Classroom Behavior Management for Teachers: Resources & Tips
Most adults are too far removed from their school days to comprehend the challenges today’s teachers face. The seriousness of the difficulties teachers encounter in their work is evident in these statistics:
- In excess of 200,000 teachers leave the profession each year, two-thirds of who do so for reasons other than retirement. (Learning Policy Institute)
- Almost 40% of teachers in Arkansas find jobs outside of the classroom within five years. (Washington Post)
- Overall, 17% of teachers in the U.S. stop teaching within five years of entering the field. (Education Commission of the States)
- The primary reason given by departing teachers is dissatisfaction, cited by 55% of teachers who left the profession voluntarily. (Learning Policy Institute)
Dissatisfaction is also the principal reason teachers voluntarily switch schools, cited by 66% of those surveyed by the National Center for Education Statistics Schools and Staffing Survey 2012-2013. However, when education researchers look into the source of such widespread teacher dissatisfaction, they discover a common theme: teachers are not adequately prepared for the rigors of the modern classroom. In fact, new teachers who are inadequately prepared are two-and-a-half times more likely to stop teaching within one year than their counterparts who are better prepared, according to the survey.
So, in what area are new teachers least prepared when they start their careers? It is the skill that experienced teachers call the key to success in the profession: Classroom behavior management.
- Veteran teachers surveyed by the New Teacher Project named “poor classroom management” as the top problem among all teachers, and the “most common mistake unsuccessful teachers make.”
- Teachers identify student misbehavior in the classroom as “intolerable” and “stress-provoking.” They report they must spend a “great deal of time and energy to manage the classroom,” according to research published in the Scientific World Journal.
Despite the importance of mastering classroom behavior management, few teachers receive formal training in that skillset. A study conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality found more than 40% of new teachers report feeling “not at all prepared” or “only somewhat prepared” to manage their classrooms and discipline misbehaving students.
The resources and tips provided in this guide are intended to help teachers of all experience levels. The goal is to help teachers improve their effectiveness by implementing strategies for preventing student misbehavior and for facilitating quick, calm, successful responses when behavior problems arise in the classroom.
Classroom Behavior Management: Facts & Figures
Classroom management is defined in the Electronic Journal of Research in Education and Psychology as the methods teachers use to increase “cooperation and engagement” of students and decrease their “disruptive behaviors.” Teachers manage the classroom “space, time, and activities” in addition to students’ behavior, based on each teacher’s unique “characteristics, skills, and competencies.” Most importantly, teachers manage their classrooms by establishing “clear rules and procedures” that proscribe potentially disruptive behaviors.
A survey conducted jointly by Scholastic magazine and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation highlights the importance of effective classroom behavior management to a teacher’s feelings of professional success and satisfaction. The survey found 100% of teachers identified classroom management as a “crucial skill” of a great teacher, and 82% called classroom management “extremely important,” second only to creating an environment in which students feel safe in making mistakes (83%).
Below are some of the critical issues that are affecting the ability of teachers to effectively manage the behavior of their students during class.
Lack of funding in schools
Despite their level of preparedness, teachers must manage some disruptive behaviors that are potentially dangerous. Just as the combination of factors motivating student behavior is complex, the solutions are not easy to achieve. A survey of teachers conducted by the Australian Government in 2012 lists the following actions to address disruptive student behavior as recommended by teachers:
- Make class sizes smaller (87%)
- Give teachers more opportunities to help each other address disruptive students (86%)
- Increase teacher training and devise strategies for minimizing disruptive behavior (81%)
- Improve security in schools (18%)
The one thing all of these suggestions have in common is that they cost schools money to implement, yet school budgets have been declining for at least a decade in several states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In many cases, further cuts in school funding are expected in many of the states that already have the greatest budget declines. By studying the most recent census data on state and local funding for schools, researchers determined that overall funding per student declined in 29 states between 2008 and 2015, and local funding for schools also fell in 19 states during this same time.
