Classroom Management

Setting Up Norms for Independent Work

One-on-one conferences with students are a valuable use of class time—provided the other students are able to work quietly on their own.

Two elementary students doing independent work in class
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Student conferences are a valuable way to connect with students and target our teaching to the individual needs they have when it comes to developing the skills we’re trying to teach in our classrooms. But one important logistical concern often gets in the way: Since we’re talking with individual students during class time, how do we ensure that the rest remain on task?

Over the years, I’ve developed some ways to establish norms for independent work time, and while there’s still the occasional student I need to redirect, I’m able to have productive individual conversations with my kids on a daily basis.

Students Don’t Start Out Knowing Our Expectations

I’ve learned the hard way—and don’t we all?—that I cannot assume my students know my expectations when it comes to their behavior in the classroom. Early in the school year, I discuss with my classes the different modes of activity we’ll use in the classroom: whole class, small group, individual, and transitions. We write and talk about the purpose of each and come to a consensus on guidelines for each type of activity.

How I structure this process: I begin the conversation with my class with a five-minute quick write on the following questions: “What are the different types of work you normally do during English class? What makes that work easier or harder?”

As we talk about students’ experience with things like reading, writing, and discussing in English class, I get to know them a little better—a crucial endeavor as I’m starting to develop relationships with them at the beginning of the year. And they begin to think about the purpose of what they’ll be doing in my class and how to accomplish that better.

We then turn back to the four modes of activity. For each of these modes, we talk about the purpose of it and then brainstorm specific guidelines for best accomplishing that purpose. I have students create a two-column chart with the headings: “Looks Like” and “Sounds Like.” Using this framing is important because it helps make the expected behaviors concrete and thus easier to understand and practice.

If students happen to miss a guideline that I think is important, I’ll add it and explain to them why it will make the activity more effective.

Building Independent Work Norms

Students understand that the independent work mode is for just that: working on something by themselves. They agree that they need to be able to focus and think, and for that to happen, certain guidelines need to be in place. Of course, this varies for different students, but we usually come to an understanding about guidelines.

Independent work looks like:

  • Electronics turned off and put away, unless being used for a specific assignment, such as research, writing, or reading an ebook. (Depending on the activity, I may allow headphones, but this requires another conversation—some students focus better with music, using headphones, and others find it distracting.)
  • Heads up. (It’s tough to tell if students are awake if they have their heads down on their desk.)
  • Focusing on an assignment we’re working on.
  • Working on alternate assignments once we’re finished with current assignments.
  • Hands up for questions.

Independent work sounds like:

  • Silence, unless conferring with teacher in a whisper voice.
  • Walking quietly.
  • Not making a lot of noise with food or school supplies.

Practice Is Key

Practicing the different modes is crucial. We’ll do short bouts of each at first—10 to 15 minutes—and then reflect on how well we followed the guidelines and if we need to alter the list to make it more effective. For example, we demonstrate and practice what a whisper voice sounds like.

This does require a few weeks of work at the beginning of the year, but it pays huge dividends for the rest of the year because students require less redirecting and are much more productive.

Troubleshooting With Debrief and Reflection

What if the norms you’ve created aren’t working? Teachers know that every new activity we use in the classroom needs fine-tuning. We need to occasionally redirect students and reach into our classroom management toolbox to deal with the little everyday challenges that arise when a group of diverse humans work together.

One of the best ways I’ve learned to make any new endeavor work in my classroom is to regularly debrief and reflect with my students. After establishing our norms and practicing independent work time for a short chunk of time, I’ll have the students spend about three minutes writing about how it went and how we can make it work even better.

As we discuss their insights, I’ll mention what I noticed, leading with the positive, and little by little, day by day, our classroom becomes a place where we think, and talk, and work together to make wonderful things happen.