Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Assuming the Best

Susan Notes:

Ohanian Comment: I post
this because now, more than ever, we do need to
assume the best of our students. We need to be
reminded to do this.

This article is from the September 2008
Educational Leadership.

by Rick Smith and Mary Lambert

Students want to learn both content and
appropriate behavior. And they can only do it in
a safe, structured classroom.

When Paul Kilkenny, a mentor teacher in East San
Jose, California, works with teachers, he
occasionally finds himself in the role of
cheerleader. He notes,

My teachers work with kids who are often in tough
situations, and the kids can bring that same
toughness into the classroom. When the teachers
find themselves focusing extensively on student
misbehavior, sometimes my job is simply to remind
them to continually assume the best about their

Assuming the best is essential for long-term
learning and positive connections to take place
in our classrooms. When it comes to classroom-
management, there are no exotic new consequences
that teachers can use to get students on task.
The most effective classroom management comes in
the form of strategies that prevent acting out
before it occurs. And those strategies arise
primarily from assuming that our students want to
be here, want to participate, and, specifically,
want to learn good behavior. When we internalize
and act from this assumption, our students behave
better and learn more.

The Invisible Contract
Whenever students walk into the classroom, assume
they hold an invisible contract in their hands,
which states, "Please teach me appropriate
behavior in a safe and structured environment."
The teacher also has a contract, which states, "I
will do my best to teach you appropriate behavior
in a safe and structured environment."

This approach can radically change our
perspective on student misbehavior. To
illustrate, in the beginning of the school year,
Mark decides to test his teacher, whom we will
call Mrs. Allgood. Mark looks at his invisible
contract and thinks, "This contract is important.
Let's see whether Mrs. Allgood is going to uphold
her end of it." So Mark breaks a small rule to
see what will happen. If Mrs. Allgood is harsh or
punitive to Mark for breaking the rule, he says
to himself, "This class isn't safe; she isn't
honoring the contract." However, if Mrs. Allgood
ignores Mark and he gets away with breaking the
rule or if she enforces it inconsistently, Mark
says to himself, "This class isn't structured;
she isn't honoring the contract."

Either way, Mark is not satisfied. So he thinks
to himself, "To communicate the importance of
this contract and give the teacher another
chance, I'll break a slightly larger rule." He
will continue to break larger and larger rules
until Mrs. Allgood comes through consistently
with both safety and structure. When she's
consistent over time, Mark says to himself, "Oh
good, she's honoring the contract. Now I can
relax and focus on learning."

The bottom line is that when students test us,
they want us to pass the test. They are on our
side rooting for us to come through with safety
and structure. When students act out, they are
really saying, "We don't have the impulse control
that you have. We are acting out so that you will
provide us with safety and structure—be soft yet
firm—so that we can learn the behavior we need to
learn to be happy and successful."

However, few students approach their teachers and
directly ask to be taught behavior in a safe and
structured environment. What, then, is the
justification for this assumption?

Our Internal Radios
Imagine that students have radio tuners in their
heads and are continually tuning in to a myriad
of radio stations that deal with what it means to
be a youth. These stations differ for students of
different ages and cultural settings, but they
all focus on fitting in, being cool, achieving
short-term gratification, and enjoying
consequence-free behavior. Often, many of our
students will narrate these radio noises out
loud, as though these signals express the truth
of who the students are. They will entertain such
ideas as "I don't care about learning," "My
friends' opinions of me matter more than my own
or my teachers' opinions," "Fitting in and
looking good matter more than being good," or
"Why bother to try?"

Now imagine that students have radio beacons in
their hearts. These beacons pour out the same
basic message over and over again:

We want to learn and participate. We want to be
positive. Please teach us appropriate behavior as
well as content. Please know that we often want
to narrate the noises in our heads, but we need
you to honor our hearts at the same time. Please
be compassionate, allowing us our wants as you
honor our needs.

