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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

Rebekah Compton's picture

Classroom management has been very difficult for me. Last year I taught second grade and I currently teach first grade intervention. Last year I had many issues with students wanting to go to the nurse over every little scratch. As the year went on, I began to get better at making judgment calls when it came to sending students to the nurse. However I had a very bad experience. I had a student who came in from recess one day and said he wasn't feeling well. He didn't feel fevered so I asked him to wait a little while longer before I would send him to the nurse. I checked on him from time to time and he said that he would be okay, so I decided not to send him. About an hour later, he still wasn't feeling well so I sent him to the nurse. Come to find out, another student had tackled him on the playground and it had bruised one of his lungs. I felt horrible. Since then I have been overly cautious with my students. I also had a hard time with students finishing their work before others. I came up with various "anchor" activities that the students knew they could work on while others are still working. One program I used as an anchor activity was Accelerated Reader. Students read books and took tests online to earn points. This worked really well for the students who finished their work early.
I really found these ideas useful and I plan to use them in my classroom. Thank for the ideas!

Sylvia Ware's picture

This year I am teaching Pre-K. I have a problem with several kids who are constantly saying they have to go to the bathroom. I send them before whatever lesson we are about to do to avoid interruptions, but it never fails that someone has to go. And seems like when one of them says they have to go, EVERYONE has to go. One day we sat down and I discussed with them that we would have restroom breaks and they would have to go during this time not during lessons anymore. The same day when I started a lesson, one student said they had to go the restroom and four more said it after that. I did not let any of them go. One of the students that usually always initiates the "I got to go to the bathroom" wet herself. That same day she went and told her mom I would not let her go bathroom so I had to explain the situation to her mom. Any suggestions anyone on something different I can try?

Marie Shartzer's picture
Marie Shartzer
kindergarten teacher

I have not been teaching that long, but much of what was mentioned in your blog comes from being in the moment. I have a student teacher and just yesterday one of my students got sick in the classroom. I let her handle the situation. She was pretty calm, although she had to take some deep breaths, that is part of teaching. Last week it was head lice and loose teeth, if you are working with small children these are just part of your everyday experiences.
I do have a comment about the pencil sharpener. I teach kindergarten, so my students just love to play with the pencil sharpener. I found that the best way to remedy that was to place the sharperner off limits. I have two pencil boxes, one for sharp pencils and one for the broken ones. Every morning I have two fifth grade students sharpen all of my pencils. During the day if my students break their pencil they know to just get up, put the broken pencil in one basket and get a sharp one from the other basket. Early in the year when I am teaching classroom procedures I teach my class the pencil rules: "If your pencil breaks I do not need to know about it, just get up quietly, put your broken pencil in the white basket and get a sharpened pencil from the green basket and go quietly back to your seat". This has worked wonderfully for me and it reduces lesson interruptions. If you teach classroom procedures and routines early and if you are consistant with them throughout the year, you will have a class that knows what you expect of them and they will act accordingly.

Theresa Desaulniers's picture
Theresa Desaulniers
Science/Math Teacher

It seems to me that Pre-K should be more accurately called "Potty Training School" as so many this age really can't control their bladders or even know when they have to "really" go. They learn colors, numbers, alphabet and to trust the teacher. Hopefully, they also learn to share!
I only have two suggestions. First, make a big deal about "Jimmy" or "Suzi" having to go pee. It's important that they go pee when they are supposed to so make an even bigger deal about proper timing. Some teachers hate rewards but I would suggest them at this age. "Wow! Jimmy is taking a bathroom break when he should! Here is a brand new uncolored page out of the new special coloring book just for you!" "Ooops! Suzi is making us all wait because of her bad timing. Let's time her to see how fast she gets back!".
Oh, sure. Some people are going to jump on the "self esteem" bandwagon. "Don't EVER embarrass the kids." Well, don't. Just make it fun, somehow.
And, the second suggestion: Patience Patience Patience. He/she will grow out of it!

