Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

For many years as I taught grade school then transitioned into school administration we always seemed to talk about on and off task behaviour.  In fact, I can remember people coming into my classroom with a stop watch and timing the amount of on and off task behaviour a student displayed over a half hour period of time.  To this day, when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.

It hasn’t been until now, that a number of pieces of information, a few different books I have read, and the latest Professional Development I have been involved in did it become apparent to me that on or off task behaviour was not necessarily the fault of the child.  In fact, off task behaviour in most cases falls directly on the shoulders of teachers.  We as teachers cannot make a student be more on task, but we can design tasks that result in an increase in student engagement.  In fact, in most cases, when tasks consists of elements that engage students, guess what?  Students are engaged.

But why should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement?  Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  This visual clearly speaks to the role of the teacher and the requirement for effective teaching.  I realize there are many qualities that meld together to create a “high-performing” teacher but there is definitely no argument that one of the key qualities is the ability to design tasks that result in student engagement.

So just what are tasks that result in high levels of student engagement?  What are the attributes, components of these tasks? To answer these questions, I will include the information the staff at Erin Woods School recently compiled. In a two-hour work session, our staff came together to think, discuss, and synthesize the following information.

Here is the trick to changing off-task behaviour:

Lessons that are designed to engage students do just that!  Listed here are the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement.

Low Level of Engagement

Medium Level of Engagement

High Level of Engagement

  • Listening
  • Teacher telling
  • Watching the teacher do
  • Copying
  • Individual tasks
  • Memorizing
  • Not challenging – student finishes quickly and easily (low-level thinking)
  • The task is not easily differentiated (except by making less work or more work)
  • All students have the same task (no student choice)
  • Is teacher made (or made by a publisher)
  • Has right or wrong answers
  • Not linked to personal interest


Work sheets – pre-made

Yes/no tasks (one right answer)



Fill in the missing word

Write  a word 5 times

Word Search

  • Combination of two learning modalities (ex: visual and tactile)
  • Looking for information
  • Partner work
  • Students doing
  • Some self or peer assessment
  • Increased use of visuals
  • Combining some personal knowledge to the new information


Mad Minute

Personal Dictionary

KWL Charts

Any searching, finding, looking for answer

Making Words

Work with more than one right answer

  • Linking to prior knowledge
  • Student generated/student created
  • Game-like
  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests
  • Working together with peers
  • Results in a piece of work the student is proud of
  • Challenges the student but is attainable
  • Considers learning styles
  • Allows for student choice – completed work looks different
  • Can be extended or broadened into further learning
  • More than one right answer


Games or challenges

Hands on or multi-modal

Solves real life problems (math, social studies)

Experiments (with a hypothesis and solution)

What this information tells us is task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.  As educator Phil Schlechty says, There is a 0% chance that children will learn from work they do not do.”  And we know they will not do boring, un-engaging, un-related, senseless tasks, would you?

How to Increase Social Engagement At Your School

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As I continue to understand the work of  J. DOUGLAS WILLMS, SHARON FRIESEN, AND PENNY MILTON in their 2009 report What Did You Do in School Today? I am understanding more specifically the notion of Social Engagement.  For quite some time now, when we talked about engagement, we were all referring to academic or intellectual engagement.  Social Engagement; defined as “meaningful participation in the life of the school” in a lot of ways is the first requirement needed to influence the success of academic and intellectual engagement.

The outcomes of social engagement defined as having: “Friendships, social networks, sense of belonging, self-confidence, and often enjoyment of school'” I believe are the key factors, the initial purposes and our first point of school.  It’s always interesting that we mostly know “what” to do in schools.  The trick is to know how!  How do we support students in developing friendships, building social networks, developing a sense of belonging, developing self-confidence and enjoying school?  Great questions!

I think we have been working quite specifically and purposefully on the outcomes of Social engagement.  We participate in the Alberta Government Accountability Pillar to measure our growth and success.  I will probably forget a few things here, but here are some of the things we do:

  • Self-confidence:  set goals, work on them and review them.  Differentiation to support all students in being successful.  Understand learner profiles to properly support.  Develop report card comments that are strength based, rather than deficit based.  Use restitution, rather than punishment, whenever possible.
  • Friendships and social networks: keep some friends together in classes, encourage a variety of learning opportunities including small group and partner time, specific friendship groups/clubs focussed on social skills development during class time and at lunch, 27 minute unstructured play time at lunch, cross-grade activities in the school, buddy classes, “fun” noon-time clubs.
  • Sense of Belonging: monthly school assemblies, school tee-shirts, clubs, teams, student helpers, classroom meetings (morning meetings), Touchstone for specific students, culturally diverse celebrations and learning.
  • Enjoyment of school: know your student!  Have fun!  School wide activities such as pajama day, sports day, assemblies, new initiatives such as drum fit, recognition of personal successes.

Perhaps if I think longer, I could add to the list.  But, more importantly, what can you add to the list?

