Classroom Management: Easier Said Than Done (Chapter Excerpt)


Classroom Management: Easier Said Than Done

Phase I: Trying to Do It by the Book

Classroom management is a series of straightforward rules tested by millions of teachers and proven to work: Clearly lay out rules and procedures in advance. Have a specific chain of consequences for misbehavior, and give positive reinforcement for following rules. Create a classroom culture in which students respect each other and want to learn. Of course, as any teacher can tell you, planning engaging lessons has a lot to do with this. Most important, be consistent.

Well, you knew all this. In fact, you spent a long time making a “star chart” with each child’s name on a star, and explaining, “We are all stars in this classroom!” You have already informed them they have the chance to become “shining stars,” or even “superstars” by behaving well. Unfortunately, they could also end up as “falling stars” if they don’t follow the rules, which are printed in positive language on a large poster at the front of the classroom.

To make sure your expectations were clear, you asked a volunteer to demonstrate sitting quietly and waiting his turn. “Very good!” you said.

Then, to be even clearer, you let a student act out what it means to be a “bad kid.” This kid did a perfect impression. He got out of his seat, insulted another student, and threw paper on the floor. He talked in what can only be described as an “outdoor voice.” He had the class laughing and was definitely enjoying the attention. The only problem is, now you can’t get him to stop and the class is still laughing. An hour later he has worked through your chain of clearly stated consequences like Pac-Man but still won’t raise his hand to talk. You have silently nicknamed him “Consequence King.” His best friend is showing all the signs of becoming “Consequence Prince.”

After lunch the clock moves much more slowly than your students do. Your classroom begins to remind you of a bar full of little drunk people: They want constant attention and often don’t realize how loud they are talking. They have short attention spans; rarely think of the consequences of their actions; and, as you will find out tomorrow, they don’t always remember what happened the day before.

At the end of the day, no one’s name has moved up to “shining star,” let alone “superstar.” This is because you spent the whole day trying to keep Consequence King and his two (now three) new followers from starting an open-participation-anonymous-fart-sound contest. To make matters worse, your memory of the chaos includes a flurry of desperation moves that can only be described as inconsistent: You threatened to call everyone’s parents. You yelled at only one student when at least five were talking. You might have mentioned something about a pizza party. Panic slices through your exhaustion.

You describe the situation to another teacher, whose relaxed attitude shows that her day did not include any of these problems.

“Oh, sweetie, it’s easy. What you should have done is clearly lay out your rules and consequences, give positive reinforcement, make sure your lesson plans are . . .” You stop listening for a minute here because you just realized how much your feet hurt. Anyway, you know what she’s going to end with, don’t you? “. . . Above all, be consistent.”

Well-Known Classroom Management Advice: How to Make It Happen

If advice and intentions were enough, we would all floss regularly, call our grandmothers as often as we should, and get our oil changed every six months or 3,000 miles. We would keep our New Year’s resolutions, and we would certainly follow the classroom management principles we learned in training. Unfortunately, most management sound bites are easier said than done. Some setbacks are due to outside circumstances. Others are caused by our own inexperience. Either way, we don’t need to hear the same advice repeated. We’re looking for an answer to our real questions: “Why isn’t this working?” and “How can I make it work?”

Advice: “Be Consistent.”

Why It Helps
Kids have super-sharp “fairness” radar. Threats and promises work best when they are backed up by action and when rules apply to everyone.

The “good kids” want to see you know who’s causing the problem. That’s because it isn’t them.

The “bad kids” need to see someone else get the punishment they got yesterday. That way they know you weren’t just picking on them.

Some kids will test rules more than once. Repeat offenders need extra proof that you mean business.

Why It’s Easier Said Than Done

Students don’t have consistent needs. One student sometimes takes as much of your attention as the rest of the class put together, and you might have more than one of these students in a class. You may have students with behavioral disorders who have trouble controlling themselves. It’s hard to know if you should hold them to the same standard.

Students don’t have consistent behavior. Some kids are so much better behaved than others that you want to let them slide on the first offense. At the same time, you don’t want to seem like you are favoring anyone. Sometimes you’re tempted to come down on a good kid to show the troublemakers it’s not just them. There are also kids who get on your nerves. You may blame them for problems too often or overcompensate by ignoring their bad behavior.

Let’s be honest—sometimes you don’t feel so consistent yourself. It’s hard to be fair when you are tired and a million things are happening at once. You can’t respond to everything you see, and you don’t see everything that happens.

How to Make It Easier to Do
Promise less. When possible, don’t promise or threaten to call home—just do it. If you can’t get to it that night or the number doesn’t work, at least you kept your mouth shut and didn’t lose credibility.

Look the other way. If an offense is not serious and you can’t deal with it right away, pretend you didn’t see it. If the kids think you didn’t notice, you’re not being inconsistent. They’ll just think someone got away with something.

Follow through—reasonably. Instead of telling students you will do something every week or by a certain day, do things as often or as soon as you can. This includes things like changing seats or updating in-class progress reports. The more you follow a routine, the more you will get your students into a routine, but if you avoid promising routines you can’t keep up with, kids are more likely to buy into your next idea.

Turn follow-up plans into classroom jobs. Kids enjoy being helpful, and an enthusiastic student can run some systems better than an overwhelmed teacher. Whenever possible, let students update charts and files and remember everyday tasks. You can even give certain jobs as rewards.

Get as much sleep as possible. Well-rested people are more alert and better prepared to react to surprises. They are also less likely to overreact to small frustrations (a.k.a. children).

When in doubt, be too strict.


The rest of this section addresses other common classroom management advice, including:
-Establish clear rules and consequences.
-Give positive reinforcement
-Plan engaging lessons
-Build a supportive classroom culture.

What do all these tips have in common? They are all solid advice that teachers learn in training. The problem is that – like a lot of good advice – they are easier said than done. Sure, we’ve posted our rules and consequences on the wall, they’re phrased in positive language, and we have every intention of enforcing them consistently. But then the students come in and present us with a non-stop series of judgment calls. At that point we’re not wondering whether it’s important to be consistent. We’re wondering whether that student who threw the paper ball was really aiming for the trashcan.

This doesn’t mean the original advice is wrong, though. That’s why the classroom management advice in the first section of this chapter divided into three segments:
-Why the basic recommendations usually work.
-Why they’re sometimes easier said than done.
-How to troubleshoot when things fall apart.

That’s section 1.

Section 2 offers ideas for rewards and consequences when the ones you’ve been using don’t seem to be working.

Section 3 talks about what no one wants to talk about – how to take charge of a class that is completely out of control. And it includes plenty of stories from teachers who have been there.

Your classroom door might be closed, but when it comes to learning lessons the hard way as a teacher, you’re never alone.

Click here to view additional excerpts on Amazon.

Subscribe to weekly emails!

Get a free classroom management troubleshooting guide
Every-other-week emails are the main way I stay in touch with readers. Sign up and get a free guide: Why the Six Most Common Pieces of Classroom Management Advice Don’t Always Work as Advertised—and How to Make Them Work Better in Your Classroom.