Regaining Control Of A Rowdy Classroom: The Broken Window Theory Of Classroom Managment

The decline of crime in the 1990s throughout New York City is attributed to a variety of exogenous causes.  The most feasible theory is described by James Wilson and George Kelling and thoughtfully articulated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature.  You can also find discussions in Freakonomics and The Tipping Point.
In short, NYC saw a drastic decrease in crime because they prevented windows from breaking and immediately fixed them when necessary.

I’m kidding of course, but fixing broken windows is symbolic of the major ideas discussed in Wilson and Kelling’s article called Broken WindowsFixing and controlling small and seemingly insignificant issues- petty crimes- has a trickle up effect.  Policing and enforcing littering, loitering, and graffiti crimes will eventually decrease crime overall.  Though painfully oversimplified for this discussion, there are many facets in this idea which have implications for managing your classroom.


What is the Broken Window Theory?
To reduce crime, police officers were encouraged to keep order- however you define it.  Rather than patrol in their cruisers, they were told to walk a beat.  Their beat was in the same community and was regular.  This had several important consequences.  The officers were present, they were listeners, they formed relationships.  They mitigated issues when necessary and worked to prevent issues that could spiral out of retaliatory control.  They worked hard to maintain order by attending to seemingly small issues- a drunk on the street, rowdy teenagers, or beggars at the bus stop.  Small issues are the ‘broken windows’, and if allowed and tolerated would’ve resulted in more broken windows.  One drunk turns into a community of substance abusers, a single panhandler turns into a vagrants around every corner.

Police that were visible and involved in a community shows that laws are enforced and sends the perception of control and compliance.  Broken windows, grafetti etc. give the perception that order is not maintained and the environment is tolerant of crime.  Said differently, an orderly and neat environment is an important reminder that people care and are dedicated to keeping an area safe.  Nuisance crimes are a sign that people lack care and that no one is in charge.


Substitute ‘window’ with ‘rule’ and 'building' with 'classroom' and you have powerful advice on how to manage a classroom.

How to apply this idea in our classrooms
Taking the cue from police officers, try the following to maintain order in your classroom:

-Take five minutes at the end of each day and free your room of graffiti, unwanted markings, and garbage. Better yet- ask a student do it (hopefully the one drawing or dropping garbage).

-Keep your desk impeccable and keep your shared spaced clean (counter tops, common areas etc.).  A clean classroom is a sign that people care about the environment.

-Be visible.  Use body language to communicate to your students that you are in charge.  Don’t hide or take a break during cooperative activities.  Wander, meander, and visit groups.  Be everywhere at the same time.  Be part of their learning community.

-Address small management issues immediately.  Make a student wash a desk they drew on.  Ask another to pick up the gum wrapper they dropped.  Address profanity by immediately by offering an alternative.  Don’t make a scene and embarrass the student, ask nicely so they comply.  Don’t worry, the other students will notice.

-Use the word 'we' to describe the classroom: "We don't use language like that in this classroom."  "We pick up laboratory materials after we finish using them."  'We" signifies unity and community.

Does the broken window theory of classroom management work?
Just as the cause of the crime decrease in NYC is tough to pinpoint, it is difficult to say whether or not it would work as a management technique.  But we do know a couple things through observation:

Teacher A is unorganized, has a ‘disaster desk’ and has a messy classroom.  During cooperative activities they park themselves behind their desk and answer emails.  They have issues managing their students and learning suffers because of it.

Teacher B is meticulous, organized, and has a space free of obvious garbage and debris.  During activities the teacher circulates to not only informally assess the students, but also monitors their level of engagement.  Teacher B has little to no issues managing their students.

Sound like colleagues we know?   Absolutely.  Are the observations highlighting a correlation or causation?  That is tough to say.  But we can say this: it wouldn’t hurt to be neat, organized, and visual. 

Working hard to address the ‘petty management’ issues in your classroom could have a positive trickle up effect.  This idea focuses on preventing management issues rather than mitigating a situation.

An orderly environment communicates to your students that no only do people care, but misbehavior is not tolerated because someone is in charge.

Try fixing the broken windows in your classroom to manage student behaviors.

Thanks for reading.


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