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The Barbed Wire Model of Classroom Management

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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I had an epic battle with a tangle of barbed wire a while ago. I'm glad to report that my cuts and scratches are healing nicely, and I'd like to share with you about how this battle revealed to me a number of brilliant truths about classroom management.

I had decided I had to do something about the tangle of barbed wire hidden in the grass on our property, so I began to untangle it. Very quickly, I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number One: Even when barbed wire is not tangled, it is tangled. There are so many barbs that they catch on one another and the strands between.

Soon, I noticed a pain in my left arm. To my dismay, I saw that I was tangled in the wire. Barbed Wire Fact Number Two: It has a life of its own. No sooner would I untangle a few feet of wire than the wire would attempt to bounce back and try to tangle itself again. Applying this new knowledge, I hooked the free end of the wire to a fence post and resumed the untangling process.

Now I had another problem. Barbed Wire Fact Number Three: Barbed wire doesn't thread. It gets caught on the other wires as soon as you try. So, I ingeniously rolled the end of the wire into a loop and passed the whole loop through the tangles. Controlling an ornery loop of barbed wire was dangerous enough, but trying to put it through other tangled loops was just asking for trouble. It worked OK for the first few loops, but quickly the wire decided it did not want to be cooperative.

I didn't have enough hands to keep it all in place, but then I put my foot on the wire and used a bit of baling wire to tie it back and make it stay in a loop. That is how I learned Barbed Wire Fact Number Four: You cannot control barbed wire without help.

Finally, I began to make decent headway with the tangle. But, sadly, I noticed that as I added loops to my threading loop, it was starting to threaten my arm. I thought about getting some more baling wire, but then I stumbled across Barbed Wire Fact Number Five: If you roll the wire upon itself, instead of just looping it side by side, the barbs work in your favor and keep the rebellious loops under control all by themselves.

Now I was in charge, and I made the barbed wire work for me, which made untangling the rest of it a cinch.

Coiling the Classroom

As unpleasant, frustrating, and painful as untangling that barbed wire was, sometimes I find that managing classrooms can be even worse. But one can apply the brilliant truths I learned about barbed wire to a classroom to get it under control, too. Simply recognizing (and respecting) the nature of education will help us deal with all of its prickly tangles, but I have also added a few ideas that might be of use to you in creating your own neatly wound classroom-management coils:

Even When Barbed Wire Is Not Tangled, It Is Tangled
Even in the most organized classroom, anytime you get students together, there will be friction. Their emotional barbs get caught on one another, and it is the teacher's job to untangle the mess. Add to that the multitudes of state standards, and it's no wonder that lesson plans sometimes get jumbled. The true task, then, is to focus on one tangle at a time. Find where the barbs are getting caught and target that particular standard or behavior until students have mastered or solved it. Then go on to the next tangle.

Barbed Wire Has a Life and Mind of Its Own
Classrooms are ever changing and evolving. What worked very well one day may not work the next. And there's often another tangle that appears, especially with older students. They prefer the comfort of being told what to do and not having to think for themselves. They know it is a lot easier to do worksheets than to actually write, create, or produce a viable product.

We constantly have to struggle with overcoming mediocrity (laziness) and getting our students to think and behave in creative ways. Our job is to stay at least one step ahead of the students and to differentiate the curriculum to match their current needs (not wants), because they might change at a moment's notice. Variety is the key.

Barbed Wire Doesn't Thread or Cooperate
Today's students are more sophisticated than kids of years past, and the threat of discipline is less capable of motivating them to modify their behavior. Thus, we need to employ other creative methods that fit the students we have now. Closer contact with the students' parents will help untangle some knots. Cell phones are a huge benefit. Parents carry them all the time, so you can get in touch with them all the time.

Another strategy is to avoid the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Put that on the shoulders of the student, where it belongs. Students understand consequences, and if an infraction occurs, they need to take responsibility. It is a question of changing "I am going to punish you" to "Your actions are punishing you. What are you going to do about it?" The difference between these statements is that with the second one, when you are not there, your students will still monitor themselves.

You Can't Control Barbed Wire Without Help
I see teachers struggling to "control" their students by keeping them busy. The students wait around to be told what to do, or they get fidgety and start mischief. However, when students help create a binding, high-performance contract with their teacher that has consequences, the teacher can leave the control method behind and move into the channel method, described below.

You Can Make the Barbs Work in Your Favor
Lockstep instruction, with no student choice or input, is a barbed tangle waiting to happen. The students are the learners, so channel their energies into productive paths. It just takes some encouragement, suggestions, and individual concern. The very tangle of chaos and confusion that we tried to control -- and that was causing us grief and pain -- now becomes our helper.

Focusing Student Energy

When correctly channeled, the frenetic energy most students display becomes enthusiasm and zeal for learning rather than reasons for disciplinary action. When students get done quickly with their assignments, do we give them busywork or allow them to play, or do we encourage them to choose a project that will feed their interests and truly engage them in individual study? (This is differentiation, extension, and enhancement.) A student of any age can write a book, create a movie, choreograph a dance, create a song, design a house, build a skyscraper, solve a problem, paint a masterpiece, or discover and share something new. Project learning and inquiry learning fit the bill nicely.

