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Why is “never assume” my first rule of behavior management?

Date: May 23rd, 2013
By: Polly Bath

There I was, veteran teacher, well-traveled behavior consultant, and what did I do? I broke my own first rule of behavior management: Never Assume. As in: never assume students know what to do, or if they know, that they will do it!

This is how it happened.

I was starting at a new school, teaching middle school language arts with kids from 12–16 years old in each class. In that inner city school system, middle school kids line up outside the classroom door at the beginning of every period and file into class when the bell rings. I’d seen it done a million times in my old school. It was a nice way to get kids to enter the classroom in a calm and organized way. I liked it.

So there I am, first day of school back from vacation, kids lining up outside classrooms up and down the hall. It’s noisy, but, hey, it’s the first day of school and I’m thinking, well, this will calm down. I walk across the hall and introduce myself to a couple of my new colleagues—my neighbor to the left is a new teacher ready to change the world. My neighbor to the right is back from retirement due to finances, but I can tell she is glad to be here. The teacher dress code is casual: we’re looking pretty natty in pants, t-shirts, and sneakers. It’s a new year. I’m feeling pretty good.

The bell rings and I feel that familiar excitement. I turn around, ready to walk to my classroom door and lead my kids in.

And what do I see?

I see three of my kids in the air, leaping up like rockets to push in ceiling tiles, their shirts hanging out, pants halfway down their backsides, oversized sweatshirts billowing like parachutes. Another two of my kids are racing each other up and down the hallway, hooting and pushing each other. And half a dozen are laid flat out on the floor, fanning themselves and remarking, very colorfully I might add, about the fact that it’s already 90 degrees and it’s only 8 in the morning. A couple of smiling faces are looking right at me as if to say, “What’s your problem? We always behave like this!”

Well, this was a little embarrassing! What a way to start my first day in a new school.

My big mistake? I assumed my students knew how to, and would, line up single file, facing the door, composed, focused, calm. Because my kids last year did it, I assumed my kids this year would do it.

Wish that I could report that that was my last mistake. But no, I proceeded right into loud lecture mode, firing reprimands, questions, redirections:

“What are you doing?”
“Why are you acting like this?”
“Stand up!”
“Face front!”
“Is this going to take all day?”

And with each word I strained to be heard by these kids who treated me like I was interrupting them! If only I had not assumed, I would have been ready for this unruly bunch.

The next day I did what I should have done on the first day: I gave step-by-step directions on how to stand, how close to be to one another, where to look, and what an “indoor voice” is. I said, “We will practice this each morning before we go into our class until we’ve got it nailed.” I was calm, respectful, focused, relaxed, and clear. Better late than never.

It was a fresh reminder of the behavior mayhem that is there just waiting to happen in any school unless we think through our expectations and make sure we teach our students how to meet them. Some lessons, like the ones I taught my students in the hallway before class, have nothing to do with the curriculum, but everything to do with how the rest of the year will progress. When we don’t teach these skills, we experience the havoc I experienced—our students end up in trouble and we end up with a headache! (Not to mention a red face when it happens in front of our colleagues.) But when we do teach our kids the academic and social skills they need to succeed in our classrooms, we vastly reduce behaviors.

In my new workshop, “Top Ten Behavior Tips from the Trenches,” I spend a lot of time examining my first behavior tip, Never Assume. I give a lot of examples. It’s amazing how much calmer our classrooms can be when we teach our kids the skills that they need and that we expect them to use, instead of assuming they know them and will use them. You can take my word on it–I speak from the trenches!


Polly Bath’s articles are about real people and real situations. Changes are made sufficient to protect everyone’s privacy. A veteran educator, she is a behavior consultant, trainer, author, and keynote speaker in the United States. Read more information on Polly Bath’s in-school workshops, consultations, summer institutes, and keynotes. And contact us to make arrangements for her to come to your school.