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Classroom Management, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized   |   Jan 21, 2013

When your students misbehave for other teachers

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

I received a question about this topic through the anonymous form for Ask Angela Anything, and I thought it was such a common issue that I’d address it in its own post. KM writes:

Usually my grade 3 students are very well behaved when I am teaching them, but if they go to specials, they are very misbehaved. How can I help them to have more consistent behaviour? Am I being too authoritarian? Or do I need to be more strict?

I have totally been in your position so many times, and I know it’s incredibly frustrating. I kind of expected it on days when my kids were a little crazy in the classroom. But there were also days when my students spent the entire morning focused and on-task, and then when I picked them up from art or music or the library, I’d hear a huge list of complaints about everything from disrespectful behavior to not following the rules to physical altercations.

While I sympathized with the specials teachers and was glad they told me about the problem, I did find the situation awkward. Ignoring it would undermine the teacher’s complaint and send the message to my students that I didn’t care how they behaved at specials. But I was not comfortable giving students a consequence for something they did while they were not under my care and authority.

Usually I’d end up giving my sternest teacher look to the class while listening to the teacher’s report, and then talk with the student(s) involved while walking the class back to our room. After all, there wasn’t much else I could do after the fact. But, I discovered there was quite a bit I could do pro-actively to prevent the problem from re-occurring, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.

Let’s start by looking at this from the kids’ perspective. Most students view specials classes as a break from regular learning. That’s not true, of course, but it’s how they see it. They’ve been in their regular classroom for a very long period of time and expected to focus, concentrate, and stay on task throughout that time. When they’re finally allowed to move down the hallway, they release all that pent-up energy, and continue doing so during PE, art, music, etc. In many students’ minds, it’s not necessary to sit still and listen to the teacher until “real” learning takes place again back in their own classroom with their “real” teacher.

Being mindful of your students’ perspective on specials will keep you from getting aggravated. It will also help you make good decisions about how to structure your class time. It took me forever to figure this out, but eventually I realized I was likely to get a bad report from the specials teacher when I had administered tests during the morning, or assigned otherwise unengaging tasks that involved lots of sitting still and being quiet. So if you can, plan those less active lessons for the days students have PE or other specials that permit them to move around, and on the days when students will need to concentrate during specials, try to plan more hands-on activities in your classroom beforehand.

You can coordinate this with certain specials teachers if they repeatedly have issues with your students. You could say, “I’m so sorry my students have been giving you trouble lately. I’m wondering if they’re spending too much time sitting before I drop them off. Can you give me a heads-up first thing in the morning if the kids will need to sit and listen quietly for the whole specials period, or do mostly paper and pencil work while they’re with you? I’ll try to make sure they get to move around in my room beforehand. If nothing else, we can do a few stretches and brain breaks to help them get the wiggles out before I drop them off.” If the specials teacher is unwilling or unable to do this, you can automatically incorporate those movement opportunities into your instruction on the days your students will be attending that special.

If a particular teacher has a hard time handling your class or certain students in your class, talk with him or her about it when the kids aren’t around. You could say, “I know __ can be challenging sometimes. One thing I’ve tried in my classroom with him/her is ___. I’ve also tried ___ and sometimes that works, too.” Find out what kind of routines and behavior management/reward systems the teacher is using, and share what has worked in your room. You can also offer to stay and observe your students during specials: you might be able to recommend that certain kids not sit near each other, or you may able to spot attention seeking behaviors or other sneaky things kids try to get away with when the adult in charge doesn’t know them well. Having an open dialogue about the situation can provide the other teacher with helpful suggestions and shows that you’re taking his or concerns seriously.

Ultimately, though, you cannot control how your students behave when you’re not around. It’s up to each individual teacher to set, model, practice, and reinforce expectations for his or her classroom. Don’t put yourself on a guilt trip about something that happened while another teacher was in charge.

Your job is to build a strong sense of community, respect, and personal responsibility in your students while they’re in your classroom. Often, those qualities will be reflected in your class even when they’re not in your room. The key to getting students to behave appropriately no matter where they’re at is teaching them to make wise decisions for themselves and exercise self-control rather than depending on teacher control. Obviously that’s not something you can accomplish in just ten months with every single student, but it’s a goal you can strive for as a school community, and you can work with your specials teachers as much as possible to help nurture those qualities in your students.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful response to a complicated problem. I am a CHAMPS trainer and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and will share your advice when this comes up.

