What Is Responsible Behavior?
In 1994, I was teaching kindergarten and first grade part-time and managing student behavior with an assertive discipline model that included charts and rewards. It took a lot of time at the end of class to mark the chart and discuss the five or so rules that I had. The students were fairly well behaved, but I spent too much time talking about their behavior during class and at the end of class.
I became increasingly frustrated with some of the behaviors I observed. Why wouldn’t students share? I’d see arguments over whatever piece of equipment was perceived as the prize—for example, some students just had to have the blue ball, and a tug of war would break out. Why couldn’t they play ball together? Why couldn’t they just be happy they had equipment to play with?
Students love to be first, whether it is being the first to take a turn or the first in line to go back to class. What’s the big deal? Everyone will get a turn. Everyone will get back to the classroom at about the same time. The arguing, the running, and the pushing over the line order were wearing on my nerves.
During an individualized education program (IEP) discussion about my son Ryan, I expressed concern over his lack of friends. I was told by his second-grade special education teacher that he may never have friends. At the time he was not yet diagnosed with autism, and the comment came as a shock. She was right. Perhaps because of Ryan, perhaps because of a soft spot in my heart, any time I saw a student left out or rejected it would hurt. Why did they argue over who got to play with whom? Why couldn’t students be happy playing with any one of their classmates? Why were they hurtful with their comments?
Having worked in a school district that didn’t have much equipment, I quickly learned to appreciate any equipment I could lay my hands on. Like lots of teachers, sometimes I would pick up little things on sale and pay for them out of my own pocket. Once I bought some cheap foam paddles, and I was very excited to use them with balloons in class the next day. But it wasn’t long before the handles were cracking, and the foam had been picked at. Was this because the equipment was inexpensive, or because the students weren’t treating it with respect? If the paddle had been theirs, would they have picked at it?
And why must students find new, sometimes dangerous, uses for equipment?. A cone becomes a hat or megaphone instead of a marker. A poly spot becomes a Frisbee and a jump rope a helicopter propeller. We do want creative students, but we also want our equipment used the correct way so everyone is safe, and the equipment lasts.
Most students love to move, but there are always a few trying to find ways to get out of work. Certain students always seem to need to get a drink or use the bathroom during skill practice time. These same students have shoes that just can’t stay tied once they start jogging. Then there is the student who, while practicing throwing at a target, begins throwing at the student next to him. Wouldn’t it be great if students had an inner drive to do their best?
With these frustrations on my mind, I attended a workshop at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse that featured a session by educator Don Hellison on teaching responsible behavior. He identified a loose progression of five awareness levels or behavior levels that teachers and students can consider to be goals (Hellison 2003):
Level Zero, Irresponsibility. Students blame others and make excuses for their behavior choices.
Level I, Respect. Students can control their behavior and don’t interfere in other people’s right to learn or teach. They may not always participate or show effort.
Level II, Participation. Students show some respect, participate willingly, and practice under teacher’s supervision.
Level III, Self-Direction. Students show respect and participate on their own, starting to identify their needs in skill development and then making a plan to meet their needs.
Level IV, Caring. Students show respect, participate with self-direction, and cooperate with others by helping, supporting, and showing concern.
I felt that this type of approach offered a lot of promise, but I wasn’t sure how to integrate these levels in my own teaching. The levels were too wordy for primary students, and I struggled with explaining what self-direction was. I was tired of so many wordy rules. I tried to create a one-rule class environment—show respect—but something was still missing. So I tried modifying Hellison’s levels for the elementary students I was teaching in the following ways:
- I simplified the language a bit. I chose three words to represent the levels that I thought would be easy for kids this age to remember, and I focused the teaching of those levels on principles kids can understand, like safety and friendship.
- I used Arabic numerals rather than Roman.
- I combined Hellison’s levels II and III into one elementary level.
The modifications resulted in the following elementary levels of responsible behavior.
Level 0 Disrespect and Irresponsibility. Students are not at Level 1 Respect. (This level is not an emphasis of the model. The focus is on the three levels of positive behavior.)
Level 1 Respect: Students show RESPECT for all of the following, presented in an acrostic to aid memory:
- Rules—Be honest and follow the rules.
- Equipment—Take care of equipment and use it the proper way.
- Self—Be active and be safe.
- People—Be a friend.
- Every—No matter how they look, what abilities they have, what they own, how old they are, or if they are boys or girls.
- Child—Keep them safe; don’t go wild.
- Teacher—Listen and follow directions.
Level 2 Challenge. When learning or practicing skills, students think about form and try to meet the teacher’s challenge. If the challenge is too easy or is met, the students then should challenge themselves. The challenge should be safe, not interfere with others, and be met with practice, not luck. (This level combined Hellison’s level II participation and III self-direction.)
Level 3 Teamwork. When participating in activities, students help others to solve problems or meet challenges. They aspire to be Friendlies who share, take turns, are helpful, compromise, are polite, do not brag but congratulate, are friends to everyone, and make people feel good about themselves.
So when we talk in this book about responsible behavior, for the purposes of our teaching we’re thinking of it as helping our students exhibit respect, accept and meet challenges, and work with others in a team environment. The levels that represent these behaviors have become my structure for managing behavior and integrating character education into my Physical Education classes.
My pet peeves are now teachable moments. I don’t stress over these common gym behaviors. I now have the tools, common language, and resources to teach my students what good behavior choices look and feel like through the three modified elementary levels.
Read more from Teaching Children Responsible Behavior.