Effective classroom management requires awareness, patience, good timing, boundaries, and instinct. There’s nothing easy about shepherding a large group of easily distractible young people with different skills and temperaments along a meaningful learning journey.
So how do master teachers do it?
To get a deeper understanding of experienced teachers’ go-to classroom management strategies, we took an informal poll on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Unsurprisingly, there is no silver bullet for classroom management success. That said, as we pored over the more than 700 responses, we did see some clear trends. Here are the most often cited and creative approaches.
1. Take Care of Yourself to Take Care of Your Students
As the airline safety videos say: Put on your own oxygen mask first.
To learn effectively, your students need a healthy you, said our experienced teachers. So get enough sleep, eat healthy food, and take steps to attend to your own well-being. In her first year of teaching, Jessica Sachs “was working 15-hour days and was completely stressed out. My husband finally said to me, ‘The most important thing that you do at school is make decisions. If you are too tired to do that properly, it won’t matter how well-prepared you were the night before.’” A few deep breaths can go a long way to helping you identify frustration before you act on it. Mindy Jones, a middle school teacher from Brownsville, Tennessee, notes that “a moment of patience in a moment of frustration saves you a hundred moments of regret.”
Countless studies corroborate the idea that self-care reduces stress, which can deplete your energy and impair your judgment. While self-care is more of a habit or practice for your own well-being than an actual classroom management strategy, the benefits include improved executive function, greater empathy, and increased resilience—all qualities that will empower you to make better decisions when confronted with challenging classroom situations.
2. Focus on Building Relationships
This was the theme we heard the most: Building healthy student-teacher relationships is essential to a thriving classroom culture, and even sets the stage for academic success. The phrase “build relationships” occurred 27 times during the Facebook and Instagram discussions, and other variants of that wording appeared 78 times.
“Rapport is huge!” confirmed middle school teacher Kim Manzer, before adding that she always makes the time to talk to students as a whole class or one on one. Simple efforts like greeting kids outside the classroom before the start of the day pay outsized dividends. “They appreciate it so much when I just stop to listen and take interest.” Teacher Amanda Tait from Prince George, British Columbia, adds a little spice to the ritual: “I always meet them at the door and we do a ‘high-five, chicken-five,’ touching elbows with a ‘wing.’”
Yes! We high-five, chicken-five in agreement.
Many educators noted that a teacher’s ability to balance warmth and strong boundaries is key to successful relationships—and classroom management. “Be consistent but flexible. Love them unconditionally, but hold them accountable. Give them voice but be the leader,” said Rae Rudzinski.
3. Set Rules, Boundaries, and Expectations (and Do It Early)
Students don’t thrive amid chaos. They need some basic structure—and consistency—to feel safe and to focus.
But maintaining a culture of mutual respect doesn’t mean your goal is to “make pals,” noted middle school reading coach Heather Henderson. “You can’t be their friend. You can be kind, loving, and supportive, but you still have to be their teacher.” Establish the code of conduct early in the year, and be sure that everyone—including the teacher—makes an effort to stay true to it. Predictability counts: “Follow through with rewards and consequences. If you say it, mean it. And if you mean it, say it. Be clear, be proactive, and be consistent,” said Lori Sheffield.
There was broad consensus among educators that modeling appropriate classroom behavior sets the tone for children: “You make the weather,” said Diana Fliginger from Minot, North Dakota. “Your attitude as the teacher really determines what the tone and environment of your classroom is like. If you want calm and productive, project that to your kids.” Many others cautioned that while enforcing rules consistently is critical, it’s important to pick your battles too—especially if those confrontations are going to be public: “Instead, say, ‘You and I will talk about this later,’” advises Denise Tremblay Drapeau. “That way you can still address the issue while saving face. It completely changed the vibe in my classroom.”
4. Take a Strength-Based Approach
In a long back-and-forth about classroom management practices, it might have been the most memorable quote: “Find ways to make your hardest kid your favorite kid,” said Karen Yenofsky, turning a nearly perfect phrase and triggering an avalanche of teacher love. “When you connect with them... it makes everything smoother.”
That’s not easy, of course. A strength-based lens means never forgetting to look beneath the surface of behavior, even when it’s inconvenient. “Find the root of the problem,” urged teacher Judi Michalik of Bangor, Maine. “I have never met a student that doesn’t want to be successful. If they are misbehaving it is kind of like when a baby cries; there is something wrong in their world. If they are misbehaving for attention then find out why they need the attention and how you can give them what they need.”
And don’t forget to continue to work to deepen the connection, being mindful of the context and using language thoughtfully. “Don’t sound surprised when remarking on struggling students’ successes,” said Jenni Park, a teacher from Asheville, North Carolina. “Instead of saying, ‘Wow! That was amazing,’ it’s better to say, ‘I’m proud of you, but not surprised. I always knew you could do it.’”
Finally, cultural differences can also play an unconscious role in our expectations of whether a student will succeed, so it’s important to reflect on any stereotypes that come up for you. “Don't look at a single one of your kids as if they are deficit and in need of ‘guidance’ to become better,” says elementary educator Elijah Moore, drawing over 230 positive reactions. “Cultural difference does not equal cultural deficiency.”
5. Involve Parents and Guardians
“Never forget that every student is someone’s child,” writes Molly Francis, echoing many teachers in our thread. “Parents/guardians/caregivers want to hear that you see the good in their child. A positive connection with home can often help in the classroom.”
The popular apps Remind and ClassDojo were frequently praised, and appear to be well on the way to replacing phone calls—both from teachers to guardians, and in the other direction, too. “Let’s be honest,” wrote middle school teacher Kristin Ward. “If some parents had my personal cell number they would be calling all the time!”
The majority of teachers send home reports of both positive and negative behaviors—it’s critical to do the former, too—and also use email and text services to communicate about upcoming events, due dates, and student progress. “Catch them doing good and call their parents to let them know you noticed,“ suggests Barbara Rawson. And Kim Manzer (she’s so nice we quoted her twice) reminds fellow teachers that the benefits of parental communication find their way back to the classroom: “It’s important that parents are involved and know what’s going on so they can support and reinforce at home.”