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

Mandie Sanders's picture
Mandie Sanders
6th grade Math TN

At the 6th grade level you would think that by telling the students not to get up to go sharpen pencils when someone is talking they could handle this. Unfortunately, sixth graders purposely break their pencil lead just to go sharpen them. Being sixth grade they take notes while I teach. So what am I to do? I bought them all a lead pencil for Christmas, but few came back with them. I tried forcing them to have at least 3 sharpened pencils as they enter the class, but that didn't last long. Keeping sharpened pencils in a cup doesn't work either because some students take the pencils.

Stephane Banda's picture

I have borrowed this phrase from a colleague and it works like a charm. My students finish the for me after I say th first two words.

Jessica Hammonds's picture
Jessica Hammonds
4th grade teacher in Social Circle, Georgia

I think I've tried all of these tips, and there is always the one who can get past you! Smart, tricky kids seem to wind up in my room. For instance, the phrase "you can't sharpen it unless it's broken" gets trampled when students decide to break their pencils (on purpose). I have worked around that problem by not allowing them to sharpen their pencil after they break it. The pencil breaker then is forced to borrow a pencil from a friend, or find a new pencil on the floor. Afterwards, they seem to be able to work with the smallest pencil point.

The trashcan by the desk is a great idea. I have three trashcans in my room, so I think we can spare one for vomit problems!

Our students take their agendas with them when they leave the classroom. For unnecessary trips to the restroom, water fountain, or nurse, they must fill out their agenda with the date and time and have it signed by the teacher. This routine gets tiring and eventually they stop asking. Of course, there are always the few that turn the filling out process into another way to get out of class.

A colleague of mine started something new this week. Instead of agendas, she gives each child a Post-it on a bulletin board at the beginning of the week. (The Post-it has the student's name or class number). When a student leaves the room, the Post-it must be marked with a tally and moved to the child's intended location. If the tally marks exceed three at the end of the day, she sends the Post-it home for a parent signature. I really like her idea, so I am in the process of clearing wall space to start the same routine!

Katie Crimmins's picture

I am currently studying to become and elementary/special education teacher. These are situations I have no given much thought to. This article was really helpful in that we are often not taught simple tricks to situations like these. This was extremely helpful! Thank you!

Sarah Valliere's picture
Sarah Valliere
Building TA

I really appreciate this post! Currently I am working as a building TA as my job hunt continues and I am always dealing with classroom management. Because I am never in a room long enough to gain the respect and build relationships with the kids, I feel I am always being tested when covering or subbing. So many of the things you mentioned the kids try! Especially with the bathroom/drink breaks. I never know which kids are faking it. The sharpening penicl rules are great! I also love the ideas you gave for "The After After." Being a new teacher sometimes you get lost in everything going on that it's the simpliest ideas that will keep kids focused and keep them learning! Thanks for the great post!

Sarah B's picture

I completely agree with your statement that one must have humor to get through the topics of blood, vomit, and pain with kids. Although while it is happening, I cannot seem to laugh. Yet when it is all done with, it can create quite a laugh. Thanks for the tips on what has worked for you in the area of illness, or supposed illness. I still struggle with deciding who the "fakers" are, and who may really need to go to the nurse. I'm going to make use of your "bucket next to the desk" trick! Keep up the humor, and the great attitude!

Chelsea B's picture
Chelsea B
Kindergarten Teacher from Salt Lake City, UT

Gaetan thank you for the well thought out tips on behavior management. I have one to add to your list. This is my first year teaching Kindergarten (for the past three years I taught 4th and 5th) and I have been struggling with all of my students and their lack of conflict resolution skills; in particular the "tattle-tailing." I heard about something called a Problem Square where students go to discuss their problem, come up with a solution, shake hands and get back to work.
This is how I made it work for my class. I drew a square with an X through it on my tile in the corner of my room. I had my students gather and we modeled situations where they would have a problem, and want to tell me about it. I told them that instead of telling me, they need to go to the Problem Square.
When they find themselves wanting to get me involved, they look at the other student and say "we need to go to the problem square." In the square each child stands in a triangle and faces the student who they have a problem with. Taking turns, each child tells their side of the story. Then together they come up with a solution or "fix" as we call it. After they agree, they shake hands and get back to work.
I have had AMAZING results in my room. Anytime my students come to me with a problem I ask them if they have been to the Problem Square first, usually I don't have to say anything else. It is so awesome to watch five and six year old students communicating their problems and coming up with a solution on their own. It has improved overall social skills in my room and helped me keep my sanity! I recommend you try it!

Mallory's picture
Second Grade Teacher in Carlisle, Pennsylvania

This was great! After reading, I felt great because I do some of the same things. I also thought your ideas and your humor were fantastic.

I, too, have the kids drink water when they complain of a headache or some other ache. I don't know how anyone else feels about this, but sometimes a wet paper towel cures things too!

I loved your ideas in "The After After" section. I have morning work for my students every single morning, so they know what they need to do as soon as they come in to the class in the morning. I also put up bonus work, for those that get done early.


Amanda Bentley's picture

This is great information! I really feel that every teacher should print this out and leave it at the desk to look over.
I learned quickly that I had to teach students when it was ok to ask a question like this. I only allowed students to sharpen pencils during certain times of the day. If it wasn't an emergency, I didn't want to know about it. This saved a lot of time throughout the day.

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