This is an excerpt from a professional journal kept by one of us (Kelvin Seifert) when he was teaching kindergarten:

20xx-11-14: 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, 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 this twice, 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:

20xx-3-4: 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 him 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 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 one of us (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 speaking of the 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 all teachers, even 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 in common. Twenty-five students may all seem to be working on a sheet of math problems. But look more closely: several may be stuck on a particular problem, 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. Such diversity increases even more if the teacher deliberately assigns multiple activities to different groups or individuals (for example, if some students do a reading assignment while others do the math problems).

Another reason that managing the environment is challenging is because a teacher can not predict everything that will happen in a class. A well-planned lesson may fall flat on its face, or take less time than expected, and you find yourself improvising to fill class time. On the other hand an unplanned moment may become a wonderful, sustained exchange among students, and prompt you to drop previous plans and follow the flow of discussion. Interruptions happen continually: a fire drill, a drop-in visit from another teacher or the principal, a call on the intercom from the office. An activity may indeed turn out well, but also rather differently than you intended; you therefore have to decide how, if at all, to adjust the next day’s lesson to allow for this surprise.

A third reason for the importance of management is that students form opinions and perceptions about your teaching that are inconsistent with your own. What you intend as encouragement for a shy student may seem to the student herself like “forced participation”. An eager, outgoing classmate watching your effort to encourage the shy student, moreover, may not see you as either encouraging or coercing, but as overlooking or ignoring other students who already want to participate. The variety of perceptions can lead to surprises in students’ responses—most often small ones, but occasionally major.

At the broadest, society-wide level, classroom 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 learn. Instead, students’ presence is just a sign that an opportunity exists for teachers to motivate students to learn. Some students, of course, do enjoy learning and being in school, almost regardless of what teachers do! Others do enjoy school, but only because teachers have worked hard to make classroom life pleasant and interesting. Those students 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 many students, and this chapter describes ways of doing so. We begin with ways of preventing management problems from happening by increasing students’ focus on learning. The methods include ideas about arranging classroom space, about establishing procedures, routines, and rules, and about communicating the importance of learning to students and parents. After these prevention oriented discussions, we look at ways of refocusing students when and if their minds or actions stray from the tasks at hand. As you probably know from being a student, bringing students back on task can happen in many ways, and the ways vary widely in the energy and persistence required of the teacher. We try to indicate some of these variations, 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! Even before the school year begins, you can minimize behavior problems by arranging classroom furniture and materials in ways that encourage a focus on learning as much as possible. Later, once school begins, you can establish procedures and rules that support a focus on learning even more.

Arranging classroom space

Viewed broadly, classrooms may seem to be arranged in similar ways, but there are actually important alternative arrangements to consider. Variations exist 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 (Boyner, 2003; Nations & Boyett, 2002). The next sections describe some of the 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: http://teacher.scholastic.com/tools/class_setup/).

Displays and wall space

All classrooms have walls, of course, and how you fill them can affect the mood or feeling of a classroom. Ample displays make a room interesting and can be used to reinforce curriculum goals and display (and hence publicly recognize) students’ work. But too many displays can also make a room seem “busy” or distracting as well as physically smaller. They can also be more work to maintain. If you are starting a new school year, then, a good strategy is to decorate some of the wall or bulletin board space, but not to fill it all immediately. Leaving some space open leaves flexibility to respond to ideas and curriculum needs that emerge after the year is underway. The same advice applies especially for displays that are 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 to cope with at that time.

Computers in the classroom

If you are like the majority of teachers, you will have only one computer in your room, or at most just a few, and their placement may be pre-determined by the 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, as already mentioned, 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 be challenging in practice if the room itself is small or shaped unusually. In classrooms with young students (kindergarten), furthermore, open spaces tend to allow, if not invite, physical movement of children—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

The best room arrangement sometimes depends on the grade level or subject area of the class. If you teach in elementary school, for example, you may need to think especially 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 necessarily. 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 instead around 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 or art courses, or where 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 working with peers easier, and rows make listening to the teacher more likely and group work slightly more awkward physically.

