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6 Lifesaving Tips for Managing Behavior in The Classroom

When I first started teaching, my behavior management was truly horrific. It actually physically pains me now to think about how chaotic and unproductive my classroom was.

A quick disclaimer: I had 33 students in my first 4th grade class and they were “that group.” If you don’t know what I mean by “that group” then you must work in an idealized, Utopian school of some kind and you should consider yourself very lucky. “That group” is the group of students that comes along every so often that puts the fear of God in each and every teacher as they progress through grade levels. They come with a reputation, to say the least. This particular group’s reputation can best be summed up by a 2nd grade colleague of mine who, in her 36th year of teaching (!) proclaimed: “They are the worst group of students I have ever taught.” My first year of teaching was trial by fire and all of the odds were against me.

I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. I observed countless other teachers and saw nothing of any use to me. They appeared to be doing and saying the same things I was. The only difference – their students were actually listening to them. It wasn’t until around mid October of that year, after a parent switched her son to another class because mine didn’t have enough “structure” for him (a very nice way to put it) and we found ourselves in the midst of a serial hair cutter (…yeah that’s what it sounds like), that I turned to the internet for help. I stumbled upon a few blog posts, articles, and videos about behavior management, what to do, what not to do, that sort of thing. Some of it was useful and some of it wasn’t. After weeding through all of the information out there, I narrowed it down to 6 main areas. These 6 lifesaving tips helped me turn my classroom around and stopped me from quitting my job after the first year (or even mid year!). I hope they help you too!

Number One: Set Very Clear Expectations

I know you’ve heard this before. I certainly had. But it’s pretty abstract and it isn’t very practical advice. What does setting clear expectations actually look like in practice? Expectations are what you expect your students to do while they are in your classroom and the types of behaviors you will not tolerate. It is okay to talk about these with your students and it is okay to be absolutely firm about them. You are the boss. Whenever I discussed expectations with my students that first year it was “Well, I’d rather you not do that,” or “What if we did it like this instead?” I was unsure and passive and the expectations were ever changing throughout the year. You need to decide before the school year even begins what your expectations are and then you need to back them up 100% all year long. Here’s what setting expectations looks like in my classroom:

  • On the morning of the first day of school (after some ice breaker type activities) I call my students down to the carpet for a meeting.

  • I begin this meeting by asking if any of them play sports and calling on a few to share which sports they play. (This may or may not lead to a discussion as to whether or not dance is a sport, just try to breeze past this quickly).

  • I choose one of these sports that are shared (usually soccer because for some reason everyone seems to play soccer) and I ask students if there are any special rules for this game that their coaches teach them. Students usually say things like “you can’t touch the ball with your hands,” or “you can’t trip anybody,” or even “you have to come to practice or you can’t play in the game.”

  • We have a discussion about why sports have rules like these which usually results in comments like “to make it fair,” “so no one gets hurt,” etc. Students typically agree that these rules are necessary.

  • I then tell them that school is kind of like a sport. At school we are learning and practicing skills to become better learners and to strengthen our brains just like learning and practicing soccer skills helps us become better players and strengthen our muscles. A test at school is kind of like a game in sports and in order to perform well, there are rules, or expectations, that must be followed.

  • Then, and this is key, I ask them what they think some of the expectations at school should be so that everyone can learn in a safe, fair environment. I already have my expectations printed and laminated and ready to be hung on the wall directly following this discussion but they don’t need to know that. Let them think they came up with the rules! They will be way more apt to follow them if they feel they have some ownership over them. They will most likely say things like “listen to the teacher,” “raise your hand to talk,” “keep your hands to yourself,” which is basically what you came up with anyway. Write all of this down on the board or a piece of chart paper. Pause every now and then to discuss why their suggestions are important. “Why do we need to raise our hands to talk?”… “Because if everyone talks at the same time, no one will be able to hear anyone else.” Make sure they understand each expectation and aren’t just regurgitating rules put in place by past teachers. If they prove to you that they understand the expectations, then you can hold them to them all. year. long.

