There’s no single answer to classroom management. Your teaching is unique, your class is made up of individuals and different contexts will call for different strategies.
But there are some classroom management strategies you’ll find in every experienced teacher’s toolkit. Because they work. Consistently.
We’ve pulled together a whopping big list of them here, divided into two categories:
- Strategies for creating healthy learning environments
- Effective responses to challenging behavior.
Strategies for creating healthy learning environments
Creating a healthy learning environment is the most proactive classroom management approach you can take. It’s not about responding to challenging behavior – it’s about creating the conditions that prevent it from occurring in the first place.
A healthy learning environment is:
Safe: every student feels secure, physically and emotionally.
Inclusive: every student feels valued.
Personal: there is a sense of familiarity and belonging.
Respectful: everyone shares in dignity and kindness.
Engaging: students are excited by the learning opportunities on offer.
These feelings combine to create a positive atmosphere where challenging behavior is the exception to the rule.
Here’s how you do it:
Create a welcoming and controlled space
The classroom space plays a role in management before students even sit down. A tidy, ordered and welcoming space signals to students that this is a regulated place for learning where standards of behavior apply.
Avoid clutter. As teachers, we’re often guilty of hoarding resources, displays, toys, and so on, but a surplus of these can create a chaotic environment that sends the wrong message to students.
Use strategic desk layouts
The layout of your classroom space will affect both the likelihood of disruptive/off-task behavior as well as your ability to respond to it.
Ensure that you can see all areas of the classroom clearly.
There should be no hidden zones or inaccessible areas. The goal is to be able to see and go anywhere in the class so you can respond to disruption quickly.
Provide structure and predictability
Structure and predictability promote feelings of trust and safety. This extends to:
The physical space: Students return to the same seat every class because it’s familiar and comfortable. Keep the space consistent.
Lesson design: While it can be good to experiment with new strategies from an engagement perspective, you also want to let students get familiar with more established procedures and activities, so they know what to expect.
Rules and expectations: Students should know exactly what is expected of them when they enter your classroom, without having to worry about shifting rules and standards.
You: For students to trust and feel safe around you, your mood, strategies and expectations must be consistent.
Clearly state the objectives for each lesson
Explain to your students with clarity and detail the activities and learning outcomes for each lesson.
Try a simple five-minute introduction to the lesson which:
- generates interest
- explains the lesson goal
- explains the significance of the learning
- activates prior knowledge.
This knowledge gives students a sense of security. There are no surprises in the lesson and they understand what’s expected of them.
Be flexible in your delivery
Read the room and flexibly respond to changes in atmosphere that are a catalyst for challenging behavior. This might be disengagement, excessive noise or confusion.
If a lesson is dragging on or students just aren’t engaging as you had hoped, adjust the pace or adapt the activity. Don’t be afraid to depart from the plan entirely and resort to a fun, off-topic activity if the lesson fails — as inevitably happens at times.
Responding to your students instead of doggedly sticking to the plan, shows that their needs are valued, while also averting the conditions that can make for difficult behavior.
Holding students accountable develops their maturity and sense of ownership over the learning process. It also encourages them to see classroom events as things they have control over. Here are some ways to nurture a sense of accountability for classroom management purposes:
Use ‘you’ language — ask students, ‘what do you want to achieve?’, ‘what do you think?’. Stress to them that they have agency in the learning process.
Reflection activities — have students personally reflect on their actions and learning.
Set expectations together — involve students in setting clear rules and expectations for the whole class (see below).
Stay firm — follow through with consequences where necessary.
Set clear expectations for behavior
Traditionally teachers have used rules for classroom management, but you might present these expectations differently to suit your class. You could create a code of conduct, a list of shared values, or a personal agreement that students individually sign. All of these create a healthy learning environment where every student knows what is expected of them.
Whichever option you choose, boost accountability by giving students a hand in setting the expectations. Ask them what they want from a learning environment, how they want others to treat them, and what behavior they think is acceptable. Keep the expectations realistic, fair and reasonable, and you’ll set the standard for a classroom that protects your right to teach and students’ right to learn.
