One of my favorite schools lives in an old stone building in the heart of Brooklyn. Even on my first visit, I could feel the warmth in the hallways. I could also see that it was a very lively place. Some might even call it rowdy.
And as much as the teachers cared for their students, they also worried about class time. Some felt they were spending too much time just getting their students settled, and too much time waiting for students’ attention.
But I heard that there was one classroom where noise was never an issue. This room belonged to Mr. Daniels. I decided to visit Mr. Daniels’ class and try to figure out his secret.
As Mr. Daniels got started with his lecture, everyone was quiet. After a few minutes, you could hear some conversations starting up. But as soon as the talking started, he walked towards the white board. Suddenly, everyone was silent.
He went on with his lecture, and a few minutes later, the chatter started up again. Once more, Mr. Daniels walked toward that same section of whiteboard. And again, the students became silent.
This continued for most of the period. Every time off-task behavior started, Mr. Daniels just had to move in the direction of the whiteboard. And every time, the behavior stopped.
It almost seemed like magic. He didn’t waste a minute of class time on transitions or behavior management. So what was going on?
How Does a Stopwatch Reclaim Class Time?
After the period, I asked Mr. Daniels how he did it. I could see he had the quietest class in the building. But I couldn’t understand how he quieted his students so quickly.
Mr. Daniels revealed the trick his instructional coach had taught him, during his first year in the classroom. There was a timer mounted on his whiteboard. When students started talking, he started the timer. When they stopped, he paused it. At the end of the period, the class owed him whatever time was on the clock.
He has used this system for years, to great effect. Since seeing this in his classroom, I’ve introduced the practice to several of the teachers I coach.
Part of the reason this system works is because of its simplicity. It’s easy to implement, and it’s easy for students to understand. They know what’s expected and what’s out of bounds. And they always know where they stand.
1. It Works Because Psychology Says So
The psychology behind the stopwatch is known as behavior modification. (Also known as operant conditioning). It’s based on the research of B.F. Skinner. His famous Skinner Box measured how rewards and punishments could be used to ‘modify behavior.’
It’s common sense that we all seek rewards and try to avoid punishment. But Skinner’s research offers some interesting insights. For one, prior to Skinner schools focused on punishment. Skinner discovered that punishments could get students to stop undesired behavior.
But they were not very effective at getting students to do something positive. This is why punishing students for not doing their homework is so ineffective. If you want students to do something productive, rewards work better.
2. Reclaimed Class Time is a Consequence, Not a Punishment
According to Skinner, any negative experience was considered a punishment. But today, many educators are drawing a distinction between punishments and consequences.
The difference is that consequences connect naturally to the behavior. This is the idea behind Restorative Justice. If a student calls someone a name, it makes the other student feel bad. The offender has to sit down in a restorative circle and make nice. In other words, the consequence is to repair the harm that was done.
A punishment tends to be more extreme than the infraction. If you talk in class, you’ll get a detention. This can have negative side-effects, as students are more likely to resent the punishment. While it may feel rewarding in the short term, punishments can prevent students from internalizing good behavior.
The wall clock, when used artfully, creates a consequence. We’re only keeping children for the amount of time that they weren’t learning. The point isn’t to get revenge. The point is to make sure they get the full amount of class time.
3. It’s Instantaneous and Incremental
For a strategy to effectively change student behavior, the consequence needs to come quickly. With some behavior systems, students go through a whole system of warnings, calls to parents, and so on. It can be almost impossible to know when students will actually experience the consequences. But with the stopwatch method, teachers can make up for missed class time that same day, or at the latest by the end of the week.
Another benefit is the incremental consequences of the stopwatch. This means that consequences add up in tiny pieces.
Many teachers think about disruptions incrementally. But they react to them drastically. For example, throughout the period, students are making small comments, taking too long to follow directions, and so on. Each individual behavior is too small to address. But at some point, the teacher has “just had it.” And she assigns the the whole class a detention.
The problem is that students can’t change the behavior because they don’t really know which behavior caused the detention. Was it the first inappropriate comment? Or the student who eventually threw the pencil across the room?
With the timer, we add time little by little. Whenever we are waiting for the class’s attention, the timer is counting. It doesn’t matter if students are ignoring directions or laughing about the pencil.
In the end, all of these little moments add up. And as they are adding up, the class can see where they stand in real time. And they can choose to adjust their behavior at any point.
What Are the Risks?
When we seek to manage student behavior, there are often unintended consequences. By definition, punishments are meant to be unpleasant. So when we do need to punish students, we want to avoid harming our relationship with the student.
We also want to be sure that consequences are designed to teach students, not just control them. We need to help them develop good habits, so they exhibit self-control even when we aren’t watching.
