5 Creating a Positive Learning Environment

An excerpt from a professional journal kept by Kelvin Lee Seifer when teaching kindergarten:

November 14th: Today my student Carol sat in the circle, watching others while we all played Duck, Duck, Goose (in this game, one student is outside the circle, tags another student who then chases the first person around the circle). Carol’s turn had already passed. Apparently she was bored now, because she flopped on her back, smiling broadly, rolling around luxuriously on the floor in the path of the other runners. Several classmates noticed her, smiled or giggled, began flopping down as well. One chaser tripped over a “flopper.”
Sit up, Carol,” said I, the ever-vigilant teacher. “You’re in the way.” But no result. I repeated twice more, firmly; then moved to pick her up.
Instantly Carol ran to the far side of the gym, still smiling broadly. Then her best friend ran off with her. Now a whole new game was launched, or really two games: “Run-from-the-teacher” and “Enjoy-being-watched-by-everybody.” A lot more exciting, unfortunately, than Duck, Duck, Goose!
An excerpt from Kelvin’s same journal several years later, when he was teaching math in high school:
March 4th: The same four students sat in the back again today, as usual. They seem to look in every direction except at me, even when I’m explaining material that they need to know. The way they smile and whisper to each other, it seems almost like they are “in love” with each other, though I can’t be sure who loves whom the most. Others—students not part of the foursome—seem to react variously. Some seem annoyed, turn the other way, avoid talking with the group, and so on. But others seem almost envious—as if they want to be part of the “in” group, too, and were impressed with the foursome’s ability to get away with being inattentive and almost rude. Either way, I think a lot of other students are being distracted.
Twice during the period today, I happened to notice members of the group passing a note, and then giggling and looking at me. By the end, I had had enough of this sort of thing, so I kept them in briefly after class and asked one of them to read the note. They looked a bit embarrassed and hesitant, but eventually one of them opened the note and read it out loud. “Choose one,” it said. “Mr. Seifert looks 1) old ____, 2) stupid____, or 3)clueless____.”

Kelvin’s experiences in managing these very different classrooms taught him what every teacher knows or else quickly learns: management matters a lot. But his experiences also taught that management is about more than correcting the misbehaviors of individuals, more than just “discipline.” Classroom management is also about “orchestrating” or coordinating entire sets or sequences of learning activities so that everyone, misbehaving or not, learns as easily and productively as possible. Educators sometimes, therefore, describe good classroom management as the creation of a positive learning environment, because the term calls attention to the totality of activities and people in a classroom, as well as to their goals and expectations about learning (Jones & Jones, 2007). When Kelvin was teaching, he used both terms almost interchangeably, though in speaking of management he more often was referring to individual students’ behavior and learning, and in using the term learning environment he more often meant the overall “feel” of the class as a whole.

Why Classroom Management Matters

Managing the learning environment is both a major responsibility and an on-going concern for every teacher, even for those with years of experience (Good & Brophy, 2002). There are several reasons. In the first place, a lot goes on in classrooms simultaneously, even when students seem to be doing only “one” task together. Twenty-five students may all be working on a sheet of math problems, but look more closely: several may be stuck on a particular problem, but each for different reasons. A few others have worked only the first problem or two and are now chatting quietly with each other instead of continuing. Still others have finished and are wondering what to do next. At any one moment each student needs something different—different information, different hints, different kinds of encouragement. The diversity increases even more if the teacher deliberately assigns multiple activities to different groups or individuals (for example, if some are doing a reading assignment while others do the math problems).

Another reason that managing the environment is challenging is because a teacher can never predict everything that will happen in a class. A well-planned lesson may fall flat on its face, or take less time than you expect, and you find yourself improvising to fill class time. On the other hand an unplanned moment may become a wonderful, sustained exchange among students; so you have to drop previous plans and “go with the flow” of their discussion. Interruptions happen continually: a fire drill, a quick drop-in visit from another teacher or from the principal, a call on the intercom from the office. An activity may turn out well, but also end up rather differently than you intended; you therefore have to decide how, if at all, to adjust the next day to allow for this surprise.

A third reason for the importance of management is that students form opinions and perceptions about your teaching that may coincide neither with your own nor with other students’. What seems to you like encouragement of a shy student may seem to the student herself like “forced participation.” A more eager, outgoing classmate watching your special effort to encourage the shy student, however, may not see you as either encouraging or coercing, but as overlooking or ignoring other students who are already more willing to participate. The variety of perceptions can lead to surprises in students’ responses to you—most often small ones, but occasionally more major.

At the broadest, society-wide level, management challenges teachers because public schooling is not voluntary, and students’ presence in a classroom is therefore not a sign, in and of itself, that they wish to be there. Students’ presence is instead just a sign that an opportunity exists for teachers to motivate students to learn. Many students, of course, do enjoy learning and being in school—but not all. Others do enjoy school, but primarily because teachers have worked hard to make classroom life pleasant and interesting. They become motivated because you have successfully created a positive learning environment and have sustained it through skillful management.

Fortunately it is possible to earn this sort of commitment from students, and this chapter describes some ways of doing so. We begin with some ways of preventing management problems in the first place by increasing students’ focus on learning. The methods include the arrangement of classroom space, the establishment of procedures, routines, and rules, and communicating the importance of learning both to students and to parents. After these prevention oriented discussions, we look at ways of refocusing students when and if their minds or actions do stray from the tasks at hand. As you probably know from your own experience as a student, bringing students back on task can happen in many ways, ways that vary widely in the energy and persistence required of the teacher. We try to indicate some of this diversity, but because of space limitations and because of the richness of classroom life, we cannot describe them all.

Preventing Management Problems by Focusing Students on Learning

The easiest management problems to solve are ones that do not happen in the first place! You can help to prevent problems even before the first day of school by arranging classroom furniture and materials in ways that make learning as easy to focus on as possible. Later, during the first few days, you can establish procedures and rules that support a focus on learning even more.

