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54 JULY 2003
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The classroom community model

Ambrose Panico

The author outlines the principles and components of the Classroom Community, a model that employs a shared responsibility approach to facilitating the development of self discipline and social responsibility.

In schooling for children labeled emotionally or behaviorally handicapped ... the often subtle and implicit mechanisms of control in regular education become explicit, clearly visible and widely supported as necessary. Too often, the dominant curriculum is not the traditional academic curriculum ... but about controlling the behaviors of the children – (Knitzer Steinberg, & Fleisch, 1990).

Obedience-driven discipline programs are easy to come by but like anything so easily obtained, they are of little value. No mater how scientific the method or how pedagogical the language, all behaviorally based discipline programs ultimately reduce themselves to the same common denominator: “If you do what I want, I'll give you. ." These programs attempt to establish a contingency powerful enough to induce the student to give up control and submit to the teacher’s will. But is our goal to have the young people entrusted into our care submit to our will? Do we believe that coerced obedience prepares them to accept roles of responsibility in a democratic society? The answer, unquestionably, is no. These techniques effectively rob our students of their right to learn to control themselves.

As a teacher, dean, principal, coach, mentor, and most of all, a father, I refuse to structure interactions and environments that stress control of behavior over teaching self-discipline. Rather, I believe our charge is to fashion environments that empower students to take control of their lives, to accept ultimate responsibility for their outcomes, and to understand that they influence the outcomes of their classmates. However, this is an especially challenging task for those working with students with emotional and behavior problems, as we do in the urban high school program I direct. These students have been told for years in subtle and not so subtle ways that school is not really for them. How can we help these young people reconnect to school, to their peers, and ultimately to mainstream society?

The Logic of a Classroom Community
The logical place for us to begin is in our classrooms. Our classrooms must be transformed into communities in which young people are shareholders and decision makers. When our once disenfranchised students are empowered to help conduct community (i.e., classroom) affairs, make community decisions, manage community discipline, and mediate community conflicts, they have far better reasons to put limits on their own behavior than obedience-based programs could ever provide. They behave not only because their teacher expects them to, but because their fellow community members expect them to. They know they are responsible for creating a school year full of learning and fun. Ultimately, students choose to exercise control instead of needing to be controlled. One teacher of EBD adolescents described it this way:

I never felt so relieved as when I was able to be honest with my kids and tell them that I really never did control everyone’s behavior. We have had important community meetings discussing the difference between influencing and controlling another person's behavior When I think about how much time I used to waste arguing over points and levels I have to laugh – it beats crying. My relationship with my kids is much healthier; more honest, and more productive.

The Principles of Empowerment
While the Classroom Community is a specific model supported by established methods and materials, these methods and materials may vary greatly as long as four basic Principles of Empowerment are established in the classroom. These principles are theoretical assumptions that are transformed into a program by their respective curriculum components.

Principle 1. Empowerment = Expectations

1. Model Component. When beginning a classroom community, students must understand the fundamental change that is being proposed. A teacher can introduce the Classroom Community Model by asking whether students would prefer to spend roughly 180 days (1080 hours) in a traditional classroom or in a Classroom Community. The teacher challenges them to step up to the plate and accept responsibility for what the year will bring, explaining that students will be included in decisions that directly affect them: what their community will be like, how instruction will be varied, what choices of projects will be provided, whether there will be a class pet, what kind of field trips they will take, how free time can be spent, and, of course, how to solve conflicts between community members and between the community and the school. Students are informed that as long as the community solves its problems constructively, the problem and the power can stay in the community, not in the principal’s office.

Of course, this sort of proactive discipline guided by students (rather than reactive discipline imposed by the teacher) is possible only when students have a solid foundation of skills and knowledge. Students must initially be trained in prerequisite skills for such responsibility and afforded opportunities to practice application of the model before it can be implemented. In our school, at the beginning of each school year, one period a day for the first four to five weeks of school is allocated to this initial instructional phase of teaching discipline as content. Although some might consider this an unthinkable time investment, the time savings in decreased discipline problems later in the year is far greater. By investing less than 20 hours of instructional time at the beginning of the year, the teacher has positioned his or her students to limit their own inappropriate behavior for the remainder of the year.

