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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Classroom-Management Strategies for Elementary Teachers

Updated 01/2014

"With what are you struggling?" I ask.

"I think I need some more direction on the little decisions like what do you do when a student complains about a stomach ache right before a lesson," replies student teacher.

I wasn't expecting that answer, but it makes total sense. My student teacher says he feels like he makes 10,000 decisions a day, the decisions that are almost like breathing for me now. They are immediate and instinctual, but it took years of failure and trial and error on the so-called "soft skills" of elementary education to create a manageable atmosphere.

His question sent me back to when I had the same struggles. I had to go old-school, back to the experiences that trained my gut to make on-the-spot decisions without hesitation. It was like playing with my toys again. However, I really can't profess that my answers are the "right" ones because they are fluid, in constant flux from day to day, minute to minute, and student to student.

The Questions

"My head hurts, may I go to the nurse?"
"Can I sharpen my pencil?"
"May I go to the bathroom?"
"Can I get a drink?"
"What do I do when I'm done?"
"Can I have a Band-Aid?"

These questions might seem trivial to the onlooker, but the answers require premeditated thought, as well as "on-the-go" decisions that can easily stump the amateur teacher.

I'm seeing it firsthand as we speak. My student teacher is taking the reins on lesson plans, management, assessing, and he's slowly finding a nice little groove. However, when a student asks him for a Band-Aid, he hesitates. He's not so sure. He's sure about instruction. He's sure about routines. Band-Aid? Not so sure. Why? Well, I don't have all of the answers, but I've dug up a flexible list of techniques that I've used to counter those nagging questions without creating a blanket rule resembling prison life. Have fun.

To Nurse, or Not to Nurse

Making a decision to send a student to the nurse is tougher than it looks. You never want to deny a student the medical attention he or she deserves, and, at the same time, you want to toughen up your little cherubs. And, while you're trying to figure out who needs help and who thinks they need help, "The Faker" comes along and throws a monkey wrench into your thought process. So, what do you do? I've listed some ideas on how to distinguish between patients. I apologize for my humor and honesty in advance. Humor is almost unavoidable when discussing blood, vomit, and pain with kids.

Blood

  • Blood = A trip to the bathroom to clean the cut and a Band-Aid to cover it.
  • No blood or dried blood = No Band-Aid and a trip back to your seat.
  • Paper cuts = No Band-Aid (even though they are painful) and back to your seat.
  • Scab = Band-Aid. If you don't oblige, they will pick and jab at that thing until it's gushing. Just give em' a Band-Aid and swallow your pride.

Vomit

  • Pale and stomach pains = Bucket and trip to the nurse with a buddy -- no questions asked.
  • Stomach hurts either before or after lunch = "You're hungry." Or, "You just ran around with a full belly. It will go away." Done.
  • Stomach pains not before or after lunch and face looks healthy = Bucket next to desk. In ten years, I've never had a student puke in a bucket parked next to a desk (knock on wood).

Pain

  • Neck pain = Immediate trip to the nurse. Neck pain could be a sign of meningitis or a concussion.
  • Headaches = Come back later. I'll usually wait until the student complains at least twice before sending them to the nurse.
  • Foot pain, leg pain, arm pain (without swelling) = "If it hurts, don't move it."

Stick a Fork in Me, I'm Done

What a dreaded question, especially for the new teacher who is occupied with teaching four to five subjects a day. If not prepared for this simple, yet so complex question, you're asking for chaos and unwanted behavior.

I know what you're thinking -- Just give em' another worksheet. Well, like the Lorax, I speak for the trees. I try to eliminate excess use of paper. I don't think I need to explain why, but it is a good idea to explain it to your kids. Right?

Along with minimizing the use of paper, I want my kids to have a choice: choice = ownership = effective. When the year is young or whenever that dreaded question buzzes your ear just a little too much, introduce "When I'm done options." I call it "The After After." It's a silent time. It's important that students know that this is not free time or recess. They are choosing a subject to explore during extra time. It's enrichment really. And it's on their terms. This is what it looks like.

The After After

  1. Finish Unfinished Work
  2. Options
    • Read (self-selected book)
    • Write (a continuation of writing workshop)
    • Sketch (each student receives a sketch book for the year)
    • Math Computer Games (I have six desktop computers in my class, so it's doable for me)

Voila! After about a month, the symptoms of What-do-I-do-when-I'm-done should dissipate.

Grinding Wood and Graphite

They do it when you're talking, teaching, or trying to read. They do it when they're supposed to be writing or when they feel like getting up. The pencil sharpener attracts chatty kids like a bug to a bug zapper. It calls their name and promises fresh points and camaraderie.

Teachers who attempt to micromanage pencil sharpening usually designate a time-span for the deed like: only in the morning, on odd number hours, before snack, etc... I've tried it and it's crazy hard to manage because, like the English language, there's always an exception. Kids fancy sharp pencils and love to grind wood and graphite to satisfy that hunger. You can't stop it. You need to become one with the pencil sharpening epidemic and be firm, fair, and consistent with the rules. Here are a few tips that ease (not stop) the sharpening craze in my classroom.

Scene: The first day of school.

