Even the most experienced educators can run into classroom management conundrums that leave them grasping for answers. In a recent NEA member survey, 37% of respondents said that managing “repeat offenders” is their biggest classroom management challenge, while 27% struggle the most with keeping students focused. And 17% said that figuring out how to respond to students’ bad behavior is their greatest challenge.
To help teachers get answers, we put NEA members’ classroom management questions to Dr. Allen Mendler, author of “The Resilient Teacher,” “When Teaching Gets Tough,” and “Power Struggles: Successful Techniques for Educators.” Here are his suggestions.
Q: How do you help disruptive students stay on track without taking your whole class off on a tangent? – Sonja B.
A: Let everybody, including disruptive students, know that you’re not always going to stop teaching to handle annoying behavior. And you can also request that the class do their best to ignore that behavior when it occurs. At the same time, you want to reassure them that you will get with whoever has been inappropriate at a time of convenience, and it will be during that private time that you will deal with the student. But unless it’s a serious matter, that time is not going to consume teaching and learning time.
Q: My challenge is with a student who “answers” the question, but really he is using the classroom as a platform from which to perform. (His answers are cleverly disguised as legitimate.) – Diane K.
A: More than likely, the need is for attention. Ask yourself, what are some other more appropriate ways for that student to get the attention he or she is seeking? You might reach out to that student and say, ‘I was thinking maybe tomorrow you might teach a component of the lesson with me.’ Or you might say, ‘You’re answering about 10 times each class, and it’s great that you participate as much as you do, but can you keep it between three and five?’ You’re legitimizing their need for attention, but you’re putting boundaries around it.
Q: How can teachers keep students engaged during times of the year when many students are tempted to mentally “check out,” such as right before the holidays and the end of the school year? – Jossette T.
A: It’s sort of an old-fashioned answer, and that is: Make things interesting. Administer an interest inventory to get an understanding of what your students’ interests are, and then see how you can connect those interests to the curriculum. It’s also important to add some novelty, mix it up a little. If you usually do reading first, then do something else first. Maybe move seats around. Just do some unusual things that are designed to feel different.
Q: How do you keep students off electronic devices during class? My principal has made comments like ‘I've seen your classroom in a picture,’ or, ‘A student told me she sent the text message during your class.’ It’s frustrating trying to teach content and do regular classroom management while also having to police electronic devices. – Michelle G.
A: Electronic devices are here to stay. Rather than constantly fighting it, I think it’s increasingly important to build the use of electronic devices into lessons. Prepare lessons that actually encourage use, and let students learn at least some of the content on their electronic devices. Let students know there’s a place to keep their cell phone—it could be on their desk—and that there will be times during class that you’re going to ask them to use it.
Q: Some of my elementary students frequently speak to me in a disrespectful manner, and I’ve noticed that they also speak to their parents this way. How can I establish classroom norms that students will follow if these norms differ from the way they are expected to behave at home? – Diane M.
A: It’s really important to teach what it is that we’re expecting, and not to assume that kids are being willful. I like to say to kids, ‘We don’t talk that way here,’ and then teach them alternatives. For example: “I’m unhappy about that,” “I disagree,” or “I have a different opinion.” Confront the behavior by saying, ‘That sounded disrespectful. Did you mean it to be disrespectful?’ Almost always, they’ll stop, or they’ll just say, ‘Nah.’ Then my response is: ‘Going forward, here is a better way to tell me the same thing.’ If the answer is ‘Yes’—which rarely it is—then we’re going to need to talk about that after class to fix the problem.
Q: It often feels as though my students need to be constantly pushed by adults to stay on task. How can I foster intrinsic motivation? Right now, many of them would rather talk to their friends or play on their phones than complete their class work. – Jennifer R.
A: The best ways of triggering that sense of intrinsic motivation are relevance, success, involvement and enjoyment. Make lessons relevant to students’ lives and set them up for success. I’ll even go to certain kids and say, ‘There are five problems here. Don’t even worry about doing all five. Number two is yours.’ Sometimes I’ll even give kids the answer. I want them to rediscover that they can be successful. The good news is if they’ve learned to be unmotivated, they can relearn to be motivated.
Q: I work with 9th graders that failed the state 8th grade reading exam. Many of them tell me they “hate” to read and refuse to engage with books. How can I help them overcome their previous negative experiences and learn to love—or, at the very least, tolerate—reading? – Elizabeth T.
A: Relate the reading material to their lives. Don’t care so much about what the curricular content is. Care more about how that material relates to their lives. It’s useful to provide hands-on projects that require some reading—not much—and little-by-little, you expand the reading component as the kids’ skills improve. Start small, like with kids eating vegetables: two bites. You might show a movie about a book first. A lot of times, teachers show the movie after reading the book. It’s better to show the movie before the book, because kids at least have an understanding of what the book is going to be about.
Q: How do you get students to follow the rules without help from higher ups? Nothing is done when they get sent to the office. – Frances N.
A: Really, the move of last resort ought to be sending a student out of the room. Too often, people are kicking students out for this, that and the other. Those kids you regularly send out of the room, they’re getting themselves kicked out because they want to be somewhere else. Make it hard for them to be somewhere else. You need to ask, what are those basic needs that are not getting fulfilled. You’ve got to get at those basic needs. Because if you don’t, you’re going to be dealing with those power struggle issues all the time.