When Classroom Control is Slipping

Behaviour management approaches for teachers

23 March, 2021

There you are in your classroom, happily moving through your lesson. The students are engaging with the work, everything seems to be going quite well, thank you very much!

Then, all of a sudden, it’s not.

Perhaps it’s a transition time, or perhaps the students are starting to get a bit bored. You try to refocus them, bring it all back to happy, but they are not following along. Maybe they aren’t even misbehaving, maybe they’re just starting to spiral a bit. You notice the voices getting louder, and so yours does in response. Then suddenly you find yourself yelling over the top to be heard, no one is following directions, and all chaos is about to break loose.

You can literally feel control of the class slipping through your fingers.

What do you do?

You owe it to yourself to find ways to get control back. You also owe it to those students who know how to stay within the rules and are having their educational experience disrupted by those who aren’t.

notebook and pencil

There are two broad approaches you can take here – stern teacher, or heart-to-heart teacher. Both of these approaches certainly have their place in the classroom, and which one you choose largely depends on the individual circumstances you are facing.

Let’s go into a bit of detail about each approach:

Stern Teacher

This is where you fall back on your behaviour management plan with a passion. This doesn’t mean you are an angry, cranky, mean teacher (though those emotions may pass through your mind!) – it means you are reinforcing the rules and expectations.

You want to remind the class (or individual student) exactly how they are supposed to be behaving in your classroom. You can do this by explicit teaching of your rules and expectations, by modelling acceptable behaviour, by calling in outside help, or even by having the students themselves remind everyone how to act.

This can include things like redirecting everyone to their assigned seat in your seating plan, showing and discussing behaviour charts/logs and the school behaviour policy, as well as the exact consequences of failing to comply to these.

rule breaker

And don’t be afraid of enforcing those consequences – students need boundaries, and need to know exactly what to expect if they don’t operate within those boundaries. They expect this, and if you fail to show up, they’ll learn to take advantage of it (you).

Make sure you follow up with your senior management and/or team leaders. Keep everyone abreast of the challenges you are facing – this doesn’t make you weak or less of a teacher, it allows everyone to be on the same page, particularly if it turns out other teachers are facing similar issues with a class or student. Nothing can change if no one knows about it.

If it’s individual students who are continually wrenching control out of your hands, get in touch with their parents. This doesn’t look like you having a whinge about their child and expecting them to administer punishment at home; it looks like you informing parents that their child is struggling, and asking if they could reinforce school expectations at home, and also asking if there is anything happening in their outside-school-life that may be impacting them and causing them to act out.

Heart-to-Heart Teacher

Along these lines, it is almost universal that poor behaviour stems from a tangible reason. It’s a good idea to keep lines of communication open with your school counsellor, year leader, or similar support system, throughout the year so that you are kept up to date with any extenuating circumstances, and how best to help each individual student that might need it.

It’s also a good idea to keep lines of communication open with your students directly. If they know that they can come to you with reasons why they might be out of sorts, you can work together to solving the issues within the classroom.

daisy heart

Building positive relationships with your students can go SO far in helping address behaviour issues. It can help you to understand the ‘why’ of misbehaviour, so make sure you work hard in the beginning of the year at this.

Students are also much more likely to stem their own misbehaviour if they are comfortable with you as their teacher, understand your expectations and consequences, know that you actually enforce and follow through, and know that you’re there to help them instead of just get angry. You can allow students to have some ownership over the behaviour management of the classroom in terms of minor consequences, for example. Giving them responsibilities and independence shows that you trust in their ability to self-manage, which is particularly important for older students who may resent being ‘treated like a kid’.

child building

Always offer options too – this is a trick I’ve learned from my own toddlers. If you want a child to do something, but also want to offer independence and choice, then give them two choices. But! Make it so that each choice results in your desired outcome. For example, if my toddler is refusing to brush his teeth, I’ll ask if he wants to brush his teeth upstairs or downstairs, or if he wants Mum to do it or Dad to do it. He feels like he has some control of the situation, and we get the desired outcome – brushed teeth. In a school setting this might look like offering a choice of seats to move to, offering a choice of activities, or even offering a choice of detention or call home. Once the choices have been offered, make sure you’re allowing the student time to actually consider and choose, don’t keep jumping on them to pick right away. And once they’ve made their choice, thank them and move on.

Practical Tips for Immediate Control-Regain

The above strategies are more long-term. So what can you do in the moment to help regain some control? Note, these may or may not work, you’ll have to adapt to the individual situation.

  • Have an alarm (or similar) sound that you play when noise is too high

  • Stop trying to yell over the top, and instead talk quieter, directing your talk to those who are paying attention

  • Praise the correct behaviour

  • Sit and wait until someone notices that you are waiting

  • Stop the activity and try again later when everyone’s calm

  • Call on support from another teacher/team leader/admin

  • Walk around the room and deal with each group/student individually

  • Send individual students to another part of the room or outside the room

  • Reward positive behaviour and ignore poor behaviour

woman writing

Once the room is calm, you can choose to either address the behaviour then, or drop it and move on. Don’t get in the habit of behaviour lectures every time it spirals out of control – students will be instantly bored and more likely to misbehave again. They may also play up purely for the purpose of having you go on your behaviour rant, because it means they get out of doing classwork.

Instead, choose your battles wisely. Assess the situation and decide if it warrants for a whole class discussion (where you can reinforce rules and expectations), further conversation with individual students, later support from your team, or if you simply have a very quick word about how that was unacceptable and then move on.

If the same issues keep cropping up, it would be a good idea to set aside some time to explicitly teach replacement behaviour, social skills, and managing emotions. If you don’t feel confident teaching these yourself, approach your administration team about getting help (perhaps even external help).

getting back on track

Teaching should be an enjoyable experience, but losing control is something that happens to every single teacher every single year. Have these ideas in the back of your mind, and you can get your class back on track quicker and easier each time it happens.

Emily is a secondary Science and Maths teacher, with a background in science and science communication. She taught in London for a year and is now into her 8th year of teaching in Australia, and juggles teaching with two energetic and beautiful children, two kittens, and a scientist husband. She is the founder of Staffroom Stories (www.staffroomstories.com) – head on over and check out the site for a fun and informative dip into the human side of teaching! 🤗

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