Managing Classroom Behaviors and Learning is About the Quality of Relationships


We Learn From Our Mistakes Flickr Krissy.Venosdale

Quality classroom behavior management is a critical part of teaching. In a December 2013 report from the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) an article called “Training our Future Teachers”, written by Julie Greenburg, Hannah Putman and Kate Walsh investigates America’s traditional teacher preparation programs and the classroom management strategies they offer to teacher candidates. The article states that in a 2013 survey, teachers report classroom management as their “number one problem”.

Identifying Necessary Classroom Management Tools

NCTQ examined a sample of 122 teacher preparation programs. This exploration found that teacher education programs focus mainly on the content of syllabi and the planning of lessons instead of the intensive training required for effective classroom management. Most teacher preparation programs require candidates to take 10-15 courses prior to student teaching. The average coursework time spent on classroom management is less than half of a single course, and often not research based.

In a 2013 survey, teachers report classroom management as their number one problem.

The authors reviewed the considerable research and literature compiled over the last six decades, and isolated the five most important We Create Flickr Krissy.Venosdaleand effective classroom management strategies for teacher candidates:

  1. Rules: Establish and teach classroom rules to communicate expectations for behavior.
  2. Routines: Build structure and establish routines to guide students in a variety of situations.
  3. Praise: Reinforce positive behavior, using praise and other means of reward.
  4. Misbehavior: Consistently impose consequences for misbehavior.
  5. Engagement: Foster and maintain student engagement by teaching interesting lessons that include opportunities for active student participation.

These five rules help teachers establish a trusting and positive relationship with individual students. Establishing the rules and enforcing them consistently without negativity helps children refrain from escalating when they are given consequences for misbehaviors. Routines provide predictability that promotes safety. Praise and engagement help to facilitate quality relationships.

The report found that “rules,” routines” and “misbehavior” are addressed by only half of teacher preparation programs, and “praise,” a strategy that the psychological community recognizes as an extremely powerful teaching tool, is seldom addressed.

We Know Relationships Matter

The quality of the teacher student relationship is critical to learning.

We Are A Team Flickr Krissy.VenosdaleRecent discoveries in neuroscience provide compelling information regarding our knowledge of how the human brain develops and learns. These findings emphasize that the quality of relationships and accompanying interactions have the most influence on how a child develops competencies.

Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard has been working to help educators, parents and policy makers develop new policies based on these findings. Shonkoff states, “What we’ve learned from the human genome project is that the most important dimension of the environment that influences how children develop competencies is the quality of the relationships that they have with important people in their lives. So whether it’s a child learning some particular task, mastering some skill, or developing abilities to regulate their own emotions, all of that happens in the context of relationships.”

 The most important dimension of the environment that influences how children develop competencies is the quality of the relationships that they have with important people in their lives. 

Turning Research into Practice

As a licensed clinical social worker and school consultant who has worked with youth and families for over twenty years, I turn to Dr. Shonkoff’s work to inform my own work with children, parents and schools.

We Celebrate Each Other's Sucess Flickr Krissy.VenosdaleWe Respect Each Other Flickr Krissy.VenosdaleI have integrated Dr. Shonkoff’s research on brain development and the basic tenets of Howard Glasser’s methodology based on relationships and strengths into my work with families and schools. Glasser’s method provides teachers and parents with a set of strategies to focus on ‘what’s working’ instead of pouring valuable resources into fixing problems and trying to change negative behaviors.

Within an approach towards education and ‘classroom management’ based on relationships and strengths; each teacher-student interaction, reaction, and response is considered as much a part of the curriculum as the actual lessons. The quality of the interactions serves as the hidden curriculum throughout the course of the day.

The strategy of giving specific praise to students as they are in the process of demonstrating proficiency in specific skills, tasks or character, will create over time the neural pathways that lead to the habits that develop character strengths such as perseverance, critical thinking and social intelligence. Teachers are able to teach math concepts and reading skills, as well as character strengths through relentlessly focusing their energy on the hundreds of successes, big and small, that happen throughout a typical day.