  • Finally, show them your printed, laminated expectations ready to be hung on the wall as if you somehow instantaneously typed up their suggestions and manifested them into permanence like this: “You guys came up with some really good expectations. So basically, to sum it up, we need to…” and then go through your expectations with them before prominently displaying them in your classroom.

Make sure your expectations are phrased as positive statements. Try to avoid using negative words. Also, try to limit it to about 5 expectations that cover all the bases. To give you an idea, here are the expectations I use each year:

  1. Use a quiet, polite voice

  2. Raise my hand to share

  3. Listen and follow directions

  4. Respect people and belongings

  5. Think before I act

Number Two: Have a System

After discussing the expectations with your students and ensuring that they fully understand what is expected and why, tell them about your behavior management system. What’s that, you may ask. A behavior management system is a way of keeping track of students behavior and rewarding them for it. It should be mostly positive reinforcement for following through with the expectations. Below are three different systems I have used in past years to give you some ideas:

Money – When you catch students following the expectations, give them money (fake of course!). You decide how much. When I used this system, I was mostly giving out nickels and dimes. A quarter was a big deal and a dollar was like winning the lottery. I know teachers who opt for the $1 to $20 range. I guess it depends on whether you’d prefer handing out coins or bills (maybe I opted for coins because they are more durable!) Students will need a place to keep their money. In my classroom, this was a ziplock bag velcroed to the the wall. Every Friday, students could use their money to shop for prizes (other teachers held an auction as opposed to a prize store). Pros – this system offers the extra bonus of reinforcing concepts of money, how to count money, and budgeting. Cons – Having a safe place for students to keep their money can take up space in your room. This system does not work well if students change classes.

Tickets – This system operates more like a lottery. When you catch students following the expectations, give them a ticket. You can buy large rolls of tickets like the ones pictured here at Walmart or Staples. Students write their name on the ticket and place it into some sort of container (a recycled coffee can works great). Every Friday, randomly select a predetermined number of tickets from the container. Those students can choose a prize. The idea is that the more tickets a student has in the container, the more likely they are to be chosen for a prize. Pros – You can use the number of tickets drawn each Friday as an additional incentive. I used to write 1 2 3 4 5 on my board each Friday to signify drawing 5 tickets at the end of class. Depending on the class’s behavior, I could add more numbers to that or take them away. At the end of class, whatever was written on the board was how many tickets I drew. Cons – There is the possibility for a student with poor behavior who only has 1 ticket in the container to be drawn for a prize while a very well behaved student with upwards of 20 tickets is not. If you use this system, be prepared to pull names that are undeserving of a prize!

Class Dojo – Never heard of Class Dojo? Oh my you are in for a treat! This free online resource allows you to give (and take) digital points as rewards for behavior in your classroom. It goes way past that as a means of communicating with parents and posting photos and updates about what is happening at school but I’ll save all that for another post. Students are given a monster avatar (which they can personalize!). When you click on that student (or you can select multiple students or the whole class) you can award them points or detract points. I like to display the Class Dojo screen using my projector so students can see where they stand. The best part about Class Dojo is the noises it makes when you give and take points. Students begin to react to these noises instantly… how’s that for classical conditioning? Also, you can download the free app for your phone to give points anywhere – the playground, cafeteria, field trip, etc. Each Friday, students use their points to shop for prizes. Pros – easy to keep track of, doesn’t take up any space in your room, goes so far beyond rewards and consequences as a means of communication. Cons – Requires internet access. Click here to check out Class Dojo. It’s a game changer.

Number Three: It's Not What You Say It's How You Say It

Looking back, one of the fatal flaws of my first year teaching was the passive way that I was communicating with my students. Pay close attention to the way you phrase what you are saying. If you want students to do something, then say it like a command, not a suggestion. This may feel uncomfortable at first. I am not a very demanding or authoritative person and I never have been. But trust me when I say that your students will respect it and appreciate it. They need someone to be in control and to call the shots. They may never admit that, but it’s true. I’ll never forget one particularly chaotic day from my first year teaching. Students were supposed to be working on a writing assignment but most were just sitting around talking and laughing loudly. I tried to quiet them with “it’s a little too loud in here,” “maybe we should talk less and work more,” “So and so, can you lower your voice?” to no avail. Finally, fed up, I turned off the lights and said in the most authoritative voice I could muster through the lump in my throat, “No more talking! Silence for the rest class.” To my immense surprise one of the biggest troublemakers in the class exclaimed “Thank you! Finally!” You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the class. Not only does your class need you to be in charge, they want it.