Ironically, some teachers also experience challenges about room arrangement because they do not actually have a classroom of their own, because they must move each day among other teachers’ rooms. “Floating” is especially likely for specialized teachers (e.g. music teachers in elementary schools, who move from class to class) and in schools have an overall shortage of classrooms. Floating can sometimes be 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 or computers 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 granting permission to leave the classroom for an errand. Academically related procedures include ways of turning in daily homework (e.g. putting it on a designated shelf at a particular time), of gaining the teacher’s attention during quiet seat work (e.g. raising your hand and waiting), and of starting a “free choice” activity after completing a classroom assignment.

Procedures serve the largely practical purpose of making activities and tasks flow smoothly—a valuable and necessary purpose in classrooms, where the actions of many people have to be coordinated within limited time and space. As such, procedures are more like social conventions than like moral expectations. They are only indirectly about what is ethically right or ethically desirable to do (Turiel, 2006). Most procedures or routines can be accomplished in more than one way, with only minor differences in 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 note students’ presence on a seating chart. Each variation accomplishes essentially the same task, and the choice may 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 management task is to establish procedures and routines as promptly as possible. 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 prefer to invite input from students when creating procedures (asking the class, “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 teach more than one class (as you would in high school). But it puts more responsibility on the teacher to choose procedures that are truly reasonable and practical. Inviting students’ input, on the other hand, can help students to become aware of and committed to procedures, but at the cost of requiring more time to settle on them. It also risks creating confusion if you teach multiple classes, each of which adopts different procedures. Whatever approach you choose, of course, they have to take into account any procedures or rules imposed by the school or school district as a whole. A school may have a uniform policy 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 are like procedures in that they sometimes help in insuring the efficiency of classroom tasks, they are really about encouraging students to be responsible for learning and showing respect for each other. Exhibit 8 lists a typical set of classroom rules. Treat others with courtesy and politeness.Make sure to bring required materials to class and to activities.Be on time for class and other activities.Listen to the teacher and to others when they are speaking.Follow all school rules.

Exhibit 8: Sample set of classroom rules

Classroom Rules

  • Treat others with courtesy and politeness.
  • Make sure to bring required materials to class and to activities.
  • Be on time for class and other activities.
  • Listen to the teacher and to others when they are speaking.
  • Follow all school rules.

Note three things about the examples in Exhibit 8. One is that the rules are not numerous; the table lists only five. Most educational experts recommend keeping the number of rules to a minimum in order to make them easier to remember (Thorson, 2003; Brophy, 2004). A second 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, covers bringing pencils, paper, textbooks, homework papers, and permission slips—depending on the situation. As a result of their generality, rules often have a degree of ambiguity that sometimes requires interpretation. Infractions may occur that are marginal or “in a grey area”, rather than clear cut. A student may bring a pen, for example, but the pen may not work properly. 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.

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 may be more efficient and consistent, and in this sense more fair, 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 them 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 the class needs to take into account your own moral commitments as the teacher as well as any imposed by the school (like “No smoking in the school” or “Always walk in the hallways”).

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. This goal depends on three major strategies:

      • selecting tasks or activities at an appropriate level of difficulty for your students
      • providing a moderate level of structure or clarity to students about what they are supposed to do, especially during transitions between activities
      • keeping alert to the flow and interplay of behaviors for the class as a whole and for individuals within it. Each strategy presents special challenges to teachers, but also 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 be a challenge if you have little experience teaching a particular grade level or curriculum, or even if students are simply new to you and their abilities unknown. Whether familiar or not, members of any class are likely to have diverse skills and readiness–a fact that makes it challenging to determine what level of difficulty is appropriate. A common strategy for dealing with these challenges is to begin units, lessons, or projects with tasks that are relatively easy and familiar. Then, introduce more difficult material or tasks gradually until students seem challenged, but not overwhelmed. Following this strategy gives the teacher a chance to observe and diagnose students’ learning needs before adjusting content, and it gives students a chance to orient themselves to the teacher’s expectations, teaching style, and topic of study without becoming frustrated prematurely. Later in a unit, lesson, or project, students seem better able to deal with more difficult tasks or content (Van Merrionboer, 2003). The principle seems to help as well with “authentic” learning tasks—ones that resemble real-world activities, such as learning to drive an automobile or to cook a meal, and that present a variety of complex tasks simultaneously. Even in those cases it helps to isolate and focus on the simplest subtasks first (such as “put the key in the ignition”) and move to harder tasks only later (such as parallel parking).