Many states and school districts have earmarked funds for teacher training, smaller class sizes, and more instruction time, but their efforts are hampered by school budget cuts. Also thwarting these plans is the continuing shortage of teachers. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of K-12 teachers and other school workers in the U.S. declined by 135,000, while the number of students increased in this same period by 1.4 million.
Mental and emotional problems impacting children
When Scholastic Magazine polled teachers across the U.S. for its annual Primary Sources survey, one finding was nearly unanimous: 99% of the elementary, middle school, and high school teachers reported having students in their classes who require help or intervention to address their social, emotional, or behavioral challenges. The survey also highlights the importance of teachers working together to address the behavior and academic problems of individual students: 97% of the teachers responding to the survey believe collaborating with other teachers is extremely helpful (74%) or very helpful (22%).
In particular, teachers report that students who behave aggressively in class undermine the ability of other students to learn, and that eliminating this aggression would improve academic performance for all students “dramatically.” This is according to research reported by the National Education Association (NEA). The problem of aggressive students is two-fold, according to the NEA. First, many students lack the social skills that would normally prevent them from acting aggressively, control their impulses, and manage their anger. Secondly, witnesses to, and targets of, this aggressive behavior don’t have the assertive response skills that would prevent such aggressiveness in classroom settings.
An effective approach to helping classroom students deal with their mental and emotional challenges is offering conflict resolution programs, which are now in use at “thousands” of schools, according to the NEA. Data shows these programs have successfully reduced the amount of time teachers spend disciplining students, improved the school “climate,” and enhanced the problem-solving and self-control skills of students, while also substantially boosting students’ self-esteem.
The gap between qualified and unqualified teachers
The Learning Policy Institute reports that at the beginning of the 2017 school year, there were in excess of 100,000 classrooms across the U.S. staffed by teachers who were “not fully qualified to teach.” Hiring unqualified candidates to address the critical shortage of teachers has ramifications. It can harm students by denying them an effective education, which can hinder their future schooling and career opportunities. Yet the shortage of qualified teachers shows no signs of improving, and in fact appears to be worsening.
According to the Learning Policy Institute, low teacher salaries, lack of adequate preparation, lack of support from administrators, and deteriorating working conditions for teachers have all contributed to a 35% decline in enrollment in teacher education programs between 2009 and 2014. One effort to combat the increase in teachers leaving the profession after only a few years is the establishment of teacher residency programs. These programs have been shown to substantially improve the retention rate for new teachers.
The rate at which graduates of teacher residency programs remain in the same district for more than three years ranges from 80% to 90%, and a full 70% to 80% remain for more than five years. Nationally, only 54% of teachers remain in the same district for five years (29% transfer and 17% leave the profession), according to the Education Commission of the States.
Student problems outside of school
Children naturally bring their life experiences and challenges with them into the classroom. Unfortunately, some of these challenges and experiences impact their ability to learn. For example, 9.4% of children aged 2 to 17 have been diagnosed as having attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (ADHD), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Several other mental health disorders affect the way children learn:
- 4% of children aged 3 to 17 have been diagnosed as having a behavior disorder
- 1% of children aged 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety
- 2% of children aged 3 to 17 have been diagnosed as having depression
In addition, children may have more than one diagnosed mental illness:
- 8% of children with depression also have been diagnosed with anxiety, and 47.2% also have behavior problems
- 9% of children diagnosed as having anxiety also have behavior problems, and 32.3% also have depression
Another serious ‘outside’ problem that has a direct impact on classroom behavior is poverty. The publication Educational Leadership explains how difficult it can be for students to learn when struggling with hunger, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and cognitive problems such as short attention span and high distractibility. Teachers play a key role in promoting a feeling of hope and optimism in students from poor families. Classroom behavior can be improved by using simple measures, such as teaching students breathing exercises and other yoga concepts, and by focusing enthusiastically on basic core academic skills such as note-taking and identifying key ideas.
