In the 1950s, psychologists Jacob Kounin and Paul Gump discovered a curious side effect of discipline: If a student was being disruptive and the teacher responded with strict disciplinary measures, the student might stop—but other students would start exhibiting the same misbehavior. Kounin and Gump called this the “ripple effect,” and it demonstrated that efforts to control a classroom can backfire.
“The teacher who is interested in controlling ripple effects can generally do so best by giving clear instructions to the child rather than by exerting pressure on him,” Kounin and Gump wrote.
Decades later, classroom management is still a thorny issue for teachers. Nearly half of new teachers report that they feel “not at all prepared” or “only somewhat prepared” to handle disruptive students, in part because the average teacher training program devotes just eight hours to the topic, according to a 2014 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality. This lack of training comes with a cost, as teachers report losing 144 minutes of instructional time on average to behavioral disruptions every week, which comes out to roughly three weeks over the course of a year.
Recent research confirms what Kounin and Gump discovered decades ago. A 2016 study found that while negative attention—reprimands like “Stop chitchatting!”—may temporarily stop misbehavior, students eventually became more likely to engage in disruptive behavior. Students in the study felt disengaged, had difficulty concentrating, and weren’t able to effectively regulate their thoughts and emotions—a vicious cycle that “actually amplifies students’ inappropriate behavior,” the study authors explain.
8 PROACTIVE CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Instead of handling disruptions after they’ve happened, it can be more effective to set up conditions in which they are less likely to occur. Here are eight classroom strategies that teachers have shared with Edutopia, all backed by research.
1. Greet students at the door: At Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, DC, Falon Turner starts the day by giving each of her students a high-five, handshake, or hug. “During that time, I’m just trying to connect with them…. It’s kind of like a pulse check to see where they are,” she says.
In a study published last year, greeting students at the door helped teachers set a positive tone for the rest of the day, boosting academic engagement by 20 percentage points while reducing disruptive behavior by 9 percentage points—adding roughly an hour of engagement over the course of the school day.
2. Establish, maintain, and restore relationships: Building relationships with students through strategies like greeting them at the door is a good start. It’s also necessary to maintain them over the course of the school year, and to repair them when conflicts arise. “The stronger the relationship and the better we understand our students, the more knowledge and goodwill we have to draw on when the going gets tough,” writes Marieke van Woerkom, a restorative practices coach at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York.
Strategies for establishing, maintaining, and restoring relationships—such as regular check-ins, and focusing on solutions instead of problems—can reduce disruptions by up to 75 percent.
3. Use reminders and cues: “Novelty—such as the sound of a wind chime or rain stick—captures young students’ attention” writes Todd Finley, a former English teacher and current professor of English education, who suggests using these techniques to quiet a noisy class.
For older students, give plenty of warning if you need them to follow instructions. Reminders and cues are helpful ways to encourage students to follow instructions without being overtly controlling or forceful. For example, if you can anticipate a disruption—such as students getting out of their seats if they finish an assignment early—give a short reminder of what they should do instead.
Reminders are commonly verbal, but can also be visual (flicking the lights to signal that it’s time to be quiet), auditory (ringing a small bell to let students know they should pay attention to the teacher), or physical (using a hand signal to let students know to get back in their seats).
4. Optimize classroom seating: When students choose their own seats, they’re three times more likely to be disruptive than when seats are assigned. After all, they’ll probably pick seats next to their friends and spend more time chatting.
But that doesn’t mean choice is always bad. Giving students a sense of ownership in the room, paired with clear expectations for behavior, can have surprisingly positive effects. A welcoming space can reduce anxiety and boost academic performance. Emily Polak, a ninth-grade teacher in Madison, Alabama, gave her room a cozier feel by adding a couch, a loveseat, rugs, a coffee table, and posters. Her students decide where to sit—but if they can’t get their work done, they get moved back to a desk. “Discipline issues have significantly decreased. My students seem to feel more relaxed and more motivated in a setting that honors their choices,” Polak says.
5. Give behavior-specific praise: It may seem counterintuitive, but acknowledging positive behavior and ignoring low-level disruptions can be more effective than punishing or disciplining students. Instead of focusing on specific students, offer praise for the behavior you want to reinforce. For example, tell students, “Excellent work getting to your seats quickly.”
It’s also helpful to avoid using the word don’t, suggests Alyssa Nucaro, a sixth-grade English teacher in Memphis. Students are more likely to listen to instructions that include clear reasons.
6. Set clear expectations: Instead of just displaying rules for behavior, have a discussion with your students about why those rules matter. Bobby Shaddox, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Portland, Maine, works with his students to create a list of norms—words such as inclusive, focused, and considerate—to build a sense of community. “It helps us own the behavior in the classroom,” Shaddox says. “Instead of a top-down list of rules that a teacher gives a class, these are words that we generated together. These are words that we believe in.”
7. Actively supervise: “Presence is crucial to maintaining classroom management and to effective delivery of instruction, and it’s a skill we can develop with effort,” explains Sol Henik, a high school teacher in Pleasant Hill, California. Although it’s tempting to sit at your desk and grade papers, that’s also an invitation to your students to get distracted. Be active: Move around the room, check in on student progress, and ask questions. It’s not about policing your students, but about interacting with them.
A 2017 study found that a teacher’s nonverbal cues—such as smiling and making eye contact—can “reduce physical and/or psychological distance” with their students, boosting students’ positive feelings toward the teacher and the course material while improving behavior.
8. Be consistent in applying rules: Early in Kelly Wickham Hurst’s career as an administrator in a public high school, she was asked to discipline a black student for violating the school dress code by wearing sagging jeans. As they walked down the hallway, he pointed out other boys—all white—who were also wearing sagging pants. “Are you gonna get him, too, or is it just me?” he asked. School and classroom expectations, rules, and routines should be followed and applied fairly to all students. Don’t single out certain students—it’s the behavior you should be focused on, not the student. Correct errors when you see them and provide additional instruction or reteaching when misbehavior occurs.