Sequencing instruction is only a partial solution to finding the best “level” of difficulty, however, because it does not deal with enduring individual differences among students. The fundamental challenge to teachers is to individualize or differentiate instruction fully: to tailor it not only to the class as a group, but to the lasting differences among members of the class. One way to approach this sort of diversity, obviously, 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. Differentiating instruction in this way complicates a teacher’s job, but it can be done, and has in fact been done by many teachers (it also makes teaching more interesting!). In the next chapter, we describe some classroom management strategies that help with such multi-tasking.

Providing moderate amounts of structure and detail

Chances are that at some point in your educational career you have wished that a teacher would clarify or explain an assignment more fully, and perhaps give it a clearer structure or organization. Students’ 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 questions the essay should address, what topics or parts it should have, and what its length or style should be (Chesebro, 2003). As you might suspect, some students desire clarity more than others, and improve their performance especially much when provided with plenty of structure and clarity. Students with certain kinds of learning difficulties, in particular, often learn effectively and stay on task only if provided with somewhat explicit, detailed instructions about the tasks expected of them (Marks, et al., 2003).

As a teacher, the challenge is to accommodate students’ need for clarity without making guidance so specific or detailed that students do little thinking for themselves. As a (ridiculously extreme) example, consider a teacher gives “clear” instructions for an essay by announcing not only exactly which articles to read and cite in the essay and which topics or issues to cover, but even requires specific wording of 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 an application of Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development that we discussed in Chapter 3: a place (figuratively speaking) where students get more done with help than without it. The ideal amount of guidance

—the “location” of the zone of proximal development—varies with the assignment and the student, and it (hopefully) decreases 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 her or his best essay. Another student may need the reverse. But if all goes well, both students may need less at the end of the year than at the beginning.

Managing transitions

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

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. The advice sounds simple, and mostly is, but it sometimes takes a bit of practice to implement smoothly. When one of us (Kelvin) first began teaching university, for example, particular papers or overhead transparencies sometimes got lost in the wrong folder in spite of Kelvin’s efforts to keep them where they were easy to find. The resulting delays about finding them slowed the pace of class and caused frustrations.

A second, more complex strategy is to teach students ways to manage their own behavior during transitions (Marzano & Marzano, 2004). If students talk too loudly at these times, for example, then discuss with them what constitutes appropriate levels or amounts of talk, and discuss the need for them to monitor their own sound level. Or if students stop work early in anticipation of ending an activity, then talk about—or even practice—waiting for 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, try giving them warning of the impending end in advance, and remind them about to take responsibility for actually finishing work once they hear the advance warning, and so on. The point of these tactics is to encourage responsibility for behavior during transitions, and thereby reduce your own need to monitor students at that crucial time.

None of these ideas, of course, mean that you, as teacher, 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 some 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, 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 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. Imagine, for example, that everyone is supposed to be attending a single whole-class discussion on a topic; yet 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 be ruminating about what a previous speaker said, and still others may be thinking about unrelated matters–the restroom, food, or sex. 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 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 when someone on the other side disturbs classmates with off-task conversation, it can be less effective either to finish with the student you are helping before attending to the disruption, or to interrupt yourself to solve the disruption on the other side of the room. Although one of these responses may be necessary, either one involves disruption somewhere. There is a risk that either the student’s chatting may spread to others, or the interrupted student may become bored with waiting for the teacher’s attention and wander off-task herself.

A better solution, though one that at first may seem challenging, is to attend to both events at once—a strategy that was named withitness in a series of now-classic research studies several decades ago (Kounin, 1970). Withitness does not mean that you focus on all simultaneous activities with equal care, but only that you remain aware of 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 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 the second one 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 that withitness and overlapping develop more easily in some situations than in others. It may be easier to keep an eye (or ear) on multiple activities during familiar routines, such as taking attendance, but harder to do the same during 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 does increase with time and practice. 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 off-task behavior. Someone who is tempted to pass notes in class, for example, might not do so because she believes that you will probably notice her doing it anyway, whether or not you are able to notice in fact.

Communicating the importance of learning and of positive behavior

Altogether, the factors we have discussed—arranging space, procedures, and rules, and developing withitness— help communicate an important message: that in the classroom learning and positive social behavior are priorities. In addition, teachers can convey this message by offering timely feedback to students about performance, by keeping accurate records of the performance, and by deliberately communicating with parents or caregivers about their children and about class activities.