The Stigma of Whole Class Consequences
It’s really hard to find any support for whole class consequences in educational research. It has almost become dogma in schools that one should never assign a consequence uniformly to an entire class.
There are some really good reasons for this. Students who were doing the right thing face discipline they don’t deserve. They may take out their frustration on the students who were most responsible for the misbehavior.
While this approach has problems, sometimes it is the only option. As a veteran teacher, I never had to rely on group consequences to manage my classroom. But early in my career, there were times when I felt like I had little choice.
In some classrooms, there are so many behavioral infractions that the teacher can’t keep track of who did what. In these cases, there may be some benefit to imposing group consequences.
When imposing group consequences, make sure it truly is a whole class issue. You can’t punish twenty students for the actions of three. If eighteen students out of twenty are off-task, it’s much more justifiable.
Don’t Trade Student Relationships for Class Time
While the stopwatch system can help us reclaim class time, it can also turn students off. Whenever we use a heavy-handed approach, it puts us at odds with our students. They want one thing, and we want another.
In reality, our teaching should be creating benefits for our students. When they act out, it’s because they don’t see that benefit.
To bring about long-term improvements to behavior, we need to make sure students understand why we are asking for their attention. When they listen, we need to honor their attention. Show them you appreciate the respect, and make sure your lesson is engaging. That way, they will give you their attention again tomorrow.
Four Tips to Reclaim the Most Class Time
If you’ve been struggling with classroom management, give the stopwatch approach a try. These tips that will ensure that the stopwatch works as well for you as it did for Mr. Daniels.
1. Choose Consequences that Matter
When teachers struggle with classroom management, it comes back to one issue. They don’t understand (or value) what their students want.
The key to any successful collaboration is understanding what our collaborator wants from the partnership. If we see our work in the classroom as a partnership, it becomes much easier to motivate our students.
As teachers, we must know what our students like and don’t like. When they meet our behavioral expectations, we give them something they want. When they don’t, we can withdraw privileges or impose consequences.
I often speak to teachers who say they’ve “tried everything and nothing works.” This just means they haven’t found what students value. Some common tactics involve candy, calls home, homework passes, and so on.
These sometimes work. But I find that time is universally valued. If you are able to extend class to make up for disruptions, that is a powerful incentive. But in some cases, teachers don’t have that option. In other cases, students may be so willful that they just ignore the clock.
Make sure you have a back up plan in case the clock fails. For example, “If we get past 20 minutes, x will happen.” The ‘x’ should be something you know students will not be happy with.
2. Be Clear About Expectations
The first time I introduced this strategy to a teacher, it bombed. The teacher had a tiny timer on his desk. Students couldn’t see how much time was on the clock.
Not only that, he kept talking over students until he felt it had gone too far. Then, he would start the timer, and leave it running even after students had quieted down. Soon students would be calling out “Nooo!,” “Stop the timer,” or “We’re being quiet!”
The whole point of the timer is that students know exactly where they stand. And the time we record should be time off-task. Recording off-task time after the fact just wastes more instructional time.
Make sure the clock is big enough for students to see. (Here’s one that should do the trick.) And do your best to start and stop the clock the instant the behavior changes.
3. Be Consistent
You may have a class that adjusts to the clock right away. But that isn’t the norm.
When you introduce the new system, some students will test you. “Is she really going to hold us to the time?” Others will be so accustomed to off-task behavior, they will need time to change their habits.
Expect to see changes after you first impose the consequences. So if you extend class time by five minutes on day one, you should see some improvements on day two. Maybe you’ll only need three additional minutes.
If you wait to collect a week’s worth of time on Friday, expect to start seeing changes by the following week.
Eventually, students will start reminding one another to stay on-task. This shows that the strategy has become part of your classroom culture.
4. Be a Benevolent Dictator
If you’re going to use behavior modification on your students, do your best to be a benevolent dictator. Students should know that you’re in charge. But they should also know that you care about them and want them to succeed.
One way to show this is by giving them the gift of free time. You’d be amazed at how much students will appreciate five minutes of free time in class. If you don’t feel like you can spare it, try giving them 15 minutes at the end of the week.
There are several benefits to building free time into class. For one, students appreciate the gift, and some will behave better for you, simply because you’ve given it to them.
This approach gives you an easy way to reclaim your class time. Rather than hunting them down during recess, or eating into another teacher’s class time, you can collect off-task time during the same period.
Free time in class also provides a loophole to the whole “group consequence” problem. It’s hard for anyone to say they’re being unfairly targeted when you “take away” class time that you’ve gifted.
I suggest that you build some free time into class, even if you think you can’t spare it. If you and your students are focused on using class time efficiently, you will get more out of the shorter class period anyway.
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