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Teaching Opinion

Response: Positive Classroom Management Strategies - Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 16, 2015 16 min read
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(This post is Part One is a four-part series)

This week’s question is:

What are your suggestions for effective classroom management strategies?

At various times, I would imagine that classroom management is a challenge to many of us who teach -- it certainly is to me! New years, new classes, new students (who all come from different backgrounds and previous school experiences) all can contribute to an occasional or often challenging environment.

How can we respond in effective and positive - not punitive - ways?

Guests and I have previously written about this topic and you can find a collection of those posts at Classroom Management Advice (Due to my oversight, this link has not been appearing with the links to other thematic collections that are found at the bottom of each of my posts). Related resources can also be found on posts in the category of Student Motivation. In addition, I have “curated” a group of other good links at The Best Posts On Classroom Management.

But I don’t think any of us can get too much good advice on this important topic. Today begins a four-part series containing advice from many experienced educators. Part Four will include suggestions from readers, and they’re already pouring in...

Today’s responses are from Bryan Harris, Marcia Imbeau, Pernille Ripp, Gianna Cassetta, Brook Sawyer and Julia Thompson. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Bryan and Pernille on my BAM! Radio Show.

Response From Bryan Harris

Dr. Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development for the Casa Grande Elementary School District in Arizona. He is the author of 3 highly-regarded books published by Routledge and is a popular speaker and workshop leader who specializes in helping teachers utilize effective student engagement and classroom management strategies. He can be reached via his website:

Classroom management and discipline typically focus on ways to get students to behave in appropriate and productive ways. When it comes to behavior and a well-run classroom, the best thing we can do is to help students learn how to manage and regulate themselves. From my perspective, this is the secret to effective classroom management and discipline - teaching students how to regulate and control their own behavior.

That leads to a few questions: What is self-regulation, exactly? How important is the development of self-regulation skills? and What strategies are effective at helping students develop those skills?

First, let’s briefly tackle what it is. Sometimes referred to as an executive function process in the brain, self-regulation can be thought of as the ability to control and direct one’s behavior. A review of the research will reveal related terms like self-control, self-direction, self-monitoring, self-management, and even willpower. Regardless of the exact definition, they all have this in common - self-control is the ability to direct and control one’s behavior and to make choices that are in your own and other’s long-term best interest.

How important is self-regulation? Well, as teachers we don’t need a mountain of scientific research to confirm what we’ve known for years. Students who are better at controlling their own behavior, delaying gratification, and appropriately dealing with the multitude of distractions in the classroom do better in school and in life. Students who can control themselves get better grades, get in trouble less often, have more friends, and report greater satisfaction with their education (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriquez, 1989; Moffitt, 2011; Baumeister & Tierney, 2012). If you’d like to learn more about self-regulation and impulse control, Google any of the numerous resources discussing the famous Marshmallow Test originally conducted by Walter Mischel. YouTube has some video clips that are informative and entertaining.

With all that said, here is the great news for classroom teachers - self-regulation can be learned. Merely telling students to show self-control is pointless unless they have the resources, knowledge, and skills that allow them to do it. So, here are 4 ways to help students develop self-regulation skills:

Support the Brain - Without providing a primer on the brain, suffice it to say that the brain is an energy hog. It’s only about 2% of a person’s body weight but it uses about 20% of the body’s total energy consumption. The brain gets its energy from glucose. Whenever someone undertakes a task that requires willpower or self-control, glucose is depleted. If there are low levels of glucose in the brain it can be very difficult to exhibit self-control. So, allow students to eat and drink (to replenish glucose) and increase the amount of physical movement (this can release glucose stored in the liver).

Make it Fun - Learning self-control doesn’t have to be painful and it shouldn’t feel like a chore. In fact, if we approach the development of self-regulation skills from the perspective that students have to suffer, we are likely going to be facing some very reluctant students. In order to make it fun, incorporate games like Simon Says and Concentration, use role-playing scenarios where students deal with real-life situations and problems, and engage students with intriguing scenarios and questions.

Improve Working Memory - Sometimes referred to as short-term memory, working memory has been described as the brain’s Post-it note where information is stored for short periods of time as the brain decides what to do with it. The information stored in working memory drives planning, problem-solving, organization, and attention. In order to improve working memory use spot-the-difference puzzles and play games like 20 Questions where students have to hold information in working memory. Also externalize information such as time limits, guidelines, and directions with visual cues and written reminders.

