Classroom Management Systems (CMS)
A practical guide to classroom management and positive reinforcement in the classroom
‘Classroom Management’ is an umbrella term which encompasses many different aspects of teaching. Positive reinforcement reward systems are often simply referred to as classroom management systems (or ‘CMSs’).
First things first, how can I get their attention?
An incredibly powerful teaching tool, the almighty attention getting routine. It can help teachers to regularly get large groups of energetic children to be silent and listening within seconds of a simple gesture. It works because it is used in conjunction with the CMS as described below.
This is what it looks like in class once it has been set up:
Teacher anchors (stands in the front and centre of class)
Teacher raises one hand in the air and puts the index finger of the other hand over their lips (like when saying “shhhhhh”)
Teacher begins counting down from 5 and showing the countdown with fingers also
Teams race each other to be the first to have every team member copy the teacher
Once every student is silent and copying the gesture, teacher lets silence hang for a count of 3
Teacher then rewards everyone using the CMS in the usual way and gives extra praise to the fastest team
Once the students are used to the routine you can actually stop counting down verbally. This is because when a student sees you gesturing the routine, then they will quickly tell their partners to be quiet.
What is a CMS?
A CMS is a teaching tool used to promote desirable and productive behaviours through positive reinforcement. Many formats exist, but simply put, students work toward a goal by demonstrating certain behaviours in order to receive some kind of reward.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
The introduction of a desirable stimulus following a certain behaviour so as to reinforce that behaviour and make it more likely to reoccur. It is a training method widely used as it capitalises on good behaviours already being displayed.
Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement
Both methods aim to encourage certain behaviours, but they do so in different ways. Positive reinforcement adds a desirable stimulus while negative reinforcement removes an undesirable stimulus. Here are two examples:
Positive Reinforcement: A student is well-behaved during the whole class and is rewarded with a sticker
Negative Reinforcement: A student is well-behaved during the whole class and is given half as many questions to do as homework
Why not use punishment?
Behaviours are far easier to encourage than discourage and, learning accompanied by positive feelings and associations is more likely to be remembered. Reinforcement is simply more powerful and effective than punishment.
Why use a CMS?
We use CMSs because they work! When used correctly, they can dramatically change students’ behaviour over time. Benefits of CMS use include;
More consistently completed homework
Less stressful day (for teachers and students!)
Who do CMSs work with?
A CMS can be used effectively with any age and level in almost any teaching context.
How do CMSs work?
We use CMSs to provide opportunities to reward students for exhibiting behaviours that we want to promote in the classroom.
There are 3 key elements which are essential in enabling any CMS to work:
Positivity - Desirable behaviours must be rewarded often - punishment isn’t used
Appeal - Students must be engaged with the theme and motivated to get the reward
Clarity - Behaviours must be well-established, and ‘what’ and ‘why’ must be explicit to all, always!
How do I set up a CMS with a class?
First you need to decide which behaviours you want to promote or change in a given class - these are represented by 'rules' which can be seen as instructions for how students can win the game. Then choose an age-appropriate theme for the CMS which includes a ‘team badge’ and a ‘target’, and finally you need to establish what reward will be appealing to your specific group of students.
Here is an example:
Age: About 7 years old (grade 2)
Context: Monolingual government school with rows of desks
Number of students: 40 (or more)
Rules: listen, sit nicely, be nice, raise your hand
Theme: Race Cars CMS (see our ‘Downloads’ page for FREE materials)
Reward: A fun game for the last 5-minutes of class
End-of-class reward: Choosing which reward game to play
Each race car represents a different team (up to 4 teams) and the finish line is the target. The picture cards represent the rules (the behaviours you want to promote in class).
The aim for the class is to have all the badges reach the target by the end of the lesson. The aim for individual teams is to have their badge reach the finish line first. The teacher moves the badges toward the target when teams follow the rules. Whenever the CMS is referred to, the teacher ensures that all the students are aware of what is happening and why.
How do I use a CMS during class?
The CMS is established and reviewed at the beginning of every class and referred to often thereafter. This referral will include the following 3 or 5 steps:
The teacher gets the attention of the class and waits for silence (see below for how to do this effectively)
The teacher elicits from the class whether each team followed the (relevant) rules by referring to the picture cards - no need to check every rule every time
The teacher praises teams who followed the rules during the activity and then moves their badge closer toward the target. If the class agrees that a team did not follow the rules, continue on to the next step.
That team’s badge does not move and the teacher encourages those students to try their best moving forward, giving examples where necessary
The teacher monitors that team very closely during the next activity, and as soon as the team follows the rules they failed to follow previously, then the teacher congratulates and praises them and moves their badge toward the target - this is a key moment in the whole process as this is when change often begins to happen.
What do I do about undesirable (“bad”) behaviour?
If the behaviour is serious, then you will of course need to respond to is appropriately according to your school’s discipline, student behaviour, and student welfare policies, as well as the local culture’s customs. Otherwise, you just include steps 4 and 5 in the outline above and continue with the lesson. If after some time there is no improvement, see ‘What if it’s not working?” below.