Arranging Classroom Space

Viewed broadly, it may be tempting to think that classrooms are arranged in similar ways, but there are actually important alternative arrangements to consider. Variations happen because of grade level, the subjects taught, the teacher’s philosophy of education, and of course the size of the room and the furniture available. Whatever the arrangement that you choose, it should help students to focus on learning tasks as much as possible and minimize the chances of distractions. Beyond these basic principles, however, the “best” arrangement depends on what your students need and on the kind of teaching that you prefer and feel able to provide (Bothmer, 2003; Nations & Boyett, 2002). Here are some ideas to help choose among your options. In considering them (and before moving too much furniture around your room!), you might want to try experimenting with spatial arrangements “virtually” by using one of the computer programs available on the Internet (see, for example, Class Set-Up Tool).

Learning is Fun spelled out with smiley faces

Displays and Wall Space

All classrooms have walls, of course, and how you fill or use them can affect the mood or feeling of a classroom. More displays make the room more interesting and can be used to reinforce curriculum goals and display (and hence recognize) students’ work. But too many displays can also make a room seem “busy” or distracting as well as physically smaller; and they can also be more work to maintain. If you are starting a new school year, then, there is usually a need to decorate some of the wall or bulletin board space, but no urgent need to fill it all. Leaving some open space can give flexibility to respond to curriculum or learning needs that emerge after the year is underway. The same advice applies for displays that are especially high maintenance, such as aquariums, pets, and plants. These can serve wonderfully as learning aids, but do not have to be in place on the first day of school. Not only the students, but also you yourself, may already have enough distractions to cope with at that time.

In the elementary years, we tend to find classrooms filled with displays.  The walls are covered and sometimes there are even things hanging from the ceiling.  All of these things will draw students attention, and very well  may draw their attention away from you and from their work.  There is too much to attend to and even a typically developing child may have difficulty deciding on where to focus their attention.  For a child who may have any type of sensory concern or attention difficulty, there may now be extremely overwhelmed and have great difficulty “paying attention” to what you want them to focus on.  Consider carefully in the elementary years how much you may decorate a classroom.

In our secondary classrooms, we sometimes see the opposite happen; there is a lack of color and visual display.  As with our younger children, be sure you do not overwhelm the classroom, but be sure you try to add color and displays that support learning and will add to the overall comfort of the classroom.

Computers in the Classroom

If you are like the majority of teachers, you may have one or more computer in your classroom, and their placement may be pre-determined by location of power and cable outlets. If so, you need to think about computer placement early in the process of setting up a room. Once the location of computers is set, locations for desks, high-usage shelves, and other moveable items can be chosen more sensibly—in general so as to minimize distractions to students and to avoid unnecessary traffic congestion.

Visibility of and Interactions with Students

Learning is facilitated if the furniture and space allow you to see all students and to interact with them from a comfortable distance. Usually this means that the main, central part of the room—where desks and tables are usually located—needs to be as open and as spacious as possible. While this idea may seem obvious, enacting it can sometimes be challenging in practice if the room itself is small or unusually shaped. In classrooms with young students (kindergarten), furthermore, open spaces tend to allow, if not invite, movement of children that is longer and faster—a feature that you may consider either constructive or annoying, depending on your educational goals and the actual level of activity that occurs.

Spatial Arrangements Unique To Grade Levels or Subjects

Some room arrangements depend significantly on the grade level or subject area of the class. If you teach in elementary school, for example, you may need to think about where students can keep their daily belongings, such as coats and lunches. In some schools, these can be kept outside the classroom—but not in all schools. Some subjects and grade levels, furthermore, lend themselves especially well to small group interaction, in which case you might prefer not to seat students in rows, but around several small-group tables or work areas. The latter arrangement is sometimes preferred by elementary teachers, but is also useful in high schools wherever students need lots of counter space, as in some shops courses, or wherever they need to interact, as in English as a Second Language courses (McCafferty, Jacobs, & Iddings, 2006). The key issue in deciding between tables and rows, however, is not grade level or subject as such, but the amount of small group interaction you want to encourage, compared to the amount of whole-group instruction. As a rule, tables make talking with peers easier, and rows make listening to the teacher more likely and group work slightly more awkward to arrange.

Keep in mind that not all of us function well in group settings.  Grouping children in desk clusters, or at tables, may be productive for some of our students.  Others, however, may work more effectively if they sit alone.  Please consider offering both options to your students.  If a child wishes to sit on their own, allow them to do so.  If you are going to do any type of group work, you can easily assign them to a group of students for the activity.

Ironically, some teachers experience challenges about room arrangement without even having a room of their own, because they must “float” or move among other teachers’ rooms. “Floating” is especially likely among specialized teachers (e.g. music teachers in elementary schools, who move from class to class) and in schools that are short on classrooms overall. Floating can sometimes by annoying to the teacher, though it actually also has advantages, such as not having to take responsibility for how other teachers’ rooms are arranged). If you find yourself floating, it helps to consider a few key strategies, such as:

  • consider using a permanent cart to move crucial supplies from room to room;
  • make sure that every one of your rooms has an overhead projector (do not count on using chalkboards in other teachers’ rooms);
  • talk to the other teachers about having at least one shelf or corner in each room designated for your exclusive use.

Establishing Daily Procedures and Routines

Procedures or routines are specific ways of doing common, repeated classroom tasks or activities. Examples include checking daily attendance, dealing with students who arrive late, or allowing students to use the bathroom during class or go to their lockers to get materials which they forgot to bring. Procedures also include ways of turning in or retrieving daily homework (e.g. putting it on a designated shelf at a particular time), or of gaining the teacher’s attention during quiet seat work (e.g. raising your hand and waiting), or of choosing and starting a “free choice” activity after completing a classroom assignment.

Procedures serve the largely practical purpose of making activities and tasks flow smoothly and efficiently—a valuable and necessary purpose in classrooms, where the actions of many people have to be coordinated within limited amounts of time. As such, procedures are more like social conventions than like moral expectations. They are not primarily about what is ethically right or ethically desirable to do (Turiel, 2006).[4] Most procedures or routines can be accomplished in more than one way, with only minor differences in success at the outcomes. There is more than one way, for example, for the procedure of taking attendance: the teacher could call the role, delegate a student to call the role, or simply note students’ presence on a seating chart. Each variation accomplishes essentially the same task, and the choice among them may therefore be less important than the fact that the class coordinates its actions somehow, by committing to some sort of choice.