Classroom Behavior Management: Strategies & Tips
Every classroom is unique, just as each student in the classroom is one-of-a-kind. Yet some classroom behavior management techniques and strategies can be applied in nearly any teaching environment. The following tips are designed to help teachers establish classroom rules and procedures, effectively communicate them to students, and enforce them until improved behavior becomes second nature for students.
Consistent planning and structure
The one element all classroom behavior management approaches have in common is the importance of establishing clear rules and applying them in the classroom. The paper “Evidence-Based Classroom Behavior Management Strategies” published in the Australian education journal Kairaranga lists these attributes of classrooms that have low levels of disruptive behavior:
- Rules are clear and easy to understand
- Expectations are consistent and applied even-handedly
- Activities and events are predictable, following well-established routines and clearly signaled transitions; students are prepared for upcoming changes
- Praise is expressed both verbally and non-verbally, highlighting and describing the specific good behavior
- The difficulty of tasks is matched to the abilities of the student to ensure focus remains on the task rather than on any nearby distractions
- All students in the class are included when activities involve responses and/or group activities
The article ”Classroom Behavioral Strategies and Interventions” published by the Manitoba Department of Education, recommends limiting the number of classroom rules to five, and using positive language to express those rules. There are highly effective ways to teach classroom rules to students. These include role-playing games and use of clear, easy-to-understand examples. In particular, it is important to apply rules consistently and to maintain continuity and predictability in classroom activities.
Nonverbal cues and transitions
The importance of a teacher’s tone and body language can be demonstrated by the story of a young teacher named Grace Dearborn. KQED News reports that Dearborn was several years into her teaching career when a veteran colleague approached her with a suggestion. Her coworker had witnessed Dearborn disciplining students and noted that her voice and body language communicated her tension. The veteran teacher suggested that Dearborn soften her tone of voice and relax the muscles around her eyes when engaged in such interactions with students. This simple change had a tremendous impact on the classroom behavior of her students, and on her teaching career.
The publication Smart Classroom Management points out another method teachers can apply when managing classroom behavior. The technique is to simply pause. Frequently, the source of tension in a classroom involves the fast pace of the teacher’s instruction. While it is understandable for teachers to want to cover as much material as possible in the time allotted, the most successful teachers stay attuned to the pace of their students. Well-timed pauses—sometimes even in mid sentence—can be sufficient to allow students to catch their breath and reset their focus.
The success of classroom behavior management programs is increased when schools are fully behind supporting and implementing those programs. Another key aspect is the commitment by schools to support teachers in two critical areas: preventing discipline problems, and addressing the problems when they arise. The American Psychology Association emphasizes positive behavior support (PBS) as both a preventive measure and as an effective approach to correcting misbehavior when it occurs in the classroom.
The three-tier model for PBS starts at the school-wide level by setting, communicating, and enforcing expectations for student behavior. In addition to modeling the expected behaviors, teachers are given formal training in behavior management techniques. Student behaviors are tracked and documented fully and consistently to provide school administrators complete information when deciding on interventions and other responses.
At the second level of PBS, groups of students with behavior problems are introduced to evidence-based intervention programs, such as First Steps to Success. The third level of PBS is where evidence-based behavior intervention programs are implemented for individual students who fail to respond to the group program at the second tier. Because many teachers haven’t been trained in assessing and responding to disruptive student behavior, it is important that they be allowed to work directly with fellow teachers and school administrators who have received such training.
Peer support and relationships
Just as it is important for students to receive positive correction at the time of the disruptive behavior, teachers benefit from receiving timely, if not immediate feedback on their approaches to classroom behavior management. The paper Evidence-based Classroom Behavior Management Studies emphasizes the importance of having teachers with experience and training in classroom management interact with their colleagues who have less experience as close as possible to the occurrence of the student misbehavior.
Additionally, when school principals are trained in behavior management, they are better able to facilitate their teachers’ ability to set goals for students and use verbal and non-verbal praise to reinforce students’ positive and corrective behavior. The result is improved classroom performance across the board, enhancing student academic scores and teacher well-being.
