There’s no denying that one of the hardest parts of teaching for any new teacher is classroom management. In fact, teachers who are still struggling with students’ behavior years into their careers will find it hard to accomplish much in terms of student growth and test scores – the thing upon which our careers seem dependent.
I’m focusing here on 10 classroom behavior management strategies that will make the biggest impact on your classroom climate and student relationships.
I wish I could tell you these tips are easy to implement and super practical. Unfortunately, nothing in teaching is easy, and there’s no replacement for experience.
If you’re in the first three years of your teaching career and struggling to get kids’ attention and hold it, or feel like you spend most of your time dealing with behavior rather than inspiring kids to learn, you’re not alone. If you’re in your fourth year or beyond and still having a hard time, you probably need some targeted, practical support from a teacher you admire.
I’m on your side!
Proactive classroom behavior management strategies work best.
Your first job is to reduce the number of incidents in the classroom, so you can get more work done. Then, when something major does happen, you’ll have more mental and emotional bandwidth to deal with it.
You can create an amazing classroom climate, even when you’re starting from broken and overwhelming. You can make huge improvements and start sleeping easier at night, even if it’s already February. It won’t be easy, but every day of professional growth pays dividends in the future.
1. Focus on a positive, encouraging classroom climate.
One of the quickest ways to make changes kids actually NOTICE is by upsetting your positive to negative comment ratio.
If your kids are struggling with really bad behavior, and you’re stressed out, I can almost promise you’re being way too negative. It’s hard to hear, but it’s so true. If you video yourself, I guarantee you’ll hear more negativity and corrective comments than you will encouraging statements and praise.
Here are some examples:
- I love the way you got started right away.
- Seriously?! Are you kidding me right now?
- You’re sticking with this assignment, even though it’s a struggle. That’s awesome.
- That sweater looks gorgeous on you.
- You forgot to indent those paragraphs again.
- Hey! I heard you made the football team! I’m excited for you.
- You’ve gotta get those times tables memorized or you’re never gonna get through this class.
- Smart thinking! I hadn’t thought of that before, but it’s a cool way to think about the story.
You should aim for at least 4 positive comments for each negative remark. I’ve heard of some teachers using a rubber band strategy to try and become more positive and uplifting.
They’ll keep five rubber bands on the left wrist. When they make a negative comment or even a stern criticism, they’ll move one rubber band to the right wrist. Then, they challenge themselves to not say another negative thing until they’ve made four more encouraging comments. They keep track of the four positive comments by moving the other four rubber bands.
Is that a lot to keep track of? Yes. Does it seem a little overwhelming? Sure! But I guarantee, your kids will respond with better behavior.
Students are naturally competitive, and they compete for attention. It might as well be positive attention.
Looking for more ways to become a more positive, encouraging teacher?! Check out my behavior management system that relied on tons of coupons! Everything was free.
2. Keep your procedures tightly controlled.
Most misbehavior happens during down time. The quicker your transitions happen from one activity to the next, the fewer instances of bad behavior you’ll have. If your classroom runs like clockwork, you’ll also have far more instructional minutes available to you.
Solid procedures lead to on-task behavior, more instructional minutes over the course of the year, a positive climate where students trust the teacher, and higher test scores.
Teach procedures the right way.
In the first week of school, you should slowly roll out your procedures, teaching everything with complete precision. This doesn’t come naturally to people who aren’t super organized and systematic, but you can grow this muscle.
Some common procedures that must be taught to students: how to line up, how to gather supplies, what to do when first entering the classroom, and clean up policies. Being crystal clear about your expectations for noise, movement, and pacing will pay off tremendously throughout the year.
When it comes to teaching procedures, a timer is your best friend. Even if you have to practice lining up 10 times, do not quit until it’s perfect.
Reteach classroom procedures EVERY time they are sloppy.
It’s not uncommon for me to reteach walking through the hallways as we get close to Thanksgiving or Spring Break. It’s totally natural for students to get sloppy with these procedures, but you can’t let it STAY that way. There’s nothing wrong with re-doing as an entire class a common procedure.
I also have students frequently go back and try again when they enter a room too rowdy and are immediately off task. This works well for elementary school.
Don’t be afraid to simplify classroom procedures that are overly complicated.
Sometimes I’ll realize I’ve overcomplicated something that could be simpler. Perhaps your current system is actually costing you valuable instructional time and leaving opportunities for kids to get distracted.
