled with multiple opportunities to engage in it, can encourage students to engage in appropriate behavior over time and across settings.

Effective middle school educators teach developmentally appropriate socialization skills. In addition to structuring a classroom environment that affords students positive support, middle school educators can provide experiences that improve young adolescents' socialization skills. Changes in social characteristics and situations that normally occur during early adolescence can have a profound impact on young adolescents. Middle school educators are finding it increasingly useful to teach developmentally appropriate socialization skills, even though such skills are not part of their traditional instructional responsibilities. Socialization skills can be taught informally through friendships and social interaction under various conditions (e.g., cooperative learning activities) or formally through direct, systematic instruction. Sometimes, young adolescents may wish to work alone, and should be given the opportunity to do so. At other times, educators should encourage students to interact in more socially oriented situations. To do so, a teacher might allow students to choose their learning groups, and they might encourage students' social interaction through participation in extracurricular activities.

A shift in young adolescents' allegiance from adults (especially, parents and teachers) to peers and friends is a natural part of early adolescence, a change that warrants educators' understanding and acceptance. This shift in allegiance, accompanied by various peer pressures, becomes a powerful influence on young adolescents' daily socialization. Young adolescents' quest for freedom and independence also should be addressed as part of socialization skills instruction. In responding to this desire for increased freedom and independence, educators can provide students with routine opportunities to engage in decision making that reinforces the understanding that with freedom comes responsibilities. Once we recognize that students differ with regard to their repertoire of age appropriate social skills, it becomes easier to establish group-individual instructional priorities. School personnel can provide various students with opportunities to behave responsibly in specific ways and to demonstrate their growing capacity for self-control and self-management in safe and psychologically secure settings (Manning, 2002). Students who are unable or unwilling to demonstrate appropriate socialization skills will need additional instruction. Various traditional classroom management strategies, including the use of punishment, may exacerbate an already difficult instructional situation. Rather than teaching a student specific skills, the use of punishment can negatively affect adult-student relationships, causing students to avoid future interactions and, in turn, diminish the number of opportunities for teachers to demonstrate and reinforce appropriate behaviors. Furthermore, the use of punishment as a disciplinary tool can trigger in students feelings of anger, defiance, or a desire for revenge.

Recently, we observed a 6th-grade teacher working deliberately to build a positive, learner-centered classroom that would demonstrate that students could be managed without threats or punishments. She faced an especially difficult task because her students had learned during their previous school experiences to equate school with adult coercion, manipulation, and control. In seeking to change student perspectives on schooling, the teacher worked daily to promote positive teacher-student and student-student collaboration, and to encourage students to make appropriate decisions about their learning. To ensure active engagement and high rates of student success, she took steps to align curricular content and instruction with the academic interests and needs of her class. Although by no means a simple undertaking, the teacher found that, over time, the benefits of redefining a positive classroom environment were well worth her efforts. In the weeks that followed, students' overall perspectives toward schooling improved, consonant with their progress in both academics and socialization skills (Manning, 2002).

Concluding Remarks

Middle school educators today must deal with an increasingly diverse population of young adolescents (Manning, 1999/2000). Addressing the myriad challenges associated with students' diverse academic and social skills needs can consume a tremendous amount of time and energy. Effective middle school educators strongly support routine proactive approaches to improve student deportment as well as promote positive interactions between young adolescents and teachers. Without dismissing the significance of outside factors, the real burden of prevention/intervention rests with school personnel. Fortunately, the accumulated evidence clearly demonstrates that quality, sustained instruction can overcome virtually all potentially negative influences on student performance (e.g., socioeconomic status) (Greenwood, 2002). Such instruction should occur at the classroom and schoolwide levels. However, system-wide intervention means changing the school, the classroom, and the daily instruction in ways that teach, reinforce, and otherwise strengthen appropriate student behavior (e.g., Lewis et al., 1998). System-wide supports require that teachers establish nurturing classroom environments conducive to positive student behavior and successful academic performance. To accomplish that goal, school personnel must integrate the social, behavioral, and academic aspects of group-individual instruction. In all, a successful school environment reflects clear expectations, high rates of student engagement and academic success, and teacher acknowledgment of appropriate behaviors, as well as direct systematic instruction of positive behavior to replace disruptive behavior.

The authors have argued that middle school educators can exercise a tremendous amount of control over the nature and quality of daily instruction. Although by no means a simple undertaking, we must strive to support and nurture appropriate student behaviors in ways that account for their diverse learning and behavioral characteristics. It is reassuring to know that teachers are finding new ways to approach and interact with young adolescents to create conditions that are conducive to positive outcomes for all students.

Table 1

Proactive Strategies for Supporting and Maintaining Positive Student Behavior


* Acknowledge and promote appropriate behavior throughout the day in all school settings (e.g., classes, advisory programs, and exploratories)

* Define behavioral expectations for appropriate school behavior

* Understand and plan for the effects of development on young adolescent behavior

* Teach students appropriate replacement skills for misbehavior so they have acceptable behaviors that serve the same function

* Affirm students' strengths, skills, and abilities--both academic and non-academic

* Acknowledge and support young adolescents' diversity of all types (e.g., developmental, cultural, gender, social class, and sexual orientation)


* Listen to young adolescents--their problems, concerns, and challenges

* Respond positively to student communication (e.g., respond to both verbal and non-verbal initiations)

* Use positive and nurturing affect (e.g., responsiveness, sensitivity) in interactions

* Teach positive social/communication skills so that students know positive, age-appropriate ways to interact

* Model appropriate social/communication strategies and build upon what the young adolescent says (e.g., expanding or seeking additional information)

* Teach developmentally appropriate conflict resolution skills for young adolescents acting angrily toward students and/or teachers

* Be consistent in implementing behavioral support strategies over time and in all settings, but take into account individual student strengths/weaknesses/differences


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Peggy Hester is Associate Professor and Robert A. Gable is Professor, Early Childhood, Speech Pathology, and Special Education, and M. Lee Manning is Professor, Department of Educational Curriculum and Instruction, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.
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Author:Manning, M. Lee
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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