  2. In my room, I think it’s so important for my kids to be able to extend their good behavior with me to other situations, but I do know that it’s harder for them. I have a “marble jar” for my kids, and normally a compliment earns one marble. They are never taken away. Compliments at lunch and recess, when things are tougher? Two marbles. During an emergency drill? Three. From a sub? Up to FIVE. Yes, it’s bribery, but the kids place a higher priority on good behavior when I make it clear that it means more. It has worked well for me! I still do enforce punishments for serious things that they know they shouldn’t do, though, particularly if I happen to see something through the window when I walk by or pick them up.

    1. Jenny, thanks for bringing this up. I know many, many teachers who have used these kinds of systems, and they definitely do communicate to kids that their behavior matters EVERYWHERE in the school, not just in the classroom.

    2. Thank you for focusing on the positive and complimenting students more than consequences and punishment. Students who feel valued are more likely to pay attention and be productive.

  3. I approach this dilemma from the perspective of the music teacher who sees her students once every 6 days. Even though I report to homeroom teachers about their class progress every day I’ve never told a teacher about a behavior in class because I expected the homeroom teacher to punish the students or “fix” something that happened in my class. I work hard to create my own immediate and meaningful consequences, I write my own office referrals, I send home notes, call home and arrange for parent conferences…. for almost 800 students…… It is important to remember that we share students and we have the same goal for our students. Even still, OUR students NEVER leave their problems at the doors of our classrooms and I promise to always deal with the issues that our students bring with them from your classroom if you’ll do the same for me. I noticed MOST of the time the discipline issues that show up in my room are identical or related to the ones already occurring in the homeroom. Therefore I report and share documentation of behaviors during my instructional time as a favor to the homeroom teacher. After all, we have the same goal…. we want our students to be on task. As we work to develop plans for students success it is important to notice behavioral trends that happen across the board. Because I am teaching your students during your conference time I probably won’t be invited to that behavior conference you’ve scheduled. When it is time to meet with parents it is nice to be able to have a truly comprehensive view of how that particular student behaves in a variety of situations…..If I don’t take the time to share with you, then you won’t have any other documentation other than your own. Students come to music to be challenged in ways they are not challenged during the rest of the school day. Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised when students who function beautifully everywhere else may come up against some interpersonal challenges they haven’t faced before. Imagine that you are an only child of the video game generation who gets great grades, reads well and is generally compliant to authority. Now imagine that you are “it” during a musical game and you have to have a turn with someone else in your class. In today’s culture that may be the most socially challenging event of your entire week. Some students will navigate the situation beautifully, while others will become hostile and rude. That shouldn’t remove them from the situation or the consequences of poor behavior, but it does mean that some unlikely students might end up with an unexpected behavior report. As a music teacher who will teach my students over as many as 6-7 consecutive years it is in my best interest to deal promptly and appropriately with discipline issues but sometimes I’ll admit that I mention behavior issues to my homeroom teachers in hopes of creating some accountability and collaboration for myself. If I don’t say something then I may never figure out how to help that student that needs my attention. Especially with only 45 minutes every other week, I don’t have the luxury to keep my own council I’ve got to get those issues dealt with sooner rather than later and as you get to spend most of the day with the same students, you may have some useful insight that I could use to help our students. There is also something else to consider. My school is one where over 90% of the students are considered to be “at-risk”. In a circumstance like that where a healthy definition of parenting is not what my students experience at home, their homeroom teacher becomes a surrogate parent. The homeroom teacher is the one who my students want to brag to, to perform for and the one who is the holder of the judgement that matters. I could call parents all day, but when a child is dismissed by their parent, the home room is supremely important. Never underestimate the value of your approval or disapproval. To the students that I teach, what their homeroom teacher thinks matters more than Santa Claus…… Overall school culture determines how specials are viewed. If as a campus they take on an ancillary role then you are right, students will view them as another version of recess. If however, the campus is intentional about protecting and valuing the instructional time of those specials classes as they do other core subjects then students and parents will view them as important as they are. I have also noticed that homeroom culture has a GREAT deal to do with how students behave in my class. It is amazing that I can tell you right now what kind of classroom culture “Ms. Smith’s” class will have next year and the year after that. I can tell you this because I have taught her class for the last 5 years and each year the same joys and challenges arise when her students enter my classroom. As I get to know “Ms. Smith” I get better at teaching her class and anticipating their group personality. The biggest favor that you can do for yourself is to never ever take any comment made by a specials teacher about the behavior of OUR students personally. Keep working with us weird specials teachers and given the opportunity we will likely become your best collaborators and problem solvers.