For teachers, of course, an initial task is to establish procedures and routines in the first place. Because of the conventional quality of procedures, some teachers find that it works well simply to announce and explain key procedures without inviting much discussion from students (“Here is how we will choose partners for the group work”). Other teachers, however, prefer to invite input from students when creating procedures (asking “What do you feel is the best way for students to get my attention during a quiet reading time?”). Both approaches have advantages as well as disadvantages. Simply announcing key procedures saves time and insures consistency in case you are teaching more than one class (as you would in high school), but it creates a bigger responsibility to choose procedures that are truly reasonable and practical. On the other hand, inviting students’ input can help students to become aware of and committed to procedures, but at the cost of taking more time to establish them, and at the risk of creating confusion if you teach multiple classes, each of which adopts different procedures. Whatever approach you choose, you and the students of course have to take into account the procedures or rules imposed by the school or school district as a whole. A school may have a uniform policy or expectation about how to record daily attendance, for example, and that policy may determine, either partly or completely, how you take attendance with your particular students.

Establishing Classroom Rules

Unlike procedures or routines, rules express standards of behavior for which individual students need to take responsibility. Although they may help in insuring the practical efficiency of classroom tasks, they are really about encouraging students to be personally responsible for learning, as well as for behaving decently and respectfully with each other.

Most educational experts recommend keeping the number of rules to a minimum in order to make them easier to remember (Thorson, 2003; Brophy, 2003). Another feature is that they are stated in positive terms (“Do X…”) rather than negative terms (“Do not do Y…”), a strategy that emphasizes and clarifies what students should do rather than what they should avoid. A third feature is that each rule actually covers a collection of more specific behaviors. The rule “Bring all materials to class,” for example, potentially covers bringing pencils, paper, textbooks, homework papers, and permission slips—depending on the situation. As a result of being stated somewhat generally, rules contain a degree of ambiguity that sometimes requires interpretation. Infractions may occur, that is, that are marginal or “in a grey area,” rather than clearcut. A student may bring a pen, for example, but the pen may not work properly, and you may therefore wonder whether this incident is really a failure to follow the rule, or just an unfortunate (and in this case minor) fault of the pen manufacturer.  For myself, it is not the student’s fault if the pen fails to work.  They have fulfilled the requirement of “bringing materials to class”.  (As a side note, always have extra pens and pencils available for students for just such incidents.)

As with classroom procedures, rules can be planned either by the teacher alone, or by the teacher with advice from students. The arguments for each approach are similar to the arguments for procedures: rules “laid on” by the teacher are quicker and easier to present to students,  but rules influenced by the students may be supported more fully by the students. Because rules focus strongly on personal responsibility, however, there is a stronger case for involving students in making classroom rules than in making classroom procedures (Brookfield, 2006; Kohn, 2006). In any case the question of who plans classroom rules is not necessarily an either/or choice. It is possible in principle to impose certain rules on students (for example, “Always be polite to each other”) but let the students determine the consequences for violations of certain rules (for example, “If a student is discourteous to a classmate, he/she must apologize to the student in writing”). Some mixture of influences is probably inevitable, in fact, if only because of your own moral commitments as a teacher and because the school itself is likely to have rules of its own (like “No smoking in the school” or “Always walk in the hallways”). A classroom set of rules therefore might need to refer to and honor this broader source of rules somehow, if only by including a classroom rule stating something like “Obey all school rules.”

I strongly believe in allowing students to make the classroom guidelines, with our guidance.  I don’t like the word “rules”, as it implies punishment if you don’t follow them.  I prefer “guidelines” as they are statements that will guide our behavior.  As noted earlier, be sure to state them in the positive; what it is you want students to do.  I have used this practice with children as young as four and it has worked very well.

School age children are in the stage where they need to have control over their world and make real world decisions.  Allowing them to make the classroom rules meets those emotional needs.  Students will also follow the guidelines and support each other more when they have created them.

In my classrooms, on the first day, we talked about being together for the year and we had to set some guidelines for our behavior to help every learn and stay safe.  I would ask them what types of things we needed to do in order for everyone to stay safe, keep our materials safe, and learn.

I asked children to give me their ideas and I wrote them on the board.  Any idea was acceptable in this stage, even if it was something I didn’t want to see as a guideline. Once we had all of the ideas, we then reviewed each of them.  We asked three questions:

  1.  Will this guideline keep us safe?
  2. Will this guideline keep our materials from being broken, destroyed, etc.?
  3. Will this guideline help us learn?

If we answered “No” to any of these questions, we eliminated the idea.  What was left we used as our guidelines.  Sometimes we needed to re-word the statement, or I suggested an addition to it.  Understand that ultimately you have the final decision, but you will be surprised at what students are able to devise on their own.  Our guidelines were also fluid.  If we found a need down the road for a new guideline, we added it to our list.

Once we had our statements, I wrote them on a large piece of paper with the heading, “Staying Safe and Loving to Learn:  Our Class Guidelines”, and then each student signed the paper.  I signed it also as I was a part of the learning environment and I was expected to follow the same guidelines.  We hung this in the room for all to see.  Over time, you will find students referring to this document and guiding their classmates in appropriate behaviors.

We use these guidelines to help develop positive social skills, as well as positive and effective learning skills; they are not grounds for punishment.  If our guideline is to “Respect everyone we come in contact with”, then a student who is disrespectful should not be punished.  We are teachers; we need to teach.  We need to talk with the student and let him/her know how their words or actions were not respectful; talk about what should have been said or done, and then allow the student to make the decision to apologize, or have them ask the person who was “wronged” what they can do to make the situation better.  Handling this incident in this manner requires the student to take responsibility for their actions and learn how to display the appropriate behaviors; punishment does not do this.  We will talk about this idea more, but think long and hard on this!

Pacing and Structuring Lessons and Activities

One of the best ways to prevent management problems is by pacing and structuring lessons or activities as smoothly and continuously as possible. Reaching this goal depends on three major strategies:

  • selecting tasks or activities at an appropriate level of difficulty for your students.  (This means there may be multiple activities to meet the varying abilities of your students.)
  • providing a moderate level of structure or clarity to students about what they are supposed to do, especially during transitions between activities, and
  • keeping alert to the flow and interplay of behaviors for the class as a whole and for individuals within it.

Each of these strategies presents its own special challenges to teachers, but also its own opportunities for helping students to learn.

