Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Classroom Management ‘Is All About Relationships’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 30, 2019 23 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your best classroom-management tips?

In Part One, suggestions came from Heather Wolpert-Gawron, Rita Platt, Gabriella Corales, Leticia Skae-Jackson, and Madeline Whitaker Good. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Heather, and Gabriella on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Sheldon L. Eakins, Ph.D., Jenny Edwards, April Croy, Lori Jackson, Shauna Tominey, Megan McClelland, and Keisha Rembert shared their ideas.

Today, it’s time for Dr. Debbie Silver, Dr. PJ Caposey, Serena Pariser, Timothy Hilton, Dr. Beth Gotcher, Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, and Jodi Weber to offer their commentaries.

Response From Dr. Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is a former Louisiana Teacher of the Year, author, and speaker. She has presented to educators, administrators, parents, and students in 49 states, Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and the Middle East. She is the author and co-author of four best-selling books, Drumming to the Beat of Different Marchers: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Learning; Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed; Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education; and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Building the Other Essential Skills. You can reach her at www.debbiesilver.com

My husband is a second-career professor of marketing and management. Having virtually no training in education, he often asks me what to do about his classroom-management issues. I pause before answering, and he says resignedly, “Yeah, I know . . . (then mimics me), ‘What is my goal?’ ” I always start with that question because my belief is that every decision about classroom management should be designed to meet both the short-range aim of having a class run smoothly and the long-range goal of empowering students with competence and self-efficacy. A teacher’s management policy should be a well-thought-out system that maximizes the chance for everyone to learn while helping students develop self-discipline.

Every decision about the classroom from seating arrangements and bulletin boards to rules and procedures to instructional techniques and testing policies can be classified as a part of classroom management. Classroom management is all-encompassing and is a singularly vital topic for those in the teaching field. Writing “best tips” is challenging because there is so much to cover on the topic, but here are four basic recommendations.

1. It really is all about relationships.

“It’s all about relationships” may seem to be an overused maxim, but that doesn’t make it less valid. The foundation to all effective student management is knowing who they are (not who they should be, who they ought to be, or even who the system says they are), and purposefully building a rapport and a trust with them.

Being able to communicate on all levels with students is crucial to effective classroom management. Teachers who want successful classes take time during the first few days of school as well as regularly during the year to get to know their students at a deeper level as well as help them get to know one another. They make it a priority to model appropriate behavior and clearly define the expectations for respectful interactions.

Before and during class great teachers give students their total focused attention. They work on being observant of everything going on in the classroom. They are aware of what students are doing, as well as anticipate what they are likely to do. A teacher who is alert to potential problems can often head them off before they develop. They make direct eye contact, refer to students by name, and move frequently to check in with kids and give them constructive feedback.

2. Help students learn how to improve their self-control.

The ultimate goal of a discipline plan should be to help learners gain self-discipline. Teachers at every level need to
emphasize to students what they can directly control (effort, choices, strategies) and what they cannot (innate ability, luck,
outside forces). Teacher comments and suggestions should focus on things the students can directly impact.

We can teach students the difference between messages coming from the lower part of the brain (brain stem, limbic system), over which they have little or no control and the upper part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex), which is the reasoning part of the brain. Making students aware of how they can get derailed by the lower part of the brain often helps them move to the reasoning part more often and more quickly.

Teaching and modeling mindfulness along with other self- calming methods helps students internalize valuable self- control that not only serves them well in the classroom but also throughout their lives. A learning environment focused on logical consequences rather than on arbitrary rewards and punishments provides a more positive climate and a more realistic preparation for later life.

3. Remember that instruction is part of classroom management.

In my first education course, I was told by a professor, “A good lesson plan will solve ALL your discipline issues.” Even as a neophyte, I knew that wasn’t true. However, as a veteran educator, I can definitely say that lesson plans are instrumental in shaping the classroom setting.

Instruction and assessment play an integral role in the class environment. Discipline problems are kept to a minimum when students are actively engaged and given timely feedback on their progress. Differentiating instruction, varying teaching strategies, providing opportunities for movement, and giving students a voice is how they learn they can play an important part in maintaining a positive classroom atmosphere. Most students would rather be viewed as a discipline problem than as having a learning difficulty. Disruptive behavior is usually more effectively addressed with lesson scaffolding and personalized instruction than with mere punitive consequences for behavioral issues.

Teachers can improve student motivation and engagement by paying attention to incremental gains rather than focusing on
finishing fast or perfectly. Both high flyers and strugglers thrive when they are given challenging curriculum that is just beyond their present mastery. Immediate and authentic feedback can help “seal the deal” for all learners.

4. Consider that “less is more.” Take a breath now and then.

My most challenging stints in my daily instruction generally came when I was trying to do too much in too little time. When I tried to cover too much material at once or tried to rush students to hurry and finish, we all became tense and frustrated. Planning periodic brain breaks, time for debriefing, and intervals for reflection pay off in enhanced learning and a more appealing learning environment.

