George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Positive, Not Punitive, Classroom Management Tips

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share
Male teacher scratching his head surrounded by students having a balled up paper fight

This article is adapted from Larry's new book, Self-Driven Learning: Teaching Strategies for Student Motivation.

Let's start with a question I've been asked on more than one occasion.

"I know my content and like my students, but sometimes it's hard to get them under control so I can teach my lesson. What tips for classroom management can you give me?"

My general answer is that you can never have too many positive, not punitive, classroom management strategies in your toolbox.

Obviously, there are serious student transgressions, including violence, where some kind of punishment is an appropriate response. However, in many other instances, punishment may work only temporarily, may not work at all, or may only make the problem worse. Research suggests that punishment often primarily teaches the student that he or she just has to be more careful next time to avoid getting caught.

Public Versus Private Relationship

Community organizers try to help people understand the difference between public and private relationships (I was an organizer for 19 years prior to becoming a teacher). Often, those in power will try to blur that division when it suits their purposes (for example, politicians kissing babies).

Here is another example: I have spent time over the years working with many organizations, including religious congregations, organizing for community improvements. The political decision makers with whom we would have to negotiate for those neighborhood changes were sometimes members of those congregations, and they would often try to privately influence pastors or congregation leaders to take a different public position. The religious leaders, in turn, would point out that when it came time to participating in public life, it was a public relationship and public dialogue -- and when it came time to a personal issue, it was a private relationship and a private dialogue. In public life, the relationship was conditional, based on negotiation and reciprocity. In private life, the relationship was often based on love and friendship. This distinction was particularly important to demonstrate in public settings.

And we carried this distinction over to how members needed to act in the context of the organization -- at our meetings, with the media, and whenever they were in the public eye.

I apply this concept in the classroom by helping students understand the difference between public behavior and private behavior. When students are in the classroom, it is a public space with certain expectations. One small example is a student shouting out "I'm bored" or some other inappropriate comment.

One possible response to that kind of remark is a sharp admonishment from the teacher. Instead, though, what I generally do, either right then or at the next available opportunity, is to go over the student, put my arm around his or her shoulders, and have this kind of quick dialogue, with a smile:

Me: "Johnny, is it okay for you to think what you said?"
Johnny: "Yes."
Me: "Johnny, is it okay for you to tell your friends after class what you just said?"
Johnny: "Yes."
Me: "Johnny, is it okay for you to say what you just said out loud in the classroom?"
Johnny: "No."

And with both of us smiling, it's over.

I sometimes will have done it enough times with a student that when I go over, he or she will recite all of the lines. Notice that the dialogue leads with what students can do, instead of what they can't.

These kinds of inappropriate comments seem to decrease as the school year goes on, because at least some students gain a greater understanding of the differences between public and private, an understanding that should serve them well for years to come.

"What Would Be the Long-Term Effect of Doing That?"

Educator and positive classroom management consultant Marvin Marshall recommends a simple strategy of asking a disruptive student a simple question, either in the moment or afterward: "What would be the long-term effect of doing that?" As he suggests, asking can be far more effective than telling.

Alternatives to Collective Punishment

I suspect many teachers have had an experience like this:

A paper airplane, ball of paper, or pencil flies through the air, or somebody makes an obnoxious noise. The object is probably aimed at another student, and it may or may not hit the intended target. The noise is just meant to be funny.

You can tell the general area it came from, but you don't really know who the culprit is. It's frustrating because that kind of behavior does not contribute to a learning community.

What do you do?

It's not uncommon for teachers to first yell something like, "Who threw it?" No one admits to it, and then the teacher will punish the entire group.

Here's a definition of collective punishment:

Collective punishment is the punishment of a group of people as a result of the behavior of one or more other individuals or groups. The punished group may often have no direct association with the other individuals or groups, or direct control over their actions.

I'm not convinced that this behavior is one we want to model for our students.

If collective punishment is out, then what are the alternatives?

