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How important is consistency in behavior management?

Jenny FultonApril 18, 2019

Teacher in front of his students

I know I told the students they would get a zero for turning in their work late, but Susie did such a great job! I doubt she slacked off, and I can tell she worked really hard on it. Maybe I’ll give her the zero, but give her 100 points in extra credit for the great quality of work!

Oh, and James is acting up again. I know his parents just got a divorce and things have been really hard for him at home. I don’t want to make things worse for him by getting him in trouble at school. Maybe instead of having him miss recess like my classroom management plan says I should, I’ll sit with him at lunch. After all, what he really needs is someone to talk to …

And the excuses go on — reason after reason for why it would be better to fudge the rules, practices, procedures, and consequences laid out in our classroom management plan. There are a number of circumstances when it’s tempting to make an exception. Should we?

Here are some other common reasons that compel us to stray from our plans:

  • We want to be a loving teacher and not a totalitarian dictator.
  • We have to respect varying personalities and circumstances, don’t we?
  • We want to be merciful and show kindness and forgiveness — to give the students one more chance to make the right decision.
  • We’re too tired to deal with that behavior right now.

The problem with these good intentions is that they aren’t actually effective — not in the long run, anyway. Instead of encouraging Susie to work hard to manage her time better and get her assignments turned in, we’ve shown her that she can get away with bending the rules and disregarding deadlines. Instead of showing James what it means to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions, we have shown him that … well, there are no consequences.

Regardless of the reason, one thing is certain: Being inconsistent with your behavioral expectations is harmful to students and your classroom environment.

What is consistency in behavior management?

Nearly every article on effective classroom management will mention consistency, and for good reason. Consistency in classroom and behavioral management relates to a steady, unchanging follow-through on the routines, policies, procedures, and consequences you have established. There is one set of expectations for all students (unless they have an IEP), one set of rewards or positive reinforcement when expectations are met, and one set of consequences for when they aren’t.

blackboard with Rules written on it
Photo credit: Andrei Shumskiy

Characteristics of consistency

For whatever reason, the allure of having a well-oiled classroom was not enough to persuade me to buckle down and stick to the rules I’d established. Instead, I needed to understand the characteristics of consistency and I needed to know that it’s one of the best ways to show my students that I love them.

1. It should be fair

Consistency is fair. It doesn’t play favorites or create resentment by singling out the students who are not subjected to the same consequences as everyone else. There is one system of rewards and consequences. If you act according to the established standard, you get the reward. If you don’t, you get the consequence.

2. It has to be respectful

When you do what you said you would do, you demonstrate a respect for the students and the work they are putting in to meet your expectations. They, in turn, have much more respect for you when you follow through instead of compromising your standards to appease them. They may not like you at the moment they’re facing the consequences of their actions, such as receiving a poor grade on a late assignment, but they will respect you.

3. It needs to be safe and steady

Unlike the movies that glorify the idea of bucking the system, what students actually want is a system with well-defined boundaries. In a big, ever-changing world, and especially with the unstable home lives of some of your students, consistent classroom boundaries provide a sense of security. Students like to know what they can expect. They want to know what the schedule is, what the procedures are, and how they are expected to behave.

Consistency also provides safety for you on an emotional level by grounding you morally and helping you make decisions more easily. Rather than blowing this way and that by every emotional reason when confronted with the dilemma of following through or bending the rules, you can rest easy knowing that you aren’t dishing out consequence because you don’t love the students or because you got angry with them. Instead, you’re doing so simply because that’s what happens when the students don’t meet the expectations you have established.

Teacher talking to a group of student seated
Photo credit: Google

What are the benefits of consistency?

1. Creates an engaging learning environment

When you’re consistent, the students quickly learn what to expect. Since this allows them to feel safe, they’re able to focus their energy on learning instead of worrying that they’ll step on a landmine.

2. Facilitates a positive classroom community

Consistency leaves no room for favoritism or discrimination. There is no danger of creating resentment from selective enforcement of the rules. In this kind of fair environment, students will tend to have a more favorable opinion of each other, and of you as well. Besides, if enforcing the policies becomes second nature for you, you’ll be less frustrated and have fewer moments where you resort to yelling or cajoling to get the class back under control.

3. Presents fewer behavioral problems

It’s an undeniable fact that students will test you (some more than others). They will push and push until they’ve figured out where the boundaries lie. As soon as they recognize the limits, they’ll settle in and redirect their energy to something more productive (like learning, perhaps!). If you’re consistent, your students will soon learn that they can trust you to enforce the expectations and to do what you say you’re going to do. This increases the amount of respect they have for you, which in turn also decreases the amount of behavioral problems that will manifest.

4. Promotes a more effective classroom management plan

No plan, no matter how great and well thought out, will work if you don’t implement and enforce it every day. If you’re frustrated because your classroom management plan doesn’t seem to be working, take a look at how consistent you are with it. If you need to, take some time to reteach the expectations and have the students practice them. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work the first time. Be patient and keep enforcing the rules. The more consistent you are with your procedures, the more effective they will be.

Create a positive environment in which students can grow

Consistency is not cruel or dictatorial. Instead, it’s fair and respectful for all students in your classroom. By being consistent, you’re creating a safe, positive environment in which they can learn and grow into the wonderful people you know they can become.For more tips on how to get your classroom under control, check out this article.

Photo credit: Google