Teacher: Students, I have a very exciting announcement that pertains to the sharpening of pencils. You are permitted to sharpen your pencils all day LONG!

Students: WOOT! YES! Holla'!

Teacher: BUT... and it's a big one--(giggle) don't even think about A) sharpening your pencil unless the point is broken. Not dull or chipped or looks weird. It's got to be trashed in order for you to visit the sharpener. And B) getting up when someone is teaching, speaking, or reading out loud. Capiche?

Students: Crickets. Maybe a gulp.

Teacher: Not that I can top that announcement, but (giggle) I have another one. You can use personal sharpeners and pens! Yes, I said pens!!!

Students: WOOT! YES! Holla'!

That's it. It doesn't eliminate the craze, but it keeps it to a minimum.

"Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it's enough." I read this quote on a bumper sticker. I'm not sure who said it, but it's a good motto to keep in your back pocket when the questions arise. Oh, and they will my friend.

So, let's help out the student teachers who are struggling with "soft skills" of education by sharing what we do in the classroom. What are your ideas?

Comments (94)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carianne Solecki's picture
Carianne Solecki
Kindergarten teacher from Memphis, TN

This year I will be teaching kindergarten for the second year. I wish I would have read your blog before my first year of teaching. There are manY great ideas here. I am going to try and implement slot of them. I especially like the one about living the children 2 pencils and if they break both of them give them a golf pencil.

Sarah H's picture
Sarah H
4th Grade Teacher from Blakely, GA

As a second year teacher, I found this article to be very helpful. Veteran teachers don't think of these things as often as us newbies because it has become second nature to them. My mentor teacher and I were discussing the same issues today and I was asking for her advice when dealing with the same issues. She suggested I keep band-aids and peppermints in the room at all times to quick fix those "boo-boos" and "sore-throats" they often say they have. I will definitely be applying some of these practices mentioned in the blog this year. I especially loved the "What do I do when I am done?" suggestions. I think I will write this on a poster so that my 4th graders can help themselves to some "enrichment" when they finish their work. Thank you for sharing!

heather mcdaniel's picture
heather mcdaniel
first grade teacher monroe county tennessee

I too do not like the disruption of a pencil sharpener during my lessons. I teacher first grade and I have my students seated in groups and in the center of the group is a pencil basket. The students all share and at the end of the day I choose 2 students to sharpen the pencils or I do myself after school. I find that this method works well however this year I have asked for lead pencils as suggested by a fellow coworker and I will see how this handles the pencil sharpening dillema.

Sawsan's picture
Sawsan
KG2 Teacher

It is all the same with different execuses. The kids in my class want to go to the rest room and drink water all the time. It was very annoying for me at the beginning, but then I decided that I am not going to wait for them to ask me. I will ask who wants to go to the restroom and drink water ???
I mean I started to make the hourly restroom and drinking water strategy. Things became better.. execuses started to be less.

Nick's picture

Having to make these decisions puts a block on the flow of class when you have to constantly remove one kid for class so they can go to the bathroom or to the nurse. I found that using my best judgment and knowing the circumstances that it becomes easier to make these small decisions and will help with eliminating loss of class time

stephanie's picture

I really enjoyed reading this post. I have been there time and time again with my students. This year I implemented a system based on the period. I put dots (the kind u print on) on each period. Green means "you can go to the bathroom" and red means "don't even think about it". This has worked very well. We also have a symbol to designate water and bathroom for 2 reasons : 1. I dont call on them during a mini-lesson, 2. I can ignore my "usual suspects" for long enough until they give up. I really like the "After, After" List. I am definitely going to implement that as well. Thanks for the tips!

Hollie's picture
Hollie
Kindergarten Teacher , FL

I loved this blog! This is my second year teaching Kindergarten and I still find myself getting stumped with these questions sometimes. Simple questions that children ask during the flow of a lesson can really throw a teacher off as well as distract the other students. The issue I have been having this year with my students is wanting to sharpen their pencils all day. I will definitely be giving an announcement about that tomorrow.

Elizabeth's picture
Elizabeth
Third grade teacher from southeastern Ohio

Thank you for this post! This is my second year teaching, and I struggle with making so many "on-the-spot" decisions. I want to answer everyone's questions at once, so I make the mistake of letting them talk to me all at once (I thought my brain could keep up-it can't!). I like how you differentiate among physical complaints; I feel like I do this, but you put it into words in a way that makes so much sense! I also only allow pencil sharpening at certain times of the day and keep extras in a "sharp" and "not sharp" drawer. If students need to sharpen at other times of the day, I have a "volume meter" that lets them know when they can talk. If it is on zero, they cannot talk- even if they are at the pencil sharpener. It is very helpful to think these things through before they happen. Again, thank you for your post.

Shanshan's picture

Thanks so much for your post, and this is my second year of elementary education. As you said, i am really struggling with the questions you mentioned in this article. Now i get more effective methods to solve these problems, and i will plan to implement in my class.
By the way, i like your humor and this useful article, thanks again!

Ciara Fischer's picture

As a student teacher right now, I found this to be extremely helpful. I've seem my Cooperating Teacher do all of this in her classroom but this will definitely be a great resource for me next year when I have my own classroom and have to remember to have to plan for all of this. Thanks for sharing!!

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