Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom

So you’ve set your expectations on that first day to a room full of students with new shoes and clothes, with faces shining as bright as Day-Glo. And maybe that first class went great! But–wait for it–the bloom will fade from the rose. Your students WILL do expressly what you ask them not to do. How will you react?


In writing how I create an encouraging classroom, there are 6 parts:

  1. Creating an Encouraging Classroom
  2. Fostering Respect and Encouragement in the Classroom: My Journey as a Public School Teacher (This includes how I began and formed my philosophy and practice of creating an encouraging classroom)
  3. Classroom Management: Motivation Without Treats?
  4. Rewards in Classrooms: To Give or Not to Give?
  5. Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom (You are currently reading this now.)
  6.  (Not yet completed) List of Encouraging Choices and Behaviors: Concrete Examples for Students

All the rest is groundwork–but in this article, we’re talking about when rubber meets the road. Theory and vision and philosophy are necessary–but it won’t matter in the end if you do not know how to follow-through.

First days usually do go well, at least in my experience. Last year, as in previous ones, I laid out my classroom expectations, and my students were reasonable; they got it. We talked about an example of encouraging classmates; a couple students acted out a poor way of handling a choice as well as a better way–to great degrees of hilarity. This lesson was memorable, and because I made the topic of their behavior a visual, with their peers acting it out, it made a more lasting impression than a list of roles on a wall. (I describe how this plays out in Creating an Encouraging Classroom.) The students laughed, nodding their heads in agreement with our classroom goals, eyes shining. They really jumped on board when they learned my method of motivation in their excitement to abolish the seating chart (as I describe in my post about motivating students).


                                                                 photo by Alexandra Landre via Flickr

You may be tempted to think laying out mutually beneficial classroom expectations is enough to appeal to your students’ reasoning ability, and that is really all that is needed for classroom management for the year. But then, next class or one down the road, someone makes a snide comment to another student. Or someone starts the eye-rolling or complaints, or remains seated when everyone else stands to sing. How you follow through on these very first episodes of negativity determines how often more of the kind will follow and also your success in building a positive classroom.

I once worked for a principal whose philosophy was to treat small things like big deals, so students get the message right away about what the standard is, and therefore usually not get to the point of doing the really big wrong things. There is some wisdom in that, and I’ve become convinced that the more subtle something is, the more dangerous it is. Snide comments and eye-rolling may not seem like a big deal to some teachers, but to me, it’s threatening the bedrock of the most important value for our classroom: valuing each other as equally important and worthy of respect. In Christian contexts, I use scripture to frame our classroom goal. A favorite is I Thessalonians 5:13: “Therefore, encourage and build each other up.” Brianna cannot encourage Keagan if she is dismissing his input or his presence with her body language or cutting words.

Because my goal is to get to the root of negative attitudes in order to build a roomful of students looking for ways to build each other up, the most subtle things are the things I am looking for. I find it typical for teachers to crack down on”big” disruptionss, but let a lot of subtle and/or quiet things go unchecked. The result? The rumbling undercurrents of negativity, ill-will and condescension thrive, leading to more and more big issues: bullying, stealing, fights, kids crying in the corners at recess.


                                                              photo by amandalyndorner via Flickr

So how do I handle it when a word or body posture conveys something negative– something than can tear down, rather than build up our classroom?


You must–and this was always the hardest part for me–immediately hold the student accountable. This requires two things: alertness and your own conviction of your authority of the classroom. For years I struggled with the kind of alertness to even be able to observe what my students were doing. I could easily get engrossed in what I was doing, and the few students tracking with me (enthusiasm for what you’re doing can have that effect), that many other students could be doing who-knows-what, and I’d not be the wiser. Needless to say, its hard to uphold any standard when you’re oblivious. It took me years of experience to become confident enough that I could keep eyes out for other things besides my lesson plan. And sometimes you’d rather be oblivious–because it can be intimidating to see/hear the blatant disregard. In some moments, I wished I hadn’t seen/heard it, because facing it was really challenging.

That is why the second part took even longer. You need to believe in your own authority, that it IS right and necessary for you to hold the students to the standard you have set. Especially when your class is new and you don’t yet have relationships with the students. I hated having to hold them accountable when I don’t have relationships yet. It’s just true that the more relationship you have with a student, the easier they will accept your discipline. But easier or no, you must handle those first tests in a way you want students to learn as the standard.

