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

Jamie Schwantes's picture

The kids in my room understand the mantra "read, write, sketch, clay" when they are looking for what to do when they are done. It takes a little while for them to trust themselves to just choose something (especially sketching and building with clay) and even late in the year there are always a few that still ask "what to do when I'm done?" But that's okay, a simple redirection with "just ask a friend" usually solves this minor issue. As far as other "soft" issues" (bathroom, drinks, ect...), it's best to start right away and work together to set up those routines. Working with your kids on setting up the routines helps give them some of ownership and respect towards the classroom environment.

Steve Owens's picture
Steve Owens
Pre-K - 6 music, Calais VT, Sharon VT

Best hint for headaches is a nice big glass of water. Headaches can be caused by dehydration. Drinking fountains don't cut it for hydrating. See "Can I go to the bathroom?" :)

Lisa Lynn's picture

My mom is an 6th grade teacher. She keeps a stock of mechanical pencils and refill lead--not cheap, but they never need sharpening!

Theresa Desaulniers's picture
Theresa Desaulniers
Science/Math Teacher

One of my favorite (actually not) questions is, "Can I borrow a pencil? I forgot mine." So, this is really, "Can I have a pencil?" but that question will seldom get asked. And, truthfully, he or she really did forget their pencil because that is what young teens do. I refuse to punish them for having to pass through that special time in life when their brains are disconnecting and reconnecting so rapidly they can forget their pencil between the span of four minutes between classes. But, I will get some amusement out of it!

My strategy:
A shoe for a pencil. Even-steven trade. They get a nice pencil too. Sharp and new!

I have had students forget to get their shoe back. But, they remember to complete the trade before they get too far down the hall.

Now, I need to go buy a bucket. I love that idea! A nice pink one!

Rachel Peters's picture

I have two tower bins of supplies for students to access at any time during the day. The drawers have pencils, pens, markers, erasers, etc. in them. I have one bin for regular pencils sharpened and one for unsharpened, but students rarely use either of these. Instead, they use mechanical pencils. When these run out of lead, they put them in a basket by my desk and get another one from one of the drawers. Every morning I fill the empty pencils with lead. Students aren't allowed to do this. Works better than anything else I've tried, and students love the mechanical pencils. I hear the pencil sharpner about once a week before school starts.

Sandy Crawford's picture

Great suggestions that are also useful for new teachers like myself. Something I've done with my 7th grade math class is I would give a student a job to sharpen the pencils in my pencil cup every morning. If a student needed a sharpened pencil they would exchange their pencil for a sharpened one. They could not get up during instruction, however to exchange pencils. Another tip is to use golf pencils without erasers, the students aren't as happy about exchanging those pencils and are more likely to come with their pencils sharpened.

Danielle Garrison's picture

Here's a bathroom trick I learned from my cooperating teacher while student teaching - have a bathroom/go to the water fountain hand signal. In my class, Students use the peace sign for bathroom and hold up three fingers for water. I move my fist in a "yes" motion or a "no" motion to answer. This cuts down on disruptions during instruction or while you're conferencing with another student. Another rule we have is, no bathroom/water trips during direct instruction. If i'm at the board, demonstrating, or giving instructions, they must wait until group work time to go.

Ann Hyde's picture
Ann Hyde
Special Ed English teacher, Anchorage, Alaska

My pencil policy is that I will sell a pencil for a quarter. Students need to either borrow a pencil or a quarter if they don't have either one. I also round up found/used pens and pencils and keep them in a "freebie" cup near my desk. I also don't have a sharpener in my room.

Bathroom -- kids have to use Ninja skills because I don't write passes to the bathroom. If they get caught in the hall, they have to serve the detention because they obviously aren't very good Ninjas. I don't use laminated passes because some of the kids don't wash their hands. Yuck.

Nurse -- If fluids aren't flowing, they aren't going. Unless it looks imminent.

I keep kleenex and hand sanitizers in copious amounts, and encourage use.

Interruptions: When I ask the student what they want or need, they must first tell me how beautiful I look. And then we all smile, and it gets rid of the frustration. Then I usually let them go. Anyone who interrupts while I am teaching has to scrub desks before they leave. And they have to be in their seats and quiet so I can hear when the dismissal bell rings.

We try to keep the fun in the fundamentals.

Ellen Glenn's picture
Ellen Glenn
retired elementary teacher from Bend, Oregon

Great ideas here! No matter what, the routines in a classroom must be taught. I found that students were very co-operative with routines as soon as they understood the expectations.

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

All great ideas here, which was my intent to help the newbies. Awesome!!

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