16 Most Effective Classroom Management Techniques

I'm a special ed teacher, which means I choose to work with kids that have attention deficit, oppositional/defiance disorder, depression, bipolar disorder/mania, and other behaviours that make classroom management challenging. Yet I'm also a gentle soul who doesn't like to yell.  How do I do it? After reading lots of books and trying out lots of things in my classroom, here are my tried and true, truly indispensible tools of the trade.  (NOTE: This is one of the few lists that is copyrighted - see copyright notice at the bottom - as I may wish to work these ideas into professional articles or books in the future. Please DO NOT use without the author's permission!)
  1. All seats face front. Our "base" classroom configuration is all seats facing front, with as much space between them as possible given physical constraints of the room. When we do cooperative learning, I have the kids move their desks into pairs or fours ... but this base configurations sends the message that class is about facing front and paying attention, not chatting with friends.
  2. Assigned seating.  You aren't being the "cool teacher" when you let students sit with friends who distract them ... you're just being irresponsible.  Your job is to give your students the best possible opportunity to focus on instruction without distraction. You can build friend-time into the curriculum, but for the students, this should never be an expectation.
  3. Non-verbal prompts.  When the purpose of misbehaviour is to attract attention, drawing attention to the misbehaviour positively reinforces it.  That's why it's important to develop non-verbal ways of moderating behaviour.  The "mom/dad stare" (the one that says "cut it out now; I'm not kidding") is an indispensible tool.  Hand signals, prearrange signals, subtle shakes of the head, and eye contact also work well.
  4. Proximity Control.  Constantly move around the classroom. Teach from wherever you are standing.  Kids generally won't misbehave when you're standing right next to them.  This also gives you a chance to proactively monitor for engagement and understanding. 
  5. Class rules. I know the Great Gods of Education advocate a few (3-4) very general class rules, but consider a backup list of rules that address specific issues that arise in your class population.  No need to duplicate school rules; the purpose of class rules (no more than 10) is to "clarify" the way in which those general school rules apply to certain specific behaviours. For instance, my kids tend to do a lot of play-fighting, sound-alike cursing, singing/rapping, and beating on desks.  Therefore, I have class rules that specificially address each of these behaviours.
  6. Consistent Rules, Consistently Enforced.  Create rules that are authentic, reasonable and fair; make sure your students understand not just the rules but the reason for the rules; and then, enforce them consistently.  It is the nature of kids to "push" their teachers to find out what they can get away with.  You do them a favor by establishing a wall so obvious and impervious that they know to stop wasting their time testing it.  Just don't err in the opposite direction, a tactic I call "overthreatening" - threatening a consequence so dire or inappropriate that it's obvious to the kids you won't actually go through with it.  Students can tell the difference between a real wall and a fake "I'm-pretending-there's-a-wall-and-it's-big-and-scary!" wall.
  7. Punish the behaviour, not the child.  Disapprove of behaviours ... don't disapprove of children!  Children need to understand that your reminders and constraints come from a place of caring and concern, not from a place of censure.  Remind students that your primary concern is maintaining an environment in which everyone has the best opportunity to learn ... so when you move someone to a new assigned seat, or ask them to be quiet, or tell them to lift their head off their desk, it's not punishment ... it's a modification designed to help them (or the other members of the class) learn more successfully, because it matters to you that they are successful.  I remind my students throughout the year that as long as I'm picking on them, it means I still care; it's when I stop picking on them that they know I no longer care. (Naturally, I never stop picking on them!)  When they give me attitude, I like to ask: "Why do you think I'm picking on you?" It's hard for them to stay affronted after they've grudgingly answered: "Because you care."
  8. Teach respect and responsibility.  Don't assume students intuitively understand how to apply these terms to the vast number of real-life situations that they encounter in the course of the day.  Help them out by verbally identifying appropriate behaviours and why they are appropriate.  (Ex: "Mr. Smith - It's disrespectful to interrupt someone when they're talking to you because it implies that you place little value on what they are saying"; "Ms. Clark - A true apology means not just saying you're sorry, but modifying your behaviour to prove that you are sorry.")