Effective communication is not just about what you’re saying, though. Studies have shown that most of what we communicate is nonverbal. Pay attention to the tone of your voice, the way you are standing, what you are doing with your hands, and what the expression on your face is communicating. A lot of this is controlled subconsciously so you may not be aware of how you are coming across to your students. If you are scared and nervous, you are going to look scared and nervous and you are going to sound scared and nervous. Before you address your class, consciously make yourself appear like you are in charge (even if you don’t feel like you are!). Here are some tips for doing that:

  1. Make sure your students are silent before you begin speaking. This is huge. Do not speak over your class. They must be silent while you are addressing them. If you speak while they are speaking, this sends the message that it’s okay for them to talk over you. Stand at the front of the room and wait for silence. Even if you have to wait 5 minutes. Wait. It’s a good idea to have some kind of signal for silence like a bell, hand signal, turning off the lights, or some kind of chant. (I found one this year that I particularly like. I say “hands on top!” and everyone stops what they are doing, puts their hands on their heads, and says “everybody stop!”)

  2. Stand facing the class directly, feet hip distance apart, hands hanging by your side or maybe clasped gently in front of you. Avoid placing your hands on your hips (too aggressive) or crossing your arms (too defensive). This all seems unnecessary and like something only a lion tamer would need to know but, trust me, it’s more important than you think.

  3. Keep your face pleasant and relaxed. This can be difficult if you are feeling frustrated or stressed. Take a deep breath. Try not to let emotion creep in. Sometimes, and this might seem silly, I pretend that I am an actor and I’m playing the part of a teacher. If I’m not myself, but someone else, I find that I have better control over my facial expressions and can more easily keep my emotions in check.

  4. Don’t yell. Raising your voice suggests that you have already lost control (of yourself and of the situation). It also sets a bad example for them to follow. You don’t want children to think that yelling is an appropriate way to communicate.

  5. Know what you are going to say before you say it. Try to avoid winging it. Teaching is much more like performing on stage than most people know. I don’t mean that you have to write out a script for each lesson and memorize it. Just put some conscious thought into how you will phrase what you are trying to get across before you get up there and get everyone’s attention. You will feel more confident and a little confidence goes a long way.

Number Four: Never Ever Ever Back Down

If you were to ask me what the number one, most important, above all else, undeniably paramount key to effective behavior management is, I would say consistency. Consistency means that no means no, every single time. One of the biggest mistakes that teachers make, myself included, is to say something and not back it up – to throw out empty threats, so to speak. For me, there are two parts to being consistent:

  1. Keep your expectations the same all year long. Remember those expectations from earlier in this post? Well, once you hang those bad boys on the wall, that’s it. You can’t change your expectations throughout the year. If you tell students that they have to raise their hands to speak then they have to raise their hands each and every time they speak. If a student speaks without raising a hand, do not accept it. I’ll often ignore the student and walk away raising my hand in the air to remind them of why they aren’t being listened to. Or, if other students are raising their hand and someone just blurts out, ignore that student, call on one raising their hand and be sure to say “So and so, thank you for raising your hand.” If you find yourself with a serial blurter and these tricks aren’t working… you’ll have to decide on some consequences (see next section).

  2. Always follow through. If there is a consequence for a particular infraction in your class and a student commits said infraction, you have to follow through with the consequence each and every time. Don’t throw out a consequence you aren’t willing to go through with. The same goes for rewards. If you tell students that they will receive a reward for doing something and they do it, you have to give them the reward each and every time. This may seem tedious, but it is paramount to effective behavior management. Empty threats and broken promises are the fastest way to lose the respect of your students. I learned that lesson the hard way.