I survived my tangle with barbed wire, and after intense effort and experimentation, I was able to master it and finally get it all coiled neatly -- well, as neatly as one can coil barbed wire. I felt a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, the way I felt as a teacher when my carefully planned and choreographed unit was effective, even with all of the on-the-fly adjustments. Maybe that is why there are so many people, but so few teachers. We are willing to tackle that barbed wire, knowing that we probably won't come out unscathed. But we are willing to take the risk if it will help our students. So, wear your scars with pride.

Please share some of your nasty tangles and how you were able to tame them.

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Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


You bring up a good point. A teacher who wants to be effective and has had a brush with classroom management tangles may want to avoid the problem in the future by letting the administrator deal with it, or even worse, ignoring it. The trick is that when we tangle with these issues, that we learn from the experience and we not only become more capable of dealing with it--ie we know some of the tricks to de-escalate problems, but we also know how to recognize the signs, responses and eliminate the issues before they even start.

One of the nice things about teaching is that if you have the interest of the students, discipline is never an issue. Getting to that point is the adventure.

Best of luck tackling your tangles!

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson (author)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Way to go! You made it through your first year! Now all the other years will be easy. Well, easier at least. You know what you are getting into now, and you can prepare. I hope you have a magnificent year next year tangling with your tangles!

Best Regards
Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

Lori's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your comments comparing student behavior to barbed wire! I liked how you didn't blame the wire for all the problems, but took responsibility for learning how to work with it effectively (and got some scars in the process). I think it is easy for us to fall into the habit of blaming our students for problems in our classroom, instead of looking closer at our own classroom management. I just finished a challenging year of my own, and after much reflection, I know that some of the issues escalated due to my own impatience with the behavior. For next year, I want to incorporate your outlook that "the students are the learners, so channel their energies into productive paths". I hope to do that by getting to know them better and making time for daily reflection and planning.

Margaret Castro's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this blog. I have never thought of my class as barbed wire. This is my twelfth year and I have learned a lot about children's behavior. Some behavior requires discipline and other behaviors might just be energy. Children are easily excitable. That can be good and bad in a classroom. I want them to be excited about learning, but at the same time I want hands raised and some sense of control of the classroom. I agree that students are active learners and when I feel like I am going on and on and doing all of the talking, I immediately switch to group work or pair share. Thank you for your suggestions/tips.

Meghan Charles's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed this blog and I found it to be very useful and practical. As I was reading, I was able to make many connections to my own classroom. This is my 7th year teaching and when you had mentioned that there will always be tangles no matter how organized the classroom is, you are 100% correct. All the students come from various backgrounds and life experiences. Every child is not disciplined the same way at home either. (sometimes we are thankful for that) This actually makes me feel so much better knowing that other teachers, if not all teachers are finding this to be true. There has not been a year in which my class was perfect. I feel like I run a tight ship so that I can accomplish more tasks in what feels to be a little bit of time. Although this might happen, I reflect and realize that the students do not always fully benefit from this type of environment. Therefore, I need to loosen up a little bit and let them converse more with one another and engage in creative thinking.

I am going to take your suggestion regarding providing an enrichment project for them to complete when they have finished classwork. I have enrichment centers for almost every subject, but I seem to never use them. I feel like I don't have time since I am trying to incorporate and complete all of the curriculum within our deadlines. However, I need to allow students to enjoy learning and encourage them to use problem-solving strategies while trying to complete independent activities. This could be a great way for me to see if they can apply what they have learned to the enrichment task of their choice.

I thank you for sharing your valuable experiences with us and I look forward to reading more of your blogs.

Kendra Benner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am entangled in my own barbed wire mess this year, and was looking for some ideas on how to handle the discipline issue. I read your blog with great anticipation, and was not disappointed! Thank you for putting things in perspective for me, and getting me to look at my situation in a different light. I am actually looking forward to getting to class tomorrow so I can start untangling my wires!

Michael Warren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First of all, what a great analogy with the barbed wire and classroom management!! I have taught at three different schools: a private school where most of the students come from wealthy background, a rural school in a prominently white, blue collar background, and now teach in a large diverse population with many kids coming from the projects. What I have learned is there are all types of barbed wire and you must be able to adapt according to your students to be able to untangle the mess. No matter where you teach or what kind of students be confident in your abilities and situations will work out.

S. L. Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You have excellently illuminated a focused strategy for becoming more adept at classroom management. As a bonus, you also explained the rationale behind each step. Your analogy is simply the best. Thank you!

Sherri Johnson
William Howard Taft Middle School
Detroit, MI

keisha speller's picture
keisha speller
fifth grade teacher NC

Great article, the relationship of barbed wire to classroom management really correlated. I try to always let the children know that they are special by showing interest in them as a person.

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