Choosing Tasks at an Appropriate Level of Difficulty

As experienced teachers know and as research has confirmed, students are most likely to engage with learning when tasks are of moderate difficulty, neither too easy nor too hard and therefore neither boring nor frustrating (Britt, 2005). Finding the right level of difficulty, however, can sometimes be a challenge if you have little experience in teaching a particular grade level or curriculum, or even if a class is simply new to you and in this sense “unknown.” Whether familiar to you or not, members of any class are likely to have diverse abilities and readiness, and this fact alone makes it harder to determine what level of difficulty is appropriate. A common strategy for dealing with these ambiguities is to begin units, lessons, or projects with tasks or content that is relatively easy and familiar, and then gradually introduce more difficult material or tasks until students seem challenged, but not overwhelmed. Using this strategy gives the teacher a chance to observe and diagnose students’ learning needs before adjusting content, and gives students a chance to orient themselves to the teacher’s expectations and the topic of study without becoming stressed or frustrated prematurely. Later in a unit, lesson, or project, students are then in a better position to deal with more difficult tasks or content (Van Merrionboer, 2003). The principle seems to help even with “authentic” learning projects—ones that resemble real-world activities of students (such as learning to drive an automobile), and that present a variety of complex tasks simultaneously. Even in those cases it helps for the teacher to isolate and focus on the simplest subtasks first (such as “put the key in the ignition”) and only move to harder tasks later (such as parallel parking).

Sequencing instruction is only a partial solution to finding the best “level” of instruction, because it still does not deal with lasting differences among students as individuals. The core challenge to teachers is to fully individualize or differentiate instruction: to tailor instruction or activities not only to the class as a group, but to the differences among members of the class? One way to approach this problem is to plan different content or activities for different students or groups of students. While one group works on Task A, another group works on Task B; one group works on relatively easy math problems, for example, while another works on harder ones. Taken very far, managing multiple activities or tasks obviously complicates a teacher’s job, but it can and has been done by many teachers (and it also can make teaching more interesting!).

Providing Moderate Amounts of Structure and Detail

Chances are that at some point in your educational career you have asked, or at least wished, that a teacher would clarify or explain an assignment more fully, and thereby give it more structure or organization. Students’ need and desire for clarity is especially common with assignments that are by nature open-ended, such as long essays, large projects, or creative works. Simply being told to “write an essay critiquing the novel,” for example, leaves more room for uncertainty (and worry) than being given guidelines about what the essay should contain, what topics or parts it should have, and its appropriate length or style (Chesebro, 2003). Students’ need for structure and clarity varies, furthermore, not only among assignments, but among students as individuals. Some students desire it more than others, and perform especially well when provided with relatively more structure and clarity. Students with certain kinds of learning difficulties, in particular, often learn more effectively and stay on task more if provided with somewhat more explicit or detailed instructions about the specific tasks expected for assignments (Marks, 2003).

As a teacher, the challenge is to accommodate students’ need for clarity without making guidance so specific or detailed that students have little room to think for themselves. Carried to a (ridiculous) extreme, for example, a teacher can give “clear” instructions for an essay by announcing not only exactly which articles to read and cite in preparing for the essay and which topics or issues to cover, but even the wording of the key sentences in their essays. This much specificity may reduce students’ uncertainties and make the teacher’s task of evaluating the essays relatively straightforward and easy. But it also reduces or even eliminates the educational value of the assignment—assuming, of course, that its purpose is to get students to think for themselves.

Ideally, then, structure should be moderate rather than extreme. There should be just enough to give students some sense of direction and to stimulate more accomplishment than if they worked with less structure or guidance. This ideal is essentially Vygotsky’s idea of the “Zone of Proximal Development”: a place (figuratively speaking) where students get more done with help than without it. The ideal amount of guidance—and the “location” of the Zone of Proximal Development—may vary with the assignment and with the student, and it may (hopefully) decrease over time for all students. One student may need more guidance to do his or her best in math, but less guidance in order to write his best essay. Another student may need the reverse. Both students may need less at the end of the year than at the beginning.

Managing Transitions

The time between activities is often full of distractions and “lost” time, and is often when inappropriate behaviors are especially likely to occur. Part of the problem is intrinsic to transitions: students often have to wait before a new activity begins, and therefore get bored, at the same moment when the teacher may be preoccupied with locating and arranging materials for the new activity. From the point of view of students, therefore, transitions may seem essentially like unsupervised group time, when (seemingly) “anything goes.”

Minimizing such problems requires two strategies, one of which is easier to implement than the other. The easier strategy is for you, as teacher, to organize materials as well as possible ahead of time, so that you minimize the time needed to begin a new activity or class session. This advice sounds simple, and mostly is, but it can sometimes take a bit of practice to implement smoothly.

A second, a more complex strategy, is to teach students as many ways as possible to manage their own behavior during transitions (Marzano & Marzano, 2004).[5] If students talk too loudly between activities, for example, then discuss with them what constitutes appropriate levels or amounts of talk during those times, as well as about the need for them to monitor their own sound level at that time. Or if students stop work early in anticipation of the end of an activity, then talk about—or even practice—using a signal from yourself to indicate the true ending point for an activity. If certain students continue working beyond the end of an activity, on the other hand, then try giving students advance warning of the impending end of the activity, and remind them about their taking the responsibility for actually finishing work once they hear the advance warning. And so on. The point of all of these tactics is to encourage students’ sense of responsibility for their behavior transitions, and thereby reduce your own need to monitor them at that crucial time.

None of these ideas, of course, mean that you, as teacher, can or should give up monitoring students’ behavior entirely. Chances are that you still will need to notice if and when someone talks too loudly, finishes too early, or continues too long, and you will still need to give those students appropriate reminders. But the amount of reminding will be less to the extent that students can remind and monitor themselves—a welcome trend at any time during the day, but especially during transitions.

Maintaining the Flow of Activities

A lot of classroom management is really about keeping activities flowing smoothly, both during individual lessons and across the school day. The trouble with this straightforward-sounding idea, however, is that there is never just “one” event happening at a time, even if only one activity has been formally planned and is supposed to be occurring. Even if, for example, everyone is supposed to be attending a single whole-class discussion on a topic, individual students will be having different experiences at any one moment. Several students may be listening and contributing comments, for example, but a few others may be planning what they want to say next and ignoring the current speakers, still others may ruminating about what a previous speaker said, and still others may be thinking about unrelated matters, like using the restroom, food, or after school events. Things get even more complicated if the teacher deliberately plans multiple activities: in that case some students may interact with the teacher, for example, while others do work in an unsupervised group or work independently in a different part of the room. How is a teacher to keep activities flowing smoothly in the face of such variety?