Make expectations visible
When you’ve decided on expectations for appropriate classroom behavior, commit them to paper. You could even turn this into a creative poster-design activity that gets students further involved.
Post them where the class can see them!
They serve as a reminder of the commitment you have all made, as well as something you can refer students to if their behavior starts to slip.
Stick to rules and expectations
Resist the urge to give free passes when students don’t follow the rules. It might win you temporary popularity, but it will also undermine accountability and send the message that rules don’t need to be followed.
Nonverbal signals are effective ways to maintain attention and coordinate classroom activity, especially when things get noisy or students are working independently.
For example, you might get students to pause an activity by putting your hands on your head and waiting for students to do the same.
It’s a quick and simple way to communicate what you want, but make sure whatever signals you choose are:
- easy to see/hear
- easy to understand
- easy to replicate
- well-explained to students so they know what to look out for.
Manage transitions smoothly
Segues between activities can make or break the flow of a lesson.
You can use a timer that students can see to measure out the allotted time for an activity and explain the transition. For example, ‘in a moment, when I tell you, you’re going to return to your desk and write down three things you learned from the discussion. Let me give you an example’.
Spell out every move and leave students in no doubt as to what they need to do.
Know and regularly use students’ names
Using names is the first step in a powerful and personal student-teacher relationship. Learn them early and use them often. Create a diagram of your room with student names in their chosen spots, so you have something to learn from during the early stages of the year.
Names also make the running of your classroom easier. They give you the power to immediately address an individual without doing the ‘you with the black hair’ routine every time you need their attention.
Use active supervision
Walk around the room and engage with students while they work. Hover in the problem areas, look over the shoulder of anyone who might be getting distracted and check in with the students who need some extra help.
Monitoring discourages off-task behavior and sends the message that you are actively engaged with students’ learning. Get up from behind the desk and get moving!
Seek student input in the learning process
Students are more engaged with learning when they feel they have some say in it. Look for ways to involve them, whether that be getting ideas for the next lesson, giving them a choice of assessment tasks, or letting them choose a class reward for good behavior.
Give positive feedback on behavior
Feedback positively reinforces good behavior and encourages students to keep it up. Verbally acknowledge students who are doing a good job so that the whole class can hear.
Negative feedback can be framed positively too. For example, addressing misbehavior might begin with ‘usually you are a lot more proactive – how can we get back to that?’.
It’s a more encouraging alternative to ‘don’t do that’.
Crack bad jokes, have some off-topic banter, and be generous with your smile. Show your students that you want to be there and they will feel valued and grateful.
Humor also puts students at ease and makes for a more comfortable learning environment.
Noise level control
Noise can be a healthy by-product of engaged learning, but it can also be distracting and create an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere. Monitor it closely and instruct students to take it down a notch when necessary.
For students in the younger years you might create and use a ‘volume knob’ with the following levels:
- whisper voice
- conversation voice
- whole-class voice.
This teaches younger students that different noise levels are appropriate for different times. Silence is appropriate when they are supposed to be listening to their teacher, but they also need to speak with volume when addressing the whole class.
Watch your noise level too. If you’re using your outside voice whenever you address the class, students will take it as a cue that high noise levels are OK. Instead, try the reverse. Speak clearly but at a volume that shows you expect students to listen.
Greet students at the door
This is a simple touch that leaves students feeling valued and welcome. It also allows you to manage students’ entry into the classroom, as opposed to having them run in and rush for the best seats. As a result, you set a positive and orderly feel for the class right from the outset.
To build relationships with students, they have to know you. Self-disclosure is a powerful tool, so don’t be afraid to open up and share photos of pets, personal anecdotes, and hobbies. Doing so highlights the fact that you’re also a normal person outside of your role as a teacher, and it gives your students the confidence to open up as well.
Reward good behavior
Rewarding good behavior has more impact than punishing unruly behavior. It sends the message that good behavior is noticed and valued, and makes model examples out of students who do the right thing. You might reward students with:
- verbal praise. Specifically, identify the behavior you are commending and make it known to the rest of the class (e.g. ‘I love the way you’ve gone to extra effort with…’).