When we internalize the assumption that students
want to learn and participate, we begin to see
that beneath their complaints about the lesson,
homework, or seating chart, students are saying
one thing: "Please care for us today." As we
honor this message, without belittling or
marginalizing the noises that students narrate,
we can get our message through the noise of their
heads into the receptive place in their hearts.
Our communication becomes clear and kind, and our
enthusiasm becomes contagious.

We teachers have the same radio tuners and
beacons as our students do. Regardless of what
our experience is when we come to school—whether
we are feeling ready, regretting lack of sleep,
or mulling over tensions at home—we can reach
through our own mental noise and our students'
noise and touch them heart to heart.

This will affect all our communications with
students, especially those that address
inappropriate behavior. This softening of our
communication enables us to be firm when
necessary, but in a way that invites cooperation
rather than arguments and protests. Our students'
behavior will begin to reflect these positive
assumptions. What shifts is the how—the manner in
which we communicate. Our students begin to feel
that we are on their side, even as we address the
what—their behavior. By holding our ground with
our own radio noises ("These kids don't care."
"They're just lazy." "Why bother?"), we can hold
our ground with student misbehavior in a way that
is both firm and soft, corrective and inviting.
In addition, as we exercise this "muscle of
positivity," we avoid the burnout so often
associated with teaching tough kids. We create a
self-fulfilling prophecy of appropriate and
engaging student participation.

Positive Strategies, Positive Results
The strategies that follow can improve our
interactions with students, create classrooms
that honor students' need for safety and
structure, and promote student learning.

Strategy 1: Use Volume, Tone, and Posture
When we assume that students want to learn
behavior, we can readily see that we are here to
teach behavior. This changes our interactions
with students. For example, Mrs. Allgood is
teaching a lesson; in the back of the classroom,
Mark is disturbing his neighbors by showing them
his new Sports Illustrated. He needs to stop. If
Mrs. Allgood assumes that she's only here to
teach content—to stay on task—she will go so
quickly through the discipline piece that Mark
will probably not understand, and so he will
continue to act out. Some teachers jokingly refer
to this as "drive-thru discipline."

On the other hand, if Mrs. Allgood assumes that
she is here to teach behavior, she will pause in
her lesson and address Mark's behavior. Her first
option is to walk up to him and quietly state her
request: "Please put that away and have a seat."
If that's not possible because of time or
furniture constraints, she will shift from
"content mode" to "behavior mode," facing Mark
squarely as she softens her voice and lowers her
tone. Knowing that Mark is committed to both
learning appropriate behavior and wanting to look
good in front of his friends, she won't publicly
humiliate him. Her shift in volume, tone, and
posture will firmly but softly communicate what
she expects of him, deescalating possible

By taking these extra moments to address Mark's
behavior, Mrs. Allgood will have more time to
focus on teaching content because Mark will most
likely get it the first time around. And if he
says something under his breath, she knows that
she can let him have the last word. It's his way
of saving face as he refocuses on learning

Strategy 2: Implement the Two-by-Ten Strategy
Raymond Wlodkowski1 did extensive observations
of student behavior, cataloguing student time in
and out of seat as well as the types, instances,
and severity of student disruptions. In
particular, he researched a strategy called "Two-
by-Ten." Here, teachers focus on their most
difficult student. For two minutes each day, 10
days in a row, teachers have a personal
conversation with the student about anything the
student is interested in, as long as the
conversation is G-rated. Wlodkowski found an 85-
percent improvement in that one student's
behavior. In addition, he found that the behavior
of all the other students in the class improved.

Martha Allen, an adjunct professor at Dominican
University's Teacher Credential Program in San
Rafael, California, asked her student teachers to
use the Two-by-Ten Strategy with their toughest
student. The results? Almost everyone reported a
marked improvement in the behavior and attitude
of their one targeted student, and often of the
whole class. Many teachers using the Two-by-Ten
Strategy for the first time have had a similar
corroborating experience: Their worst student
became an ally in the class when they forged a
strong personal connection with that student.

This can be counterintuitive. But the students
who seemingly deserve the most punitive
consequences we can muster are actually the ones
who most need a positive personal connection with
their teacher. When they act out, they are
letting us know that they are seeking a positive
connection with an adult authority figure and
that they need that connection first, before they
can focus on learning content.