Principle 2. Empowerment = Commitment

2. The Foundation of Trust Component. A community cannot exist without commitment. Commitment is established in part by helping community members build and maintain meaningful relationships with one another. The Foundation of Trust Component is a series of experiential education and get-to-know-each-other activities designed to do just that:

3. Setting Goals Component. In a classroom community, commitment is also built by setting goals. Students are taught to set both individual and community goals in academic and behavioral areas, and to identify activities and behaviors likely to support goal attainment. I like to have students write their individual goals on two sets of index cards – one set for me to keep, and one for the student. These goals serve as behavioral benchmarks against which students can measure their behavior. Experience has taught me to always have the spare set handy so that when I feel a student’s maladaptive behavior warrants revisiting their goals, I will not be hamstrung when the student announces, predictably, that he or she has lost the goals. Because I care enough to keep a second set, I am in a far better position to facilitate the student’s self-evaluation of current behavior in relationship to his or her stated goals.

Setting community goals is another important part of building commitment. These usually take the form of internal group goals such as “Everyone will pass the constitution test," which might result in cooperative learning activities, carefully selected study partners, peer tutoring, or some form of extra commitment on the part of the teacher to lesson preparation.

4. Community Contracts Component. Students are actively involved in the writing of Classroom Community Contracts-agreements made between community members about what the community values, the basic rights and responsibilities of individuals, the rules required to support the values and rights established, and outcomes for adhering to or violating classroom community rules. In this component, the process is often more important than the product. The joint effort required to write a Community Contract helps students feel that they have ownership of it and makes them more likely to follow its rules when they understand how those rules support community values.

I like to write four to five contracts consisting of one value such as “the right to learn," three to five rules to operationalize the value, and an array of positive outcomes for contract adherence and negative outcomes for non-adherence. I avoid all-inclusive shopping lists of rules, as these often provide grist for the power struggle mill. Instead, I spend a lot of time discussing what rule adherence and rule violations will look like in the context of our Classroom Community, ultimately reaching an understanding that common sense will prevail. It is necessary, however, to maintain some teacher power, and to reserve the right and responsibility of making “final calls."

Principle 3. Empowerment = Knowledge
In order that they may participate in decision making, solution finding processes, students often need more information about classroom and conflict situations than teachers traditionally share with them. This information is necessary if students are to accept that fair is not always equal (Mendler, 1992), and develop a sense of social responsibility. In the case of individual discipline issues with a particular student, I often offer this student the opportunity to change behavior that is disruptive to the community before any further information is shared with community members. However, this option is offered to the student with the understanding that if he or she does not take control of the situation in a specified period of time, the matter will be placed on the agenda of a community meeting. This is not done to punish but to inform the community of a community situation and to ask for the community’s help.

5. Basic Needs and Human Motivation Component. In this component, students are taught about the basic physiological and psychological needs that drive human behavior. Students are helped to evaluate how they are meeting their needs and, where necessary, taught more socially acceptable methods of need gratification. While most physiological needs are addressed outside of the school building, the psychological needs to be connected, to be competent, to be self-controlled, to contribute, and to have fun are to a large degree addressed during the school day (Blankstein & DuFour, 1997). An understanding of the relationship between the basic psychological needs and the behaviors they engender empowers students to analyze their actions more effectively, and ultimately to change their behavior.

6. Predicting Outcomes Component. Understanding the cause-and-effect relationship is the first step toward being able to manage one’s behavior, predict outcomes, and eventually control them. In the classroom community, students are allowed and encouraged to make decisions and to accept their outcomes, positive and negative. Students who engage in this kind of self-evaluation over a period of time usually develop an internal locus of control. Individuals with an internal locus of control understand that they cause their own outcomes, and are in a position to benefit from their successes as well as their failures.

Principle 4. Empowerment = Skills
Too often we put our students in application level situations without ever teaching them the skills needed for success. Even when we do teach the skills necessary for success, we often do not provide the necessary skill practice before asking for successful application. For example, we must teach problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills before asking students to solve problems and mediate conflicts.