For more on the complete What Did You Do In School Today report by the Canadian Education Association click here


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Leadership Lessons… Ten Important Points

As 2011 draws to a close, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what I have learned about leadership and being a Principal.  There were many things learned, however, there are key things learned that I want to remember and apply to 2012.  Not in any particular order, here is my top list of being a great leader and great Principal.

1.  Communication is King, Communication is Key


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I can’t say it enough, in enough different ways; that is my motto.  If there is something I really really want people to know, I need to say it often, in many different ways and in many different formats.  Same goes for me, if there is something you really really want me to know, tell me often, tell me in person, and by email.  There are non-effective forms of communication in schools with the top 2 being Over the PA System, and At An Assembly.  I find if you make announcements or give important messages in these 2 ways, perhaps 10% of the people will actually hear and understand.  Then there is the long range of ways of communicating until you get to the most effective; being one on one or with a small group of people face to face, with them taking notes.  If they don’t take notes, a follow-up email is necessary.  I also think it is important to remember, just because I said it, doesn’t mean they learned it (or even heard it for that matter!).

2.  Just Because I Said it, Doesn’t Mean They Learned It

I find that I often tell people “how” to do things… how to write report card comments, how to conduct parent meetings, how to work with a student, how to organize a classroom…. and the list goes on.  However, just because I said it, doesn’t mean they learned it.  In fact, doesn’t mean they learned it, heard it, get it, understand it, believe it!  I find if I want people to learn something new, I have to teach it!  (wow, amazing concept for an educator). Tried and true teaching strategies work for adults too.  Don’t just tell an adult how to ride a bike, teach them.  Show them, help them, support them, let them try it, encourage them, listen to them, answer questions, applaud, cheer and celebrate!

3.  Back it Up

Not your hard drive, your words!  I find that backing up my ideas, thoughts, and initiatives with current, quality research found in reputable literature is the way to go.  I am fond of saying “This isn’t Lori’s thing, or Lori’s way,” this is because we know this is best practice and it is proven good and right for students.  This is based on research and backed by data, the way we do it in our school is specific to our content, but what we do is tried and true.

4.  Let Others Do

I often have teachers and staff approach me and say “Can I do this?”  If the “this” is in any way reasonable and safe it’s always worth a try.  Remember riding the bike?  How will they learn if they don’t try?  My job in this is to talk it through; make sure it is the best try (don’t hop on a bike that is too big or too small or has a bent rim and wonder what you did wrong) and then support the outcome, whatever it may be.  A word to the cautious: “Can I do this,” is quite different from “Can WE do this.”  See #1 – communication.  Then sort out the WE.

5.  Listen

There are people in my school who are experts at what they do.  The book-keeper, administrative secretary, custodian, tech specialist, all know things that I do not know.  Appreciate them. Appreciate their knowledge and expertise.  Let them help!

6.  Be Aware

Be aware, be where the people are.  I find that many things in a day can pass me by if I don’t leave the office.  Just walking around the school, walking outside of the school, walking into classrooms brings an awareness of the goings on, the successes, and the challenges.  How can I improve on things if I don’t know what needs improving on?  Having people tell me is one thing, seeing things for myself is a whole new “Ooooohhhhhh.”

7.  Follow Up

Following up on things I say or things I ask is a necessary way to add meaning to what I do.  For example, if I ask teachers to read a chapter in a book or watch a webinar and I never go back to it, ask about it, talk about it, then really it wasn’t that important in the first place.  I find that what you focus on shows people what is important, and what is important is what improves.  Unless I follow-up, really I am just making weak suggestions.

8.  Change Your Mind

It is an exhilarating feeling to know you can change your mind at any moment.  Usually not on a whim, but when you learn or realize something new that would be more productive or effective.  You know the old saying, “Doing something over and over the same way and expecting different results is ….(you fill in the blank).”  Don’t do things over and over the same way unless you can’t think of a different way, or its working exceptionally well.  Over the years, with all the mind changes, we have developed into a team that is flexible, progressive and growing.  Trying things in a different way on a different day is the example of growing and changing.

9.  Be Gracious, Be Kind

There is no reason I can think of to be anything other than gracious and kind with all of the different people you meet and work with.  People like to be thanked, people like to be treated in kind, courteous ways.  People who are treated this way are productive, happy people.  And, the word gets out…. before you know it people will WANT to come and work with you!

My moms class picture. Martintown Public School circa 1950. My mom is middle row far left.

10.  Have a Sense of Humor

Life is stressful, work is stressful but it is true that everything goes a lot easier when you can laugh at yourself and laugh about things.  From a person that has the ability to let people get under her skin, not owning, not exasperating, lightening up helps get a person through any day.  Luckily I work in a school and I am blessed to be able to talk to, enjoy, laugh with all of the little people who come through the door of the school everyday.  In the end, they don’t really care about the budget, or the regulations, they just live in the moment.

A Final Note: Live in the moment, enjoy the children, if you don’t like the choices you made today, you are in luck!  You can wake up tomorrow and make different ones!  What choices will you make today?

