Caring Classrooms

Teachers who are ‘warm demanders’ get the most out of their students, according to an expert in managing children’s behavior

Classroom management has come a long way since the days of rulers and dunce caps. As George Scarlett writes in his introduction to the SAGE Encyclopedia for Classroom Management, the term today is less about discipline and much more about creating a holistic, caring environment that promotes learning.

Scarlett, a senior lecturer and deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, also edited the volume, which was released this past spring and contains a wide range of entries written by many of the field’s leading scholars and educators at colleges and universities across the U.S. Scarlett sat down with Tufts Now to talk about the view from the teacher’s desk.

How has the definition of ‘classroom management’ changed over the years?

It used to convey managing problem behaviors, and now it conveys all the ingredients that go into creating good learning environments. There was research in the ’50s and ’60s showing that teachers who were considered excellent didn’t differ so much from not-so-good teachers in their reactions to problem behavior. Rather, they differed in the ways they prevented problem behaviors from occurring in the first place. That shifted the focus onto prevention and onto creating these good learning environments.

Are there particular traits in teachers or principles of classroom management that have been shown to be more effective?

One of the common themes in current research and scholarly writings on classroom management is the theme of being positive. You see this over and over again—in discussions about the importance of reinforcing positive behaviors, creating lesson plans that are engaging and relevant and especially building relationships, not only between teachers and students, but also throughout school communities—what is called a “caring approach” for molding classrooms into just and caring communities.

How can a teacher accentuate the positive without being too lenient and being taken advantage of?

One of things that fascinates me about this subject is that what at first appear to be competing dualisms turn out, in the hands of good teachers, to be complementary dualisms. For example, there is a wonderful new concept called “warm demanders,” which refers to teachers who are very tough on kids and demand a lot—they say “sit down and be quiet”—but they also communicate care and warmth, which tells the students that the teacher being tough and demanding means the teacher is on their side. These complementary dualisms make for a wonderful teaching style.

Is this something teachers are born with or can they learn it?

I don’t think it’s a question of being born with it. One of the big issues in classroom management is the match—it’s not whether you are a good teacher or not, but whether you are well-matched to a particular group of children. If you are teaching a group of children from a certain ethnic background and you have grown up in that background yourself, you have a leg up in being able to relate well. But if that isn’t the case, if you are teaching a diverse group of children from different ethnic backgrounds than your own, there is plenty of support available to help you teach well. You just have to find the support and commit yourself to teaching to diversity in positive ways.

How do you assess the effects of classroom management on learning?

That’s a really interesting question because it’s a values question. Some classroom teachers and educators see classroom management as a moral endeavor, so they assess the classroom on the extent to which it becomes a just, caring, democratic community—to see if kids are talking to each other in civil ways and living up to the democratic ideal of being a good citizen. Others take a more traditional view of assessment and look at scores on tests and the amount of disruption that is going on in classrooms. But I think we should make use of all the many ways to assess, keeping in mind both the moral and academic goals that we have for educating children.

Are there more empirical studies that link classroom management to learning outcomes?

In the last 15 to 20 years, there has been a huge upsurge in empirical research having to do with classroom management, and the simple answer is yes. For example, in studies of a few urban schools where test scores had been quite low, the statewide test scores went up after the schools adopted a “caring approach,” in which older kids, as mentors, visited classrooms of younger children and in which other techniques were used to infuse the schools with a caring environment.

George Scarlett’s new encyclopedia on classroom management is designed to help educators and education students deal with many the complexities involved in effective teaching. Photo: Melody KoGeorge Scarlett’s new encyclopedia on classroom management is designed to help educators and education students deal with many the complexities involved in effective teaching. Photo: Melody Ko

Caring might at first seem independent of test scores, but it turns out it isn’t—at least not for certain schools. Other empirical findings have to do with the organization of space and time in the classroom—for example, how you arrange desks to encourage collaboration or minimize distractions. These kinds of classroom management considerations have been shown to be quite relevant to academic success.

How have ideas around cultural and ethnic diversity changed in classroom management?

Before the 1970s, the talk was of the need to assimilate children from different cultures into mainstream culture, the saddest example being Native Americans, whose youth were sometimes sent to boarding schools where their culture was nearly stamped out. That language has disappeared and has been replaced by a language of difference, which forces teachers to find the strengths that are there in all cultures and to reframe much of what was considered bad behavior. Consider the scenario of boys moving around the classroom making jokes. In some cultures, this is seen not as misbehaving, but as the way boys solve problems and relate to each other.

The teacher’s task is to validate the students’ cultural ways of learning and relating, but at the same time insist that students learn how to behave and act in the mainstream culture, so they know that in certain settings, you don’t get up and start cracking jokes. In short, the teacher’s task is to help certain students take on the difficult challenge of navigating between two cultures.

Has classroom management as a field gotten the recognition it deserves?

The paradox of the field is that many of the actual leaders don’t list classroom management as their field—they may list ‘culturally responsive schooling’ or ‘behavior management systems in special education,’ or something else, and that’s too bad. Furthermore, many colleges and universities, including Tufts, don’t offer a course labeled classroom management, so the many topics that make up classroom management are either discussed in courses with a different name or spread among several courses. That further works against classroom management being seen as a coherent field. This situation exists even though there are a great many textbooks on classroom management, with many being tied to a particular individual’s approach, another factor working against seeing the field as distinct. So the field still has a long way to go before it becomes solidly recognized.

What do you hope the encyclopedia will contribute to the field?

It’s a two-volume encyclopedia with 334 entries, and there will be an online version as well. I am working on a guidebook for college and university instructors around the country to help them use the encyclopedia as readings in the courses they will be teaching that relate to classroom management.

My hope is that the encyclopedia will help students embrace the complexity of the field and realize the many dilemmas involved in managing classrooms effectively. I think students can do that through an encyclopedia better than through a standard textbook. Just the sheer number of entries hits you between the eyes in a way that a list of chapters in a textbook does not. What I’m proud of is that all of the entries are accessible, clear and highly relevant. That, hopefully, will help students and educators in the field better deal with the complexity that is classroom management.

Michael Blanding is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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