Do a Room Check - The physical environment of the classroom can have a tremendous impact on a student’s ability to focus and exhibit self-control. Some students, particularly those low in self-regulation are sensitive to what Eric Jensen (2012) refers to as “hot cues”. That is, there are things in the environment that can be very difficult to ignore. So, spend some time analyzing the classroom with a keen eye towards things that could be a distraction for students. Consider things like placement of desks and pencil sharpeners, the amount of clutter, and traffic patterns. Ask yourself this question, “Is my room neat, tidy, and organized or cluttered, messy, and overly stimulating?”

Response From Marcia Imbeau

Marcia Imbeau is an associate professor at the University of Arkansas and a member of the ASCD Differentiated Instruction Cadre, which provides support and training to schools interested in improving their efforts to meet the academically diverse learning needs of their students. She is also co-author of A Differentiated Approach to the Common Core: How do I Help a Broad Range of Learners Succeed With Challenging Curriculum? (ASCD, 2014) and Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (ASCD, 2010):

Classroom management is critically important to the successful operation of any classroom and should be guided by a teacher’s philosophy. Do you see your students as capable people who can learn and should have a voice in how the classroom should run? Could students work alongside you in making the classroom work for everyone? Teachers who answer “yes” see their students as worthy partners in the operation of a successful classroom and carefully lead them in creating a learning environment that honors and values all.

A first step in creating such a classroom starts by establishing strong relationships with your students as they help you build a community. The best classrooms are those where students feel support not only from their teacher, but also from their peers - a sort of “I’ve got your back” mentality. Many teachers have these ideas in mind as school year begins but it is important to keep them central to our thinking throughout the year if we believe effective partnerships help students grow and develop.

A second step is to think of all the many details that need attention in any classroom and have your students help you in managing them. Students feel empowered when they can help their teachers implement routines and procedures for - how we start and end our day, movement, noise, small group instruction guidelines, placement of materials, arrangement of furniture, when they are stuck and the teacher is not available, appropriate tasks to do when work is finish, etc. Attention to these details provides structure with flexibility which can be particularly important for meeting the varied learning needs of students found in most classrooms.

A final step involves teachers’ attention to providing respectful learning experiences for their students. This last step connects the previous ones with how teachers plan and implement curriculum, assessment and instruction in their classrooms. Students who are engaged in a variety of learning tasks that stretch them to understand important “big ideas” and routinely have assessments that help students improve have little time to display behaviors that disrupt their learning or others. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be days when plans or students won’t stray from our expectations, but the best teachers reflect on those situations and ask themselves, “How might I have prevented the disruption? What didn’t I anticipate that I want to be mindful of next time?”

The most competent and confident teachers think carefully about their students and work hard each day to create classrooms that support them all. I hope that these few guidelines help in your efforts for great success throughout this school year!

Response From Pernille Ripp

Pernille Ripp is a passionate teacher in Wisconsin, USA, who has taught 4, 5th, and 7th grade, author, and creator of the Global Read Aloud. Her first book, Passionate Learners - Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students, can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press. Her second book, Empowered Schools, Empowered Students - Creating Connected and Invested Learners, is out now from Corwin Press:

We tend to think that classroom management has to only stem from the teacher, that it is something we do to the students; a set of rules that they then need to fit into. Yet, I found that if we expand our view of what classroom management really is - a framework for how our class will function - we will be more successful because that mindset includes students opinions. Gone are the days where a teacher is the ultimate enforcer. We have to instead create classrooms that invite students to take charge and be a part of the control that makes it run well.

An easy way to do this is to ask students to help make the rules or set the expectations for how the classroom will work. I start off on the very first day by asking students what type of environment they want to to work in, what does it sounds like, feel like, and look like? The students then brainstorm in small groups and share out ideas. Together we create our expectations and we tweak and revisit when we need to. This helps students feel like their voice matters, which is vital for true student engagement, but it also signals to them that the environment we learn in is influenced by their decisions.

When a class or student then acts outside of our shared expectations we can have a classroom conversation about their actions. Other students feel in power because they can explain how disruptive behavior harms their learning and the child or group see that it is not just the teacher that is noticing, but the whole class. In the end, we want students to feel in control in our rooms, not like pawns. When students have control over parts of their environment, their engagement goes up; the classroom matters to them and it matters what what they do within it. We have to prove it to kids, not just through words, but through actions.