Scholastic Magazine’s Primary Sources report highlights the challenges of implementing peer support programs in schools. The greatest obstacle for most teachers is finding the time to meet with their colleagues to discuss classroom management and other work-related topics, such as sharing lesson plans and learning how other teachers solve classroom problems. Technology is helping in this regard by enabling teachers to come together online during their off hours. The Primary Sources survey found that 90% of teachers communicate with coworkers on social media, and 65% use education-based websites for professional advice and support.
Teachers must strike a balance in the classroom between establishing relationships that “win students’ hearts”—as the Association for Middle Level Education expresses it—while also appealing to students’ academic side. A mistake many teachers make is believing their status grants them ultimate authority in the classroom, and any disruption by students is a direct challenge to this authority. By responding emotionally to such challenges, teachers are more susceptible to misusing their authority.
Teachers must be aware of their own vulnerabilities in the classroom, particularly when addressing misbehavior. For example, middle school teachers should anticipate that some students will question their authority. These teachers should have a response planned beforehand. Doing so helps assure a positive response that is both empathetic and effective.
Accommodating varying student needs
Classrooms are more diverse than ever, which requires that teachers understand the varied backgrounds and social situations of their students. Three things to keep in mind when establishing relationships with students who have specific learning needs are: to maintain empathy as you learn about the student’s life outside the classroom; to respond positively to negative behaviors in the classroom; and to recognize any cultural biases and linguistic differences you may have.
In the book Managing Diverse Classrooms, the authors present an approach to classroom behavior management that is based on “the impact of culture on classroom organization and management.” According to the authors, teachers must understand the importance of culture as it relates to student development and learning. In particular, teachers must consider “how culture shapes beliefs about learning and education.” The book presents an “individualism/collectivism” framework for classroom management that is designed to improve the effectiveness of classroom management and engender personal connections between teachers and students.
Resolving incidents with firmness and compassion
The adage that “the best classroom management strategy is a good lesson plan” applies in many situations, but in some cases, students will be disruptive regardless of the quality of the lesson. That’s when teachers must respond by effectively applying their classroom rules. The rules must be applied consistently and fairly, but also with an overriding sense of compassion that respects the students even as their misbehavior is addressed.
The story of aforementioned teacher, Grace Dearborn, who is profiled on KQED News, demonstrates the need to avoid shaming students. Doing so is not only disrespectful to them, it may have the contrary effect of actually increasing the student’s untoward classroom behavior. Student discipline is often most effective when given in private. When that isn’t possible, a teacher should stay calm and address the student directly in a low but serious voice. Dearborn also points out that in most cases, a low-key but firm approach—such as simply saying the student’s name quickly and moving on—is more effective than overreacting.
Classroom Behavior Management: Additional Resources
Just as no two classrooms are alike, and no two teachers take the same approach to educating their students, the effectiveness of classroom behavior management solutions is different. What may work in one setting may be less effective in another. The teacher resources listed here can help educators determine the mix of strategies that will be most effective for their unique classroom situation.
Tips for homeschool and nonconventional educators
- Home School Foundation: “Homeschooling and Other Resources” features dozens of links to sources for homeschool curricula, homeschooling approaches for specific grade levels, and how to find local homeschool support groups.
- Home School Legal Defense Association: The article “Special Needs Student Thrives by Homeschooling, School District Doesn’t Understand How” describes how parents can devise an effective education plan tailored to homeschooling their special-needs child, including many links to organizations supporting homeschooling.
- me: “5 Alternatives to Public Schools” presents information on homeschooling, “unschooling” (teaching children solely through life experiences), democratic schooling (students have equal voices with teachers), green schooling (teaching that revolves around everyday interactions with the natural world), and Montessori schools that allow students to choose the educational activities they find most appealing.
- New America: “What Is the Future of Homeschooling?” explains what is now driving the growth in homeschooling is not the desire of parents to provide their children with religious instruction, but rather dissatisfaction with “the current school model,” which many parents believe fails to adequately educate their children.