    1. I agree! I never expect a classroom teacher to fix the problems in my classroom. If your students are exhibiting poor behavior in the special’s room, it is up to the special’s teacher to fix it. Plus, I never “blame” the classroom teacher on the poor behavior of a class. My room is completely different, I don’t have clips/cards, etc…

      I see my 700 students once every five days and don’t have many issues. But I also figure out what is going to work or not based on what is going on in the school. If the students had indoor recess or testing, I change things up to get the students moving quite a bit more. This helps the classroom teacher too!

      While I appreciate the support and will always give a report to the classroom teacher, it is more of a conference of “here is what I’m seeing do you see it too?” That way I’m better informed and I might see somethings that the classroom teacher isn’t.

  4. I am also a Music teacher reviewing this article, and I do agree with you on some key points. First of all, collaboration between the home room teacher and the specials teacher is extremely important. You make the point that we can all help each other, and sometimes we depend on the homeroom teacher to do just that, even if it is dealing with a consequence that comes out of a special. For instance, maybe a student has had a poor day and looses all his music time eventually. I may need to call that parent, but I would also like for that student to serve a recess detention or something in addition to the consequence I was able to give during class time. I would love for a homeroom teacher to be supportive of helping with that since I am usually teaching during recess times and can’t manage a detention situation and a full class of instruction simultaneously. Support in forms like that, or in referencing behavior when you are talking to a parent, etc., are much appreciated since we see FAR more students than you do each day. Learning what makes our kids “tick” is beneficial to all of us, and we SHOULD work together to help our kids, both in giving them incentives to work hard and consequences when they don’t. I think most specials teachers would agree that we do our best to manage our own classes, but this support from the homeroom teacher can often build that bond between us and form a bridge of learning that is so greatly important. I agree with another poster that we often can predict certain teachers’ classes behavior from year to year because that community and sense of procedure is so important. The homeroom class culture will spill out to other places, be it good or bad. Don’t discount your influence on your students…it can make a world of difference to them. No, you cannot ultimately control what they do when they are away for you, but what you value in Your classroom does influence them in more ways than you may think. Building that personal responsibility that you spoke of AND showing your support to specials teachers go hand in hand to create a true culture of responsibility and respect that your students can learn to carry with them throughout their lives.

    1. Bonnie and Tracey,

      Thanks for chiming in from the perspective of specials teachers! I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to share your experiences. I think your thoughts about are spot on.

      You’ve both gotten me thinking more about the importance of communication between the homeroom teacher and the specials teacher. Do you have any tips for how to make time for that communication? I find it uncomfortable to discuss students’ behavioral issues in front of the entire class while they’re all lined up and waiting for me to take them back to the classroom, especially when another teacher and his/her class are standing there waiting to begin their specials. And yet I know it’s really hard to find other times during the school day to talk about these kinds of things. Ideally, there would be a private opportunity to talk that is more than a minute long. Any ideas on how that can work?

  5. Thanks for replying! I know one thing that has worked for me in past schools is a traveling clipboard system where any issues the specials teachers are having can be noted during class and discussed later. Time IS a premium for us all, so emails are extremely effective in getting to the bottom of things and not doing it right in front of kids. Some sort of traveling documentation system certainly can help as well. I agree with Jenny that rewarding students for their behavior, either indivually or as a class, can help remind them how important learning is regardless of who the teacher is. Systems like hers do help place the emphasis on responsibility and reflect that learning is to take place even outside of the homeroom teacher’s class.