We Try Our Best Flickr Krissy.VenosdaleWhen teachers notice and reflect back a child’s unique gifts in the moment, it provides the child with direct evidence that he or she is competent and has something to offer. School can be a place where children begin to shape their lives based on who they are and what they are able to contribute. From our own experience, we know that when competency meets passion we are at our best and most productive, and feel most connected to ourselves and the world we live in. When children are affirmed for being who they are, problems like bullying and school violence will become overshadowed by self-worth.

Although providing teachers with evidenced based classroom management strategies is a simple concept, it is not an easy one to implement. We tend to ‘manage’ classrooms as we were ‘managed’. We need to remember our own experiences as children in a classroom, and develop teacher education around what these memories and proven studies of the brain point to: Quality relationships with adults are the most powerful dimension influencing how children learn.

Flickr Photos courtesy of Krissy Venosdale and used under Creative Commons License


Sam HealySam Healy (LICSW) has been working with youth and families in Boston and Cambridge for over 20 years. Sam currently works in private practice in Melrose with individuals and families, as well as provides trainings and consultations on creating positive cultures in schools and other agencies working with children. Previously, as the Director of Corps Support & Education at City Year, he helped launch the City Year National Program. For ten years Sam was the Clinical Director at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston overseeing social work services in the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Roxbury, Dorchester, Charlestown, and South Boston. He was featured in the PBS special, Raising Cain: Exploring the Inner Lives of America’s Boys as for positively impacting the lives of boys in Chelsea, MA. For the last three years Sam has been the Sr. Director of Child & Family Services at the East End House in Cambridge, a multi-service agency where he managed early education classrooms, three after school programs, parenting workshops, elderly programming and other vital community services.

You can contact Sam at


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  1. I truly appreciate, how, in this article you make the science of learning make sense and match the passion of teaching with its importance of making relationships! I have been a teacher, in many realms, for the past 13 years. I have taken Sam’s training in Dr. Howard Glasser’s Nurtured Heart Approach and since then, have taken this method of behavior management to all my classes. Classes run smoothly, students feel appreciated, and it has helped to build strong relationships that have lasted beyond the classroom!

    A true testament to this approach is that it works in ALL groups, not just school classrooms. I taught in a Boston Public School, where I implemented Nurtured Heart, and it worked wonders there, but I also used the approach in teaching ballet, running theatre rehearsals, and even college classes! Currently, I require all my staff at North Shore Children’s Theatre to be trained and use Nurtured Heart in all areas of teaching and group work with children! Thanking and praising our kids, in turn, teaches them to appreciate themselves!

  2. Hi Sam,
    I felt your passion and this idea of acknowledging praise to build better relationships makes such sense. People often feel hinky about teaching their child “values.” I love your term “character strengths.”

    You are right about teaching programs. Most profs are retired or have been out of the classroom for some time. We need innovative strategies to target today’s kids, not what we did when I was in school. Clear rules, routines, and praise. So simple… Kids want to know what not to do, what to do, how to do it, and be told they are doing it. Let’s work together with teachers and make competency meets passion a reality!

  3. Excellent article! I find it to be true as both a professional school counselor and my memories of what it was like as a student several years ago. The most difficult student to deal with is an unmotivated one. What type of educator is able to motivate a student that doesn’t seem to want to do anything or cares very little about their future? It is a teacher they have a connection with that makes that student feel recognized, appreciated, and accountable. The only way that connection can be established is by fostering a genuine relationships with that student, which the article describes.

    And even thinking about when I went to school, I really don’t remember what was taught to me in 6th grade but I do have a vivid memory of my 6th grade teacher, Ms. L, who made me feel special everyday when I went to class. So, it is not necessarily the material the students will remember about school but rather how their teacher made them feel when they are in the classroom. The article does a wonderful job of highlighting the positive influence a teacher can having by building a quality relationship with each and everyone of their students.