Don't we need to tough on kids sometimes?
In most cases within our teaching context, not really.
There’s an excellent, brief description here with lots of references to supporting research about the effects of positive reinforcement as discussed above. See also 'Further reading' at the bottom of this page to learn more.
How often should it be referred to?
At least between every stage in the lesson, and additionally whenever there’s a good opportunity to reward desirable behaviours. Roughly speaking, this works out at around 4-5 times per hour of teaching. The aim is to refer to it regularly, but not to have it take up some class-time, but this will reduce over time as you and your learners get used to the routines, and the payoff is well worth it!
Is it easy?
It is easy! But we do tend to instinctively respond to undesirable behaviour negatively and with punishment, and so the challenge for teachers is to catch kids being good rather than catching them being 'bad'. This takes time and practice to get used to.
What can I do about large, noisy classes?
Use the Needle-Meter’ CMS to respond to energy or noise levels in the classroom, and tie it in with the final reward. For example, if the students are being noisy, then move the needle progressively closer to the red area, but if they aren’t, then move it progressively closer to the green area. If at the end of the lesson the needle is in the green area, then you'll play a fun game which the students can choose. If in the orange, then you'll play a game of your choosing. Finally, if in the red, you'll do a spelling test (or something similar). This makes use of both positive and negative reinforcement in a very clear and effective way. This CMS works well for a range of ages.
Keep instructions relevant to each specific class, don’t have a ‘be nice’ rule if they’re all angels. Instead, have something to push them academically, like ‘ask questions’ and reward them for doing so. Remember they must understand what the rules mean, for example ‘be nice’ can be vague to a young child, so give examples - teach them what the instructions really mean.
Here are some examples:
Respect each other
Doing something right away (like when a teacher asks students to tidy up)
Listen to everyone (this includes the teacher!)
Try your best
Don’t distract each other
Raise your hand
Help each other / teamwork
Speak English (or whatever language you’re teaching)
Give examples to extend answers
Aren’t afraid to say “I don’t know”
Aren’t afraid to ask questions
Aren’t afraid to make mistakes
Class contracts (for older students)
You can get the students to make their own badges if they stay in the same teams for several lessons, but using something generic means you can reuse them with different groups. Try involving the students in the choosing process, see what they like and go with that. Remember to make them colourful and laminate them because increased quality = increased value = increased effectiveness!
Zombies & a brain (from the popular game Plants vs. Zombies)
Pop stars & a microphone
Mice & cheese (better for very young ones)
Pirate ships & treasure
Rockets & the moon
Monkeys & a sticker-tree
A face with an open mouth – then you can add teeth on the laminated picture with a dry-wipe marker
Classdojo.com is an excellent option here, and is great for in-class lessons too! It also has lots of really useful features to support with classroom management, such as a countdown timer and a random nomination button.
Classcraft.com is great for young learners as it allows them to upgrade and customise their characters and can make so many parts of your lessons more engaging - you can even turn your lesson plans into quests!
There are 4 types of positive reinforcement rewards (also known as ‘reinforcers’). They are;
Natural reinforcers: These occur as a direct result of the behaviour (e.g. getting the highest grade for studying hard)
Token reinforcers: These are awarded for demonstrating the behaviours and can be exchanged for something (e.g. earning stars during class to exchange for a sticker)
Social reinforcers: These involve others expressing their approval (e.g. a teacher giving praise or high-5’s)
Tangible reinforcers: Physical rewards (e.g. stickers or candy)
Rewards are given only for behaviour that reflects the rules. They should NOT be given when students ask for them, when students win games, when the teacher feels sorry for them, or to 'bribe' students - doing so will only teach students that rewards are not contingent on their behaviour and will damage the effectiveness of the CMS.
It’s important to provide the stimulus as soon as possible following the behaviour as this creates a stronger connection between them. So consider the time-frame carefully when choosing rewards. Younger kids need something each day, but older kids can work toward something over longer periods of time; weeks, months or even entire semesters! Where possible, give the students some options and let them choose what they’d like to work towards. This will only make the CMS more appealing and ultimately, more effective. Here are some suggestions for rewards which can work with groups or individuals, or sometimes both:
Telling another adult how proud you are of a student within earshot of them
Music during activities
Certificates (cheap and very effective, and parents love them!)
Stickers - especially for younger students
Positive letters to parents
5 minute game at the end of class
A game at the end of class instead of a spelling test
Choosing a game
Posting work in a place of honour
Class dollars (they can buy something at the end of the semester, such as stationery items…)
Short parties (20-30 minutes) with music / games / snacks
Student chosen topics for projects
Pick a game for break-time
Sit with a friend / choose seats
Choose their CMS badge or theme
Pass on doing some homework
Be the teacher’s helper
Draw on the board
Though individual-based CMSs are possible (e.g. giving stars), they can be quite time consuming to administer and aren’t always as appealing or effective as group CMSs:
Whole-class CMS: These utilise shared-responsibility and encourage teamwork and inclusion.
Team-based CMS: These encourage participation because more often than not, students want to simply outperform their classmates. Additionally, students try not to let their peers down especially if might cause their team not to move toward the target. This can be enough to change a student’s behaviour.