Communicating effectively is so important for all aspects of teaching, in fact, that we discuss it more fully later in this book (see Chapter 9,“The nature of classroom communication”). Here we focus on only one of its important aspects: how communication contributes to a smoothly functioning classroom and in this way helps prevent behavior problems.

Giving timely feedback

The term feedback, when used by educators, refers to responses to students about their behavior or performance. Feedback is essential if students are to learn and if they are to develop classroom behavior that is socially skilled and “mature”. But feedback can only be fully effective if offered as soon as possible, when it is still relevant to the task or activity at hand (Reynolds, 1992). 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 at the moment the behavior occurs, but it can be more influential and informative then; later, both teacher and student will have trouble remembering the details 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 the comment with the behavior, and allows the compliment to influence the student more strongly. There are of course practical limits to how fast feedback can be given, but the general principle is clear: feedback tends to work better when it is timely.

The principle of timely feedback is consistent, incidentally, with a central principle of operant conditioning discussed in Chapter 3: reinforcement works best when it follows a to-be-learned operant behavior closely (Skinner, 1957). In this case a teacher’s feedback serves as a form of reinforcement. The analogy is easiest to understand when the feedback takes the form of praise; in operant conditioning terms, the reinforcing praise then functions like a “reward”. When feedback is negative, it functions as an “aversive stimulus” (in operant terms), shutting down the behavior criticized. At other times, though, criticism can also function as an unintended reinforcement. This happens, for example, if a student experiences criticism as a reduction in isolation and therefore as in increase in his importance in the class—a relatively desirable change. So the inappropriate behavior continues, or even increases, contrary to the teacher’s intentions. Exhibit 9 diagrams this sequence of events.

Reinforcement can happen in class if an undesirable behavior, leads to a less aversive state for a student. Social isolation can be reduced by public misbehavior, which stimulates attention that is reinforcing.Ironically, the effort to end misbehavior ends up stimulating the misbehavior.others’gainsStudentStudent is isolated socially → Student publiclymisbehaves →attentionExample of Unintended Negative Reinforcement in the Classroom:

Exhibit 9: Attracting attention as negative reinforcement

Example of Unintended Negative Reinforcement in the Classroom:

Student is isolated socially  →  Student publicly misbehaves  →  Student gains others’ attention

Reinforcement can happen in class if an undesirable behavior, leads to a less aversive state for a student.  Social isolation can be reduced by public misbehavior, which stimulates attention that is reinforcing. Ironically, the effort to end misbehavior ends up stimulating the misbehavior.

Maintaining accurate records

Although timeliness in responding to students can sometimes happen naturally during class, there are also situations where promptness depends on having organized key information ahead of time. Obvious examples are the scores, marks, and grades returned to students for their work. A short quiz (such as a weekly spelling test) may be possible to return quite soon after the quiz—sometimes you or even the students themselves can mark it during class. More often, though, assignments and tests require longer processing times: you have to read, score, or add comments to each paper individually. Excessive time to evaluate students’ work can reduce the usefulness of a teacher’s evaluations to students when she finally does return the work (Black, et al., 2004). During the days or weeks waiting for a test or assignment to be returned, students are left without information about the quality or nature of their performance; at the extreme they may even have to complete another test or do another assignment before getting information about an earlier one. (Perhaps you yourself have experienced this particular problem!)

Delays in providing feedback about academic performance can never be eliminated entirely, but they can be reduced by keeping accurate, well-organized records of students’ work. A number of computer programs are available to help with this challenge; if your school does not already have one in use, then there are several downloadableeitherfreeoratlowcostfromtheInternet(e.g. http://dmoz.org/Computers/Software/Educational/Teachers_Help/Gradebooks/). Describing these is beyond the scope of this book. For now we simply emphasize that grading systems benefit students’ learning the most when they provide feedback as quickly and frequently as possible (McMillan, 2001), precisely the reason why accurate, well-organized record-keeping is important to keep.

Accurate records are helpful not only for scores on tests, quizzes, or assignments, but also for developing descriptive summaries of the nature of students’ academic skills or progress. A common way to develop a description is the student portfolio, which is a compilation of the student’s work and on-going assessments of it created by the teacher or in some cases by the student (Moritz & Christie, 2005; White, 2005). To know 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 developed, 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 write brief reflections on its strengths thus far or on the steps needed to improve the work further. By providing a way to respond to work as it evolves, and by including students in making the assessments, portfolios provide relatively prompt feedback, and in any case provide it sooner than by waiting for the teacher to review work that is complete or final.