  6. We have a clipboard system (mine’s in a binder tho–easiest to keep past weeks together). It works only if the other teacher chooses to use it–I rarely get feedback on it, rather they choose to give me a rundown verbally of every single infraction. Often I get told that so and so needs a think sheet or a phone call or email home, but I can’t explain to the family what happened because I wasn’t there. I have had some very heated discussions with the other teachers about this…some of them feel that it’s “my class” so I need to be the one to dole out the consequences–they shouldn’t have to be bothered with it. I feel so strongly that if they want to be taken seriously by the KIDS, they *need* to be bothered with it. It just sends the kids the wrong message. Our rules and expectations are the same school-wide, so I’m puzzled why there’s this disconnect at all…

  7. Thank you so much for this. My class is usually very good for me, but in specials they can go wild. I’ve gotten that under control for the most part, but there is one little one in particular that gives everyone a run for their money. He is usually quiet and respectful for me, but talks and sings through the art teacher’s lessons. I’ve done everything short of sitting on him!!! I can’t continue to feel guilty about it… she’s got to figure it out for herself…. this post makes me feel so much better.

  8. What a great column! I so rarely see the specials teachers’ issues mentioned in the education sites pr behavior programs. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about the different experience we have. The challenge of our schedule and the effect it has on student behavior is not recognized across the educational advice world. I would love to hear more anout this.

  9. Begin by changing the students’ perspective. They get the idea that “specials” are not class from us, so they don’t have the same expectations. We teach them there is a difference by referring to class as special. Refer to “specials” as music class, physical education class, etc.

  10. As a high school teacher, I see and hear this amongst all the teachers that our students see each day and must agree with all the other posts, open communication and reinforcement is key. In my classroom, I teach respect not only for the authority figure but also for the classmates. It might be easier at my level because the students are older (I am not sure) but I remind them everyday that they will be in the “real” world soon and that respecting the authority figures at their job or in college goes along way. If I am having problems with a particular student in my classroom I have always talked to the other teachers to see if there are similar problems or if they had strategies that worked for them. If there were similar problems, we as a group would work together to find out if there is more to the problems, like a deeper route cause. But all in all from a high school teacher perspective, positive reinforcement, open communication and team work have always worked to solve the problems of students behaving in one class and not another

  11. I am a teacher and I have found that if I write the word COMPLEMENT on the board and tell the students that if their PE, Music, Art teacher give them a complement on their good behavior they will “earn” a new letter in the word COMPLEMENT. When all the letters have been earned, we have a COMPLEMENT party. These parties can be: 15 minutes of extra recess, pudding party with sprinkles, special art project, game/puzzle time, a trip to the treasure box for each child in class. Anything that will encourage the students to follow through with your classroom rules in the other classrooms. They will be amazing when positive behavior is noticed and rewarded!

    1. I think you mean “compliment”. “Complement” has a different meaning. Lots of people get those homonyms mixed up. >smile<

  12. Another specials teacher here, I teach technology at the elementary level and just found this post through Pinterest. My building has a very we are a team approach to students and discipline. If a student misbehaves and receives a written warning, that follows them class to class. I often have students come to me with a behavior slip and they behave wonderfully. If I have given a verbal warning and the behavior continues I fill out the behavior slip and pass it on. The slips go home to be seen and signed by parent and student. Students knowing that teachers discuss these issues and that we are aware what happens really does help with their behavior. If the action is severe enough I write my own office referral but I always let the teacher know so they will be aware and can watch for further issues while the referral is being processed. I have taught middle school previously and had students who were experts at pushing the boundaries just far enough to avoid getting in trouble and they did this hour after hour because they could, because teachers were not talking. Once we started communicating things changed, even if it was as simple as a quick e-mail or whisper in the hall that so and so is having a rough day.

  13. I am a seasoned elementary music teacher. I have noticed over the years that teachers who center their classroom management and discipline around the COMMUNITY have classes that behave well for ALL adults on campus.

    On the other hand, I have seen fantastic classroom teachers with classes that behave well only for them. What these teachers do is base their classroom management and discipline around themselves. “I want this. I don’t want you to do this. ” These students are behaving only to please their classroom teacher. There is no reflection on how their actions affect others.

