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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Develop Positive Classroom Management

We've gathered tips from educators about proactive discipline methods. Join the conversation and share your experience about what works.
By Evantheia Schibsted
Credit: iStock Photo

A recent report found that educators believe that the secret to effective discipline is proactively building relationships, not reacting punitively to student misbehavior. In surveys with 300 New York City public school teachers that included an open-ended question about the largest threat to school safety, the most common response was a lack of cohesive culture and positive relationships between staff and students. (Download a PDF of the report, "Teachers Talk: School Culture, Safety and Human Rights.")

Additional key findings highlighted teachers' belief in positive approaches that emphasize social and emotional learning over punitive discipline:

  • Most teachers feel that educators can address even major threats to safety, such as gangs, fights, and student conflict, only by building positive relationships within the school.
  • Less than 45 percent of teachers said that suspensions are effective, while 80 percent said that classroom-management training, conflict resolution, guidance counseling, and mediation are effective for improving discipline.

But how do busy and often undersupported teachers go about building strong relationships with students and developing positive methods of conflict resolution? In the interest of igniting a dialog about what works in classroom management, we’ve gathered the following discipline tips from educators.

As with any series of principles for a complex topic, though, this is only a starting point. The end point, to the degree it can be reached at all, lies in your classrooms. We know that even strategies that work don't work all the time, and sometimes it feels like nothing works at all.

So now we want to hear from you. Let us know what you've tried that's worked, and when and how; what you've learned; and what you're still learning. Together, we can build a vision for a peaceful and effective 21st-century classroom.

Here are some tips for starters:

Agree on Classroom Rules at the Beginning of the Year

Taking time out for this simple step can prevent a lot of misery in the long term. Experienced educators suggest engaging students actively in the process of determining a set of class rules. Taking this preventative measure creates a positive climate from the start.

Check in with Students at the Start of Class

Even three minutes can make a difference. You can do this by asking questions, such as, "What do you want to get out of class today?" Teachers can weigh in with their goals for class, too.

"This is a chance for the teacher, while still maintaining control of a classroom, to share with students at their level," says Liz Sullivan, coauthor of the "Teachers Talk" report and education program director at the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. "Have each kid give a short answer. It's a way to communicate with them. Making them feel like a part of the process sets a positive tone."

Be Consistent About Expectations

This can be the biggest challenge for individuals to address, but it's important to keep in mind that school staff should work together as much as possible to foster consistency in expectations, and discipline methods, throughout the school.

"Sometimes, staff inadvertently set up gaps,” explains Nancy Franklin, a veteran educator with more than a decade of classroom experience who now provides training and support for the Los Angeles Unified School District's Positive Behavior Support policy. "Students may think, 'If I go to this teacher, I get this answer, but if I go to the principal, I get another answer.' It's like a kid who gets different answers from Mom and Dad."

Reinforce Appropriate Behavior

"When you are in a classroom with a teacher who reinforces positive behavior, kids calm down," says Franklin. "Think four positives to any corrective feedback."

Franklin argues that correcting students is the weakest way of teaching rules. "It's not about 'Gotcha -- you did it the wrong way; here's the right way,'" she says. "Students need to be able to trust you and feel safe. That enables them to experience emotional health and flourish."

Maintain Student Dignity

When corrections are necessary, experts suggest handling situations quietly and calmly. Don't make a big deal in front of the whole class.

"An approach to discipline that is respectful of human rights and maintains student dignity leads to a school that is inherently safe," says former teacher Sally Lee, coauthor of "Teachers Talk" and executive director of the New York City organization Teachers Unite. "A school in which students and teachers don't feel safe creates a fearful environment. And where there is a fearful environment, there are low expectations for discipline."

Be Neutral, Not Accusatory

When problems arise, don't ask, for example, "“Why did you take Sally's pencil?" This apporach often provokes defensive comebacks such as, "She was mean to me." Instead, ask what happened, opening the way for students to tell their story. Follow up with questions such as "How do you think that made Sally feel?"

Look for the Cause

It's a good idea to notice when students act out, educators advise. Does it happen only when the child is doing math or reading? Identifying when problems occur may help you recognize the reason.

Similarly, it's helpful to figure out what the underlying problem is. "If it's a skill deficit, a kid doesn't know how to behave," says Joseph Ryan, a special education researcher at Clemson University who has worked in schools for disabled children. "If it's a performance deficit, the kid knows what to do but needs motivation."

Establish a Fairness Committee

"Often, a person who is acting out wants to make amends for what they've done,” says Josh Heisler, a teacher at New York City's Vanguard High School. "They won't feel right until they fix the problem."

Heisler's school set up a fairness committee of teachers and students that promotes a restorative approach, rather than a punitive one, to righting wrongs: Instead of directing offenders to the principal's office or threatening suspensions, teachers let them tell their side of the story to the committee and, hopefully, make amends. When the committee convenes, it asks students questions ranging from "What happened?" and "Who else has been affected?" to "What do you need to do now to repair the harm?"

Share Your Experience

What would you add to this list? Do you have specific examples of how you've achieved these goals -- or others? We want to know.

Evantheia Schibsted is a New York freelancer who contributes to Edutopia. Her articles have also appeared in the New York Times and Wired, on ABCNEWS.com, and in or on other publications and Web sites.

Go to "Student-Teacher Relationships Can Be Built Five Minutes at a Time."