7. Communication Skills/Community Meeting Component. In a classroom community, before we ask our students to participate in regularly scheduled and as-needed community meetings, we first teach them some basic communication skills, including active listening, taking turns, using “I" messages, understanding and respecting individual perspectives, and finding solutions instead of fixing blame. Once these skills are taught and practiced, Classroom Community Meetings are held during which community members can actively engage in the process of handling community business and mediating community conflicts. One regularly scheduled weekly meeting is always held, which runs about 45 minutes; impromptu meetings are held as needed. All members of the community (teachers and students) recommend items for the community meeting agenda. Many teachers also like to start every day with a five- to ten-minute check-in meeting.

There are two basic Classroom Community Meeting formats:

1. The Community Business Format is used to make routine community decisions and to plan for community events. Steps are:

2. The Conflict Resolution/Problem Solving Format is used to address conflicts and problems between individuals and groups (see box) The community meeting provides a vehicle for students to test and practice communication, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. Most important, it provides an opportunity for students to be heard on issues they choose to speak about. More than any other component, these meetings initiate shared responsibility. Initially, you may generate most of the weekly meeting agenda items, but within a short period of time, you will have to squeeze your items between those generated by your students.

Classroom Community Meeting: Conflict Resolution Steps

1. Define the issue: Give each disputant an opportunity to tell the community what happened.

2. Look for areas of mutual interest. (What do you want/need? What is most important to you? What will happen if you don’t solve this?) If necessary, open the process up to the community at large. (What do you think these guys need to fix things? What interest do they have in common?)

3. Brainstorm options: Give each disputant the opportunity to offer possible solutions. (What could you do to fix things? What could the community do to help?) If necessary, open the process up to the Community at large. (How do they fix this? What are they missing?)

4. Select an option/solution, and evaluate its possible outcomes. (What are the outcomes for disputants? How does it square with Community Contracts? Are both parties” interests considered? Is it doable? Can we improve it? Should we role play it to test it out?) Have the disputants make the final selection.

5. Write and sign an agreement (optional).

8. Responsibility Plan Component. A responsibility plan is an individual plan written by a student when his or her irresponsible behavior is either significant in nature or frequency. The Responsibility Plan (1) asks the student to describe his or her behavior and identify the basic need motivating the behavior; (2) facilitates the student’s comparing the behavior with individual goals and the Community Contract; and (3) affirms that the student is responsible for his or her behavior and the effect that behavior may have on other community members. Most Responsibility Plans are written as part of individual teacher/student conferences. However, some plans are better written within the context of a community meeting, allowing the student’s classmates to offer solutions, provide support, acknowledge their role in reinforcing the student’s maladaptive behavior, and develop a plan to ignore the current behavior or support the student’s changing his or her behavior.

In a well-functioning classroom community, self- and peer-supportive evaluation can lead to the identification of values and the commitment to a life that supports those values. In such a community, in which members have been taught to find solutions instead of fixing blame, student to student behavior feedback is a potent behavior change tool. Students come to understand that what one community member chooses to do or not to do affects the rest of the community. As a result, they are willing to invest time helping every individual to be successful so that their community can be successful.

Class Meetings: Suggested Topics

Plan a field trip or holiday celebration

Write/evaluate Community Contracts

Plan a culminating activity for an instructional unit

Share/evaluate individual goals or decide on community goals

Develop alternative assignments/methods for learning the same curriculum

Discuss ways to support a community member in crisis

Develop a menu of free time activities

List the qualities of a good community member

Find solutions to conflicts between your Classroom Community and the School Community

Discuss ways your teacher can be a better teacher

In our school, in classrooms where all four principles of empowerment are embodied in the eight components of the curriculum, a truly remarkable change takes place. Less and less of students' time is spent bickering over points and level systems; more and more time is being invested in growing up and regaining control and reconnecting to not only their school experience, but their lives. Working with kids on this plane is so much more important and rewarding than controlling their behavior, it could energize you to teach another 20 years – it did for me.


Blankstein, A., & DuFour, R. (1997). Reaching today’s students: Building the community circle of caring. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service

Knitzer, J., Steinberg, Z., & Fleisch, B. (1990). At the schoolhouse door. New York: Bank Street college of Education.

Mendler, A. (1992). What do I do when... ? How to achieve Discipline with Dignity in the classrooms. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

This feature: Panico, A. (1997). The classroom community model. Reaching Today’s Youth. Vol. 2 No.1. pp 37-40

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