A common mistake of beginning teachers in multi-faceted activity settings like these is to pay too much attention to any one activity, student, or small group, at the expense of noticing and responding to all the others. If you are helping a student on one side of the room but someone on the other side disturbs classmates with off-task conversation, it tends to be less effective either to finish with the student you are helping before attending to the disruption, or to interrupt your help for the student until you have solved the disruption on the other side of the room. Either approach is likely to allow the flow of activities to be disrupted somewhere; there is a risk that either the student’s chatting may spread to others, or the interrupted student may become bored with waiting to regain the teacher’s attention and get off-task herself.

A better solution, though at first it may seem tricky or challenging, is to attend to both events at once—a strategy that was named “Withitness” in a series of now-classic research students several decades ago (Kounin, 1970). Withitness does not mean that you focus on all simultaneous activities with equal care, but only that you are aware multiple activities, behaviors, and events to some degree. At a particular moment, for example, you may be focusing on helping a student, but in some corner of your mind you also notice when chatting begins on the other side of the room. You have, as the saying goes, “eyes in the back of your head.” Research has found that experienced teachers are much more likely to show withitness than inexperienced teachers, and that these qualities are associated with their managing classrooms successfully (Emmer & Stough, 2001).

Simultaneous awareness—withitness—makes possible responses to the multiple events that are immediate and nearly simultaneous—what educators sometimes called “Overlapping”. The teacher’s responses to each event or behavior need not take equal time, nor even be equally noticeable to all students. If you are helping one student with seat work at the precise moment when another student begins chatting off-task, for example, a quick glance to the second student may be enough to bring him back to the work at hand, and may scarcely interrupt your conversation with the first student, or be noticed by others who are not even involved. The result is a smoother flow to activities overall.

As a new teacher, you may find your initial skill at” withitness” and overlapping develops more easily in some situations than in others. It may be easier to keep an eye (and an ear) on the entire class during familiar routines, for example, like taking attendance, and harder to do the same during lessons or activities that are unfamiliar or complex, such as introducing a new topic or unit that you have never taught before. But skill at broadening your attention can and does increase with time and practice. So it helps to keep trying. Merely demonstrating to students that you are “withit,” in fact, even without making deliberate overlapping responses, can sometimes deter students from task behavior. Someone who is tempted to pass notes in class, for example, might not to do so because she decides that you will probably notice her doing it anyway.

Communicating the Importance of Learning and of Positive Behavior

Taken together, arranging space, establishing procedures and rules, and developing “withitness” about multiple events set the stage for communicating an important message: that the classroom is a place where learning and positive social behavior are priorities. In addition, teachers can convey this message by giving feedback to students in a timely way, by keeping accurate records of their performance, and by deliberately communicating with parents or caregivers about their children and about activities in class.

Giving Timely Feedback

Feedback is a term often used by educators to refer to responses given to students about their behavior or performance. Feedback is essential for students if they are to learn or if they are to develop classroom behavior that is new or more subtle and “mature.” But feedback can only be fully effective if received as soon as possible, when it is still relevant to the task or activity at hand which is usually as soon as possible (Reynolds, 1992).[8] A score on a test is more informative immediately after a test than after a six-month delay, when students may have forgotten much of the content of the test. A teacher’s comment to a student about an inappropriate, off-task behavior may not be especially welcome immediately after the behavior occurs, but it can be more influential and informative then later when both teacher and student have trouble remembering the context of the off-task behavior, and in this sense may literally “not know what they are talking about.” The same is true for comments about a positive behavior by a student: hearing a compliment right away makes it easier to connect the comment with the behavior, and allows the compliment to influence the student more strongly. Even though there are of course practical limits to how fast feedback can be given, the general principle is clear: feedback tends to work better when it is timely.

When it comes to feedback in regards to behavior, we have to engage students in conversations about what took place and how they can display more positive behaviors in the future.  Students need this type of support and feedback if we want them to change their actions.  Punishing them is not feedback and it is not effective in changing behaviors.

Students also need feedback when it comes to the work they do in the classroom.  We have all had teachers who collect our essay, but don’t return it for two or three weeks.  By that point, students are no longer vested in the assignment and they are not going to learn from any comments or feedback you are given, assuming feedback is given.

If we ask students to complete an assignment, project, etc., we need to be sure we not only return it timely, but also provide feedback.  Let students know where they were strong, things you may have liked about the assignment, as well as how they can improve in areas.  Feedback should be specific and help students learn.  Comments such as “Good Job”, “Nice Work”, or “Needs More Detail”, do not give students the information they need in order to improve or continue a positive strategy, etc.  They have to know what was “good” or “nice.”  You can use these terms, but you need to give them the information that warrants this statement.  Here are some examples:

  1.  You have two more words correct on your spelling test than last week.  Good job!
  2.  All of your colors complement each other in your drawing and the faces are realistic and express emotion.  Nice work!
  3. There is more detail needed in your paper on arson.  You could have included the reasons why people resort to arson, and what types of help is available for serial arsonists.

Can you see how these statements provide the student with more information that they can use as they move forward in their studies?  This is the type of feedback we need to give to students.  When we provide this for them, and return their work with this feedback in a timely  manner, we can provide a valuable and strong support for their continued learning.

During the days or weeks while students wait for a test or assignment to be returned, they are left without information about quality or nature of their performance; at the extreme they may even have to complete a next test or assignment before getting any information from an earlier one. (Perhaps you have already experienced this problem during your years as a student!)

Maintaining Accurate Records

Accurate records are helpful not only for scores on tests, quizzes or assignments, but also for keeping descriptive information about the nature of students’ academic skills or progress. A common way to do so is the student portfolio, which is a compilation of the student’s work and on-going assessments of it added by the teacher or by the student (Moritz & Christie, 2005; White, 2005). To know of how a student’s science project evolved from its beginning, for example, a teacher and student can keep a portfolio of lab notes, logs, preliminary data, and the like. To know how a student’s writing skills are developing, on the other hand, they could keep a portfolio of early drafts on various writing assignments. As the work accumulates, the student can discuss it with the teacher, and either of them can write brief reflections on its strengths thus far and on the next steps needed to improve the work further. By providing a way to respond to work as it evolves, portfolios can respond to students’ work relatively promptly, and in any case sooner than if a teacher waited until the work was complete or final.