    Another thing that will help is if you, the classroom teacher, sing the praises of the special area subject. Do you know why PE is so important for your classes growing bodies and brains? Do you know how music and art awaken corners of the brain that go otherwise unused? This will help your students understand that the very “real” learning that takes place in our classes is just as important for them as that reading test you just took. Teachers that champion me and my class leave me with well behaved, eager learners.

    Also, it is important for me to communicate severe behaviors to each classroom teacher. I don’t like it when the classroom teacher delivers an extra consequence. I prefer to take care of my own discipline. I’ve found, over the years, that consequences are only effective when delivered in person. Sometimes that takes a little creativity with a schedule like ours, but creativity is what we do for a living!

    1. I heartily agree with your reply! I DO want to know if my students are behaving in Specials classes because I use that information when I communicate with parents. Our Specials teachers have small blue forms to document–simply by circling behavior that is noted and writing the consequence that was given, if any. They hand it to us at the door. In our class meetings, we always discuss behavior outside of the classroom and how we can help each other have fun and productive days. The children need to see that we (parents, all teachers, peers) function as a team.

  14. As an emotional support teacher for many years I had students who appeared to be well-behaved in my room but created havoc for other teachers. One technique that worked for me was creating behavior cards that these students could take with them to specials (P.E., art, music). The card was simply made from construction paper. I drew three faces on the card – a smiley face, neutral face, and sad face. These cards were tied into my classroom management system. (2 points for a smile, 1 point for neutral, 0 points for sad). I laminated the cards so that they were reusable. This technique gave students and special teachers some control but allowed me to monitor behaviors and see improvement over the school year.

  15. I really like Vicki’s idea. I have had the rare student come to music with a “behavior plan” where all I had to do was sign my initials on their sheet in either red for a bad day or green for a good day. This figured into whatever reward, etc. was being used for this child. That really worked for these special children, but I have never heard of doing it for kids who don’t have severe behaviors, but act up outside of homeroom, because they know they can get by with it.

    I believe that I am ultimately responsible and rarely tell a homeroom teacher anything negative, although I will compliment the class if they were exceptionally well-behaved. This really helps with the classes whose teachers reward their students for compliments.

    Most teachers are not particularly supportive and expect me to just deal with it, and I understand that. However, I don’t think they understand what it is like to teach every child in the school, and not have access to the kinds of consequences they can use. I did have one teacher who was so supportive that she would often come a few minutes early, join whatever we were doing, and tell her class how lucky they were to be learning the guitar, etc. This was above and beyond, but her classes were always well-behaved for me. I miss her!

    I concur with the “specials” teachers who can predict what a class will be like because they have observed over the years that certain teachers almost always have rowdy classes and others almost always have cooperative classes. There are exceptions, of course.

    The best way for me to manage is to have an engaging lesson. I don’t do “worksheets” in music…we use games, manipulatives, and we make music. I also do Whole Brain Teaching and a lot of character education. But when a student is intent on being disruptive, I don’t have the luxury of consequences, unless it is bad enough to call security or notify parents. Specials teachers almost have to have some tie-in to what the homeroom teacher does, or just manage by the strength of our personalities. I am not very good at using the teacher’s documentation notebook, but the ones who bring it send the message that their students’ behavior matters wherever they are, and I really appreciate their support!

  16. I’ve taught art in 8 different elementary schools in the past 11 years. (Traveling teacher) Every school has a different vibe towards specials. Some teachers drop their class off and say, “Have Fun.” This is so annoying to me. Yes we have fun but it sets the mood when a teacher says this. The students then think, “Ok we are in art, time to get buck wild!” Others drop their class off and say, “I want a good report.” A report at the end is very important. Good, bad, or a little of both. It shows that both teachers respect each other and it shows a visable and audiable exchange of authority to the students.

    When you teach about 800 students a year you cannot contact every parent for minor things that occur in your room. If it is something major, yes I will write them up, make them sit out, call home, or send them to the office. But it is nice if I can say to the classroom teacher, “Timmy needs to clip down because he was being disruptive on several different occations today.” If I call a parent saying that their child was talking too much in art, the response I usually get is, “uh, ok.” And that’s about it. And I can’t imagine how many phone calls I would make everyday. But if I can use the teachers behavior system, it shows that it is important to behave eveywhere in school not just their classroom. And clipping down does not always lead to an automatic consequence. It just gets them closer to one. Teachers who let me use their class behavior system on a regular basis, will see that there are not as many bad reports when they pick up their class. Because students know that they will be held accountable for minor misbaving when they get back to their classroom. As a classroom teacher, you may say, “Well if it is something minor why do we need to deal with this?” My answer would be, taking care of these minor offences now will nip those major offenses in the butt for later.