Go ahead and teach a NEW, simpler procedure. Don’t do this as an afterthought; it will probably need to be in your lesson plan as a mini lesson. Since there’s now an established habit in place and you’re making a change, plan to revisit this numerous times over the course of the week.
3. Offer flexible choices within hard boundary lines to earn students’ respect.
I had a flexible seating classroom where students chose their seats every day. Teaching procedures at the start of the year for my flexible seating classroom was arduous! Third graders require a lot of hand holding with a fully flexible classroom.
It was so worth it, though, because kids LOVED my seating plan. Believe it or not, that’s the year I started to feel really successful with classroom management. I had very few incidents of off-task behavior.
I credit my success with a flexible seating classroom to students having so much choice and autonomy within very strict boundary lines. Students knew that if they broke the rules even once for the day, they’d go back to a traditional seat at a table for that hour.
Of course, each day brought a new beginning and they could try again. No one was relegated to a desk for the whole grading period unless they chose it for themselves at the start of class.
If you’re interested, here’s how I made it work.
Note: there are plenty of other ways to offer choices to students without using a flexible seating plan. The concept of choice and autonomy over learning is the key lesson here! A great example would be student choice boards for learning activities.
TV trays can usually be found secondhand, but these are some great ones! I used t.v. trays coupled with a couch and some old occasional chairs.
You’ll still have disruptive behavior in the classroom – here’s how to deal.
Even the best teachers deal with a small number of challenging students. Of course, even normally easy students have bad days.
No matter how strong your overall classroom management may be, kids have bad days and so do teachers. You’ll need a plan for dealing with bad behaviors.
4. Build relationships with grace and authority.
Practice these phrases, and use them often:
- I just want to remind you that you’re not a bad kid. You just made a bad choice, and there’s a difference.
- Tomorrow’s a new day.
- I forgive you. We all make mistakes.
- I’m not calling home this time because I know you won’t do that again.
- I’m really sad about this, but I’m going to have to [insert appropriate consequence]. Do you need a hug?
- You broke an important school rule, so I’ve got to [insert consequence]. I’m disappointed, but I know tomorrow will be better.
Many students who have behavior problems haven’t heard a heartfelt “I forgive you” in a very long time. I used this phrase once when a student stole from my classroom. The next morning, he got a hug, and we never spoke of the incident again. Not only did he never steal again, but he rarely got in any sort of trouble at all.
None of this grace and mercy comes without consequences. We still have to teach consequences for bad behavior if we’re going to prepare kids for the real world. You can apply a consequence lovingly, just like good parents do.
One way I built relationships in my classroom was with restorative circles and other “restorative practices.” Read more about it here!
5. Discipline the child; not the behavior.
The same consequence that works well for one child may not make sense for another. Anyone who has their own children at home knows this intuitively. You need to get to know your students over time in order to discipline effectively.
For the class clown, a period of isolation from the group could be very effective; whereas an introverted child would probably enjoy that consequence.
If a child has poorly managed ADHD, there’s no worse consequence than making them sit still or lose recess time. Unfortunately, that strategy will backfire when they physically can’t adjust their behavior, and the punishment causes them to miss out on a basic need. That’s not just ineffective, it’s also unfair.
6. Keep a list of school-approved consequences or behavior accommodations on your desk.
Teachers tend to have just a handful of go-to consequences to use when a child acts up. Unfortunately, consequences are not one-size fits all. Writing a note home to a parent for bad behavior won’t make much impact on a child whose parents are struggling to discipline them at home.
Create a big list of possible consequences (that are endorsed by the school) and behavior modification strategies on your desk. There’s too much to think about, and you won’t remember more than a few possibilities.
Behavior modifications are things like moving a child’s seat, or giving them a fidget toy to help them be more successful. Include a list of these as well.
It’s totally okay to privately tell a student, “I’m very disappointed about what just happened. I’m going to think for a little while about what consequence is appropriate and we’ll talk about it later.” Jot a reminder note to yourself, and then consult your master list at a more convenient time.
7. Apply consequences as fairly and consistently as possible.
Sometimes, we get so irritated by a particular student behavior that we notice everything that child does wrong. It’s just not fair. It’s like they’re getting half of our total attention at all times, and we overreact to the least little thing because we are just OVER IT.
If a child says, “You don’t like me very much,” or if they complain to their parents that you don’t like them, it’s possible they’re right. Not every student and every teacher are a great match.
