Expected Behavior: Filling the Gap of Student Understanding

June 9, 2023

Heidi Parker

Pop! Fizzzzz! Gulp, gulp, gulp. First period had just begun, and I was introducing a new unit on non-fictional text to my reading intervention class. A student sitting up front of the class pulled a Coke can from her backpack, opened it drawing all eyes with the fizzling of the carbonated drink, and proceeded to gulp it down. I would have normally been in shock at such outlandish behavior, but I just added it to my mental note of the strange happenings after returning to in-person teaching following the COVID lockdown.

I had become acutely aware of a shift in student behavior following our return. My teacher buddies also noticed the same shift in their classrooms. The students truly were struggling to successfully transition back to the classroom from being at home, and behaviors we had not previously had to address were affecting the learning environment. Those incredibly important years in upper elementary school preparing for the transition to middle school had been spent in bed in PJs in a Google Meet or Zoom. They had missed out on major steps in their development which prepares them for middle school and carries over into high school. What was sitting in my classroom were 6th and 7th graders who still behaved like 3rd and 4th graders. What had been expected behavior while sitting at home on pandemic lockdown was unexpected behavior in my classroom. Turning off your camera for a break, texting a friend during a lesson, waking up and rolling over to attend class, putting the mute on and talking to a sibling, eating anytime,  not having basic school supplies, and being able to not talk to the teacher or other students, and even opening a soda can…they had become accustomed to new expected behaviors and somehow drifted too far from the in-person school environment to know how to return. I found my teacher tools no longer worked, and my classroom felt foreign not only to my students but to me too. 

I knew that I was going to have to make a shift in my teaching to prepare my students for the remainder of middle school, and quickly get them to the place where they could transition successfully to high school. Because I have taught students with special needs most of my career, I would need to break it into steps and make it clear. Having had training and great success with Zones of Regulation, I started my search there. In the book, I found a lesson on teaching expected behavior which I used to begin. 

The first class discussion we had was about our community. What is expected of a pedestrian crossing a busy street? What is expected of a driver at a red light? We reflected on the dangers of unexpected behavior like running a red light or crossing a busy street without using a signal or crosswalk. Then we transitioned into the classroom. What is the expected behavior of a student when the teacher is providing instruction? Sitting quietly, eyes on the teacher, the body is still. What is unexpected behavior? Getting up and walking around, texting on a phone, eating a sandwich. What is the expected behavior of a teacher when providing a lesson? Being prepared, focusing on the students, and speaking clearly and at a volume that all can hear. What is unexpected behavior? Screaming, being unprepared, falling asleep, and mumbling. Of course, they enjoyed me allowing them to explain the expectation of teacher behavior! What amazed me most is they hadn’t forgotten. I just needed to provide my students with an opportunity to remember what their elementary school teachers had taught them so well before the pandemic lockdown. 

Throughout the school year, I continued to use this concept. Before teaching a lesson, I would say, “What are the expectations for your behavior during this time? Let’s get ready for that.” Throughout the lesson, I would use this language to transition to new activities and admittedly, I would have to stop occasionally to re-state the expectations. As the year moved forward, I noticed a shift back to classroom behavior that supported a successful learning environment. 

Another result of the pandemic in the community in Silicon Valley where I teach was an increase in immigration from mostly Latin America but other parts of the world as well. I notice that these students imparticular need clear and intentional teaching about expected behavior in our school community. 

Having taught in Ethiopia for two months while I was studying for a MA in Intercultural Studies, I knew the expectations in schools around the world vary greatly. For example, in Ethiopia, the teacher moves classrooms while the students remain in one group in the same classroom. This means the teacher arrives after the students and leaves before them. Also, most instruction takes place with the teacher up front and the students listening and note-taking. Talking without being called on or questioning the teacher is viewed as very disrespectful. Parents and guardians always agree with the teacher and reinforce any consequences at home. What a difference from teaching in California! Neither method of teaching is “best practices” or superior - just a different set of expected behaviors. Newcomers to a school community need opportunities to recognize the differences and develop an understanding of expected behaviors in their new school community. This is also an opportunity to share cultural differences with other students. 

The resource I created for TpT is ideal for helping all students learn expected behaviors in your school community. The four-part ready-to-use activity includes exploring community and school expectations and the results of expected and unexpected behavior. There is even an activity to explore expected behavior in other cultures. Intentional teaching students about expected and unexpected behaviors positively changes classroom behavior or sets classroom management in place. Expected and Unexpected Behaviors can help you get started.