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Comments (33)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Angela Sanders's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first time blogging and I have really enjoyed reading your post and the comments. I am a middle school band director and am a firm believer in building relationships with the students and gaining their trust and respect. I also believe in setting high standards so that they will work hard to reach them. I encourage teamwork and encourage them to show respect to each other. When they are playing in front of each other, I ask them to be quiet and listen, always clap for them, and never to say bad things about each other or their playing abilities. Students enjoy playing and I keep them engaged and active in the class so that there are minimum discipline problems. I try to be as positive as I can and if there is a discipline problem, I will talk to them individually rather than in front of the whole class. Most of the time, they are acting out to get attention and I don't want to add to this. My main problem with discipline is the fact that most of these students are very close to each other socially because they spend so much time outside of class together on trips and activities. They like to socialize and talk and I have to stay on them to focus and accomplish our goals, but I try to maintain a positive attitude.

Shelly Meyers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At the beginning of the year ask students to compile a list of the homework they wish teachers would assign. You can have them work in groups to build a community right away. Keep the list and use it to vary your homework. One fifth grade teacher has her students use their hand-held Dell's to do their homework and they "beam" it to her the next day at school. A high school teacher has assigned one complex problem and offered to have students text their solutions to him rather than simply turning in a paper. You have to make the practice worth their while.
As far as expectations are concerned, even with the best of papers or projects--give them back to the students and tell them you know they can improve if given more time. You'll be impressed by the outcome!
Shelly Meyers, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor of Elementary Education

Starla Watson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I taught Kindergarten for 3 years but before that I taught 6th grade. The concept of building relationships is not different for either grade. Students come from so many different backgrounds. Once they step foot in your classroom, there is no guarantee that your personality and habits will automatically mesh with all your students. It is your job to adapt, not theirs. This doesn't mean to change who you are. It means you need to meet the students where they are at and build the relationships from there. students will soon realize you are seeking them and in turn trust and come to you. It's not a 100% all for nothing thing. This means to be firm consistent and look at each child at some point for who they are.

Kristin Gross's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with many of the comments about staying calm.

I have found that yelling occasionally when students are really acting up does get the students attention. However, if you find yourself raising your voice too often it doesn't have the same effect. If the students are used to you raising your voice they'll tune you out and will not take you seriously. I also think it is important to take a deep breath before you react.

To get the students attention and get them back on task I say, "Give Me Five," and put my hand in the air and count up to five on my fingers. I found this idea in a tips for teachers book. I find that this really works because the students actively participate in getting the rest of the class to quiet down by also put their hand in the air. Even if some of the students didn't hear me they see the signal from their classmates and know that it needs to be completely quiet and they should be focusing on me by the time I get to five.

Mr. Dana Scaglione's picture

Even with 27 years experience, workshops, best practices, etc., a teenager or 2 each year in my HS classes will still reach recalcitrant disrespect towards me. This is usually mirrored from the parent rather than aided, and can even "survive" administrative interventions. What can be done next? (I'm guessing most replies will be "Start over with Assertive, positive control techniques, with student and parent.") Remeber the old saying about the definition of insanity - Using the same solution for s different result? I'm seeking advice from someone who has found a "hyper" solution for this nagging issue.

Mr.Bee's picture
Mr.Bee
Third grade teacher from Michigan's Upper Peninsula

I agree with the comments. I use the "Golden Rule" as our base and we build from there for our classroom rules. I also think it is important to reprimand in a positive non-judgmental way. Lastly I believe the students must feel it is their classroom and that they have a voice in its management. Happy students learn.

Carol's picture

It's not about "tricks" implying we are fooling the students to cooperate. It's about an underlying assumption that ALL Kids will do better if they are valued as individuals with respect as the core component.

K. Dunlap's picture

My best tip: buy a roll of carnival "admit one" tickets. Quietly, when you see positive behavior, put the student name on the ticket and initial it and give it the student. I did this with high school students when they would take out a book and read quietly after a quiz, or any other behavior I liked. At first I didn't tell them anything or explain why. It didn't take long for them to figure it out and often in class discussions if a student made a particularly good point, another student would inevitably say "That's worth a ticket Ms. D." Of course, I would agree. The tickets were worth points on a quiz, test, or essay. If they saved them up, they could "cash" them all in at the end of the quarter on the exam. We started over each quarter. I was amazed at how something so simple worked so well. I also began being random as the year progressed - that is I did not give a ticket every time we had a quiz and they read quietly. I got the idea from my dog trainer. In the beginning of training, you give the dog a treat every time she sits - she learns fast to sit! Then you start backing off and not treat every time. Eventually you can stop treating altogether and the dog will still sit. If it ever "forgets" you treat occasionally. I'm not suggesting that my students are animals, but some of the same principles apply - and it works! Students will brag about how many tickets they have. And even the worst behavior problems can occasionally be caught doing something good to reward!

Michael Stanton's picture
Michael Stanton
4th grade Math/Social Studies teacher

I went to Positive Behavior Support training last year and started it in my classroom. This year it school wide. The system focuses on letting students know expectations and modeling what they look like. We practice doing the correct procedures for everything. This might seem like a waste of time, however it is necessary for the students to truly understand the expectations. Students are rewarded verbally and with small treats for displaying the correct behavior without prompting them. Some teachers disagree with awarding with what is expected, however, we all love verbal praise from our bosses and a nice treat here and there for doing our jobs, it works the same for the students. I also started a call home journal. This journal is used by the students. The must write me a note explaing why the should have a good call home. This builds parent by in and the love a nice call. PBS lessons and details a can be found on the internet.

Theresa Wagoner's picture

To really welcome students and lower student anxiety we get our whole building involved. On the first day of school, all staff dress in various sports jerseys. We line the hallway and after the morning bell rings, we cheer the incoming students on to the gym. We have a slide show playing and waiting for them, set to music, of highlights, fun activities, field trips, and everyday school life, from the previous school year. Once all students are gathered, the principal leads a welcoming message. Then, all students and staff walk together towards their calssrooms. Students feel welcomed, see friendly faces, and really experience lower stress as they begin the first day of a new school year.

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