Communicating with parents and caregivers

Since parents and caregivers in a sense “donate” their children to schools (at least figuratively speaking), teachers are responsible for keeping them informed and involved to whatever extent is practical. Virtually all parents understand and assume that schools are generally intended for learning. Detailed communication can enrich parents’ understanding, of how learning is addressed with their particular child’s classroom, and show them more precisely what their particular child is doing. The better such understanding in turn encourages parents and caregivers to support their child’s learning more confidently and “intelligently”. In this sense it contributes 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: A newsletter establishes a link with 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, and 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 follows a different program or curriculum.
      • 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 do it now. By the same token, however, phone calls are not an efficient way for informing parents about events or activities that affect everyone in common. The individuality of phoning may explain why teachers often use this method when a student has a problem that is urgent or unusual—as when he has failed a test, missed classes, or misbehaved seriously. Rightly or wrongly, a student’s successes tend not to prompt phone calls to the student’s home (though in fairness students may be more likely to tell parents about their successes themselves, making it less essential for the teacher to do so).
      • Parent-teacher conferences: Most schools schedule periodic times—often a day or evening per term—when teachers meet briefly with parents or caregivers who wish to meet. Under good conditions, the conferences have the individuality of phone calls, but also the richness of communication possible only 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 involve students in leading their own conferences; the students display and explain their own 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 cannot get to conferences because of work schedules, child care, or transportation problems. Others may feel intimated by any school- sponsored event because they speak limited English or because they remember painful experiences from their own school days.

Even if you make several efforts to communicate, some parents may remain out of contact. In these cases it is important to remember that the parents may not be indifferent to their child or to the value of education. Other possibilities exist, as some of our comments above imply: parents may have difficulties with child care, for example, have inconvenient work schedules, or feel self-conscious about their own communication skills (Stevens & Tollafield, 2003). Even so, there are ways to encourage parents who may be shy, hesitant, or busy. One is to think about how they can assist the 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, such as photocopying materials to be used by students later. A third is to remember to encourage, support, and respect the parents’ presence and contributions when they do show up at school functions. Keep in mind that parents are experts about their own particular children, and without them, you would have no students to teach!

Responding to student misbehavior

So far we have focused on preventing behaviors that are inappropriate or annoying. The advice has all been pro- active or forward-looking: plan 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 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 spread to 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 compared to longer-term features or patterns of a student’s behavior. There are so many ways to respond, in fact, that we can describe only a sample 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 or frequent enough to deserve any response at all. They are likely to disappear (or extinguish, in behaviorist terms) simply if left alone. If a student who is usually quiet during class happens to whisper to a neighbor once in awhile, it is probably less disruptive and just as effective to ignore the infraction than to respond to it. 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. She is continually out of her seat to go to the sharpener. 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 disrupting other students or of becoming more frequent. Interrupting your activities—or the students’—might cause more disruption than simply ignoring the problem.

That said, there can still be problems in deciding whether a particular misbehavior is truly minor, infrequent, or unnoticed by others. Unlike in our example above, students may whisper to each other 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 the student who sharpens her pencil, 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 ambiguous cases, you may need more active ways of dealing with an inappropriate behavior, like the ones described in the next sections.

Gesturing nonverbally

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. 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 may even fail to notice them. If the two chatting students mentioned above are 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 more likely with young children, who are still learning the subtleties of adults’ nonverbal “language” (Guerrero & Floyd, 2005; Heimann, et al., 2006). It is also more likely with students who speak limited English or whose cultural background differs significantly from your own. These students may have learned different nonverbal gestures from your own as part of their participation in their original culture (Marsh, Elfenbein, & Ambady, 2003).

Natural and logical consequences

Consequences are the outcomes or results of an action. When managing a classroom, two kinds of consequences are especially effective for influencing students’ behavior: natural consequences and logical consequences. As the term implies, natural consequences happen “naturally”, without deliberate intention by anyone. If a student is late for class, for example, a natural consequence is that he misses information or material that needed to do an assignment. Logical consequences are ones that happen because of the responses of or decisions by 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 not only to the victim, but also to the aggressor (an inherent byproduct of fighting), but a logical consequence might be to lose friends (the response of others to fighting). In practice both may occur.