The teachers whom Paul Kilkenny mentors in East
San Jose regularly use the Two-by-Ten Strategy
with their challenging students. "Not only does
it help with the toughest students," says Paul,
"but also it helps the teachers remember their
humanity as they attempt to survive and thrive in
the classroom."

Strategy 3: Break Things into Steps
Just as students often need complex math problems
broken down into small, digestible lessons, so
they need small, manageable steps when it comes
to learning behavior and classroom procedures.

For example, if Mark has a hard time putting his
art supplies away on time, instead of punishing
him Mrs. Allgood can meet with him, and together
they can practice putting the supplies away.
Instead of one step—"Put your things away"—the
teacher can guide the student through several
steps: "Pick up the scissors and place it in the
scissors tray; return the colored paper to the
stack in the back of the room; put your project
in your folder." By practicing each of the steps,
Mark has a better sense of what to do and is more
likely to succeed when Mrs. Allgood announces
clean-up time to the class.

Instead of throwing up our hands and saying,
"These kids don't care" or "These kids can't
succeed," we should assume they are committed to
success in both content and behavior. We can then
put our energy into breaking down the behaviors
we want to see into simple steps so that students
clearly understand what we expect of them.

Strategy 4: Use Behavior Rubrics
Rubrics work great for content—and equally great
for procedures and behavior. For example, if a
particular student is inappropriately loud, Mrs.
Allgood can provide the student with a 1–5 volume
rubric. A 1 would indicate a whisper, a 3 would
indicate a normal conversational tone, and a 5
would indicate a yell. The student can practice
all five numbers, and the teacher can then assign
different numbers to different school and social
situations: A 1 would be appropriate if the
student asked a classmate to borrow a pencil
while the rest of the class was engrossed in a
writing task; a 3 would be appropriate for
students conversing during group work; a 5 would
be appropriate on the playground. Rubrics work
well for many classroom behaviors, such as lining
up, settling down to learn, and getting ready for

Strategy 5: Use Visuals
Visuals also serve as great road maps for student
success. If, for example, students have
difficulty getting their textbooks and homework
on their desks when the bell rings at the
beginning of class, Mrs. Allgood can use visuals
like the ones on pages 18–19 to clarify exactly
what she expects. She can use a diagram, drawing,
or photograph of the surface of the desk, with
the textbook open to the proper page and the
homework on the upper left-hand corner of the
desk. At the start of class, using PowerPoint or
an overhead, she can flash the picture on the
board or screen in front of the room, giving the
students "17 seconds to be ready to start."
Visuals work well for such activities as setting
up labs, putting supplies away, and clarifying
the school dress code.

More Than a Smile
For many teachers, being positive means putting
on a smile, pretending to like a particular
student, or going through the motions of using
strategies purportedly designed to enhance the
classroom environment. In contradistinction, by
assuming the best about our students—particularly
in situations in which that assumption seems most
implausible—we exercise a muscle that is real and

Assuming the best is an underlying orientation
that enables us to treat both our students and
ourselves with respect and dignity. It helps us
understand that when students act out, they are
sending us a message that they want a positive
connection. Then we can start to see "discipline
moments" as opportunities for teaching an
essential piece that students want to learn.

Note: For examples of visual rubrics teachers can
use, view this presentation.

1 Wlodkowski, R. J. (1983). Motivational
opportunities for successful teaching [Leader's
Guide]. Phoenix, AZ: Universal Dimensions.

Rick Smith is the author of Conscious Classroom
Management: Unlocking the Secrets of Great
Teaching (Conscious Teaching Publications, 2004)
and founder of Conscious Teaching, 21 Crest Road,
Fairfax, CA 94930; 415-456-9190;
ricksmith2001@yahoo.com. Mary Lambert is a
Conflict Resolution and Communications
Facilitator in San Rafael, California;

— Rick Smith and Mary Lambert
Educational Leadership


This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.