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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
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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, 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 (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

janny226's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These are fabulous. So simple, really, yet so powerful. One I might add, as the parent of a first-grader with PDD, is to be as detailed as possible about the specific behaviors that are appropriate and expected. Age-appropriately of course. But the clearer my son's team can be, the better the whole class (on and off the spectrum) gets it.

HAROLD BOGGS's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

wow, things like this really help. Thank you for sharing.

mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many years as a beginning teacher, I took part in a workshop called TESSA. I believe it is still around. The idea was to educate teachers as to how they behaved with the behavior problems in their classrooms. What an undertaking. This is how it worked. As a group, we identified students in our classrooms with undesired behaviors. Then one of our peers would come in and observe as we taught the class. The observer would tally the number of times we addressed negative behaviors as compared to the number of tallies we received for recognizing positive behaviors. What an eye opener. Across the board, the reality was not our perception. As educators, we tend to reinforce those negative behaviors we so detest. It is a great teaching changing experience. The following tips from this blog brought this previous experience to mind.
Reinforce Appropriate Behavior & Be Consistent About & Expectations Look for the Cause

Betty Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Years ago, I had a wonderful young man as a student; he had suffered a severe brain trauma as a child. Folks with TBI often experience extreme mood swings. This normally sweet person would come in angry and defiant some days. I encouraged him to do so and by winter break, we had gotten to the point that he could tell me at the beginning of class on days he wasn't feeling well. I encouraged him to rest on those days, do the minimum or nothing (most of this class was structured around individual or small group projects, so that part worked well). I made it plain (but privately) that there was X amount of work to do and that he was expected to do as much as everybody else. So on his good days, he worked a little bit harder and it came out even. Surprisingly, there was little commentary from other students. A couple of others tried "I'm not feeling so good today." They got the same treatment: in the adult world there are deadlines (in our case, the end of the marking period; not necessarily the next bell. Although sometimes some projects had serious deadlines for real-world participation. Adults are expected to manage their own time and get their work done. They are also expected to monitor their physical and mental state and take care of themselves. With this group, I learned how to help kids coordinate their inner state with their behavior and to take responsibility for a arranging positive outcome. The biggest discipline problem I had: getting them out the door and on to the next class when the bell rang.

M S Seekree's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Let the teacher tell in the first class meeting itself that he holds all students as good receivers and would welcome even elementary questions.No student should laugh at any question asked and thus have a stress free environment. Further if a student is asked to come to board or asked to reply a question, it is not to belittle him/her.Rather,it is to prepare the student for better communication.The teacher should also not discuss the low performance(if found) by specifying an individual student.Of course,the teacher should compliment a good performance.Honest interest in the students brings automatic rewarding results.Do not create a complex in any student.
M S Seekree
Retired University Professor(PAU,Ludhiana)

missh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently teaching 8th grade. I feel like a lot of the classroom management things I did in the elementary school are too cheesy for my 8th graders. I just don't think they would buy into a lot of things. From your experience what advice would you give a first year middle school teacher. My students do not complete homework and have issues with talking and calling out. How do you regroup your class? How do you reward good behavior? Do you have a homework system in place that really works?

missh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How would you promote homework completion? I have a huge issue with students not completing homework. I have fluxuated the point value and that has had no effect on the completion rate. Would you suggest a reward system?

Zeiger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been teaching 8th grade for 3 years and think I've finally started to get classroom management down. One way to help with the "talking" and "calling out" is to play into it - plan activities that give students reasons to do these things. As for rewarding good behavior, I keep a student of the week wall. The top 1 or 2 students in each class are picked every Monday (for the week before) and given a prize (mine get journals since I teach ELA). They get their picture on the wall along with an explanation of why they made student of the week and I try not to repeat students if possible. This motivates the kids.

As for homework, you have to give them something interesting/creative that way they're excited about it. It also helps to give them 2 days to complete it instead of one.

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

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