Knowing what to leave out of a lesson’s design is just as valuable as knowing what to include. Too often novice teachers underestimate the actual time required for students to do the tasks they are assigned. Building in opportunities for reteaching, retrying, and pursuing deeper exploration helps the class run more smoothly.

Teacher calmness is key to effective classroom management.

In addition to teaching students about calming techniques, teachers should learn about and practice deep breathing,
mindfulness, and other helpful relaxation techniques. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can better help the students in our care. Great teachers plan ahead, are fully prepared, and utilize relaxation practices to maintain optimal classroom management as well as to avoid burnout.

Response From Dr. PJ Caposey

Dr. PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, keynote speaker, consultant, and author of seven books and currently serves as the superintendent of schools for the award-winning Meridian CUSD 223 in northwest Illinois. You can find PJ on most social-media platforms as MCUSDSupe:

This may be unpopular. Heavens knows it was unpopular when I would say it at the opening faculty meeting of every year as a principal, but I believe this statement in the depths of my soul.

“The minute I am required to assist you in discipline, classroom management, by default, has failed.”

I would clarify that it did not mean that they had failed, but as an administrator, the instant I am involved it is no longer classroom management. I would also analyze and discuss openly referral data. While I wanted students held accountable for negative behaviors, if one teacher had written 90 referrals and multiple others had written less than five in the same time span, then that deserved analysis and conversation.

On top of that, my perspective was skewed. I cut my teeth as a teacher in an inner-city school on the South Side of Chicago. The “rough” classes where I was principal would have been dream classes where I was from. This perspective did not minimize the challenges our teachers were facing, but it gave me steadfast belief. IT CAN BE DONE!!

Now to be clear, when I was a teacher in Chicago, it was not being “done” by me. I was a newbie and just trying to stay alive, but it was being done in pockets of excellence all around me. The same kids that I could not get to sit down were attentively taking notes in a few of my colleagues’ classrooms. It can and was being done all around me, and once I figured out what it was that set those teacher apart, I came to believe that the skills they demonstrated would make for successful classroom management anywhere on this planet.

Those around me at Percy Lavon Julian High School that were killing it and had kids responding in kind did the following five things:

  • Set high expectations
  • Provided support and accountability
  • Delivered engaging lessons
  • Remained unafraid of noise or movement
  • Loved their kids

High Expectations - No student can meet a target that they cannot see, articulate, and measure their own progress toward. This is true in academics and behavior. Too often teachers lower the bar upon early struggles with classroom management. That is an easy way out that always backfires. Keep the standards high.

Provided Support and Accountability - When I finally knew I was on my way with classroom management was when I heard a student say to a friend, “Mr. C is cool, but he don’t play.” There is a difference between nice and soft. Correspondingly there is a difference between accountability and being mean or disrespectful. There is never a place for screaming or arguing with kids. Remember, we are the adults—we win the argument so there is no need to engage. Lastly, accountability, when done right can build—not destroy relationships.

Engaging Lessons - Kids who are learning are behaving. If you want to improve behavior, improve your lessons. If you are not quite sure how to do this, the simplest way is to require students to think deeply. If students are engaged in thought (analysis, evaluation, synthesis), then classroom management does not need to be your priority. The danger zone is when you think more about classroom management than you do teaching and learning.

Unafraid of Noise, etc. - Teachers that fear losing control of their class do not allow enough freedom of voice and movement. As a result, they still see the same amount of voice and movement but at the pleasure of their students as opposed to fitting within the context of the lesson. Loud often means learning. All kids deserve a right to speak and listen in every lesson. Give it to them. Oh yea, and let them move around as necessary. This may seem like a huge distraction—and it may be in isolation, but it is not when it becomes the norm. You can establish that.

Love their kids - I was not a good teacher when I started my career. I was not an expert in sociology and I was teaching kids I was three and four years older than who almost all had way more life experience than I did. They could have eaten me up if they wanted. But, you know what, they went easy on me because they knew I cared about them and cared about learning. Kids have a great way of sensing out who truly and deeply cares about them, and I am not sure there is a kid alive who enjoys disappointing someone who cares about them and respects them as a human being.

Response From Serena Pariser

Serena Pariser works closely with student teachers at the University of San Diego and also consults with schools. Her Corwin Publishing 2018 best-selling book Real Talk About Classroom Management is now sold across the country. It has also been made into a self-paced Skillbuilder online video series for new and experienced teachers. She can be contacted at serena.pariser@gmail.com, and her blog can be found at www.serenapariser.com:

The best advice I could give about classroom management is fairly simple: Be proactive. You see, classroom management is sort of like car insurance. You have it but hope you never have to use it or have to use it often. The reason behind this is when people think of classroom management, they traditionally think of ways to keep students on task, keep students quiet, and make sure they are not being mean to one another. It’s not that. Classroom management is being proactive to systematically set your classroom up so your students are empowered, have a voice, and eventually become a community of learners. Perhaps we should start calling it “classroom engagement.”