How can the CMS be more exciting or engaging?
Adding new elements to the CMS can inject something more fun for older students, or for classes which have used CMSs for a long time and need something fresh.
Here are some additional elements which come with the Race Car CMS with suggestions for their use:
Spanners: These can be placed on the race cars of teams who, for example, don’t follow the instructions. The result could be that their race car cannot move for a certain amount of time
Spoilers & Boost Flames: Working inversely to the spanners, these can be placed on the race cars of teams who follow the instructions well and results in their race car moving twice as far
Medals: If teams have the same members on different days, then medals can be placed on the race cars of teams who reach the finish line first on a given day. Then at the end of the week, the team with the most medals can receive some other kind of reward (such as choosing the topic for a project lesson)
You can get as creative as you want with the CMS, as long as the students understand what's happening with it, and at all times!
How do I keep it engaging when it gets old?
Vary the reward or have certain rewards for specific behaviours
Introduce short-term rewards if you only have long-term rewards (and visa versa)
Vary when you refer to the CMS throughout the class (e.g. during activities)
Use a new CMS
Introduce progress checks (could even include league tables for entire terms)
Survey students to monitor engagement and interest
Common errors to watch out for
Forgetting the CMS: The CMS will lose effectiveness if it’s only referred to a couple of times throughout a lesson. Note it between each stage in your lesson plan to help you remember it!
Forgetting to 'catch kids being good' after they weren't rewarded: Students must have the chance to redeem themselves after some behavioural issue has been highlighted, otherwise they can easily give up trying. It’s important to do this as soon as possible
Punishing: It’s important that the CMS is considered by students to be a fun game that is part of every class. Using the CMS to punish results in students resenting it and ultimately stops it being effective.
Irrelevant rules: Regularly check if the rules are relevant to the class. If they always sit nicely, then there’s no point in having the ‘sit nicely’ instruction.
Not being strict enough and/or lacking consistency: A classic example of this is having ‘raise your hand’ as a rule, but then responding to students who simply shout out answers. Another example is having ‘listen’ as a rule, but then continuing to speak to the class while students are speaking to each other and not listening to you.
Being impatient: It can take time for behaviours to change, so it’s important to be consistent and committed - give the system time to work its magic. If you see no progress, consider the troubleshooting checklist below.
Rewarding the wrong things: Only reward for behaviour, never for winning games (keep scores separate), if they ask to be rewarded, if you feel sorry for them, nor to motivate them to perform a certain behaviour.
Being unclear: All students must be absolutely clear at all times about what’s happening with the CMS and why - make sure you have everyone’s attention before you refer to the CMS.
Mistaking boredom with bad behaviour: Bored students’ minds will wander and they will become distracted. Ensure they are engaged before assuming they’re ‘trouble’ students.
What if it isn't working?
If an individual student isn’t responding to the CMS, then try the following;
Observe to see what is currently reinforcing their negative behaviour (what’s the trigger?) and try to eliminate or redirect it (e.g. they may simply be trying to avoid doing class work, so you could introduce negative reinforcement to utilise that desire)
See what activities they seek out - can you make use of these in your activities?
Present them with some alternative reward choices and let them choose
Monitor the student and discuss progress with them (where possible). Make sure they understand that if the reinforcement isn’t effective, then another method may be needed (e.g. some form of punishment adhering to the school’s discipline policy)
If the CMS isn’t working with the whole class, consider the following (S.E.C.U.R.E.) checklist. Is the CMS...
…must be realistic/achievable
...students must want the rewards, and it must be visually appealing
...refer to it often and fairly so students can trust the system
…must be the same for all students, even the challenging kids
...reward or don’t reward - don’t punish with it or they’ll resent it
...everyone must understand what’s happening and why at all times
Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement by Aubrey C. Daniels (Amazon)
How to Raise Disciplined and Happy Children: Mastering the Power of Positive Reinforcement by Jerry Adams and Dan Adams (Amazon)
Naughty No More: Change Unwanted Behaviors Through Positive Reinforcement by Marilyn Krieger (Amazon)
Performance Management: Improving Quality and Productivity Through Positive Reinforcement by Aubrey C. Daniels and James E. Daniels (Amazon)
Why a Positive Approach to Behavior? A Research Summary on Three Eelements of PBIS by Billie Jo Rodriquez, Ph.D. & Randy Sprick, Ph.D. (www.safeandcivilschools.com)
Positive Reinforcement in Psychology by Courtney E. Ackerman, MSc. (positivepsychology.com)
Self-study task (for teachers)
To guide you through the process of setting up and implementing an effective CMS, I have put together this simple self-study task. When you're finished, remember to let your school or manager know you've done it!
Teacher workshop (for managers)
By the end of the session, participants will have had the opportunity to decide how best to respond to undesirable behaviours from young learners following input in the form of a webquest through lessonflows.com focusing on how to use classroom management systems and positive reinforcement to promote desirable behaviours. Download the lesson plan here.
Visit our downloads page for everything you need to implement an effective CMS immediately!