In general research has found that both natural and logical consequences can be effective for minimizing undesirable behaviors, provided they are applied in appropriate situations (Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, & Curran, 2004). Consider a student who runs impulsively down school hallways. The student is likely to have “traffic accidents”, and thus (hopefully) to see that running is not safe and to reduce the frequency of running. Or consider a student who chronically talks during class instead of working on an assigned task. The student may have to make up the assignment later, possibly as homework. Because the behavior and the consequence are connected logically, 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 either case, whether natural or logical, the key features that make consequences work are (a) that they are appropriate to the misbehavior and (b) that the student understands the connection between the consequences and the original behavior.

Notice, though, that natural and logical consequences do not always work; 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 the student who broke the glasses. There may also be no consequences for the aggressor that are both logical and fully satisfactory: the aggressor student will not be able to repair the broken glasses himself, and may not be able to pay for new glasses either.

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 consequences often work well. Bullying in order to impress others, for example, is more likely to lose friends than to win them—so bullying motivated in this way is self-limiting. If a student is seeking power over others, on the other hand, then the consequences of bullying may not reduce the behavior. Bullying in order to control others’ actions by definition actually achieves its own goal, and its “natural” result (losing friends) would be irrelevant. Of course, a bully might also act from a combination of motives, so that natural and logical consequences limit bullying behavior, 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 they focus on the future. Punishments highlight a 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 they often shame or humiliate the wrong doer. (Table 17 summarizes these and other differences.)

Table 17: Differences between consequences and punishments

Focused on future solutions

Focused on past mistakes

Focused on individual’s actions

Focused on character of student or child

Focused on repairing mistakes

Focused on establishing blame

Focused on restoring positive relationships

Focused on isolating wrong-doer

Tend to reduce emotional pain and conflict

Tend to impose emotional pain or conflict

Classroom examples of the differences between consequences and punishment are plentiful. If a student fails to listen to the teacher’s instructions, then a consequence is that he or she misses important information, but a punishment may be that the teacher criticizes 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 others , or even imposes a detention (“Stay after school for 15 minutes”).

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 focus on conflict resolution—the reduction of disagreements that persist over time. Conflict resolution strategies that educators and teachers tend to use usually have two parts (Jones, 2004). First, they involve ways of identifying what “the” problem is precisely. Second, they remind the student of classroom expectations and rules with simple clarity and assertiveness, but without apology or harshness. When used together, the two strategies not only reduce conflicts between a teacher and an individual student, but also provide a model for other students to follow when they have disagreements of their own. The next sections discuss the nature of assertion and clarification for conflict resolution in more detail.

Step 1: clarifying and focusing: problem ownership

Classrooms can be emotional places even though their primary purpose is to promote thinking rather than expression of feelings. The emotions can be quite desirable: they can give teachers and students “passion” for learning and a sense of care among members of the class. But feelings can also cause trouble if students misbehave: at those moments negative feelings—annoyance, anger, discomfort—can interfere with understanding exactly what is wrong and how to set things right again. Gaining a bit of distance from the negative feelings is exactly what those moments need, especially on the part of the teacher, the person with (presumably) the greatest maturity.

In a widely cited approach to conflict resolution called Teacher Effectiveness Training, the educator Thomas Gordon describes this challenge as an issue of problem ownership, or deciding whose problem a behavior or conflict it really is (Gordon, 2003). The “owner” of the problem is the primary person who is troubled or bothered by it. The owner can be the student committing the behavior, the teacher, or another student who merely happens to see the behavior. Since the owner of a problem needs to take primary responsibility for solving it, identifying ownership makes a difference in how to deal with the behavior or problem effectively.

Suppose, for example, that a student named David makes a remark that the teacher finds offensive (like “Sean is fat”). Is this remark the student’s problem or the teacher’s? If David made the comment privately to the teacher and is unlikely to repeat it, then maybe it is only the teacher’s problem. If he is likely to repeat it to other students or to Sean himself, however, then maybe the problem is really David’s. On the other hand, suppose that a different student, Sarah, complains repeatedly that classmates refuse to let her into group projects. This is less likely to be the teacher’s problem rather than Sarah’s: her difficulty may affect her ability to do her own work, but not really affect the teacher or classmates directly. As you might suspect, too, a problem may sometimes affect several people at once. David, who criticized Sean, may discover that he offended not only the teacher, but also classmates, who therefore avoid working with him. At that point the whole class begins to share in some aspect of “the” problem: not only is David prevented from working with others comfortably, but also classmates and the teacher begin dealing with bad feelings about David.