[quote]This year I am teaching Pre-K. I have a problem with several kids who are constantly saying they have to go to the bathroom. I send them before whatever lesson we are about to do to avoid interruptions, but it never fails that someone has to go. And seems like when one of them says they have to go, EVERYONE has to go. One day we sat down and I discussed with them that we would have restroom breaks and they would have to go during this time not during lessons anymore. The same day when I started a lesson, one student said they had to go the restroom and four more said it after that. I did not let any of them go. One of the students that usually always initiates the "I got to go to the bathroom" wet herself. That same day she went and told her mom I would not let her go bathroom so I had to explain the situation to her mom. Any suggestions anyone on something different I can try?[/quote]

Jeannie Beasley's picture

Why didn't I read this my first year? This is a great article for any new teacher. I remember this stuff being more overwhelming than the actual curriculum my first year.
Another idea I have when a student feels bad or has been "hurt" is to either tell them to put a wet cloth on their head or get water. This cures everything!

nicole's picture

I am experiencing this as we speak. I currently have a student teacher as well and am overhearing all the questions that are thrown at her during the day. I am thinking in my head, there is no possible way I allow that many silly questions! I agree with the pencil strategy. Every Monday I sharpen one million pencils and just let the kids use as necessary. In the beginning, they were up trying to get the one with the sharpest tip but now, they would rather eat the erasers off!

Linda Cox's picture

I am a first year teacher and I completely understand how your student teacher is feeling. I currently have an excellent mentor who helps me figure out the little details. We have just implemented a "ticket system". Students receive 10 tickets at the beginning of each week. Each trip to the restroom, pencil sharpener, or rude comment costs them a ticket. At the end of each week, they can pay 3 tickets to play during extra recess and also purchase a treat. We have noticed that this really cuts down on the trips to the restroom right before a lesson. I enjoyed your ideas! Every little bit helps!

Mindy Dole's picture

I also teach a Pre-K program. This is my first year and I have discovered that there is really no true solution to the bathroom problem with preschoolers. I also, as you do, try to make sure they try to go before we begin an activity or go outside. However, there is always someone who pipes up in the middle of a lesson and asks to go to the bathroom. What I have done this year is ask them if they can wait until the activity is over or if it is an emergency. If they say they can wait I advise them to let me know if it becomes an emergency. I also, when I have everyone go to the bathroom before an activity, talk about how much fun it is going to be and they should go now so they do not miss out if they have to go during the lesson. This problem seems to get easier to handle as the year goes on and I get to know my students better. Also, I try to keep my activities short, or break them up into parts with a break in the middle. Twenty minutes or so seems to be about the limit of their attention span anyway.

[quote]This year I am teaching Pre-K. I have a problem with several kids who are constantly saying they have to go to the bathroom. I send them before whatever lesson we are about to do to avoid interruptions, but it never fails that someone has to go. And seems like when one of them says they have to go, EVERYONE has to go. One day we sat down and I discussed with them that we would have restroom breaks and they would have to go during this time not during lessons anymore. The same day when I started a lesson, one student said they had to go the restroom and four more said it after that. I did not let any of them go. One of the students that usually always initiates the "I got to go to the bathroom" wet herself. That same day she went and told her mom I would not let her go bathroom so I had to explain the situation to her mom. Any suggestions anyone on something different I can try?[/quote]

Amy Peters's picture

In my split classroom I often struggle with my "I'm done...what next!?" kids. I have most of the options availble as mentioned in this post along with one more. I have a free time folder that has leveled work-sometimes enrichment, sometimes extra practice for the kids to do when they finish something early. It is a good way to get in extra work for skill builders.

Nicholas Holmes's picture

I have found in my class that it works well to allow students to sharpen two pencils per day in the morning. If they break their two pencils I have made available a basket full of golf pencil. Many of my fourth graders do not want to use a small pencil with no eraser, so the number of pencils broken, as well as the number of students without pencils has significantly decreased!

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