- a rewards chart. Students get gold stars or tokens as rewards, which can be tallied up at the end of the week.
- special privileges. Maybe the beanbags are reserved for the best-behaved students of the week, or you let students listen to music, take time out with a fun activity, etc.
- an email to parents. This allows good behavior to be reinforced at home too. Parents often expect the worst when they receive an email from their child’s teacher, so this is an effortless way to spread joy.
Modeling active listening is a clear way of communicating that you value students’ input and opinions. The best way to do this is to actively engage with everything your students say.
When students ask questions, take the time to positively acknowledge the thinking behind their query (e.g. ‘That’s a good question’, ‘I think a lot of people are wondering that, so thank you for asking’, ‘thank you for reminding me’).
When students answer questions or contribute to discussion, make it a point to give every response equal attention. Even if a student has a wrong answer or their response is a little unexpected, take the time to acknowledge it (‘That’s an interesting idea’, ‘I’d never thought of that before’, ‘I can see where you’re coming from and I like the thinking but …’).
Reflect to enhance professional development
A healthy learning environment also requires a healthy and proactive teacher. We need to regularly reflect on our management strategies, proactively improve them, and develop healthy coping strategies for the challenges of the classroom
Responding to challenging behavior
Despite our best efforts, there will inevitably be times when student behavior demands intervention. In these cases we need to draw on other strategies that are more reactive.
When we think of challenging behavior, we often think of high-intensity isolated events. A student suddenly lashes out at a classmate, throws their work on the floor, or becomes openly defiant and abusive.
But all behaviors, no matter their intensity, start small. We can think of challenging behavior as existing on a continuum such as the following:
For bad behavior to hit its peak, it would have been present for some time. As teachers, we want to defuse problematic behavior before it gets that far.
This means staying attuned to the mood and atmosphere of the classroom and any potential triggers. These might be noise levels, negative peer interactions, or just the low mood of a student who really didn’t feel like coming to school this morning.
Keep this in mind as you use the following strategies and you won’t have to stage serious behavioral interventions quite as often.
If a student is off-task — talking when they shouldn’t be, for instance — meeting their eye with a firm stare communicates that their behavior is not going unnoticed. This is often all you need to deter them and doesn’t break the flow of your instruction either.
Pausing your instruction and simply waiting until you have the full attention of the off-task student(s) also sends a powerful nonverbal message: ‘I’m not going to continue until you give me the courtesy of listening’. It can also be used to give emphasis and redirect attention. The student perceives that the whole class is waiting for them and subsequently re-engages, without the noise of a raised voice or verbal reprimand.
Gravitate toward the trouble spots where challenging behavior occurs. Your physical proximity will act as a natural deterrent for misbehavior.
If you notice that certain areas of your classroom are becoming ‘hotspots’, it might be worth creating a seating plan that splits up more troublesome individuals.
Weave verbal signals for attention into your instruction without breaking the flow. The simplest of these is to use a student’s name, e.g. ‘so if we turn to the next page, Daniel…’. It instantly recaptures and redirects the attention of a distracted student.
Add ‘thanks’ or ‘thank you’ onto any behavioral instruction.
It’s a form of positive language that de-escalates the intensity of the situation without softening the command, e.g. ‘I need you turning around and facing me, thanks Jessica’.
By thanking the student in advance for their compliance, it also sends the message that you aren’t entering into an exchange or argument (as you might get with, ‘can you stop that please?’).
If a student resists more subtle attempts to correct their behavior, use Bill Rogers’ forced-choice strategy.
Present them with two alternatives and give them the choice, e.g. ‘You can either do what I’ve asked, or you can come and take a seat at the front of the room. It’s up to you.’
Giving the student a sense of choice means that they retain some sense of control over the situation, and they can choose the path of least resistance without losing face or ‘giving in’.
Forced choice shows the importance of letting students save face in a behavioral situation. As soon as you set about forcing them to comply, you can expect their resistance and intensity to ramp up. Instead, make it clear that it’s not a battle to be won.
A good way to do this is to walk away from the student after you’ve made it clear what you want to see from them. They’re much more likely to comply if they do not perceive you as standing over them or challenging resistance.