  9. Model respect and fairness.  Treat students as you yourself would like to be treated - which means addressing them with courtesy (I make liberal use of the courtesy titles "mister", "misses", "sir",. and "ma'am"), listening respectfully to their ideas/opinions, and treating them with consistency and fairness.  Any military commander will tell you that controlling the high ground is strategically critical; so too is occupying the moral high ground in your classroom.  Hoever (big caveat)  ... also make sure class rule #10 is "The Ref is always right." Life doesn't come with instant replay, which means that sometimes, as a teacher, you are going to need to "call them as you see them." Help your students understand that sometimes the calls will go for them, and sometimes against them, but that the ref's call must be respected as the final authority.  This is an important lesson for the classroom and for life.
  10. No downtime! Downtime/boredom is the enemy of classroom management.  Not only do you lose whatever time you waste, but you lose even more time refocusing your students on the task at hand. For students, "no downtime" means bell-to-bell instruction with smooth, seamless transitions between activities.  For teachers, "no downtime" requires being prepared, deploying your materials in advance, and anticipating/planning for contingencies.
  11. Use positive reinforcement.  Nothing is as poisonous as an atmosphere in which errors are promptly corrected but good behaviour is "expected" and, therefore, unacknowledged. My own experience has taught me that you must provide positive reinforcement at a ratio of at least 3:1 to negative reinforcement.  But (big caveat) - no overpraising! Kids know when they are being condescended to and will lose respect for your judgment if you persist.  Also, don't stop positively reinforcing a behaviour just because it appears to have become "habit."  While it is appropriate to fade your positive reinforcement over time, students deserve periodic recognition for sustained good behaviour.
  12. Vest students in their own learning.  External motivation only goes so far; eventually, kids have to become internally motivated to learn. To foster internal motivation, you must be proactively help kids understand the direct relationship between what you are teaching and the skills they need to achieve their goals as adults.  If they understand why their efforts are important, they will gradually place a higher priority on those efforts. Caveat: don't make the mistake of assuming "so you can pass the test" or "so you can get a good grade" are sufficiently motivational. Many kids don't care about tests or grades ... but they do care about college, being able to work a job they enjoy, living independently, helping their families, and being able to have choices about their lives.
  13. Use humor (but never humiliate).  Humor is good - it makes awkward moments less awkward (as when a student gives a wildly inappropriate answer), it makes boring lessons less boring ("let's learn hyperbole by telling mama jokes!"), and it personalizes you as a teacher.  Sarcasm, however, is wicked - a form of humor that involves the humiliation of someone less clever by someone who is more clever.  Not only is the humiliation (in any form) of a child by an adult inherently shameful, but it almost always has an effect opposite of that intended, as children who have been humiliated are rarely chastened by their teacher's display of wit or power: more often, they become angry, sullen, and/or defensive.
  14. Pick your battles.  If you fight every battle with the same ferocity, you'll soon grow exhausted ... and, by the way, deprive your students of an opportunity to appreciate that life is rarely black and white, but mostly grey.  Let your most important objectives drive your most important battles.  (Ex: making them understand the interaction between the three branches of government is important. Making them remember to sharpen their pencil at the beginning of class, not so much.  So, save your energy for negotiating with the student who has his head down, and learn to live with kids sharpening their pencils in the middle of class.)
  15. Never escalate.  Along the same lines, remember that, as the adult, you are the authority in the room.  You never, ever compromise your authority by allowing a student to control or escalate a situation.  Some students find the attention - even negative attention - to be positively reinforcing.  In such situations, the only way to win is not to play. (My favorite quote from the '80 classic Wargames.) You retain control of the situation by (1) removing the child from the classroom, so that the attention of peers is removed as a positive reinforcer; and (2) remaining calm, reasonable, consistent, and fair.
  16. Make your lessons active and engaging.  This may be last but it is in no way "least." Always, always remember that your students are children.  They crave activity, mental stimulation, and play.  Create lessons that make them feel like they're playing, and classroom management takes care of itself.
Copyright 2010 by Shirley Jeanette Thomas

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