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


  • 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).


  • 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

Angi Iverson's picture
Angi Iverson
First Grade Teacher in Brockton, Montana

Love this idea. I do ask students to have two sharpened pencils ready to go and then put extras in a box for easy access. I tell them that it is a part of learning to be prepared to learn.

ChrisM's picture
social studies teacher from MN

Great Blog. I have to say that molding the students at the beginning of the year if critical for the rest of the year. Studetns know that they cannot get up to sharpen their pencil until I am done presenting the lesson. Once it is time for students to work on their assignment, they may then get out of their seats, get drinks, sharpen pencils, etc. I also encourage the pump pencils. No problems with thus far with the pencil sharpening issue and I believe it is because students are taught that very early in the year.

KayPee's picture

One thing that drives a teacher up a wall backwards is the annoying noise of a pencil being sharpened, with a pencil sharpener. I think the kids knows how much it annoys every living nerve in the teacher's body, that's why they look for every opportunity there is, including life and death to sharpen their pencils during class. Why can't they do it before class? or after class so that it will be sharpened for the next day? This is an unsolved mystery to me...

Marvette's picture
Pre-k Teacher


I agree with you, I thought that the tips on "To Nurse, or Not to Nurse" were great. It can be overwhelming for a new teacher, really sometimes it can be overwhelming for an old teacher. These tips were so true and it also added a bit of humor.


Paula Oddo's picture

I provide pencils, small sharpeners and an old "boutique" tissue box at each table. The kids are told that the box is to be their "tabletop trash can" and to use it during class, for emptying the pencil sharpener and other trash. I remind them at the beginning of the year that time will go faster in the Art room because they enjoy being in there. Therefore in order to have more time for Art they must stay focused, in their seats and working on their projects. This seems to work.
Also if I have kids that finish early and they have done their best, then they can sharpen more pencils,
( colored and #2) for the next class.

Jared Garner's picture

I am getting my first full time intern this coming Fall and one thing that I never really thought about was all the decisions you do make daily as a teacher. I will make sure to go over with my intern how important setting a classroom structure is so students know when they can and cannot get up to sharpen pencils and do other tasks in the classroom.

Bonifacio Ramos's picture
Bonifacio Ramos
Elementary School Physical Education Teacher

Coach, can I go to the restroom? This question sounds simple enough, but our bathrooms are really far away from the P.E. field. If you say no and the student has an accident, that can be construed as cruel. If you say yes, students can get into trouble and because they are not supervised by an adult you can be held liable. Not to mention that P.E. is only thirty minutes and some students use bathroom as breaktime from the heat and miss half the class. After several years of teaching P.E. I have become an expert in deciding. Students at my school believe I am a "Human Lie Detector" and so I have been quite successful in discouraging repeat and habitual "Restroomers". I find that if the activities are fun, students prefer being in my class and sometimes I even have to make them go because I see them doing the "Bathroom Dance". They never go alone and of course there is a time restriction.

valruckes's picture
Elementary School Teacher in Rochester, Michigan.

This blog is so useful for new teachers. Pencil sharpening is a huge distraction for students. When I was a third grade teacher I allowed students to sharpen pencils only 3x per day: first thing in the morning, during snacks, and at the end of the day when we were doing our class jobs. I kept a small reminder poster next to the sharper with those times listed. Otherwise, they had to borrow a pencil from the community pencil cup. As a first grade teacher, we use community bins for everything, including pencils. We took the wall mounted sharpeners off the walls in every first grade classroom. The pencil pointer (one of our room jobs) sharpens the pencils in the community bin as needed, and our parent volunteers help out with this too.

Thomas Melillo's picture
Thomas Melillo
6th grade math and science teacher in Portsmouth, Virginia.

As a first year teacher this was very helpful especially the Nurse part. I never realized how much went into teaching kids. I am panicking about setting up my classroom and making sure I have everything that I totally forgot this aspect. Thank you

Chrissi's picture

Marvette, Also teaching Pre-k I always get the kids wanting band-aids. They must think band-aids fix everything

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