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

Amanda Nims's picture
Amanda Nims
Kindergarten/2nd grade Intervention Teacher

This is something I really enjoyed reading! Those are the same exact questions that I thought when I was doing my student teaching and still experience hesitation answering today as a first year teacher! The answers to the "little decisions" are such good examples of great ways to set up the routines in the classroom! Thank you for sharing your awesome ideas!!

A. Hickman's picture

This information is very useful and especially relevant in my classroom. Thanks for the practical ideas that can be used on any grade level. I will definately use the After, After idea.

Jackie Shanti's picture
Jackie Shanti
3rd grade teacher, Milwuakee, WI

This past summer I found this idea. Have a container with sharpened pencils in an accessible place in the room. Next to the sharpened container there is a container for the 'duds' that are broken, dull, whatever. Students can come up in the morning and after lunch and deposit an old pencil and pick up a sharpened one. No noise, it's fast, and I appoint one student to sharpen all of the 'duds' at the end of the day. The initial investment is a box of pencils. The peace and quiet are well worth it.

Mrs. Moyer's picture
Mrs. Moyer
4th grade Social Studies from Amanda, Ohio

When you start teaching you don't really think about these kinds of things but you are so right. My favorite is the nurse and my second favorite is the restroom. At our school we call those that want to go to the nurse often "Frequent Flyers". They usually have to be throwing up, feverish, or have a pretty serious wound. Otherwise, I give them a band-aid or say, "Well, try and stick it out." I can normally tell if a student is really ill or not. With the restroom situation, all of the 4th grade teachers have certain times when they take their classes to the restroom. They are told that it is their opportunity to go and don't ask later unless it is an absolute emergency. So, since I teach Social Studies to all six fourth grade classes, I only get about 40 minutes to teach. This means their is no time for restroom unless of course it is an emergency. These things might sound harsh but when you are able to recognize the nurse and restroom "Frequent flyers", you know that they are just trying to get out of class. My homeroom students can't afford to miss class time because they are the students who are already struggling in class. They need all the instruction they can get. I know that they don't understand that, but I do. I want them to be successful and if they can't make good decisions in class, I am their to help guide those decisions. So "Faking" it is not an option.

Angel Stacey's picture

I love the ideas concerning band-aids, as well as, pencil sharpening tactics! These ideas were very relevant to my everyday issues with a class of 17 kindergartners. The longer I teach, the more I realize that there are struggles with classroom management each year. Just sometimes a new set of struggles due to a new set of students. It is always helpful and enticing to know there are teachers all around that share similar struggles. Yet, can brainstorm many different ideas to handle the struggles. I will definetly be trying the pencil sharpening tactic! Even with kindergarteners, they are extremely intrigued with the pencil sharpening activities!!

Kelli Caras's picture

I use the if it still hurts after we finish the notes/activity then you can see the nurse. We also have a list they sign in on so its easy to see who goes to the nurse, bathroom, ect often.
I solved the bathroom problem with poker chips. Each Monday they get one red chip that allows them to go to the bathroom anytime during class. If they use it and try to go another day the answer is the same too bad (unless its that time for my female students). If on Friday they still have it they cash in for a starburst. It works great!

Nina Becton's picture

I am in the same boat as your student teacher. Currently, I am student teaching in 5th grade, and while I feel that I could teach all day, it's the seemingly simple questions that throw me off everyday. My class loves super-sharp pencils to write with, and since a super-sharp point isn't exactly a necessity, I love the idea your idea about sharpening pencils! It makes so much sense-sharpen them only if they're broken! I love all of these ideas and I will start implementing immediately in my classroom on Monday! Thanks!

Morrison's picture
Kindergarten Teacher from Durham North Carolina

I really like the idea for the after after. I struggle daily with two particular students of mine that alwasy finish their assignment early. They have been asked to pull out their classwork folder and complete anu work that needs to be completed, but of course they are finished with everything well that is until Ms. Morrison checks it. I liek the idea of giving them more than just one option as an early finisher task. I will certianly begin trying that and see how its gonna work in my classroom.

Kaitlin Johnson's picture

This post was extremely helpful. As a student teacher, I am looking for anything that can help me prepare for my own future classroom and this is what this blog did. I really liked the part about whether to nurse or not to nurse. I sometimes have difficulty judging when a student needs a band-aid, should go to the nurse, or go back to their seat. I will definitely be using this information when I have my own classroom. Thank you!

Karen Wood's picture

I am currently in my 2nd year of teaching and have found that I am constantly making quick judgement calls. Band-Aids that I handed out like candy last year only get handed out if there is visual blood this year. I have two baskets for pencils, one for sharpened and one for needs to be sharpened, students know just what to do when they need a new pencil. When students finish work early they know that their options are to read, write, or draw. The more I teacher the better I get at all the management strategies.

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