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

Megan's picture

One thing I have found helpful is to post a "What can I do when I'm done?" poster in the front of our classroom. At the beginning of the year, we create this poster as a class, brainstorming "quiet" things we could do when we finish early. Examples of things that are on it are: read, write, help a neighbor, clean their desk... I constantly see students look up at this poster when they finish early to check for ideas of what they could do!

Misty's picture
Preschool Teacher @ Head Start (Finger Lakes, NY)

It seems as though everyday I have at least 5 students that complain that their stomach hurts. It is like a dominoe effect....if one says it, they all say it. You truly want to take their word for it, but it is not easy to tell sometimes when they are faking it! I enojyed reading your suggestions and am definately going to adapt your bandaid policy! I have not experienced the pencil sharpening 'drama' yet, (actually my children will draw or write with a pencil that is barely sharpened and they don't seem to care :)) but I also let my students write and draw with pens. I have a collection of silly pens and writing utensils that I let them experiment with and write with during center time. I find that little things like that can make all the difference in the world..they are curious beings! :)

Heidi Mansfield's picture
Heidi Mansfield
Second Grade special ed and Title I Reading

Teaching special education, I mostly work with small groups and I have had my strategies of dealing with these incidents that come up. Today, though, I was covering a general education teacher's class and I was amazed at how often each of the scenarios you listed came up in just one afternoon. Sharpening pencils came up the most often, with "What do I do when I'm done?" following very closely behind. Thank you very much for your very useful tips and suggestions. One thing I do in my classroom to keep kids from constantly going to the pencil sharpner is to have a basket of sharp pencils in my room. If a student's pencil breaks or is too dull, they put their pencil in the basket and take out a sharp pencil. I do not allow them to sharpen their pencils at all once class has started.

annhieberttejeda's picture

I think that the most important point that you are making is the fact that there are procedures in the classroom and that they are followed and everyone is aware of them. I have often observed classrooms in which there are no posted procedures or they are not referred to on a frequent basis. The classrooms that really seem to work are the ones that everyone is aware of the rules; You are able to walk in and ask ten students the same question on the rules of sharpening a pencil and they all give you the same answer. It is so important for classroom management! And I will definitely try the trash can next to the chair idea for my next 'dieing' student! :)


Brittany Parrett's picture

I also loved the suggestions! As a first year third grade teacher, I have heard all of these questions numerous times. I have definitely been struggling as to how to answer these questions. I feel bad not letting students go to the nurse, the bathroom, or to sharpen their pencils, but I learned quickly that they try to take advantage of all privileges.

karen smith's picture
karen smith
first grade teacher from Chattanooga, TN

Great post! It is comical but these issues really steal from quality teaching time. Another big issue is going to the bathroom. But, as many have said, you come to know your children, and learn to judge truth from fiction. Thanks for the tips and reminding us that we all face the same things.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

At the moment I'm in maine interning at Nancie Atwell's Center for Teaching and Learning. The school is basically a large house. It's run by staff alone. NO nurse or principal or guidance counsellor. This might be the Nirvana of my career. I'm not seeing one bit of this at this school. Each room has a bathroom that the kids can use whenever they want. sharpening pencils is not an issue. I've seen two kids to the building facilitator, then go home. it seems like there are no false alarms. I think I correlate the non-issues with the small class sizes and the teachers really knowing the kids. Plus, There's no long walks to the bathroom or nurse. It's a very cozy school.

Read more about my experience here.

Steven Dennison's picture

I agree with Cosmasmary. A particular classroom is right! I am a technology teacher and my classroom is a wood shop laboratory. It's not a normal classroom setting. It has machines and tools and dangerous equipment throughout the lab. I have to pay special attention to where my students are at all times because of this equipment. I have specific times that I allow my students to use the bathroom, sharpen pencils, and go to the nurse. I do not allow my students to do any of these while I am instructing because it interrups me from my lesson. After my lesson they may ask to go. Sometimes though it is very hard to determine if they really need to leave for these things. After talking with other teachers in my building, they gave me some insights and strategies for students who are constantly needing to leave the classroom for several reasons. Sometimes it is hard to determine if the student has an emergency or just wants to get out of class. I'm finding that over time I have come recognize the difference between faking and not faking. I ask my students a few questions in regards to the reason they are leaving and that helps to narrow down a decision on whether or not they really have to leave.

Caitlin Ward's picture
Caitlin Ward
Middle School English Teacher

Sometimes it is so easy to forget the little problems that seemed monumental when we all first started teaching. What worked best for me was pretty much always saying no when my students asked to go places. This meant that eventually the students stopped asking unless it was an actual emergency! Also, regarding pencils, I also use a pencil bank. The students either trade me a pencil or something of value. They are, however, allowed to sharpen their pencils during the Do Now (the first five minutes of class). After that, no movement in class!

Kristi's picture

I have realized that we need to "think ahead" of the students. Try to be one step head. I know from previous years experiences that the sharpener becomes a huge problem. I have solved this problem this year. I order extra pencils and have them in a drawer under the sharpener. The students have morning jobs to complete when they come into class. One of their jobs is to make sure they have "3" pencils sharpened. This eliminates them going to the sharpener until recess time. It saves a lot of time throughout the day. The students also must use the restroom in the morning as their job. I have really cut down on them even asking to go. They do in the morning, at 1030, after lunch, and they can go at recess. This eliminates a lot of bathroom breaks. Another job my students have is to make sure they have 2 books in their desk. I promote a lot of reading in my room, so the kids that finish early read until others are done. My kids don't even ask the question "What do we do now?" or state "I am done". Everything comes with experience. There are things I did not know last year that I know to use for this year. Mastering these classroom management skills takes time and experience.

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