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What's the Secret to Effective Classroom Management?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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David Brooks, New York Times columnist, NPR media commentator, and author of the new book, The Social Animal, knows the secret to a classroom that is productive, engaging, and well-managed. Here it is: Children have a strong, positive relationship with their teacher, and vice-versa. Beneath this seemingly simple concept is a lot of neuropsychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive development, and SEL.

Social rule structures eventually rest on one of two things: trust or fear. When the rules are based on trust, students feel freer to participate; problem-based learning can thrive, versus learning focused on getting the one right answer; students can challenge prevailing wisdom, ask questions, and disagree safely with one another. Students can co-create classroom management rules because they want to be there and they want the classroom to be engaging and work well.

When fear predominates, classrooms can look orderly on the surface, but it is the order of prison. "Underground," perhaps, there is rebellion. Sometimes there is also overt misbehavior, to express frustration or even get oneself put out of the noxious environment.

Classrooms managed based on fear create disaffection and disengagement from the learning tasks, which are often "blamed" on students as the reason so much rigid order is needed. So learning suffers, genuine learning, even if there is a lot of rote seatwork being done.

Learning is work of the head and work of the heart. A climate of fear thwarts all of the goals of higher learning. Plus, as David Brooks so insightfully points out, children often learn first for the teacher, to please the teacher and to obtain the teacher's pleasure in their learning, more than they learn for the intrinsic value they attach to the subject matter or tasks. This is especially true when students are introduced to new content and concepts.

Those concerned about classroom management must simultaneously be concerned about student learning. Both thrive only when there are trusting, respectful, caring relationships between students and teachers. When the latter are in place, rules will be effective and the majority of students will be engaged learners.

Please share your ideas and practices for building positive relationships with students as a scaffold for classroom rules and productive learning environments.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (62) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

whitney mcmullan's picture

I can't agree more with the fact that there must be strong postive relationships between teachers and students and vice-versa in order for effective classroom management to exist. What is so sad is how many teachers do not take the time to establish these relationships even by just a simple good morning or a smile. It is the little things that can establish that rapport between teacher and student.

Darrica Haney's picture

I agree completely! When you give your students a bit of "Power" in the classroom, it seems to create a new level of respect and builds a better relationship. I teach special education to high school students in an alternative school. I have found that when my students misbehave, I get better results out of them when I let them suggest appropriate consequences. If they feel that I respect them enough to let them help, they in turn seem to respect me more.

Jacqueline R's picture

When working with students in the classroom I completely agree that students need to be apart of the classroom. I teach in a middle school special education classroom and many of the student exhibit disruptive behaviors.To prevent many of these disruptive behaviors I develop relationships with my students and get to know them on a level that is just not about school, but about everything. Developing this type of relationship is built on trust. By developing relationships behaviors improve and these students feel like they belong in the class. Research has shown that by the time students get to middle school they view teachers and administrators as their enemy. My goal is to make this not happen. One thing that I do in my classroom is develop norms/rules with my students together. We decide as a class what norms and rules need to be in our classes. This helps forms unity and the students know what is expected of them.

Brad's picture
secondary school teacher

Hey Maurice interesting points. I thoroughly agree that discipline should not be repressive as it is translated in aversion in the long term. Students must be part of the classroom management process, their opinions and ideas must be listened too as they are part of the situation. The change in the attitude must be intrinsic, young people should be motivate to achieve goals rather than be forced to it. I'd like to recommend an online reward system we started using a while ago and as it is based in technology and very attractive for young people, it's been a good help in motivating students to improve their behaviours and performances, specially with trouble students and not only with them, also has helped to motivate shy students to participate in class and extra curricular activities

James Mac Shane's picture

This article has developed meaningful responces. There is a perspective that I have become aware of that can aid in the understandings. In the K-12 sysetm each student brings their history of positive and negative survial choices that are responces to their life's experiences. You do not have the historic kind of control of your students survival choices that the K-12 system is striveing to hold you accountable. It is your self-understanding and self-respect of who you are that you pass on to your students that is the fundmental rality of the situation. In negataive classroom experience the ammount and level of negative intellectual energy that a student has developed demonstrates a potential that can be a usable understanding. This is what is behind the success you have used in your search for solutions to whatever the problem is at the time. Each human is as whole in this instant as they have ever been whether they are 3 mineuts, 3 years, 33, or 93 years old. We are all an accumulation of our positve and negative survial choices at that time and that understanding is what is the base of the respect that works.

Eboni Patterson's picture

I certainly agree that in order for there to be effective classroom management then there most definitely must be a positive relationship between the teacher and the students. As a part of that positive relationship, I believe that once the teacher and students have established classroom rules and procedures, things must always be done in a consistent manner. I believe that when the students are exposed to a stable and consistent classroom environment that it helps to keep the classroom management in tact.

Jamie H.'s picture

I completely agree that building a trusting relationship between teacher and students is the main component in establishing a positive learning environment. In my opinion, students may feel threatened by fear. This could possibly cause students to feel guarded, where their thoughts and ideas would not be fully expressed. When a trusting relationship is established, children will feel that they are in a safe environment, where their thoughts, feelings, and opinions would be respected. This type of environment is essential for effective classroom management.

Andrea S.'s picture
Andrea S.
Geography/world history teacher, private school, Central New York

My first four years of teaching, I taught in a small 1st-12th grade school where many of the students came from homes were education was not valued, or should I say, its worth was not fully understood. Many of the students were fighting battles with some addiction or another in their homes, so that often took priority over school. But I will say that when the students felt the real depth of how much the faculty cared for them and wanted the best for them, changes slowly happened. It was not overnight, and it didn't happen for 100% of the kids, but it did happen for many of them. Hang in there; remember that you might be the closest person to them who DOES care. And they will take notice of that in time.

Jabulani's picture

In South Africa managing a classroom in public schools is a very serious challenge as there are a lot of factors contributing to misconduct in class, unnecessary disruptions by learners who have social problems like single parenting and drugs among others.

Ms. Bea's picture
Ms. Bea

1st) Honoring and valuing students' internal needs to move, to rest and become present in your class

2nd) Teaching students to notice when they are tired, when they have a lot of energy, etc

3rd) Teach what to do when they are experiencing these natural ebbs and flow throughout the day

4th) Practice and Teach with

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