Communicating with Parents and Caregivers

Teachers are responsible for keeping parents informed and involved to whatever extent is practical. Virtually all parents understand and assume that schools are generally intended for learning, but communication can enrich their understanding of how this purpose is realized in their particular child’s classroom, and it can show them more precisely what their particular child is doing there. Such understanding in turn allows parents and caregivers to support their child’s learning more confidently and “intelligently,” and in this sense contributes, at least indirectly, to a positive learning environment in their child’s class.

There are various ways to communicate with parents, each with advantages and limitations. Here are three common examples:

  • A regular classroom newsletter: The advantage of a newsletter is that it establishes a link with all parents or caregivers with comparatively little effort on the part of the teacher.  At the beginning of the year, for example, a newsletter can tell about special materials that students will need, important dates to remember (like professional development days when there is no school), or about curriculum plans for the next few weeks. But newsletters also have limitations. They can seem impersonal, for example, or they may get lost on the way home and never reach parents or caregivers. They can also be impractical for teachers with multiple classes, as in high school or in specialist subjects (like music or physical education), where each class may follow a different program or have a different purpose.  Email may allow us to send electronic copies of a newsletter, but either way, there is no guarantee parents will ready them.
  • Telephone calls: The main advantage of phoning is its immediacy and individuality. Teacher and parent or caregiver can talk about a particular student, behavior, or concern, and it now. By the same token, however, phone calls are not an efficient way to inform parents about events or activities that affect everyone in common. The individuality of phoning may explain why teachers tend to use this method more often when a student has a problem that is urgent or unusual—as when he has failed a test or has misbehaved seriously. Rightly or wrongly, a student’s successes may not seem urgent enough to merit a call to the student’s home, although I would encourage you to make positive phone calls to parents as well.
  • Parent-teacher conferences: Most schools schedule regular times—often a day or an evening—when teachers meet briefly with any parents or caregivers who request a meeting. Under good conditions, the conferences can have the individuality of phone calls, but also the greater richness of communication possible in face-to-face meetings. Since conferences are available to all parents, they need not focus on behavior or academic problems, but often simply help to build rapport and understanding between parents or caregivers and the teacher. Sometimes too, particularly at younger grade levels, teachers organize conferences to be led by the student, who displays and explains his or her work using a portfolio or other archive of accumulated materials (Benson & Barnett, 2005; Stiggins & Chappuis, 2005). In spite of all of these advantages, though, parent-teacher conferences have limitations. Some parents have trouble getting to conferences, for example, because of their work schedules. Others may feel intimated by any school-sponsored event because they speak limited English or because they remember getting along poorly in school themselves as children.
  • Classroom Website:  A classroom website can help keep parents informed of classroom events, school information, and serve as a reference for class guidelines, expectations or other relevant information for families.

Even if you make all of these efforts to communicate, some parents may remain out of contact. In these cases it is important to remember that the causes may not be parents’ indifference to their child or to the value of education. Other possibilities exist, as some of our comments above indicate: parents may have difficulties with child care, for example, have inconvenient work schedules, or feel self-conscious because of their own limited skills (Stevens & Tollafield, 2003). Whatever the reasons, there are ways to encourage parents who may be shy, hesitant, or busy. One is to think of how they can assist the class or school even from home—for example, by making materials to be used in class or (if they are comfortable using English) phoning other parents about class events. A second way is to have a specific task for the parents in mind—one with clear structure, definite starting and ending points, and one that truly will benefit the class if someone can in fact complete it. A third is to encourage, support, and respect the parents’ presence and contributions when they do show up at school functions. Keep in mind, after all, that parents are experts about their own particular children, and without their efforts, you would have no students to teach!

Responding to Student Misbehavior

So far we have focused on preventing behaviors that are off-task, inappropriate, or annoying. Our advice has all been pro-active or forward-looking: plan the classroom space thoughtfully, create reasonable procedures and rules, pace lessons and activities appropriately, and communicate the importance of learning clearly. Although we consider these ideas to be important, it would be naïve to imply they are enough to prevent all behavior problems. For various reasons, students sometimes still do things that disrupt other students or interrupt the flow of activities. At such moments the challenge is not about long-term planning but about making appropriate, but prompt responses. Misbehaviors left alone can be contagious, a process educators sometimes call the ripple effect (Kounin, 1970). Chatting between two students, for example, can gradually become chatting among six students; rudeness by one can eventually become rudeness by several; and so on. Because of this tendency, delaying a response to inappropriate behavior can make the job of getting students back on track harder than responding to it as immediately as possible.

There are many ways to respond to inappropriate behaviors, of course, and they vary in how much they focus on the immediate behavior of a student rather than on longer-term patterns of behavior. There are so many ways to respond, in fact, that we can only describe a sampling of the possibilities here. None are effective all of the time, though all do work at least some of the time. We start with a response that may not seem on the surface like a remedy at all—simply ignoring misbehaviors.

Ignoring Misbehaviors

A lot of misbehaviors are not important enough or frequent enough to deserve any response from the teacher at all. They are likely to disappear (or extinguish, in behaviorist terms) if simply left alone. If a student who is usually quiet during class happens to whisper to a neighbor once in awhile, it is probably simpler, less disruptive, and just as effective to ignore this rare infraction of a classroom rule. Some misbehaviors may not be worth a response even if they are frequent, as long as they do not seem to bother others. Suppose, for example, that a certain student has a habit of choosing quiet seat work times to sharpen her pencil, yet this behavior is not really noticed by others. Is it then really a problem, however unnecessary or ill-timed it may be? In both examples ignoring the behavior may be wise because there is little danger of the behavior spreading to other students or of become even more frequent. Interrupting your activities—or the students’—might cause more disruption than simply ignoring the problem.

That said, there can sometimes still be problems in deciding whether a particular misbehavior is indeed minor, infrequent, or unnoticed by others. Unlike in our example above, a student may whisper more than “rarely” but less than “often”: in that case, when do you decide that the whispering is in fact too frequent and needs a more active response from you? Or that student who taps her pencil, whom we mentioned above, may not bother most others, but she may nonetheless bother a few. In that case how many bothered classmates are “too many”—five, three, just one, or…? In these grey, ambiguous cases, you may need a more active way of dealing with an inappropriate behavior, like the ones described in the next sections.

