Broken Windows Theory And Classroom Management

In his seminal book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell describes the precipitous fall of crime in New York City in the early 1990’s. There were several factors that accounted for the drop, but the most interesting from a classroom management standpoint, and perhaps the most influential, was called the broken windows theory.

The broken windows theory of crime prevention postulates that disorder is an invitation for crime to occur. If the environment of a particular neighborhood triggers the belief that no one cares or that no one is in charge, then crime in that neighborhood goes up.

Hence, petty crime, graffiti, and other “broken windows”, which signal that no one is watching, would be invitations to more frequent and more serious criminal activity.

So the city of New York began cleaning up the physical environment and making a show of cracking down on minor crimes. They painted over the graffiti covering subway cars, increased misdemeanor arrests like public drunkenness and failing to pay subway fares, and otherwise focused on policing the smallest details.

They sent the message that indeed someone cared and was watching.

As soon as they began cracking down on these smaller quality-of-life crimes, all forms of crime decreased. Today, you can safely walk the same New York City streets that 20 years ago would have been out of the question.

Just as enforcing minor quality-of-life crimes can benefit cities and neighborhoods, enforcing classroom rule violations that many teachers perceive to be not worth the time are, in fact, very much worth the time.

Imagine you are standing in front of an open closet or a row of hooks along a wall of your classroom, looking at a collection of student backpacks. Some of the backpacks are lying rumpled on the floor, some are hanging sideways from a shoulder strap, and a few are hanging appropriately by the center “hook” loop. Several of the backpacks are unzipped, exposing various articles of clothing and old assignments.

Is this scene an invitation for more frequent and more serious disruptive behaviors?

I contend that it is. Small details that for many teachers don’t seem to be worth the effort can have a strong impact on the behavior of your students. By enforcing rules and standards of behavior that protect a classroom’s pleasantness (i.e., polite interactions and practices, kindness, cleanliness, orderliness, and organization), all forms of disruptive and disrespectful behavior decrease—often dramatically.

If a student is inconsiderate of others and shows a lack of respect for the classroom when it comes to a trivial matter like hanging up a backpack, then he or she will be similarly behaved when it comes to more important and potentially more disruptive matters.

The power to manage your classroom and enjoy every day of teaching is in the details. Though at first glance, disordered backpacks may not seem like such a big deal, they send the message that respect for others, neatness, and pride in doing things the right way are not valued.

The lesson of the broken windows theory, then, is to enforce each of your classroom management rules precisely.

Too many teachers wait until a rule is broken in a big way before enforcing it. This is a mistake in the highest order. It’s confusing to students to have rules on a sliding scale, dependent upon your mood, who the student is, or how severely the rule was broken.

It is also an invitation for more frequent and more serious misbehavior.

It allows your students to break rules on some level and at some times without consequence, indicating that such behavior is okay. This encourages more of the same and invites your students to push the limits as far as they can.

Let’s say one Monday morning you are sharing with your students a story about your weekend. The students are happy and engaged and you’re having a nice moment together. During a pause in the story, one of your best students smiles broadly and asks an excellent question but forgets to raise her hand.

The question was asked at an appropriate time and didn’t interrupt you in any way. What do you do? Do you answer the question and move on? Do you remind the student that she should raise her hand the next time? Do you chalk it up to being a non-educational situation and not a big deal? Do you decide that because she is well behaved and a good student there is no need to make issue of it? Or do you follow your classroom management plan exactly as it is posted in your classroom?

The fact is, this is a wonderful opportunity. That the student is one of your best is perfect. It’s an opportunity to show all of your students that rules will be enforced no matter what, no matter when, and no matter who is breaking them.

You follow through every time because not doing so is an invitation for bad behavior. I encourage you to try it yourself. Test the broken windows theory in your own classroom by enforcing even the little things—minor infractions that at first seem inconsequential, but in reality, are the most important. I know you will be happy with the results.

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One Response to Broken Windows Theory And Classroom Management

  1. Christine June 20, 2009 at 11:24 am #

    I love the ‘broken windows theory’! It applies to preschool and parenting too.