15 Classroom Management tips for the Chaotic Classroom
For the last four months, I've been working with three different elementary schools in Normandy, France. The first three months were a mixed bag as I got to know the students and what interests them in a lesson. The challenge of engaging them and helping them stay on task was constant, and then things started to click.
Here are 15 tips and tricks to a calm, engaged, happy, and productive elementary school classroom, specifically 1st through 5th graders.
A few guiding principles:
First, challenge vs. control. You just can't control them! So don't even try. Trying to control your students will only leave you frustrated and your students distracted. Even if they may not or cannot articulate it, students (especially at these ages) can sense when you're more focused on controlling them than engaging them. Students this age also enjoy being challenged: they are becoming more independent, taking pride in responsibility, and showing off what they can do.
Rather than controlling them by simply telling them to be quiet (they probably hear that enough!) draw their attention to a task by saying "you can do it - show me." They don't need to be told what they can't do, they need to be encouraged in what they can do.
Second, model behavior you want them to adopt. There is nothing that adds more chaos to a noisy and distracted classroom than a teacher who yells, reacts strongly to students, or draws negative attention to negative behavior. A simple mental check is: "if my student did it, would I be proud of them or feel the need to correct them?"Above all, never raise your voice or teach with anger or shame-creating tone, even to the most difficult students. Give your students the opportunity in your classroom to learn how to communicate with seriousness rather than volume. If you yell, they will yell. If you are impatient and harsh, they will be, too. Even in chaos, the teacher sets the tone.
A few ways to bring calm to your noisy classroom by exchanging control for challenge and modelling behavior and skills you want your students to develop:
Stand where they all can see you, put on your serious (but do not look angry, funny, or impatient). Let your students notice the lack of your voice. Wait for them to look for you, even if it takes a couple minutes. They will for you - if they are intentionally being disruptive, they will look to see your reaction, if they are just energetic kids eager for recess, they will notice the lack of action happening at the front of the classroom. Make direct eye contact with each student as they look up, but stay silent. When all the students have calmed down and are looking at you, say this: "I will wait for you to continue." If you have a few stragglers, say this: "We are all waiting on _____ to keep going." Use a patient tone, never an angry or frustrated tone. Model polite, calm, and patient communication here for your students who are paying attention. If quieting down the class at the beginning of a lesson, do not begin until you've made eye contact and gotten each student's attention.
Walk around as you teach, pausing by chatty or disruptive students. Place your hand on their table, the back of their chair, or lightly tap their shoulder and stay there until they quiet down. If he or she continues talking, move so that you are right in front of them but continue teaching and engage the student in eye contact. This works especially for when students are at their desks. Let them know you see them but are not going to disrupt the lesson for them.
Give students a countdown. This age group thrives with a good countdown. When giving instructions for an activity, during clean-up or lesson switch, or when reestablishing a calm classroom, hold up 5-10 fingers and count down. Giving students a deadline spurs them along to complete a task without getting off track.
For students who participate, but tend to ramble for attention, do not cut them off or verbally tell them to wrap it up: give them the same 5-finger countdown and watch their eyes snap into focus and their sentences come to an end. Always give positive feedback such as "great," "good observation," "thank you." Wrap it up with a smile.
Ask if everyone heard the correct answer when a student gives a response but there is too much noise to hear. Say, "what did so-and-so just say?" or "did you hear that amazing answer?" You will get a handful of yes's and no's. Ask a yesser to repeat the answer, ask another yesser to repeat the answer, then as a no-er to repeat the answer. This gives students multiple exposures to the target information and communicates your desire for them to participate with enthusiasm rather than waste class time. This recasting technique also communicates to students that you are there to help them learn, not just send them out in the hall when they "get in the way."
Don't be afraid to push on the lesson - students may just be bored. I often find that pushing ahead to the next point of the lesson regains attention. Lost students will ask questions to fill in their gaps and you can circle back once calm is reestablished.
Give directions as simply as possible and repeat twice only. Then, ask for questions. If a student is confused, ask for another student to explain what they will be doing. Use a calm and enthusiastic tone. The goal is to give your students the opportunity to reformulate the objectives in their own words, work as a team to work towards comprehension, while communicating to students the importance of listening attentively the first time instructions are given. If you just constantly repeat instructions, they will never need to listen the first time. If there are still a few confused students, instruct the class to begin and circulate to the individual students and work with them until they are good to go. The ultimate message you send to students when approaching instructions like this is that you are always there to clarify and help them, but they need to be attentive listeners and do their best the first time -- you are not a broken record for them to dance around to.