Gesturing Non-verbally

Sometimes it works to communicate using gestures, eye contact, or “body language” that involve little or no speaking. Nonverbal cues are often appropriate if a misbehavior is just a bit too serious or frequent to ignore, but not serious or frequent enough to merit taking the time deliberately to speak to or talk with the student. If two students are chatting off-task for a relatively extended time, for example, sometimes a glance in their direction, a frown, or even just moving closer to the students is enough of a reminder to get them back on task. And even if these responses prove not to be enough, they may help to keep the off-task behavior from spreading to other students.

A risk of relying on nonverbal cues, however, is that some students may not understand their meaning, or even notice them. If the two chatting students mentioned above are too engrossed in their talking, for example, they may not see you glance or frown at them. Or they might notice but not interpret your cue as a reminder to get back on task. Misinterpretation of nonverbal gestures and cues is a little more likely with young children, who are still learning the subtleties of adults’ nonverbal “language” (Guerrero & Floyd, 2005; Heimann, et al., 2006). It can also be more likely with students who speak limited English and whose cultural background differs significantly different from yours, because the students may be used to communicating non-verbally in ways that literally “look different” from the ways familiar to you (Marsh, Elfenbein, & Ambady, 2003).

I taught my students some basic sign language to assist with these types of situations.  I taught them the sign for “bathroom” so they could simply sign and I could answer and we avoided some of those dramatic interruptions we have when someone needs to use the rest room.  I also taught them, “yes”, “no”, “sit down”, “please”, “thank you”, “quiet”, “work”, and a few others.  This allowed me to communicate with students in a way that did not disrupt class, and also gave them a way to communicate with me.

Natural and Logical Consequences

Consequences are the outcomes or results of an action. When managing a classroom, two kinds of consequences are especially effective, at least when the conditions are appropriate: natural consequences and logical consequences. Natural consequences are ones that happen “naturally” or without any deliberate intention by anyone. If a student is late for class, for example, a natural consequence is that he may miss information or material that he needs to do an assignment. Logical consequences are ones that happen because of the responses of others, but that also have an obvious or “logical” relationship to the original action. If one student steals another’s lunch, for example, a logical consequence might be for the thief to reimburse the victim for the cost of the lunch. Natural and logical consequences are often woven together and thus hard to distinguish: if one student picks a fight with another student, a natural consequence might be injury to the aggressor (a natural risk of fighting), but a logical consequence might to lose friends (the response of others to fighting). In practice both may occur.

General research has found that natural and logical consequences can be effective for minimizing undesirable behaviors, provided they are applied in appropriate situations (Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, & Curran, 2004). Take, for example, a student who runs impulsively down school hallways. By the very nature of this action, he or she is especially likely to have “traffic accidents,” and thus (hopefully) to see that running is not safe and to reduce the frequency of running.  Consider a student who chronically talks during class instead of working on a class-time assignment. A logical outcome of this choice is to require the student to make up the assignment later, possibly as homework. Because the behavior and the consequence are connected directly, the student is relatively likely to see the drawback of choosing to talk, and to reduce how much he or she talks on subsequent occasions. In both cases, the key features that make natural and logical consequences work is

  1. they are appropriate to the misbehavior and
  2. the student sees or understands the connection between the consequences and the original behavior.

Notice, though, that natural and logical consequences do not work for every problem behavior; if they did, there would be no further need for management strategies! One limitation is that misbehaviors can sometimes be so serious that no natural or logical consequence seems sufficient or appropriate. Suppose, for example, that one student deliberately breaks another student’s eyeglasses. There may be a natural consequence for the victim (he or she will not be able to see easily), but not for student who broke the glasses. There may also be no logical consequences for the aggressor that are fully satisfactory: the misbehaving student will not be able to repair the broken glasses and may not even be able to pay for new glasses for the victim.

Another limitation of natural and logical consequences is that their success depends on the motives of the misbehaving student. If the student is seeking attention or acceptance by others, then the consequences often work well. Bullying in order to impress others, for example, is more likely to lose friends than to win them—so this sort of bullying is to some extent self-limiting. If a student is seeking power over others, on the other hand, then consequences may not work well. Bullying in order to control others’ actions, for example, may actually achieve its own goal, and its “natural” results (losing friends) would not affect it. Of course, students may sometimes act from combinations of motives, with the result that natural and logical consequences may succeed, but only partially.

A third problem with natural and logical consequences is that they can easily be confused with deliberate punishment (Kohn, 2006). The difference is important. Consequences are focused on repairing damage and restoring relationships, and in this sense consequences focus on the future. Punishments, in contrast, highlight the mistake or wrongdoing and in this sense focus on the past. Consequences tend to be more solution focused; punishments tend to highlight the person who committed the action and to shame or humiliate the wrong doer.

Classroom examples of the differences are plentiful. If a student is late for class, then a consequence may be that he or she misses important information, but a punishment may be that the teacher scolds or reprimands the student. If a student speaks rudely to the teacher, a consequence may be that the teacher does not respond to the comment, or simply reminds the student to speak courteously. A punishment may be that the teacher scolds the student in the presence of other students, or even imposes a detention (“Stay after school for 15 minutes”).

We want to strive to resolve issues with students using natural and logical consequences, and avoid punishment.  Punishment does not teach, it is often not connected to the actual act, and it serves to cause hard feelings on the part of the student towards the teacher and this does not help to foster a positive and productive teacher/student relationship, which we know is vital in learning.

In elementary school, taking away recess is often used as a punishment for a wide variety of behaviors.  Taking away recess, however, usually never relates to the behavior of the student!  I beg you never to use this punishment with your students.  First of all, it does nothing to teach appropriate behaviors, and that is our goal.  Recess provides a valuable learning opportunity for students.  Students learn social skills such as problem solving, how to enter play, compromise, and many more through interaction on the playground.  We also know that movement is vital in learning and children need the opportunity to move about and activate areas of the brain that may have “gone to sleep”, as children spend extended time sitting at a desk.  There is also the motor development that takes place as they jump, climb, throw a ball and all of the other activities they engage in.  While it’s often used, and is an easy “out” for teachers, talk with students about behaviors and look to give them positive strategies to follow rather than punishment for what they have done.  They need recess!

