The Black Dot Strategy

Today’s post is a follow up to the discussion with friends from the #bfc530 Twitter chat which takes place each weekday morning. The question of the day was related to what we as teachers do when we know a student is trying their hardest, but continues to act out in class. I offer this as one of the many strategies in my educator’s toolbox. I wish I could brag about being the creator, or at least remember who that person is, but sadly I am unable to claim either.

I would like to preface this piece by stating that one of the most important components of being an educator for me is building relationships. The past 17 years have taught me that creating a sense of community and trust is paramount in order for learning to take place. From the very first days of school it is very important for my students to feel comfortable, and excited about our time together. I often let them know that we are a family, and should begin treating each other as such from the start. We agree upon classroom expectations, and students know that ours is always a classroom where they will be respected, listened to, and loved. 

But every single one of us can attest to the students who push our buttons, and continue to misbehave despite our best efforts to support, engage, and yes, cajole them in the learning process. Last year I had one such student. I will not go into detail about the misbehaviors , nor the energy that I spent trying to reach him. Suffice it to say that I thought about this child well beyond the 180 days that he was in my charge. In fact, I am certain that I will never stop wondering/worrying about his life.

In my quest to find ways to re-direct the acting out, I stumbled upon the “Black Dot” strategy. In a nutshell, take a blank white sheet of paper and a marker to draw a huge square, then place a black dot inside the square. (I used a large 14 x 17 poster sheet). I posted the paper on a bulletin board where everyone could see it. Then I asked the students to tell me what they noticed when they looked at the paper. After some discussion the consensus of the class was that most students’ eyes were drawn to that little black dot. I then directed the students’ attention to the poster and asked them what took up more space, the black dot, or the white surrounding the dot. The obvious answer was that there was definitely more white space. From here I explained that we could relate this to a classroom. That the white space represents the majority of students – the students who stay focused, who want to learn, who are engaged. And you guessed it, the black dot is the student (or students), who misbehave. I asked the students to raise their hand if they had ever been in a class where the teacher focused more on that black dot than the white space. EVERY SINGLE STUDENT RAISED HIS/HER HAND. I made a promise to my class that very day that I would try my hardest to focus on the white space, the majority.

I hope that no one thinks I’m suggesting that this strategy can be used to turn a blind eye on students who misbehave. I am in no way advising teachers to simply allow misconduct. What I am offering is simply one way for a teacher to catch her breath, redirect their attention from the negative to the positive. When I employed it last year, I would simply announce, “I’m deciding to focus on all the white space I see in this classroom right now.” I would point to the poster, smile and continue with the lesson. This little statement made our class happier. My students would smile back and want to prove to me that they were the “white spaces” that I was referring to. It was one small way for any misbehaving student to try to take ownership and get back on track. I would be lying if I said this strategy worked every time, but it did help to reinforce what kinds of behaviors were expected in my classroom. And let’s face it, it makes our job that much easier when we focus on the positives.

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