Response From Gianna Cassetta & Brook Sawyer

Gianna Cassetta is a former teacher and school leader, who now works an independent education writer and consultant. Brook Sawyer is an assistant professor at Lehigh University in the College of Education. Her focus is teacher education. Together, they wrote No More Taking Away Recess and Other Problematic Discipline Practices released by Heinemann in the Fall of 2013. They are currently writing their next book about the relationship between social-emotional learning based classroom management practices and developing social efficacy in students:

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.” The same is true of children. If we are to effectively manage our classrooms, we must first examine why children are not behaving and next create conditions that promote success. School misbehavior typically emerges from children not having their fundamental human needs met. These needs are relatedness, competence and autonomy.

Relatedness: Children who feel connected to their teachers and peers feel they are an important part of the classroom community and as a result, they generally “behave”. For other children, school exacerbates feelings of rejection and failure. They may misbehave to get (negative) attention and create a connection with others. It is critical for teachers to build positive and individual relationships with students. Positive relationships are characterized by teachers and children enjoying being together, teachers knowing children well, providing assistance (emotionally and instructionally) when needed, and displaying a warm and responsive demeanor to students.

Competence: Teachers’ skill at delivering engaging and differentiated academic instruction is related to student behavior. Students who are frustrated with the work--it is too boring or too difficult --will often act out to avoid the work. Therefore, when students misbehave, it is critical to examine whether the level/pace of learning in the classroom is appropriate for the student.

In addition, students may misbehave because they are not entirely sure how to follow the rules (although they may be able to recite them verbatim). Teachers know that best practice to teach content knowledge is to gradually release responsibility- model, guided practice, and independent practice. The same model should be used to teach rules.

Autonomy: Children perform better academically and socially when they have choice and ownership. Classroom management systems should allow for students to make independent choices. An authentic choice is not “Would you like to do your work now or during detention?” Choice is about about how and when learning best takes place. For students with challenging behavior, choice includes input into behavioral expectations and desired reinforcement.

Let’s change our mindset that classroom management is about management - managing rules, managing “bad” kids, etc. Let’s view classroom management as building relationships and providing children with academic and social skills.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is a teacher, consultant, and best-selling author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher’s Survival Guide. Thompson maintains a Web site for educators and a blog, and can found on Twitter at @TeacherAdvice:

Every teacher longs for a smoothly running classroom. We teach well when that happens. Our students learn what we want them to learn. The school day is satisfying and joyful for everyone. I find it comforting to know that I am not alone in trying to solve the puzzling problems inherent in managing a classroom. All teachers face classroom management issues. No one is exempt from this responsibility.

As an experienced teacher, I have the advantage of years of effort in trying to create a peaceful and productive learning environment. Along the way, I have learned some valuable lessons about classroom management--about how to treat students with sensitivity and dignity as well as how to avoid repeating my own mistakes. Here is a brief list of just a few of the strategies that I have found helpful in making management decisions.

  • When things go wrong, don’t blame students, their home lives, the school board, society, or anyone else. Instead, accept responsibility for what happens in your classroom. Once you do that, then you will be able to focus on creating a positive atmosphere instead of wasting time searching for someone or something to blame. You will be able to move forward.

  • The old adage that a good lesson plan is the best discipline plan is true. When students are engaged in meaningful, dynamic activities, they are simply too busy learning to misbehave.

  • Adopt a problem-solving approach to classroom management issues. Once you choose to respond instead of just react, you and your students will be able to resolve it. Best of all, you will model the kind of adult behavior that you want your students to find helpful.

  • Cultivate your sense of “withitness.” Be aware of what is happening in your classroom at all times. Pay attention to body language, levels of distraction, and other signals of potential problems. If students know that you are alert, they are far more likely to remain on task.

  • Be explicit in making your expectations for all tasks clear to your students. This will allow you to prevent or at least minimize any problems that may arise when students are not clear about the rules, procedures, policies, or even the directions for assignments.

  • Present yourself to your students as a knowledgeable, well-prepared, and caring professional educator. Students who have confidence in their teacher will be less likely to test boundaries, be off task, or engage in classroom power struggles.

Thanks to Bryan, Marcia, Pernille, Gianna, Brook, and Julia for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. As I mentioned earlier, readers’ responses will be included in Part Four.

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.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

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 three years of blog, you can see a categorized list below. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking on the monthly archives link on this blog’s sidebar:

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation

Implementing The Common Core

Teaching Reading and Writing

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching Social Studies

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Teaching English Language Learners

Using Tech In The Classroom

Education Policy Issues

Teacher & Administrator Leadership

Instructional Strategies


Teaching Math & Science

Brain-Based Learning

School Relationships

Author Interviews

Professional Development

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

Watch for the Part Two in a few days....

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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.