Conflict Resolution and Problem Solving

When a student misbehaves persistently and disruptively, you will need strategies that are more active and assertive than the ones discussed so far, and that lead to conflict resolution—the reduction of disagreements that persist over time. The conflict resolution strategies that educators and teachers advocate and use usually have two parts (Jones, 2004).[7] First, the strategies involve a way of identifying precisely what “the” problem is. Once this is done, they require reminding the student of classroom expectations and rules without apology or harshness, but with simple clarity and assertiveness. When used together, the clarification and assertion can not only reduce conflicts between a teacher and an individual student, but also provide a model for other students to consider when they have disagreements of their own.

Step 1: Clarifying and Identify the Problem: Classrooms can be emotional places even when its primary purpose is to promote “thinking” rather than the expression of feelings as such. The emotional quality can be quite desirable: it can give teachers and students “passion” for learning and respect or even good feelings for each other. But it can also cause trouble if students misbehave: at those moments negative feelings—annoyance, anger, discomfort—can interfere with understanding exactly what went wrong and how to set things right again.  Allow all involved to calm down and then let each individual state their view of the problem.  If the issue is between two students, let each share their side of the story.  If the issue involves you and a student, let the student state his view, and then you share yours.
Step 2: Active, Empathetic Listening: Diagnosing accurately the conflict is necessary in order to resolve it.  We need to use “Active Listening”—attending carefully to all aspects of what a student says and attempting to understand or empathize with it as fully as possible, even if you do not agree with what is being said (Cooper & Simonds, 2003). Active Listening involves asking a lot of questions in order continually to check your understanding. It also involves encouraging the student to elaborate or expand on his or her remarks, and paraphrasing and summarizing what the student has said in order to check your perceptions of what is being said. It is important not to move too fast toward “solving” the problem with advice, instructions, or scolding, even if these are responses that you might, as a teacher, feel responsible for making. Responding too soon in these ways can shut down communication prematurely, and leave you with an inaccurate impression of the source of the problem.

Depending on the issue, you  may want to use Step 3 or skip this and use Step 4.  For most conflicts that involve two students, we will use Step 4.

Step 3: Assertive Discipline and I-Messages: Once you have listened well enough to understand the student’s point of view, it helps to frame your responses and comments in terms of how the student’s behavior affects you as a teacher. The comments should have several features:
  • They should be assertive—neither passive and apologetic, nor unnecessarily hostile or aggressive. State what the problem is, as matter-of-factly as possible: “Joe, you are talking while I’m explaining something,” instead of either “Joe, do you think you could be quiet now?” or “Joe, be quiet!”
  • The comments should emphasize I-messages, which are comments that focus on how the problem behavior is affecting the teacher’s ability to teach, as well as how the behavior makes the teacher feel. They are distinct from you-messages, which focus on evaluating the mistake or problem which the student has created. An I-message might be, “Your talking is making it hard for me to remember what I’m trying to say.” A you-message might be, “Your talking is rude.”
  • The comments should encourage the student to think about the effects of his or her actions on others—a strategy that in effect encourages the student to consider the ethical implications of the actions (Gibbs, 2003). Instead of simply saying, “When you cut in line ahead of the other kids, that was not fair to them,” you can try saying, “How do you think the other kids feel when you cut in line ahead of them?”
Step 4: Negotiating a Solution: The steps so far describe ways of interacting that are desirable, but also fairly specific in scope and limited in duration. In themselves they may not be enough when conflict persists over time and develops a number of complications or confusing features. A student may persist, for example, in being late for class, in spite of diverse efforts by the teacher to modify this behavior. Two students may persist in speaking rudely to each other, even though the teacher has mediated this conflict in the past. Or a student may fail to complete homework, time after time. Because these problems develop over time, and because they may involve repeated disagreements between teacher and student, they can eventually become stressful for the teacher, for the student, and for any classmates who may be affected. Their persistence can tempt a teacher simply to announce or dictate a resolution—a decision that may simply leave everyone feeling defeated, including the teacher.
Often in these situations it is better to negotiate a solution, which means systematically discussing options and compromising on one if possible. Negotiation always requires time and effort, though usually not as much as continuing to cope with the original problem, and the results can be beneficial to everyone. A number of experts on conflict resolution have suggested strategies for negotiating with students about persistent problems (Davidson & Wood, 2004). The suggestions vary in detail, but usually include some combination of the steps we have already discussed above, along with a few others.
  • Decide as accurately as possible what the problem is—Usually this step involves a lot of the active listening described above.
  • Brainstorm possible solutions, and then consider their effectiveness—Remember to include students in this step; otherwise you are simply imposing a solution on others, which is not what negotiation is supposed to achieve.
  • Choose a solution, if possible by consensus—Complete agreement on the choice may not be possible, but strive for it as best you can. Remember that taking a vote may be a democratic, acceptable way to settle differences in many situations. If feelings are running high, however, voting has an ironic by-product: it simply allows individuals to “announce” their differences to each other and therefore maintain the conflict.
  • Pay attention later to how well the solution works—For many reasons, things may not work out the way you or the students hope or expect, and you may need to renegotiate the solution at a later time.

Keeping Management Issues in Perspective

There are two messages from this chapter. One is that management issues are important, complex, and deserve any teacher’s serious attention. The other is that management strategies exist and can reduce, if not eliminate, management problems when and if they occur. We have explained what some of those strategies are—including some intended to prevent problems from happening and others intended to remedy problems if they do occur.

But there is a third message that this chapter cannot convey by itself: that good classroom management is not an end in itself, but a means for creating a climate where learning happens as fully as possible. During the stress of handling problem behaviors, there is sometimes a risk of losing sight of this idea. Quiet listening is never a goal in itself, for example; it is desirable only because (or when) it allows students to hear the teacher’s instructions or classmates’ spoken comments, or because it allows students to concentrate on their work or assignments better. There may, therefore, actually be moments when quiet listening is not important to achieve, such as during a “free choice” time in an elementary classroom or during a period of group work in a middle school classroom. As teachers, we need to keep this perspective firmly in mind. Classroom management should serve students’ learning, and not the other way around.


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Education 2010 by Brenda Alward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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