Step 2: active, empathetic listening

Diagnosing accurately who really has a problem with a behavior—who “owns” it—is helped by a number of strategies. One is active listening—attending carefully to all aspects of what a student says and attempting to understand or empathize as fully as possible, even if you do not agree with what is being said (Cooper & Simonds, 2003). Active listening involves asking questions in order continually to check your understanding. It also involves encouraging the student to elaborate on his or her remarks, and paraphrasing and summarizing what the student says in order to check your perceptions of what is 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 with solutions can shut down communication prematurely, and leave you with inaccurate impressions of the source or nature of the problem.

Step 3: assertive discipline and I-messages

Once you have listened well to the student’s point of view, it helps to frame your responses and comments in terms of how the student’s behavior affects you in particular, especially in your role as the teacher. The comments should have several features:

      • They should be assertive—neither passive and apologetic, nor unnecessarily hostile and aggressive (Cantor, 1996). State the problem 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 (Gordon, 1981), 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: negotiation

The first three steps describe ways of interacting that are desirable, but also fairly specific in scope and limited in duration. But 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 in being late for class, for example, in spite of efforts by the teacher to modify this behavior. Or two students may repeatedly speak 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, they can eventually become stressful for the teacher, the student, and any classmates who may be affected. Their persistence can tempt a teacher simply to dictate a resolution—a decision that can 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. Although negotiation always requires time and effort, it is often less time or effort than 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 end up simply imposing a solution on others, which is not what negotiation is supposed to achieve.
      • If possible, choose a solution 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 some situations, but if feelings are running high, voting does not work as well. In that case voting may simply allow the majority to impose its will on the minority, leaving the underlying conflict unresolved.
      • Pay attention to how well the solution works after it is underway. For many reasons, things may not work out the way you or students hope or expect. You may need to renegotiate the solution at a later time.

Keeping management issues in perspective

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

But there is an underlying assumption about management that this chapter emphasized fully: that good classroom management is not an end in itself, but a means for creating a classroom where learning happens and students are motivated. Amidst the stresses of handling a problem behavior, there is a risk of losing sight of this idea. Telling a student to be quiet is never a goal in itself, for example; it is desirable only because (or when) it allows all students to hear the teacher’s instructions or classmates’ spoken comments, or because it allows students to concentrate on their work. There may actually be moments when students’ keeping quiet is not appropriate, such as during a “free choice” time in an elementary classroom or during a group work task 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. The next chapter is based on this idea, because it discusses ways not just to set the stage for learning, as this chapter has done, but ways to plan directly for students’ learning.

Chapter summary

Classroom management is the coordination of lessons and activities to make learning as productive as possible. It is important because classrooms are complex and somewhat unpredictable, because students respond to teachers’ actions in diverse ways, and because society requires that students attend school. There are two major features of management: preventing problems before they occur and responding to them after they occur. Many management problems can be prevented by attending to how classroom space is used, by establishing daily procedures, routines, and rules, by pacing and structuring activities appropriately, and by communicating the importance of learning and of positive behavior to students and parents. There are several ways of dealing with a management problem after it occurs, and the choice depends on the nature of the problem. A teacher can simply ignore a misbehavior, gesture or cue students nonverbally, rely on natural and logical consequences, or engage conflict resolution strategies. Whatever tactics the teacher uses, it is important to keep in mind their ultimate purpose: to make learning possible and effective.

On the Internet

<www.theteachersguide.com/ClassManagement.htm> This is part of a larger website for teachers containing resources of all kinds. This section—about classroom management—has several articles with very “nuts and bolts” tips about management. You may also find their page of resources for substitute teachers useful.

<www.teachnet.com> Another website for teachers with lots of resources of all kinds. A section called “Power Tools” has dozens of brief articles about various aspects of classroom management.

Key terms

Active listening

Classroom management

Conflict resolution


Learning environment

Logical consequences

Natural consequences




Problem ownership


Ripple effect




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