Professional Learning Communities…

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It is said by the Dufours  that successful PLC’s are the one, single most powerful force in creating school improvement and increasing student achievement.  This sounds simple, but…  Teachers and school staff cannot participate in and achieve high functioning PLC’s themselves, it is contingent upon me as Principal to provide teachers with the tools, skills and capacities to perform as high functioning PLC’s.  To this end, here is what I know, what I do and what I think….


Our PLC’s began several years ago by grouping teachers together to meet once a week to talk about students…. simple as that.  Quickly I realized that to get to the guts and deep understandings about student learning, and to create engagement and participation by all teachers, we needed a protocol.  This led to the next two years of PLC meetings, with a protocol or meeting format, with requirements for engaging in discussions about student progress and by incorporating teaching and learning strategies to support students.  We were doing our meetings, as mandated, and we were learning together.


It’s a dangerous thing to read books and articles because I quickly realize what I do not do and what I do not know.  This realization spurs me into immediate action to change and do differently.  Luckily, I have a staff who accepts that I constantly change my mind, change how I want things done, and constantly look for a better way.

This fall was no different.  Beginning this year our PLC’s had three teachers in them.  I chose three so each teacher would have a voice, have a chance to participate and have time to talk and listen.  More than three I feel is too many because inevitably someone will not have a chance to be heard.  I also choose to have multi-grade PLC’s.  This is for a variety of reasons.  Mainly so that the meetings do not turn into grade level meetings talking about planning and prepping.  However, we are finding many hidden gems and benefits of having multi-grade PLC’s.

The case for multi-grade PLC’s:  I like PLC’s with teachers from different grade levels.  I find that this grouping allows teachers to be exposed to curriculum and teaching styles and skills from different grades.  This assists teachers in incorporating strategies they many not otherwise.  For example: when a grade 3 teacher talks to a kindergarten teacher and realizes the strategies and resources a kindergarten teacher uses to support their learners, this often enables the grade 3 teacher to think about how to use these strategies in their own classrooms.  Multi-grade PLC’s results in the opportunities for teachers to share knowledge about students they have taught in past years.  This type of PLC also builds capacity in teachers.  When a grade 3 teacher looks at a writing sample from a grade 1 student or grade 5 student, they build their understandings of how students develop from year to year.

Bringing PLC’s to Life

A variety of twists and turns with budgeting and staffing led to the opportunity to have teachers supported with an additional staff member after the year had begun.  As I am steadfast about this PLC work and I know that what you give time and energy to is what improves, I devised an idea to bring PLC’s to life.  What I mean by this is that now teachers have a chance to observe their PLC teaching partners as they teach.  Once every six weeks, a teacher will be provided with the “additional teacher” so that they can leave their classrooms and observe their two other team members for half a day each.  To make this meaningful, we have worked together as a staff on many occasion to build our understandings of the purpose of PLC’s and also have formative assessment.  This led to a PLC Observation guide which supports teachers in “looking” for certain things while they observe.

PLC Observations   Click here to take a look at our PLC Observation Guide.

Following the week of PLC Observations, the team members meet together to debrief, explain their learnings, ask questions or “wonders” and set a teaching goal for themselves for the next six weeks.

Where We Are Today

Last week I had the opportunity to watch a webinar presented by Solution Tree featuring the DuFours and  This opened and challenged my thinking about how we will move the PLC’s into more everyday ways of being and working.  I bought their book Learning by Doing and am just beginning to read and think more about how to continue to grow and develop into High Functioning PLC’s.  On my previous post The Walk-About I detailed one of our next steps we are adding to our processes. 

Where We Are Going

The path we are going down is the pathway to ensure that each student is appropriately programmed for each day.  We seek to understand our learners and their learning needs.  We strive for Personalized Learning that provides an appropriate, purposeful and engaging education for each child, each day.  Our work in PLC’s supports us in understanding what students need to learn, how we will know when each student has learned it, and how we will respond when a student experiences difficulty.

Great Principals See Teaching In Action, Do You?

Classroom with students and teachers - NARA - ...

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A new idea I am batting about is what I call The Walk-About.  Many thanks to my trusted colleague Donna for listening to my crazy-ish idea this morning and helping me sort it out.  Well, its not sorted out yet, but we are getting there and we will give it a try.

Each day one of my teachers has a sub in order to release them from their classrooms to observe other teachers teaching.  They observe one class in the morning and one class in the afternoons.  We have created an observation guide to assist teachers in focussing on specific strategies and skills while observing.  In addition to the classroom observation, I would like to now add on The Walk-About.

We are thinking The Walk-About would focus initially on “Feedback” (Formative Assessment ).  The observer would spend one minute in each classroom in the school.  During that one minute, they would identify the type of feedback the teacher is using.  We figured out we need to create a 4-pt rubric of the differing levels and types of feedback.  We will do this together as a staff.

With the data, we hope to raise awareness and increase specific assessment designed to move the learner forward (Dylan Wiliam).  We would report back to teachers something like, “On todays walk-about XX% of teachers were observed using XXX feedback etc.”  We could also keep specific teacher data if we want to.

I believe that simply by creating the rubric, monitoring for success, reporting our successes we will increase our use of strong feedback designed to improve student learning.

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