    The two schools that I am at this year are a dream! The classroom teachers are very supportive and do show that exchange of authority I was talking about. The students behave pretty well at both schools because of this. And one of the schools is a title one school. When giving a bad report at the end of class, I make sure I stand where students cannot hear what I am saying. It usually goes a little something like this, ” Timmy was doing x,y, and z today. I was thinking about calling home. What do you think?” Sometimes the classroom teacher has more insight on this student than I do. They might say, “oh yes, please call home.” Or they might say,”You know, something is up at home, why don’t you let me talk to him and I will give him a consequence in class.” Sometimes they miss part of centers or fun friday or whatever fun things they get to do in class. Or they might say, “that is minor, I will just have him clip down when we get back.”

    I do positive rewards too. I have sticker charts for each class and every 5 stickers they earn they get a class reward. Most schools I have been in have a whole school reward system and I use those little paper slip incentives as well. If the school has a school wide consequence system, that works really well. But they seem to be pretty non – exsistant these days. There is only so much a specials teacher can do in the form of negative consequesnces, as we only see each student once a week for 50 minutes. But if we have a Monday or Friday off we may not see them for two weeks! And as mentioned before we usually teach during the students recess time so it is hard for us to give them a lunch detention. But I have been in schools where the lunch mom’s supervise lunch detention which works quite nice too.
    In closing, show your students that you care about what happens outside of your room. It might be a lot to deal with at first but once they see the consequences, you will have less to deal with in the future. Your students will behave for the specials teachers just like they do for you. And it helps if all classroom teachers in the school are on board with this because then students see that this is just the way things are from year to year.

  17. Hello,

    I recently had this issue with my students – I just started my first year teaching, and I have a wonderful group of 6th graders. Last week I was disappointed to hear that my kids were holding off and not paying attention during music, so I had a chat with them afterwards. It reminded me of this part of your post:

    “Most students view specials classes as a break from regular learning. That’s not true, of course, but it’s how they see it. They’ve been in their regular classroom for a very long period of time and expected to focus, concentrate, and stay on task throughout that time. When they’re finally allowed to move down the hallway, they release all that pent-up energy, and continue doing so during PE, art, music, etc. In many students’ minds, it’s not necessary to sit still and listen to the teacher until “real” learning takes place again back in their own classroom with their “real” teacher.”

    That’s part of what I addressed with my students. I explained to them that I know music is fun – I love music, I’m a musician – but music is a scholarly pursuit as well, and it’s just as important to focus, listen, and follow directions when you’re in the music room as it is when you’re in our classroom.

    I went over that last week after music and again today before music and it seemed to help, at least in the short term. Hopefully the message sinks in and really lasts. Luckily, I’m working with older students. Not sure if it would work with, say, kindergarteners.

  18. I have a group of students who are near-angels for me but are repeatedly unruly with subs. What unconventional and creative ways have you used or overheard that would teach them this behavior is unacceptable…and embarrassing for the teacher?

    1. I’ve had the same problem and honestly never found a solution. The biggest change I made training was myself to let go of that feeling of responsibility for how students–other people’s children–behaved when I was not even in the building. I took their misbehavior as a personal affront, something that was embarrassing to me…but a) they’re not my kids, and b) I can’t control what they do when I’m not around. I did my best to encourage them to make good decisions and tried to be supportive of the sub, but ultimately, the adult who is in charge of maintaining order in the classroom is in charge. I’m just not going to stress out if the sub has a tough time. Maybe that sounds callous, but I just think teachers have too many other responsibilities on their shoulders to let this become one more thing they have to control and feel guilty about.

  19. To keep my 3rd graders motivated to behave in specials I reward good reports. We have a 2 cup measure into which I put marbles for good behavior. When the marbles reach the 2 cup mark we have a class movie party. They are totally invested in the reward.

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