Is there a teaching strategy that works best?

TeachingWalk through any elementary school, and you might see wide variations in the styles of the teachers there. You'll probably find some that are more strict, some that are more friendly, and some that allow their students to call them by their first names! Some teaching styles work better for certain kids than others; students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder often work best in an environment with clear, consistent rules and expectations. Gifted students might prefer a more self-directed classroom. Since acting-out behaviours can have a major impact over the long term on kids' learning, it is important to consider whether one kind of classroom will be better than another for disruptive students, and teaching style is an important part of the equation. But what's the best way to define teaching style? A study in the new issue of School Psychology International has an interesting take on teacher's behaviour - researchers at Michigan State University classified teachers in the same way that psychologists talk about parenting styles. As we discussed in an earlier episode of the Family Anatomy Podcast, a considerable amount of research in psychology has focused on two dimensions of parenting: warmth and control. Parents who are high on control but low on warmth would be classified as "authoritarian," whereas those who are high on both control and warmth would be "democratic." Parents falling in the latter category tend to have high expectations for their children’s behaviour and maturity, and they expect their kids to comply with their rules. However, they're willing to discuss the rules with their children. When a child is punished for failing to comply, democratic parents explain why. The democratic parenting approach has been linked to a number of positive outcomes for kids, but what about a democratic teaching style?

Jean Baker and her colleagues wanted to know whether a democratic teaching style would be particularly helpful for kids who are disruptive in the classroom. They surveyed nearly 700 students between Grades 3 and 5 and their teachers on  behaviour, teacher warmth, and responsiveness, among other things. The findings indicated that, regardless of whether the students had problems with disruptive behaviour, a democratic teaching style had small but positive links to school satisfaction, feelings of academic competence, and classroom adjustment. The largest relationship was between democratic teaching and satisfaction - suggesting that even students with behaviour problems felt better in classrooms when they clearly understood the rules and expected the teacher to respond to their needs.

More research is needed to clarify the meaning of these results - in a correlational study like this one, we can't say definitively that teaching style led to an improvement in satisfaction or competence. Psychologists know that one person's attitude or perception can influence another's behaviour. Satisfied students might act in a way that influences teachers to be more willing to respond to their needs and and to have higher expectations for their behaviour. Even though the full implications of these results are currently unclear, a link between democratic teaching and school satisfaction might be a valuable finding, especially if it applies to kids with disruptive behaviour problems. Motivation is essential for students who have trouble managing their behaviour; a disruptive student who dislikes his classroom and his teacher is less likely to use strategies to improve his behaviour than someone who is more satisfied in these areas.

I'd be interested to hear from teachers - is there anything about your teaching style that you believe has been helpful in "turning things around" for disruptive kids?

You can read the School Psychology International study here.

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