Sunday, October 18, 2015

3 Simple Ideas for Managing Classroom Behavior

As a new counselor I struggled with how to successfully manage a classroom of students and teach my lesson at the same time. Mostly, I would just keep teaching in spite of whatever foolishness was happening in the room while I was talking.  My goal was to teach my lesson and get to the end of it no matter what!   Students who were calling out, talking while I was talking, off task, disturbing, and distracting others were the norm in my classroom. I didn’t know what to do. Those early years were a frustrating and disheartening time. How was I going to discipline them in the classroom setting and then expect students to connect with me as their School Counselor?

Fortunately for me, I worked with some outstanding teachers who became my mentors, which was a very good thing, because they sure didn’t teach classroom management in my graduate program! In the beginning, I was more concerned with getting through the lesson, so I would let the misbehavior slide just so I could get to the end.  But, my mentors pointed out, if the students were misbehaving, the entire time I was “teaching,” what had my students really learned from my lesson?  And what had they really learned from me?  Sadly, all they had learned from me was what they could get away with when I did a class.  By my failure to stop and reinforce my positive expectations for their behavior, I was silently reinforcing their negative behavior.

Communicating your Procedures and Positive Expectations
 To help with learning to manage classroom behaviors, my mentors recommended I visit different teachers whose classroom management I admired.  In each classroom I observed, I saw different styles of teaching and management. Strict or laid back, dramatic or quiet, creative or by the book, in those classrooms where the students were well behaved and respectful there was a common theme. What I learned was simple, it’s all about clearly and consistently communicating your procedures and positive expectations.

1)     Have a clear idea of what your procedures and positive behavioral expectations are.  Before you can communicate your procedures and positive expectations you must think about what you want to see in behavioral terms in the classroom. When you are teaching your lesson do you want students to raise their hands? Listen when others are speaking?  How do you pass out and return supplies? Is it okay if they get up and walk to the trash can, sharpen a pencil, lean back in their chair, text, chew gum, eat, drink, brush their hair, apply make-up, or talk quietly with a neighbor while you are teaching?
So think. What is important to you?  What are you willing to consistently enforce?  What do you need from your students for teaching and learning to take place?  Remember, that will look different for each of us and that is okay.

2)     Teach, model, practice, repeat.  In order for students to know what you expect, you must teach your positive expectations. NEVER assume they should "just know" how to behave with you.  Spend some time teaching what your positive expectations look and sound like. Model it for them, then have the students practice your positive expectations.  Repeat as often as necessary.  At the beginning of my “Meet the Counselor” lessons each year, I always start with the procedures for my room and my positive expectations for their behavior.  We are a PBIS school and have four positive behavioral expectations we teach all around our campus; Perform Personal Best, Act Responsibly, Work and Play Safely, and Show Respect.  These are the foundation for my first lesson and I talk about what each one will look and sound like in our time together.

In doing this, I think it is important to understand there is absolutely nothing “un-counselor like” in clearly stating your procedures and positive expectations for student behavior when you are together.  As School Counselors, we talk about creating and teaching lessons on respect, responsibility, and social skills.  Teaching our students how to attend to the speaker, monitor their own behavior, and choose and demonstrate appropriate social skills required for a situation are the most basic of skills for success in life.  What better way to conduct your classes?

3)     Consistently reinforce your procedures and positive expectations in EVERY lesson.
In EVERY lesson, you must put consistently reinforcing your procedures and positive behavioral expectations above teaching that lesson.  No matter how hard you worked on creating the lesson or how fun the activity or awesome the story may be, there is no learning if students are involved in disruptive or disrespectful behavior.  You may have to stop your lesson multiple times, you may not get to the activity or story, but it is more important to consistently reinforce your procedures and positive expectations as often as is needed in order for your classes to learn your expectations for them.

So, if you expect them to raise their hand to speak, don't accept answers from those who call out.  Politely remind them by always restating the rule.  “You show respect to your classmates by raising your hand if you want to speak."  Then call on someone who has been sitting quietly with their hand up, thanking them for raising their hand.  If someone is being silly or talking to a neighbor, stop and remind them the rule is to show respect and we do that by having one person talk at a time. If someone is not participating appropriately in a group I might ask if they are acting responsibly and what they could be doing instead.  If materials are passed out and collected in a specific way and students are grabbing and arguing, remind them what the procedure is and how we work and play safely. And if necessary, stop and re-teach and practice that procedure.

Great classroom management = Being respected as an authority figure
I know there are some School Counselors who think having a well-mannered class means you have to have the teacher in the room with you or you have to be a negative authority figure the students then won’t be able trust.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is possible to be both a figure of authority and a trusted and respected School Counselor. Think about a favorite authority figure; a teacher, coach or relative for whom you have a lot of respect.  If you stop to analyze why you have respect for them I would guess it is because of things like they were kind, fair, consistent, positive, had high expectations for you, and held you accountable for your actions.  My students know I love them, but I can go in the cafeteria of screaming students and give the quiet sign and they get quiet.  I can give a look in my classroom and restore order.  It’s not because I am a large, threatening presence or have any special power over them in terms of disciplinary actions.  It is because I have clearly communicated and consistently taught and reinforced my positive expectations.  Students need structure, they need boundaries, and they need to know what your positive behavioral expectations are too.

So there you have it.  My three simple ideas for managing classroom behavior.  It takes practice and you will have set backs.  But keep on giving it your best.  You, your students, and your school counseling program will be better for your efforts.


  1. EXCELLENT post, Jeannie. I will be sharing this with my grad students, as well as a few struggling teachers I know. Excellent.

    1. Thanks Jan! There's nothing like "hard knocks" to teach us life lessons. I just wish this was one I had learned before my first counseling job!

  2. Jeannie, thank you again for sharing your wisdom with us. This is information that is needed throughout the school year.

  3. You are so right Lois! And when I get new students or a particularly "squirrley" class I have to remind myself all over again.

  4. I have good success with Love & Logic enforceable statements, such as, "I call on kids who raise their hands quietly." Also, I teach to several attention-getting signals that I will use throughout the year and find them really effective as well.

  5. Thank you for your comments Tanya. I've not used Love and Logic but it sounds similar to what I do. I like the term enforceable statements. Another great way to clearly remind them of our positive expectations!