So, what is a strategy or tip with classroom management? Be proactive. What you do and how you set up your classroom and units of study before the start of school are huge. It actually could dictate how your year will go. The more proactive you are about your classroom, the less you’ll ever need to use classroom management. Here are tips on how to be proactive so you won’t have to use (or rarely have to use) classroom management:

- Seating charts

- Expectations in place (either made by you or with your students) before the students need them

- Praising positive behaviors before negative ones start occurring frequently

- Systems in place for passing out papers, turning in papers

- Units of study (at least your first) set up so curriculum is real, relevant, and engaging

Response From Timothy Hilton

Timothy Hilton is a climate and culture specialist with Fresno Unified school district where he coaches teachers on classroom management and class climate. Timothy has over 10 years classroom teaching experience at every level of social studies ranging from Advanced Placement to English-language development. Timothy is currently a doctoral candidate at Claremont Graduate University in the field of educational policy, evaluation, and reform:

Classroom management is one of the issues that plagues many teachers year in and year out. It is also one of those issues that has sent many teachers out of the profession in search of easier work. Classroom-management tips and tricks can be found everywhere from Pinterest to the thousands of education books that are published each year. The best tip I have for classroom management is not any sort of gimmick but more of a mindset. When considering classroom management, one must consider, above all else, the relationship you have with the students. Without a relationship built on trust and respect, no quality learning will happen, and classroom management will suffer.

  1. Take time to build community. In the mad dash of the curriculum and testing, we often forget to take time to build the classroom community. The problem with this is that good community will help a classroom navigate conflict far easier than a classroom that does not have good community. Greeting your students at the door BY NAME, with a smile, is an easy first step to start the day off on the right foot. This can include handshakes, high fives, fist bumps, or any other type of appropriate touch. Imagine having a bad morning as a student where you are ready to tee off on the first person who annoys you, but instead you hear your teacher say, “Good morning, Tommy, I am so glad to see you today.” In this example, a very simple greeting could make all the difference in Tommy’s day.

  1. When teaching, make sure you are explicit in everything you do and everything you expect. In my work training teachers on classroom management, I have seen that one of the biggest triggers for classroom disruptions is unclear expectations. When students don’t know what to do, there are two things they can do. They can either ask (which they may be embarrassed to do) or do it in a way that makes sense to them. In the classrooms I work in, I explain that every event must have clear behavior expectations. Students need to know what is expected of them in every activity and every transition. Students need to know what their voice level can be, what kind of movement should there be, how do they ask for help, etc. If your expectations are clear, then classroom-management issues will decrease as miscommunication is the biggest cause of classroom-management problems.

  1. When disciplining students, there are a couple key tips to keep in mind that will not damage your relationship with the student or class as a whole. First, make sure all corrections are done in a manner that provides the illusion of privacy. In other words, do not yell across the room when a student is off task. All this does is escalate the situation and bring the entire class into the conversation. Second, make sure the corrections you make are quick. Do not belabor an issue; correct it and move on. When students need to be corrected, do not waste their time (and yours) by lecturing them. Lastly, always correct with dignity and respect. When correcting a student is extremely important, go after the behavior, not the student. This means that nowhere in your correction can it come across as value judgment about the student.

Remember, good classroom management is all about the relationships you have with your students. Everything you do must center around that key belief.

Response From Dr. Beth Gotcher

Dr. Beth Gotcher has taught in Maryville City schools for 12 years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher at John Sevier Elementary. Beth is in her second year as a Tennessee Teacher Fellow:

Start from Day One: Classroom management can set the tone for your classroom. Any classroom expectations or procedures must be established from day one. If students learn routines different from your expectations, it will be very difficult to change that behavior later on. Establishing procedures upfront will in turn allow the rest of your school year to flow much more smoothly.

Consistency: Classroom management is only effective if there is consistent follow through on the part of the teacher. If a procedure is broken, appropriate consequences need to be implemented every time. Students will quickly learn if a rule is unenforced, making the rule ineffective. This consistency applies to outside of the classroom as well and keeping students accountable regardless of whether the classroom teacher is with them or not. Just as procedures need to be established from day one, they also need to be consistently reinforced from day one.

Student Involvement and Accountability: Students need to know from the start that they are responsible for their choices and will be held accountable. At the start of each year, I brainstorm with students what rules and expectations we want to have in place for our classroom. Inevitably we end up with the same procedures I would have given on my own, but the discussion allows students to have involvement and ownership in our classroom expectations. We then sign the expectations as our class pledge. Not only do students need to know that their teacher will hold them accountable, but it can also be extremely beneficial for students to hold their peers accountable. For younger students, this requires modeling upfront for them to see what it looks like to redirect a peer in a respectful manner. Peer accountability especially for smaller incidents can save teachers a great deal of time in the long run.