I remember  a clear moment when I got this just right. I was fairly new with a class of 10-13 year olds, and one boy made an insulting comment, a sarcastic remark directed at me and my lesson. This kind of disrespect was always the hardest for me to handle, somehow thinking that it was not as important to deal with, say, as compared to a child picking on another child. I think I sometimes even thought that I didn’t have the right or shouldn’t bother defending myself or holding a student accountable for treating me that way.

Blatant defiance, yes, I knew to pounce on that with care and precision. But the subtle, sarcastic, under-the-breath remarks? It was surely easier to pretend I just didn’t hear them. But this one day, I heard the comment, and I waited a beat. I locked eyes with the student and quietly but firmly asked him to rethink what he was doing/saying. Gone was the ego, the defensive anger flare I may have felt in earlier teaching years. Instead, I had the conviction that this was really important. his choice can tear down the enthusiasm of the girl beside him, because she wants him to think she’s cool. his remarks encourage no one. If it’s okay in my classroom to dismiss or ridicule anyone’s efforts, we’re already on a slippery slope. And allowing him to continue on his path is not building up his character either. If I truly care about my students, I want them to grow. And in Christian contexts, I want them to grow more Christlike.


I’m still working on the best general responses when I see a student making choices against the expectations. Even in reprimanding, I want to be encouraging to others in words and attitude. I prefer brevity, so disruption doesn’t take even more time away from instruction. Sometimes I simply say, “Is that encouraging?” or “How can you encourage your classmates right now as we ____?”

Depending on what is going on, I may get more specific and talk out of the hearing of others: “How can you make Jake feel more accepted/included in your team?” “You are impatient with Joe’s crying, so how could you  show him an example of not letting disappointment win, but instead trying again?” “You respond to others’ presentations by telling the presenter information you think they left out and what you know. How could you encourage them by asking questions and showing appreciation for what they know?”

I will admit I got in a habit of saying something I wish I hadn’t. “Do you want to sit with your best friend?” That was a reminder of the consequence–of what he could lose if he did not treat his classmates better. I started saying that because it seemed the shortest way for him to get the message. The student would immediately say, “Oh!” and straighten up. But that put the emphasis on what he’d get as a result of obeying me. I don’t want kids to focus on that; I want them instead to get in the habit of reflecting on how they impact others–not just pleasing me. So I switched to, “What different choice could you make right now to encourage the class to learn?” Or the short directive, “Encourage!”

If a student really doesn’t seem to know what to choose that would be better, sometimes I give examples/suggestions. If a student does know and simply doesn’t want to, then the root problem is altogether different and needs to be handled differently. Especially if there is emotional tension, I prefer to back off for a moment and give the student some space and time to determine his/her next choice.


If he/she is still unwilling to uphold the class expectations of behavior, then there are consequences that cannot wait until the next week’s results of reverting to an assigned seat. This looks different depending on many factors. (I dealt with this differently in each school I worked in, and now, as I lead classes for Classical conversations, I have an opportunity that is not typical.) I know I need to have a more private conversation with the student to try to get to the root issue of what is going on with him/her. And then, I also talk with the parent, if the parent has not already taken over. (In Classical Conversations, many parents are actually in the room as I conduct class, and if they are not, they are somewhere in the building.)

So then the best practice is to connect with the parent. In certain situations, immediately. But in general, that day. (Tip: make sure this is not your first interaction with this parent! A great thing I learned from Ron Clark’s book, The Essential 55, was his tip to go out of your way to have positive conversations with parents about their child. If you do ever have to approach them about issues, they are much more receptive than if the first thing they hear from you is a problem. If a parents know you see their child, and like and are interested in him/her, it is much easier for them to hear you about an incident.)

Most times I’ve dealt with issues, there was some underlying emotional or spiritual struggle going on, sometimes unrelated to the classroom event. Talking to the parent helped me immensely to understand how the student was wired. A great advantage to teaching homeschool kids is that I often feel like I am just one part in a relay race; I hand the problem over to the parent in some sense, and they take it to the finish line! But I do have to address and resolve it as far as necessary for my classroom.