- Seattle Times: “How Does Home School Fit into Solutions for ‘Nontraditional’ Students in Washington?” examines the growing trend of families of color choosing to homeschool their children rather than have them “devalued” by the public school system.
Digital resources for classroom behavior management
- Cult of Pedagogy: “Classroom Management: 4 Keys to Starting the Year off Right” provides example classroom rules, consequences for breaking the rules, the best approaches for enforcing classroom rules, and how to “sell” the classroom management approach to students.
- Edutopia: “11 Research-Based Classroom Management Strategies” introduces the concept of “kernels” as fundamental elements of classroom behavior management that allow teachers and students to focus on correcting very small behaviors to improve overall behavior.
- Edutopia: “19 Big and Small Classroom Management Strategies” compares teachers to hypnotists. Both activities entail instructing people to do what most of them are already doing, but breaking up each step into a separate activity that can be praised or corrected.
- National Council on Teacher Quality: “Training Our Future Teachers: Classroom Management” attempts to consolidate the findings of hundreds of studies on classroom behavior management into the five most effective strategies for teacher training. The strategies include: rules, routines, praise, misbehavior, and engagement.
- National Education Association: “Classroom Management: Articles and Resources” provides links to dozens of articles and other resources that cover every aspect of classroom management, from how to control students’ use of foul language to promoting behaviors that help build students’ character.
- National Education Association: “Six Classroom Management Tips Every Teacher Can Use” includes suggestions for taking charge of the classroom, handling disruptive students, offering incentives to encourage peak academic performance, and how to visually monitor students during the course of classroom instruction.
- Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: “Classroom Systems” is a slide presentation that describes how to establish a classroom routine, how to focus on prevention of disruptions rather than correction after they occur, and how to design the optimal physical layout for classrooms.
- Smart Classroom Management compiles dozens of resources for teachers to use when planning and implementing their behavior-management strategy, including how to determine whether students consider a teacher a “pushover,” and how to craft effective warnings to students.
Tips for working with troubled students and their families
- Association for Middle Level Education: “Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students” explains how to cultivate constructive relationships with troubled students by gaining a clearer understanding of what they are experiencing inside and outside the classroom.
- Child Mind Institute: “Breaking the Behavior Code: How Teachers Can Read and Respond More Effectively to Disruptive Students” presents strategies that teachers can use to help students with mental health issues and other learning difficulties.
- First Steps to Success describes an early intervention program for children in preschool through 3rd grade who exhibit behavior problems. It combines techniques applied in the classroom with behavior training in the home, and emphasizes the important role of parents in addressing misbehavior before it can impact the student’s education.
- Outward Bound: “Tips for Working with Troubled Teens” explains how to apply the techniques the organization has honed for dealing with disruptive teenagers in outdoor settings to situations teachers encounter inside the classroom.
- Scholastic Magazine: “25 Sure-Fire Strategies for Handling Difficult Students” covers the basics (“take a deep breath,” “be an attentive listener”) as well as less well-known approaches, such as discouraging cliques and when it is best to simply ignore minor classroom disruptions.
- Smart Classroom Management: “The Best Classroom Management Strategy for a Crazy Classroom” instructs teachers to look inside themselves and assess their own behavior to determine how it may be contributing to the misbehavior of their students.
What can seem like an insurmountable challenge for teachers— maintaining order in the classroom to ensure it is a suitable learning environment— is achievable when teachers realize they are not alone in the effort. With the support of school administrators, teaching colleagues and parents, teachers can do amazing things for students. When teachers receive the proper training, feedback, and have access to helpful classroom behavior management resources, it can help them bring the joy of learning to students, and revive the joy of teaching in themselves.
Home School Legal Defense Association, “Special Needs Student Thrives by Homeschooling, School District Doesn’t Understand How”Kairaranga, “Evidence-based Classroom Behavior ManagementStrategies”KQED, “Compassion-Based Strategies for Managing Classroom Behavior”