The hard truth is that as adults, it’s our job to rise above and be better. A student should never know you don’t like them, but I’ve seen it a lot. If you’re fair and consistent, the challenging student may respond better to you.
Here are 40 meaningful classroom jobs, and ideas for how to make it work. There’s no need to over-complicate it!
8. Don’t discuss behavior or discipline while you’re angry.
It’s normal to begin to resent a student that confounds you. If they’re constantly disrupting the class or disrupting you, and you can’t figure out how to make it stop, you may become bitter.
You need to fix the problem before it reaches that point, but sometimes kids are really tricky.
If you find that you’re really angry, do not discipline or react in that moment. Step away from the situation, and circle back to the conversation when you’re calm. You have to stay in control and respectful of the student if you want kids to trust you and begin to behave better.
9. Communicate regularly with parents, but keep it positive and solutions-oriented.
Parents need fairly regular contact, and it should be mostly positive.
When?! Who has time for all that?!
You do, if you’ll stick to mostly text messaging through a school-approved app like Class Dojo. I like to use positive text messages home for in-class rewards.
I have often said things like, “Wow! I’m so proud that you kept working on that assignment. I know you were getting frustrated. I’m gonna send a text to your mom.” Then, I pause just long enough to do it right in front of the class.
This usually packs a big punch. Very often, parents will reward their kids at home for these texts with a trip to their favorite ice cream shop or a movie night. So they get the positive reinforcement in front of their classmates, extra love at home, and YOU get to document parent contact for your admin team.
Texting apps are great because you’ve got built-in time and date stamps. If something comes up, you’ve got a running record of all your parent contact.
You’ll earn yourself so much goodwill with the parents by the time something bad happens in class. For example, let’s say little Susie is getting way out of hand with talking out of turn, and your usual redirections and consequences aren’t working. Since Susie’s mom has already had 4 or 5 positive contacts over the course of the year, she takes your concerns seriously.
Get practical help for your classroom behavior management problems.
While I hope these tips are helpful, sometimes teachers need more practical help from someone who is at their own school, working with the same population of students, under the same administrative team, rules and procedures. Here’s my best advice for when you’re really struggling and none of the usual strategies seem to be working.
10. Practice humility.
If you go home exhausted every day, with no emotional energy left for your own family or yourself, you need help. If you don’t figure it out, you’re gonna burn out. And that would be sad, because you love kids and there’s something in your heart that made you take this job.
The first step to getting out of this misery is recognizing that you’re the only one who can change it. Even if the system is broken, and even if nothing is fair.
It really bums me out to hear teachers complaining often about student behavior or the lack of administrative support for behavior problems. It’s not because they’re wrong. Rather, the reason it’s so disheartening is because they’re focusing on something completely outside their control. They’re stuck.
The only thing that works is recognizing that there probably ARE teachers on your campus who are thriving and enjoying their students. They’re doing something different from you – but what? Can you learn from them?
Facing the truth about your teacher weaknesses is the only way to move forward and become the teacher you always wanted to be.
11. Make good use of your teacher bestie.
You need a teacher bestie! It’s not always easy to find, but keep putting yourself out there. Try sitting with someone new at staff meeting. No matter how self conscious you’re feeling, offer to help another teacher with something you already know how to do – there’s sure to be something! Remember that bestie relationships (whether work or personal) are always reciprocal, so you can help each other.
A teacher bestie is wonderful because they can help you with your teaching. Ideally, they would be able to observe you teaching, if the master schedule will support it.
A teacher bestie will have ideas and solutions to your problems without judging you or making you feel like your job is on the line. Sometimes, an objective but trusted opinion can make a huge difference in your teaching.
Plus, doesn’t it feel great to get help from someone who’s still in the classroom? What a novel idea!
12. Record yourself for insight into your classroom management problems.
I know it’s painful for some people to record themselves. I HATE a camera on me!
But the truth is that when you replay your own teaching, you’ll find ways to improve on your own. You’ll notice stuff about your classroom behaviors and leadership style that you never realized before. It’s tough to watch, but it’s the quickest way to finding new solutions.
My best advice is to wait until you’re in your pajamas one night, pop a bowl of popcorn, and prepare to cringe a bit. If you can project it onto a large t.v. screen, you’ll get even better information.
Plus, your kids will behave the same way they always do. When another adult is in the room, kids sometimes behave so differently that it’s not helpful for problem solving. With nothing but a discreet camera, they’ll either not notice they’re being filmed or forget after a few minutes.
For more tips, check out this post from Edutopia.