                                                                 photo by brain-pixel, “Double Red”, via Flickr

When it comes down to it, it’s all about communicating. Even changing a child’s seating assignment will never be as effective as open, caring one-on-one comunication.

As for consequences for small interventions, such as multiple gentle reminders throughout the class, to the bigger issues as described above, my post on my motivational system explains the large-view of my method.

Fellow tutors and teachers, what are your struggles and successes in holding kids accountable?


Other resources for teaching/tutoring:
OiLs lesson #1: How I Talk to My Students About Drawing on Day 1 (Masters and Journeymen level)

Basics of Drawings: Fine Arts Week 1 for Classical Conversations (Masters and Journeymen level)



About Renee Lannan's blog

I live, write, teach and enjoy life from a place of hope and a belief in miracles from seeing first-hand the depths of redemption
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5 Responses to Holding Kids Accountable in an Encouraging Classroom

  1. Pingback: How I Talk to My Students about Drawing on Day One | Renee Lannan's blog

  2. Pingback: Basics of Drawing: Fine Arts, Week 1 for Classical Conversations | Renee Lannan's blog

  3. Elizabeth Blalack says:

    I’m in my 7th year tutoring (some Foundations, some Essentials, some both), and this is the first year I’m really finding that the appeal to their growing maturity is not motivating to some. I think its just this group of kids. I talked about gentler methods of motivation (honor, kindness, and excellence, our community theme) and then more “barbaric and insulting” ways to get their attention, particularly the use of things like whistles or consequences. I have not needed consequences for the past several years at all! But the boys unanimously indicated their preference for being treated as/reigned in as “barbarians”-literally. Basically, they don’t want to use their supposedly increasingly developing maturity and self-control, and want control to be exercised upon them. This is the first time I have had a class like this. They started on Day 1, with the very first word said to someone being unkind! I have had to send someone out of class each week, and not necessarily the same child.

    I like to keep a highly interactive class to keep everyone engaged, but these guys I think have maybe been used to/expected to just sit quietly and do things beneath their level (there is no reason they should get bored in Foundations!) I am so used to operating on positive principles, and these guys are just begging for rule of law. And I have a terrible time being attentive to the “little details” about behavior, like you mentioned. They did right away shape up on the issue of kindness when we talked about it, but the main issues are side chatter, excessive noise, and random acts of thoughtlessness (read: lack of self-control). I really want to bring them to the place of positive principle over rule-of-law. So far, it seems like we’ve been having “5 minute chats” at the very beginning of class each week. I know that takes away from class time, but I wonder if building that into each week might just be the ticket. To help them evaluate their own choices, and to include stories by example. Such as the blessing of a community that we, parents and students, create with an emphasis on pleasing God and building each other up. I have a son who went to public school for 7th grade, and he said the kids (boys) were absolutely terrible, and that because of that there were so many rules it was like a prison.

    I guess I am wondering if you have any further thoughts or ideas? I really enjoyed your art drawing lessons by the way. My class was REALLY challenged by them.

  4. Renee Lannan's blog says:

    Elizabeth, I too do the 5-minute chat at the beginning of most classes. It really has made all the difference for my classes. They needed the weekly examples to keep such thoughts at the forefront. I have had students where their modus operandi seemed to be insults and unkind words, whether on purpose of just thoughtlessness. That 5-minute chat to start the day, with examples, and saying our verse about the goal to encourage, is what worked for us. We never outgrew the need for this all year. And I’m ok with that–as long as it works. Parents who noticed the change in class atmosphere part-way through the year testified that it was working; nudge by nudge, the Holy Spirit was working with these kids, creating sensitivity that wasn’t there before–or not practiced/exercised as regularly. And I love those kids. They’re growing up, in Challenge classes and elsewhere, and I run into them at various places. What I’ve seen: mature young men and women. I was part of their lives for just a little bit, but seeing how they matured is really reassuring when I get a new batch of 9-11 year olds! I pray you seek God’s guidance on each step with your class. God bless your efforts!

    And i’m glad you enjoyed the art lessons. It was weird for me to know other tutors were doing them before I even tried them with my own class; I’m only on week 3! As i go, I’m going back and tweaking recommendations based on what I see from students.

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