Classroom Management Techniques – which ones work and which ones are overrated? #MTBoS

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about classroom management, and the ways in which I’m planning to deal with student misbehavior this year. I feel overwhelmed sometimes, because the more articles I read about classroom management, the more conflicting information I receive. For example, I just read an article that talked about not using a hand signal to obtain quiet in the classroom. This runs counter to what I’ve done in the last five years (which seems to work less well each year, honestly), which I think I learned about in Harry Wong’s book, first days of school. It suggests saying the phrase, “Can I have your attention please?” will prompt students to quiet down sooner.

I attended a PD last year where the facilitator clapped her hands loudly to cut through the conversation and then asked us to quiet down (or something similar – I don’t remember her exact wording), and it was more effective than anything I’d ever seen before. I tried it in my classroom the next day, and the students quieted down more quickly than I’d ever had them do so when I tried “Give me Five” with my hand in the air (and they were supposed to mimic me).

I’ve also read conflicting advice about giving students “warnings” vs “consequences” – some people say don’t give warnings (because if you have to give one warning to each student who misbehaves before you give any consequences, then you may give out 30+ warnings in a single period which can lead to you giving warnings to the first few students and then consequences to later students who act out, not because they’ve gotten warnings, but because you’ve reached your personal warning limit. So I’ve also seen some things that recommend immediately giving consequences if a student breaks a rule, which has been my policy the last five years – including notifying students of it in the letter I’ve given out in September.

I’m sure there are more pieces of conflicting advice that I’ve gotten, but I can’t think of them right now. I’m trying to think about what the best way to ensure that my classroom is functional and creates an environment conducive to learning and risk taking. I think the biggest thing I should start with is thinking about the kind of environment that I want (which I started outlining previously, but I think warrants more focus on behavior than just on the culture of learning).

Okay, so let’s think about some of the behaviors that have been problematic in previous years, and ideas I’ve got about how to curtail them.

  1. Side conversations or off-topic conversations, especially about non-math related topics during class (either during instruction, during independent work, or during other parts of class). Last year, in a co-taught class, it was particularly exacerbated by the fact that sometimes my co-teacher would be talking to a student when I asked the class to be silent – so it became unclear to the students when talking wasn’t permitted vs. was. This coming year, I’m back to solo teaching, so I think this is something that may be more clear, especially if I work on my posters that I mentioned about “modes in the classroom” previously.
  2. Misuse of office supplies or throwing objects in class – I don’t know why this became such a huge thing last year (as it hasn’t been a problem since my second year of teaching), but last year, I had about four or five students who couldn’t help themselves – if there were paperclips out, they would take them and throw them at each other. Or they would break up parts of erasers and throw them at each other.
  3. Horseplay resulting in students touching each other (especially hitting the back of the neck to mean “you’re stupid.”). Particularly problematic with certain students, they often had very different ideas about what sort of physical contact was acceptable in the classroom than I did. Relatedly, students sometimes would say mean things to each other (often out of my ear shot) or laugh when students said something they didn’t understand out loud as part of the discussion.
  4. Electronic device usage – I had more students using cell phones in class than ever before last year, but I’m hoping at my new school, this won’t be as big of an issue. My policy was consistent, but the most chronic offenders had separate classes with just my co-teacher who would let them use their phones, so it became an issue in class too. Plus, there’s more proliferation of phones in general for students in middle school.
  5. Calling out, interrupting, or talking over each other during whole class conversations – wasn’t as much of an issue last year, but can still be a problem, particularly now that I’m going to be working with younger students whose impulse control may be less developed.

Again, I’m sure there are other difficult or challenging behaviors that I’ve had in my classroom before, but these are the main five that stand out as having been particularly problematic in recent years.

I feel like my two current ideas about how to handle these challenges this year are the following:

  1. Spend some time in September (and revisiting throughout the year) the importance of creating a safe environment in class that’s conducive for learning for all students to be comfortable taking learning risks and grow their brains. I love the group-work conversation that Jo Boaler has outlined in the youcubed’s Week of Inspirational Math about what students don’t like and do like in group work – and then expand it to the rest of class as well. So we talk about why some of the norms are important (like listening while others talk to value their thinking and so we can make sense of what they’re saying).
  2. Give clear behavioral expectations when we go over supplies in class (like paperclips or staplers). Model how to use it appropriately, and discuss what NOT to do with them and how to use it correctly.
  3. For side conversations, I’ve typically found it most effective to combine the beginning of the year discussions about creating a learning community where we work together by making sense of each other’s ideas requiring us to listen carefully with the idea of the “self-interrupt” – where (as a teacher), if I’m talking and I notice students talking, I interrupt myself mid-sentence and “square off and stare at the student” (taken from Teach Like a Champion).

I’m not sure what appropriate consequences are (or when/how to use them) for these things. I’ve vacillated in previous years between giving lunch detentions for everything (5 minutes and sending them down late vs. for the whole lunch and keeping them with me) to having personal conversations with students (on the side of class or interrupting them from another teacher’s class), to contact with home. I also have switched up what I do during lunch detentions, whether it’s a simple conversation with the students vs. having them do a written reflection. I like some of the ideas from the WOW protocol from Ramapo for Children, but I haven’t done enough training with it to be comfortable deploying it yet. I also read Lost at School and attended a PD with the author this past year, and I love the idea of Plan B (for the students who are more complicated and require more work).

I know that classroom management has been an area of focus for me since my very first year teaching. My first year, I had no idea what I was doing, and I created an environment in my classroom that was not conducive to learning and did not feel safe for the students. I’ve improved dramatically since then, but I still feel like it could be better. I know one of the keys to successful classroom management is about having your expectations set in advance and then consistently enforcing your classroom management plan along with teaching students your routines and procedures. I’m trying to hash out these details in advance of the beginning of my new school year because I know I’ve lost some of what I did in my second and third year, when I felt like my students acted out in class less (though that might be due to my students having more challenges than me changing my practices necessarily). My teaching style has also changed dramatically since then (as well it should!) in large part due to my discovery of Jo Boaler’s How to Learn Math course and routines like Notice/Wonder and trying to implement a more problem-solving-based curriculum rather than I-We-You direct instruction and guided practice.

I feel like I don’t see as many posts on blogs of MATH teachers about classroom management, especially middle school teachers. I know there are definitely some challenges that are unique to that setting (i.e. students have a ton of baggage about the content of the class before they ever enter!), but many of the posts I see about classroom management tend to come from either people who are focused on behavior/student’s psychology in general (whether it’s school psychologists, etc.) or elementary school teachers. I wonder what practices the rest of you find effective in managing and facilitating your classes effectively.


One thought on “Classroom Management Techniques – which ones work and which ones are overrated? #MTBoS

  1. The most powerful advice I’ve ever been given for classroom management came from the book Why Didn’t I Learn This In College? It said the best classroom management program is a strong instructional program. In other words, if you keep kids engaged in learning, the problems will be minimal. This has been true in my experience from inner-city middle school to suburb honors classes.

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