When a student responds to your intervention with a ‘but…’ argument (‘But he’s also doing it…’, ‘but I didn’t do anything…’, do not take the bait by arguing the point. Instead, acknowledge their argument and quickly redirect the focus back to your initial instruction. For example, you might say ‘That’s a conversation I’ll be having with them later, but right now I’m asking you to…’.
If a student becomes increasingly resistant and intense in their behavior, use a ‘when-then’ statement.
For example, if you’re being told ‘This work is stupid and I’m not going to do it’, your response might be: ‘When you’ve calmed down and are ready for a conversation, then we can have a chat about the work and what you would like to do instead’.
This places responsibility back on them to manage their behavior and gives them an incentive to do it.
Use an assertive (but not aggressive) tone
Behavior management demands a firm and assertive tone, but this should not translate to constant shouting. Instead, phrase your instructions to be short, sharp, and definitive without raised volume or aggression. For example, ‘I don’t ever want to see you do that again’ is much more effective than a thirty-second rant with the whole class as your audience.
If a student’s behavior reaches peak intensity, they may well need to leave the room for the sake of yourself and other students. Instead of framing this as a punishment (‘Alright, OUT!’), present it as an opportunity to cool off and recharge (e.g., ‘You’re obviously angry and not having the best day — just take a breather outside for five minutes and come back when you’re ready’).
Online classroom management strategies
An online classroom presents unique challenges from a management perspective. Without seeing their peers or teacher in person, students may feel a diminished sense of accountability that makes for disengaged behavior or inappropriate communication.
Here are five bonus classroom management strategies that ensure your classroom runs just as smoothly in the digital world.
- Create a communication protocol.
Teach students what productive and respectful communication looks like online. This involves:
- using clear headings in posts so that other learners can navigate the discussion easily
- disagreeing with others, but always responding with courtesy and respect
- speaking clearly into your computer’s microphone and muting yourself when another person is speaking (particularly on Skype or Zoom)
- taking the time to respond calmly and rationally if something sparks a strong reaction in you.
- Stay connected and personable.
Good relationships and a sense of belonging are the foundations for smooth classroom management online, just as they are at school.
Here are some things you can do to stay connected and keep things personable in the digital classroom.
- Let your students connect and talk to each other. This might through an off-topic discussion board, a weekly online ‘show and tell’, or collaborative activities.
- Upload a daily ‘welcome to class’ video. It’s the online version of greeting students at the door.
- Check-in with students who disengage. If you notice a student slipping through the cracks, contact them directly to see if you can help.
- Be warm and enthusiastic when you’re communicating with your students online. Keep things vibrant with GIFs and emojis so that they get a sense of your voice and personality.
- Foster a parent-teacher partnership.
Parents play a vital role in online classroom management. They can be the motivators, monitors, and aides for your students while you are on the other side of the screen. But you have to actively involve them first.
Send home a parent support package. In this you can include:
- an overview of what content will be covered during the online teaching period
- the expectations for home learning: when students should be working, what it should involve, and for how long
- strategies for rewarding good online study habits and deterring poor ones
- login details and access information for any online teaching tools being used.
- Reward good online behavior.
Your rewards don’t have to be physical incentives. Record a personal message of congratulations for your students, use GIFs and emojis, or let them have a say in choosing a fun activity.
- Create a streamlined system.
Just as the physical classroom layout plays a big role in classroom management, an effective digital platform makes all the difference in online management. Centralize your teaching in an online home base, and make sure students know how to navigate it.
QTIP: Quit Taking It Personally
There’s a reason QTIP gets the last say in this piece, and that’s because it’s the golden rule of any classroom management approach.
Student behavior can be tough to manage, but it’s never personal.
It’s not about you. It’s not against you. It’s not the end for you. There’s a perfect storm of emotions and experiences informing that behavior – and often it has nothing to do with us.
If you bear this in mind, you’ll be so much more able to handle the challenges of classroom management calmly and rationally.
So next time you’re faced with a student who just won’t cooperate, or a student who seems hell-bent on making your life more difficult, remember to QTIP. Slow down, stay calm, and be the voice of reason your students need to hear.
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