It’s a brand new school year and new students will soon enter your classroom. How will you keep things running smoothly so that you can maximize student learning? We collected some education experts’ excellent classroom management strategies so that you can start the year off in the best way possible.
One of the most effective and profound means of making your classroom truly function is by fostering strong relationships with your students. “When we’re around kids we don’t know well who are misbehaving, we often experience anger and an overwhelming desire to put them in their place,” says Amy Fast, author of It’s the Mission, Not the Mandates: Defining the Purpose of Public Education. “When we’ve connected with the misbehaving students, we often feel deep sadness and an unrelenting desire to help. One works. One doesn’t.” Relationships form a bond that encourages students to trust their teacher, feel loved by their teacher, and to feel safe with that teacher. When students feel a connection with their teacher, they are less willing to disappoint them. Students who feel seen, heard, and respected lean in and are more prepared to learn.
Most of us can think of a teacher — either from our own time in school or a colleague — who runs their classroom on a power trip. Superfluous rules, inconsistent expectations, and disproportionate punishments make for miserable students and a lost opportunity for deeper learning. As you consider the expectations of your classroom this year, be clear about the reason behind each one. Is a rule chosen to make your life easier or is it truly in the interest of creating a powerful learning community? Ensuring that your students understand the reasons for your expectations makes them feel invested and instills a sense of fairness.
Chris Lehmann, founding principal and CEO of Science Leadership Academy Schools and co-author (with Zac Chase) of Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need says that “Words matter and when we stress ‘classroom management’ to teachers, we need to think deeply about what those words mean. There is no question that it is essential for teachers to establish and maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning, but when we think that involves ‘’managing’ all the goings on in the classroom, we actually make it much harder to create the kind of classrooms where authentic learning can happen.”
One meaningful way to build community expectations is by working in collaboration with students to co-develop a set of classroom norms and ideals for the year. “Unfortunately, many teachers make the mistake of announcing rather than teaching parameters to their students. The truth is that students do not learn what’s announced; they learn what they are taught,” says Mark Boynton and Christine Boynton in Educator’s Guide to Preventing and Solving Discipline Problems. “It makes no more sense to announce rules regarding acceptable student behaviors than it does to announce—rather than teach—math facts. It is critical that you formally teach and enforce both a discipline plan and rules of conduct from the very first day of school.”
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Engagement is a tricky thing to define and measure. The 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education: How Well Are American Students Learning notes that “student engagement refers to the intensity with which students apply themselves to learning in school.” But perhaps one of the most intuitive definitions of engagement comes from the late Phil Schlechty of the Schlechty Center, who said in his book, Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, that the engaged student is attentive, committed, persistent, and finds meaning and value in their school tasks. When students are engaged, they are less likely to act out, disrupt, or feel bored. Building engaging lessons, activities, and methods for teaching reduces the need for classroom management strategies.
“Teacher expectations that are too high often lead to frustration; those that are too low often lead to students being bored and feeling that success is cheap and not worth the effort,” says Richard Curwin, Allen Mendler, and Brian Mendler in their book Discipline with Dignity: How to Build Responsibility, Relationships, and Respect in Your Classroom. “When we make learning too easy, students find little value in it and take little pride in their achievements. Try increasing the challenge without increasing the tedium.” The authors suggest listening to student feedback, using humor, varying your style of presentation, and offering choice to maintain engagement over time.
When students act out in class, teachers often call home looking for some help with enforcement. But when we make parents partners — not just bad cops — we can actually begin to prevent classroom problems. “What is the main reason teachers call home or write home to a parent? Usually, Johnny is in trouble!” says Jessica Balsley, founder of The Art of Education. “What if you were contacted by a teacher for the simple fact that you wanted to say something positive? From the art teacher, no less? This makes a huge impact.”
Sending positive messages home not only builds a healthy relationship with a student’s family, but it also lets a student feel seen and recognized by the teacher. When a student feels validated by their teacher, they may be less likely to cause issues in class.
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It’s easy for students to drift or feel uninspired when a teacher is merely lecturing at the front of a room. Dynamic teachers truly fill the classroom space, moving around, commanding attention and interacting with their learners. A teacher’s presence is a powerful thing and can head off behavioral issues before they start.
During instruction, teachers can do simple things like moving around the room, placing a hand on a desk or a student’s shoulder, making eye contact, and picking up on visual cues that convey the needs of students throughout the classroom. “When you enter your classroom each day, the first thing students experience is your presence,” says Chuck Poole, founder of Teachonomy. “You have the opportunity to make them feel safe, make them feel better about themselves, and make them believe. You also have the choice to intimidate them, make them doubt, and instill fear. Students look to their teachers to be the positive influence that is constant in their lives. A teacher’s presence will directly impact the outcomes of the students they teach.”
It’s easy to get frustrated and call out all of the negative or disruptive behaviors in class, but it can be very effective to take the time to recognize the positive moments too. “Children are highly motivated by the attention of an adult,” according to The Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning. “So when a teacher consistently gives attention or praise or rewards the behaviors he or she wants to see, it helps children learn which behaviors are valued by the teacher.”
One way to do this is through Labeled Praise. Instead of merely saying something like “great work,” a teacher should give more specific feedback like: “Great work today getting your supplies out quickly and getting ready to learn.” Recognition can come in the form of one-on-one verbal feedback, whole-group recognition, high-fives, stickers, notes, or rewards.
Read more about PBIS.
Is your class a bit chatty? A little sluggish after lunch? Antsy after sitting too long? Learn to recognize these patterns and behaviors and get preemptive. Kids like to socialize, so why not build in some chat breaks in between learning activities? It’s routine for working people to take breaks and have a chat, so why do we expect energetic kids and teenagers to power through hours of school in compliant silence? When students know a break is coming, they may be more likely to stay focused and power through.
Class breaks emphasize the importance of focus during work time and the beauty of taking a well-deserved breather. Even five minutes thoughtfully drizzled into classroom time here and there can give kids a much-needed energy outlet. Let kids talk, do some jumping jacks, have a dance break, or even play.
When students know what to expect, the class runs much more efficiently. For transitions and when you need the class’ attention, decide on a cue and stick with it. Teacher cues can be things like “1-2-3, eyes on me” or “Clap twice if you can hear me” or even flickering the lights — whatever works for you and your kids.
Visual cues are powerful too. For example, when the class is getting too loud during work time, a teacher can display a yellow card on the board.
Call and response cues are a fun way to get kids ready for a task or come back to full attention. For example, Angela Watson, educator and founder of The Cornerstone For Teachers, suggests this fun one. The teacher yells out “Hocus Pocus!” to which students respond, “Time to focus!”
Sound cues also work particularly well in creating classroom mood shifts. Play some soft classical music during work time to solidify the need for quiet focus, while some chimes can signal the end of work time.
There are tons of cue options to choose from, but consistency is what keeps the class humming along.
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Jennifer Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, a teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.