I’ve heard from teachers across the country that student behavior has become more disruptive and disrespectful than ever before. I think we all know this is due to the fact that for the past 3 school years, nothing has been “normal” for these kids. For most classrooms, things are changing so quickly, teachers can barely keep up, let alone the students. Some teachers don’t know from week to week if they will even have in-person learning or virtual learning. Kids need structure to learn and all their structure at school has been Thanos snapped right out from under them, and that is not even considering how the pandemic is affecting home life.
I believe a child’s outward behavior is a reflection of their inner world. If they are behaving chaotically, they most likely feel out of control. If they are disrespectful, maybe they don’t feel very valued. I think we can all relate to these feelings, especially lately. Children do not have the same coping skills as adults do. I know there are times I want to scream out of frustration, but I don’t. I have the cognitive development to understand that is inappropriate and the ability to stop myself from doing so. A lot of these kids do not have one or both of those capabilities. I could be way off on this, I am not in your classroom dealing with your students, so what do I know? Nevertheless remember, they are still kids. Yes, even those high schoolers. Our brains don’t fully develop until we are 25 after all(Pujol et al., 1993).
I hope this video can give you some helpful strategies you can implement in your classroom if you haven’t already. I know it can be frustrating and you get to a point where you feel like you’ve tried everything and nothing works. I encourage you to never give up. It might not be today, but someday, these students will look back and remember that you never gave up on them. You may be the only person in their life that doesn’t throw their hands up and say forget this. Please know, this is only taking into consideration what you as an individual teacher can change in your classroom. I am not oblivious to external factors like administration, physical limitations of the building, parents/homelife. There are things you have no control over, much like your students. Below are some actions you can take. They may take time to be fruitful, but give them a chance if you can.
Set the Tone at the Door
Try to greet students as they enter the room. The message you send is that they are guests in your classroom. It is also a sign of respect, allowing you to model the expected behavior. This also sets up an opportunity to correct unacceptable behavior (i.e. ignoring the greeting, rushing in, bringing in outside drama, etc.) With social distancing and other covid restrictions, the ideal greeting of shaking everyone’s hand is probably not an option. Hopefully, you can be near the door or in their eye line and greet each student by name. If time allows, ask them a personal question.
Work Starts Immediately
In order to establish your classroom as a place for learning, try to have work sitting on their desk to greet them. Even if it is a sheet of paper or maybe their device, they know the expectation is that when they enter your room, it is time to work. I’ve seen one teacher use slips of paper or clothespins to assign classroom jobs to be done in the morning. The slips of paper or other disposable/low contact options may be easier for Covid prevention. Regardless of how this looks for your specific classroom, the goal is to have an individual task for them to do with little to no instruction, putting their brain into work mode.
Have a Contingency Plan
Kids are kids. Things will not always go to plan. What’s the old adage… best-laid plans? So have a backup plan. How can you get back on track after a disturbance happens? Be prepared to redirect. When I was in the classroom my favorite technique was a call and response. I would say “One, Two,” students would reply “Eyes on you.” I would add, if needed, “Three, Four,” followed by “Talk no more.”
Perhaps a bit of a sneaky plan is to get the “cool kid” on your side. Most classes have one or two students the other students look up to and like. Try to get that kid to help you set the expectations for the other kids. You can try praising them publicly (if they like that), for example, “Thank you Brody for reading quietly in your seat.” Two things will happen. 1, everyone will want to be like Brody, the cool kid. 2, Brody will beam with the brightest smile, excited to be acknowledged and seek out more opportunities for that kind of attention. You may have to really be looking for any good behavior to praise, but it will be worth it to get them on your side. Be careful this doesn’t slip into favoritism though, that will backfire massively!
Sometimes, okay, oftentimes, students think you don’t notice them. Perhaps they are whispering quietly in the back of the class or tapping their pencil on the desk. These are not hugely disruptive, however, correcting these low-level issues can establish your expectations for overall classroom behavior. When it is a low-level disturbance like the examples I’ve given, they don’t really warrant a verbal correction. Simply moving toward the student(s) and being in proximity to them lets them know you are more aware than they thought. You can also use body language to communicate. Making eye contact, tilting your head, and pointing are examples of body language that can let the student know you’re aware of their behavior and need them to stop. The goal is to stop low-level disturbances before they become major disturbances.
Speak with Conviction but not with Contention
This may be my favorite point this video makes. When you correct behavior, do so in a way that demonstrates you are serious, don’t be passive or timid, but also don’t be demanding and belittling. Your tone of voice can change the whole message. If you are wishy-washy or too mild in your correction, students won’t take you seriously and may ignore you completely. However, if you are overbearing or too aggressive, students read that as disrespectful. I have noticed this generation is very sensitive to disrespect. If they feel even slightly disrespected, their response can seem out of proportion to us. Just know this is a sensitive subject and adjust accordingly. Be quick to apologize if you think your student interrupted you as being disrespectful. Acknowledge that was not your intent and try to rephrase. Finding the balance can be difficult, but it is crucial for effective classroom management.
Consistency and Follow Up
Make sure, if you correct one student for a behavior, you need to correct all other students for that behavior. Or if one day, a behavior is unacceptable, it should be unacceptable all other days. Nothing can dismantle all your efforts toward classroom management like being inconsistent. Lastly, follow up with students after you correct them. This might look like simply pulling them aside to have a simple conversation at the end of class, or may require additional support from administration, other teachers, or a coach. The goal is to have a healthy relationship with all your students. After being corrected, that relationship is most vulnerable. It can also be an opportunity to build a stronger relationship than you thought possible. I remember I once had a student who needed to be corrected several times in a short period of time. I rearranged my lesson plan, moving up station time, so I could have a conversation with this student. I asked him what was going on, since this type of behavior wasn’t like him. He started crying (he was 5) and explained the new baby was crying all night and he didn’t sleep well. I knew about the new baby, so I empathized with him, reiterated classroom expectations, and encouraged him. The next day he came in telling me he got much better sleep and would be better. I was able to build trust with that student, simply by having a conversation. You would be surprised how far a good report goes with students.
Pujol, J., Vendrell, P., Junqué, C., Martí-Vilalta, J. L., & Capdevila, A. (1993). When does human brain development end? evidence of corpus callosum growth up to adulthood. Annals of Neurology, 34(1), 71–75. https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.410340113
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