This kind of misbehavior does not happen that often in my classes, thankfully, but it certainly does occur. What I usually do is go over to the area where I suspect the noise or projectile originated and quietly explain that I don't feel respected when this kind of thing happens. And, since I feel like I show that I respect students at all times, I would hope they would want me to feel respected. I then explain that I don't know who actually did it, but that I would like each of them to commit that they will not throw something (or make a noise, etc.), and we shake on it. I tell them that I'm sure they are people of their word, and the matter is closed.

Nine times out of ten, that is the end of things, and there is no repetition.

However, if it does happen again, I go to the next step. For example, somebody in my class was occasionally making an obnoxious noise. I knew it was one of two students. I did the first step with them, and that went fine. Then, two days later, one of them made the noise again.

I asked them both to come outside with me, and I explained that I was disappointed that one of them was not keeping their word. I knew that one was trustworthy, but I didn't know which one. So I said that I couldn't trust the word of either of them and didn't like feeling that way. I suggested that the person who was making the noise might want to think about how his or her actions were now affecting the other student. Then, I gave them a few minutes to talk about it privately (I left the door open and asked them to stay in front of it so I could observe their actions, but not overhear what they said).

We didn't hear that obnoxious noise again.

So in other words, the second step, when necessary, is to ask students to consider the impact their actions have on others, and ask them to try to work out problems among themselves. In my teaching career, this has almost always resulted in stopping the inappropriate behavior and, I hope, students gaining some added maturity.

Of course, one of the most common situations where the specter of collective punishment is raised is after a difficult time with a substitute teacher. One preventative strategy is the use of something like the Attitude and Behavior With A Substitute Teacher grading rubric. Early in the year, the teacher shows the simple rubric to students and explains that a substitute will use it with them. Five minutes prior to the end of class with the sub, he or she will distribute the rubrics, and students will write down their names and grade themselves. The sub will then go around, give what grade he or she believes the student has earned, and collect the sheets (this process means the sub does not have to worry about remembering individual names and can base the evaluation on student faces).

This can be a very effective strategy to reduce teacher temptation to inflict collective punishment on a class, enhance the likelihood of a class with a sub being somewhat productive, and dramatically reduce stress for the sub.

After a class has shown that it understands and respects the expected behavior, a teacher can experiment with not using the grading rubric and explaining to students that he or she trusts that they will act appropriately.

In Part Two of this excerpt, I'll offer additional positive classroom management strategies. In the meantime, please share your own in the comments section below.

This article was adapted and excerpted with permission from Larry Ferlazzo's Self-Driven Learning: Teaching Strategies for Student Motivation, © 2013 Eye On Education, Inc. Larchmont, NY. All rights reserved. More information about this title is available here.

Was this useful? (7)
Classroom Management
What can we do to create a positive dynamic in the classroom?

Comments (21) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (21) Sign in or register to comment

Mr. Davis's picture

I agree with this whole-heartedlty. With the stresses of teaching, it's easy to devolve into negative attitudes and reactions. Positivity is absolutely the answer. If you're looking for more great resources, check out

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Thanks Larry. I love your style of managing your students with respect and honor. This, of course, goes a long way.

I also agree with Luria. Students need to know that it's okay not to love, or even like, everything they do in school. "This is Boring!" Man, I can even count how many times I "thought" this as a student. It was usually in the subjects with which I struggled. I think If the teacher had explained that, "Man, I know this is hard for you (or boring), but we'll both get through this together." I think I would have put more effort into those boring subjects.

My first day with my new third graders was last thursday. On Friday, I had a student directly tell me,

"I don't mean to say that school is boring, but I want to do math."

Me: "Well, my friend, it's ok that you think reading sand writing is boring. Some day you will be able to choose just math courses."

Student: "Really?"

Me: "Yup"

Students smiles.

By the way, at this point he's one of my top writers for sure.

Thanks for the post.


Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

One of the most important things I've learned (and teach) about classroom management is the teacher's attitude. The teacher's attitude deals with two things. The first is that s/he must truly like kids, even when they are naughty. If we like the children, they know it and we are more apt to teach positive behavior rather than punish. The second aspect of the teacher's attitude is that s/he must truly and thoroughly believe every single child can learn -- learn academics and learn positive behavior. When we catch ourselves thinking things like, "What can you expect from that family," or "That's my 'behavior kid'" (implying that he will never overcome his chronic behavior challenges), that's when we know we've fallen into that trap.

Having a positive attitude doesn't mean being a doormat. It does mean that we teach the behaviors we expect. The other benefit is that we are much happier ourselves -- and that shows, too.

Masa Mochizuki's picture

I'm seeing a great system being implemented at an elementary school that uses a positive behavior color chart school-wide. It's divided into 6 colors, the bottom-most being "We're at school!" At each level up, there is an additional positive behavior expectation for a total of 4 key expectations (follow directions, stay on task, maintain self-control, actively participate). The top color (Shining Star) is for maintaining those expectations throughout the day. If students want to get Shining Star, they have to start, maintain, and end the day meeting expectations, but even if they make mistakes, they can always turn things around and end the day on "Outstanding" which is still meeting all expectations.

The key is to not use it for punishment, but instead as a teaching tool or a self-awareness tool for students. If a student is off-task, but sitting in their seat and generally following procedures, you can point out what they are doing right and what behaviors would help them move up on the chart. I notice that students don't always know that they weren't meeting certain expectations. We sometimes think changing their color or pulling their card is enough for them to realize their mistakes and how they can improve, but it's like getting a math problem wrong. If you just get an X without an explanation, you don't learn how to get it right the next time and are left with "I'm just bad at math." Same goes for behavior.

top122014's picture

Hi Larry, thank you for all these tips, especially the one about substitute teachers.

I'm a substitute teacher for almost five years now. One of my major challenges is classroom management because I usually just come and go after a day or two or a week of sub teaching for a homeroom teacher.

Almost always students are noisier, unmotivated to work, and even ruder sometimes when there's a substitute teacher around. They know that it's a different set up as compared to when their homeroom teacher is present.

I like your positive, not punitive, classroom-management tips. I like the way you handle Johnny when he said something inappropriate in class, and I would always remember to try that in my classroom.

I also agree with your point about collective punishment. I don't believe in punishing the whole class for individual misbehavior. One time I covered for a homeroom teacher who would count up to 5 to make sure the students have put away their laptops and are in the line by 0. For every 5 counts that the class is not in a line, he will have 1 minute taken away from their free choice period. However, I noticed that when I do this, most students would be in a line, except for 1 or 2 students. What I did then was to put the names of these 1 or 2 students on the white board and told them that instead of a class deduction, only the two of them would get it. After that, these two never lagged behind again.

Your Attitude and Behavior with a Substitute Teacher grading rubric sounds like a good idea. May I ask if I could get a sample copy of your rubric? I wonder if I could encourage homeroom teachers to do this when I cover for them.

Thank you again for these great tips!

Guest's picture

I was doing a long term sub job last year and sent a positive note home with a student for his father. The student was elated to get something positive and he told me that his dad would be so happy to get that note.

judyd123's picture

Teachers have to find what positive approaches work best for their classrooms. The old saying "you can attract more flies with honey" is true.

Niuta's picture

I always try to think that we can come to an understanding with everyone. However, the problem starts when we are positive, open and want to communicate and the one of our students is cheeky and impudent, moreover - egoistic and somehow antisocial. Empathy is nothing. I know that in most situations it is just a swank. Nevertheless, when we want to solve the problem quickly enough to be able to realise our goal, it can be just painful. Time isn't our ally...

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Niuta, time sure does get in the way, but to me a student being "antisocial" is a clue that I need to dig deeper to understand her. If you work with teens, also, then of course they are egotistic - that's part of teenage brain and emotional development! Certainly hard to extend empathy to those who don't return it, but I try to see the long view and keep hopeful that my influence will be positive for that student in the long run.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.