More is Less: Too many expectations and procedures can be a lot for both students and teachers to keep up with. Instead, create overarching, clear expectations that can be applied in a variety of situations. For example, one of my classroom expectations is respect. We spend time during the first week of school discussing what it means to be respectful and examples of what respect looks like not only in our classroom but in the hallway, lunchroom, playground, and special area classes. Procedures such as raising your hand to speak and walking in the hallway fall under the broad category of respect. Take time to model to show students what these expectations look like both in your classroom and around the school.

Adjust as Necessary: While we all hope that we get all the procedures and expectations ironed out during the first week of school, that is not always the case. Every group of students is different, and what has worked in the past is not always guaranteed to work the following year. In addition, schoolwide expectations can change from time to time and, in turn, require adjustments to classroom procedures. Take time to get to know your students, recognize if something is not working in your classroom, and take steps to improve it.

Response From Paula Mellom, Rebecca Hixon, and Jodi Weber

Paula J. Mellom is the associate director of the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE). Rebecca K. Hixon is a postdoctoral research and teaching associate for CLASE. Jodi P. Weber is the assistant director of professional development for CLASE. CLASE is a research and development center housed within the University of Georgia’s College of Education. Together, they are the authors of With a Little Help from My Friends: Conversation-Based Instruction for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) Classrooms:

Classroom management can be a challenge, particularly at the beginning of the year when we are embarking into uncharted territory with a group of new students and are wrestling with the excitement and challenge of newness! The core of classroom management is creating from this newness a strong and integrated community.

To establish a strong classroom community and cultivate its sustainability, it is vital that we take the time to collectively agree upon group norms for collaborative interaction. These norms are not your average “behavioral” norms, but instead are norms for how we should treat each other to work together productively and positively. They are a collectively agreed upon “social contract” that encourages self-reflection and empathy. In our classrooms, which often comprise a range of experience, culture, language, and expectations, self-reflective norm-setting is the key to everyone feeling heard and arriving at shared solutions. But like New Year’s resolutions, norms are only effective if we regularly and consistently follow them: We must consciously and intentionally practice individual and group habits for them to be effective.

We have found that rather than just writing the norms and posting them on the wall, we must regularly revisit them, discussing our own biases and reflecting on the importance of listening while acknowledging that the only person whose behavior you can change is your own. Collaboratively established norms promote student buy-in and self-regulatory behavior, which foster connections and breakthroughs and changes of minds and hearts. This can have a tremendous impact on both individual behaviors and classroom climate in general.

We were recently visiting one of the middle schools that we work with. In the last three years, several of the teachers have integrated norms and goal-setting as the foundation for establishing a safe classroom environment, developing social-emotional skills, and fostering in their students the skills necessary for productive collaborative conversation-based instruction. Upon entering, the principal stopped us—and she was practically jangling with excitement as she said, “I have to tell you what happened yesterday!” The afternoon before, a student who had a history of being a “behavioral problem” was called to the principal’s office. The principal, had only heard that the student had had an altercation with another student and was ready to send the student to in-school suspension, but this time, upon hearing the principal’s decision, when she asked him if he had anything to say, rather than sitting sullenly or slamming the door as he left, the young man responded with, “I respectfully disagree with your assessment, because there is information that you don’t know.” He then proceeded to calmly tell her his side of the story—which she then corroborated, finding that there were indeed extenuating circumstances that substantively changed her decision. For perhaps the first time in his school career, the student had the words and tools to express his thoughts without resorting to voiceless anger, and after thanking the principal for hearing him, he left the office, quietly closing the door behind him and went back to class.

All of our students, however young, want to be heard but may not have the words and tools to listen and express themselves effectively. By starting with fundamental, student-generated norms for interaction such as, “Disagree with ideas, not with people,” “Listen to understand, rather than to respond,” “Assume goodwill,” and “Be present,” our students are able to meet each other where they are and truly listen. Teachers who set norms with their students tell us that the students in their classrooms feel safe to share their thoughts. Their behavior improves because the norms establish the groundwork for deep and meaningful collaborations where each can bring his or her expertise to the table and trust enough to listen and learn from each other.

Beginnings are always a little bumpy, and trusting relationships require work to cultivate; however, with intention and self-reflection, we can create strong and robust classroom communities among our students. Building on both our similarities and our differences, we can, through the strength of our collaboration meet the challenges before us.

Thanks to Debbie, PJ, Serena, Timothy, Beth, Paula Mellom, Rebecca, and Jodi for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin The School Year

Best Ways to End The School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Student Assessment

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Four in a few days.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.