Tell them where you are taking them -- intellectually speaking. Give them a road map of the lesson, but keep it simple. If there are three main points to the lesson (i.e., input, comprehension check, and output game), write them on the board and check them off as you go. Some students get bored because they're not sure what to do with the information as you give it to them. giving them a road map helps them stay on track and pace themselves when they start to get fidgety.
Put a timer up on the board and when it's up, be done. Show them there's an end-point to the current task and finish up when there's no more time left. This will encourage them to stay on task when they know it won't last forever.
Use sensory input to change the pace. Teach for a few minutes in a whisper, move around the room, have students move around. It could be that they're not intentionally being disruptive but that they've been sitting for too long.
Ask them questions, prompt them to guess where you're going next, engage their critical thinking skills. Ask questions like: "what do we do next?" "Someone help me, what do I do now?" Give them the chance to show off what they've understood.
Have your challenging student help you lead the class in an activity. Demonstrate with them, rather than putting them on the spot in front of their peers. Doing so only highlights their poor behavior and subjects them to embarrassment which communicates to the rest of the class that that is the appropriate and kind response to such behavior when it's unnecessary and further distracts the class.
Give them rewards for good choices! Little candy, little notes, little somethings to show them you notice when they put in the work. If they start backsliding, then reduce the prizes - say they'll come back as the class continues in the right direction. As soon as they shift back into focus, bring back those rewards! If we, as adults, enjoy compliments and words of affirmation, then how much more does a young child need it? Little rewards go a long way.
Use the above techniques to restore as much order as possible, start the class on a task, then pull the main disruptor student(s) out into the hall and away from the eyes of their peers. Say: "I've noticed you're not focused today and seem more interested in disrupting the class than staying on task. Is there a specific reason? I'd love to see you working hard and in the zone because I know you can make it happen. Is there a way I can help you?" Many students have never had a teacher treat them with dignity and instead are yelled at to be quiet, etc. Most of the time, students will be honest if they are bored, another student is egging them on, or they're just truly checked out and don't care to be there. Either way, this gives you a chance to model respectful behavior to a student who has a hard time showing the same respect for his peers and teacher, regardless of the reason. Give your student the opportunity to see respectful responses to disrespectful behavior.
If all else fails, wrap up your lesson and set a two minute timer. Don't explain the timer, just let it go. At the end, use #1 to quiet down the remaining students. Appeal to their emotions by saying something like this: "I wake up early every day excited to spend the say with you and learn interesting things together. It seems like we had some trouble focusing today. This makes me very sad (or something like this - gauge it with your students). Are there any specific reasons why you chose to make your teacher sad today?" If they offer up reasons, engage with them! You don't have to assert your dominance to reestablish order. If they don't offer reasons for their behavior, continue with something like this: "I don't come to teach for me - I already know ______. I come to teach you because I know you will have so much more fun and have so many more things to talk about with skills you can learn in class. So, now or later, you decide, I would like each of you to think about three things you can work on to help make your classmates' learning environments more pleasant." Compliment the students that did well. Show them that you are sad, not angry - we should never let ourselves be angry at our students. Then set a five minute timer and give them that time to write or think about their three things. Let the ones who want to go, go. As they leave, leave them with a smile and a warm eye contact and a "see you next time."
I work with over 500 students on a weekly basis. There is a lot of difficult behavior in many of the 2-5 grade classes due to too-large class sizes, bored students, students interested in being disruptive for fun, students with disabilities, students tired of the yelling all day, and students who haven't had the opportunity to know better. As teachers, we're not the parents, but we are an opportunity for them to experience positive, respectful, and kind behavior. We want to push our students to be better, rather than lower the expectations bar by engaging in poor reactionary behavior ourselves. Give these 14 things consistent tries over a 6-week secret trial run, then if you're not seeing improvement, try #15. This has worked multiple times with classes of different ages and I hope it will bring as much calm and enthusiastic engagement to your classroom as it has to mine.