Number Five: Choose Appropriate Consequences

So much of current behavior research will tell you that positive reinforcement is the way to go, and it is, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for negative behavior. Folks, there have to be consequences. Consequences should fit the crime. They should be consistent and fair. Deciding on what consequences are appropriate can be difficult so here are a few tips:

  1. Know possible consequences ahead of time, don’t come up with them on the spot. This will ensure that the consequence is realistic and appropriate and can actually be carried out. Don’t threaten to take away recess and then later find out that you are actually required by law to have 30 minutes of recess a day. Know what you can and can’t do.

  2. The consequence should fit the crime. If a student is vandalizing desks in your room, don’t give them silent lunch. That is a completely unrelated consequence. Instead, maybe they will have to wash all of the desks while the rest of the students do some fun activity. Natural consequences are best. If a student is goofing around while playing a math game, I assume they cannot handle that type of activity and give them a (much less fun) worksheet. If the consequence is a logical response to their behavior, it will seem more fair and even deserved.

  3. Don’t use school work as a consequence. Giving a student extra work or even extra homework should never be used as a consequence. You don’t want your students to view work as a punishment.

  4. Try to avoid punishing the entire class. I know, sometimes it’s really hard to tell which students are misbehaving and which are just innocent bystanders. It’s so much easier to throw out a whole group punishment than to try to get to the bottom of a situation. But whole group punishments are usually not very fair and can cause students to lose respect for you and your authority. If they think you are unfair, then they feel justified in not listening to you in the future. Yikes.

Number Six: Communication is Key

This was a hard one for me. In the beginning, I was terrible at communicating about what was going on in my classroom – with parents, colleagues, and even the students who were causing the problems. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that things were so out of hand. I am not a confrontational person, at all. I’d way rather avoid a conflict altogether then face some one to discuss it. If you’re like me, you’re just going to have to muster your courage and do it. It gets easier, I promise.

  1. Talk to your colleagues – discuss issues you are having with the other teachers at your school and even your administrators. They probably have a lot of insight and practical advice to share with you. They are teachers too so they have walked in your shoes. I guarantee they will not judge you harshly for your shortcomings. They will be way more interested in supporting you and helping you.

  2. Call parents on the phone – If there is an ongoing issue with a student at school, you need to tell their parents about it. Don’t send a note home or an email that will never be opened. Call them on the phone that day and tell them what’s going on. In fact, rather than put up a fight, parents are usually grateful that you kept them informed. On the flip side, I’ve had parents very angry with me in the past when they were kept in the dark about situations affecting their child at school.

  3. Have a one on one with the student – Even the most challenging of students are typically much more agreeable when you get them by themselves. Don’t address a student about their behavior in front of the whole class for two reasons. First, with their audience watching, they are going to want to appear tough and will seem to immediately dismiss your criticism. This can also tarnish your authority in front of the rest of your class. Second, you may embarrass them and lose their trust. Instead, pull them aside and speak in a low voice, ask them to come out into the hall for a moment, or keep them back when the other students leave the room. Don’t yell at them. Speak calmly and tell them why what they are doing is not acceptable. Have a conversation about it. Make sure they understand. Remind them of the consequences and next steps if the behavior continues.

  4. Talk to yourself – Not like, while you're walking down the street or people will think you’re crazy. I did this by starting a journal. At the end of each school day, I sat down at my desk and wrote down how I thought the day went. I wrote the things I thought went smoothly and what could have gone better. I set a goal for the following day and wrote a list of things I could do or not do to accomplish that goal. Not only did this help me realize patterns of what was working and what wasn’t, it made me feel a lot better. I left my school stress in that journal. I didn’t take it home with me at the end of the day anymore.This was a hard one for me. In the beginning, I was terrible at communicating about what was going on in my classroom – with parents, colleagues, and even the students who were causing the problems. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that things were so out of hand. I am not a confrontational person, at all. I’d way rather avoid a conflict altogether then face some one to discuss it. If you’re like me, you’re just going to have to muster your courage and do it. It gets easier, I promise.

Behavior management is a serious challenge for many teachers. It’s more like mind control than anything else. I hope these 6 tips help you turn things around in your classroom like they did for me. If so, I hope you will consider sharing this post with others who may benefit from it! Thanks for reading!

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