I heard Mara’s muffled cries from the bathroom stall and weighed my options. I could give her privacy, or tell her I knew why she was crying and offer reassurance. I decided on a hybrid approach. “I’m going to give you some space,” I told her from a few feet away. “But I’ll come back in a few minutes to check on you. If you’re worried about your presentation, I can help you. Lots of seventh graders think it’s scary.”
As I started to leave, Mara—not her real name—called out, “Wait! How did you know that’s why I’m upset?”
Our schools are currently seeing a dramatic increase in students of all ages carrying in anxiety, adversity, and trauma from a variety of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Social and emotional learning programs are critical for addressing these emotional and mental challenges, but we must also rethink our discipline procedures and policies. We need to understand that traditional discipline works best with the children who need it the least, and works least with the children who need it the most. Discipline ideally is not something we do to students—it should be a quality we want to develop within them.
For students with ACEs, traditional punishments can unintentionally retraumatize and reactivate their stress response systems. Recent research in school discipline is grounded in the neuroscience of attachment, which emphasizes the significance of relationships. Those relationships begin with an adult in a regulated, calm brain state. It takes a calm brain to calm another brain—this co-regulation is something that students with ACEs may have missed out on. Their school can be an environment where they feel safe and connected even when they make poor choices.
Every year brings new insights—and cautionary tales—about what works in education. 2019 is no different, as we learned that doodling may do more harm than good when it comes to remembering information. Attendance awards don’t work and can actually increase absences. And while we’ve known that school discipline tends to disproportionately harm students of color, a new study reveals a key reason why: Compared with their peers, black students tend to receive fewer warnings for misbehavior before being punished.
A 2019 study found that students remember less of what they’re learning if they’re doodling at the same time. But the study also addresses a big misconception: Doodling is not the same as drawing. Earlier research concludes that drawing easily beats reading, writing, or listening when it comes to learning and retention.
It’s been about three months since I resigned from my position as an elementary school principal. A part of the deal with my wife in allowing me to take a “gap year” was that I would get more involved in our daughter’s schooling. You see, I was never able to make many of our daughter’s school events because I was so busy running my own school’s events.
This seemed like a good deal—getting more involved was something I needed to do as a parent, and I now happily volunteer in my daughter’s fifth grade class every week. Being in the classroom in this capacity offers me an opportunity to see school from a different perspective, and it’s been a good reminder to me that parents play an important role in a school—a reminder I’d like to pass on to other school leaders.
In my teaching experience, winter break arrives at the moment when both the students and I need it most. As we are nearing winter break, I look forward to some time to relax and renew my energy before school resumes in January. Some years I realized a day or two before the end of my time off that I wasn’t any more rested than I had been in the days leading up to break. Over the years there are some things that I have found to help me have a truly revitalizing winter break.
Before break, I designate days on my calendar when I won’t check email or do anything work-related. Allocating days when I won’t engage in work helps me to be intentional about spending time with family as well as spending mindful time alone. Around a week before winter break, write down all work-related to-do items. Check off as many as possible before break. Listing what needs to get accomplished helps me stay organized. Even better, if I succeed in checking off all of the items, I return from the break with a clean slate.
Ms. Brown is a kindergarten teacher sitting with her new class on the first day of school. One of her main tasks this year will be teaching this group foundational literacy skills, including rhyming, sound-letter correspondences, blending (reading), and segmenting (spelling). Ms. Brown has taught for long enough to know that though they may look like blank slates ready to learn to read, her students are not all starting from the same place.
Some of these students are already readers. The others aren’t—we call them emergent readers. The emergent readers are not all alike: Some will pick up the foundational skills relatively easily, while others will, despite exposure, have difficulty learning to read. The trick is teasing these two groups apart in order to differentiate appropriately for them.
I love watching do-it-yourself home renovation shows—there’s something magical about the before-and-after shots and seeing a transformation unfold. I always think that being a home renovator, working with a client to help their dreams become a reality, would be such a cool experience.
After a recent coaching experience with a high school math teacher, I realized that my role as an instructional coach is similar: I get to help teachers envision a transformation for their classroom and watch it come to life.
It’s no secret that the teenage years are a critical stage in life in which young people need a great deal of guidance and support. As a high school teacher, I noticed that in particular, many girls in my school were dealing with low self-esteem, depression, and, frankly, a lot of drama. But the real wake-up call for me came when four students in the English Learner department at my school became pregnant.
I realized that the girls at our school needed a safe space to discuss issues they were facing without judgment. With this in mind, I started a group the next school year called Girl Talk, with a mission to inspire high school girls to have a voice, be decision makers, develop problem-solving skills, and create visionary change in their schools and communities.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I took Spanish (or French or German) in high school, but I don’t remember any of it”? Many of us recall high school language classes filled with endless verb conjugations, random vocabulary lists, and stilted dialogue from workbooks.
This method of language learning didn’t inspire many of us to continue our learning into college and beyond. Even today, total enrollments in undergraduate and graduate foreign language programs dropped 9.2 percent between 2013 and 2016. At the K–12 level, only 11 states have foreign language graduation requirements.
Hands-on learning is part and parcel of high-quality science instruction—it’s the whole point of lab work. After a lab, students typically show their learning by reflecting on their results in a piece of formal writing such as a traditional lab report or the more contemporary claim, evidence, reasoning (CER) argumentation format. Formal write-ups offer students a chance to describe empirical information in a professional voice—an important skill.
Students should be given opportunities to practice this kind of authoritative writing, but are there also ways that they can share their scientific understanding without feeling bogged down by technical writing?