Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Classroom Management Ideas For Younger Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 07, 2012 8 min read
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Cheryl S. asked:

I am writing with a question regarding your blog (Response: Several Ways To Respond To “Unpredictable” Student Behavior) on responding to unpredictable student behavior.

My question is how do you apply these strategies to kindergarten students? My student is unable to control his behavior for more than a few minutes at a time, and when reminded of the expectations for behavior in a calm, supportive tone he is prone to extreme anger, including throwing chairs and running away. The only time I have ever raised my voice to him is when he had his hands around a child’s neck and I needed him to drop his hands instantly - not exactly the time for a positive, nurturing reminder of making good, safe choices.

I use a calm, nurturing voice with each of my 31 students, including when my one child is making dangerous and/or disruptive choices. Older, more cognitively developed children have the ability to reason and analyze their actions on a more complex level. I want to be supportive and nurturing to this little guy, but I have 30 other 5 year olds to manage at the same time. I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Great question, Cheryl!

Since the earliest grade I’ve ever taught is seventh, I have to defer to others for responses to this one.

Three experienced teachers of younger children agreed to provide guest responses: Jane Ching Fung, Mathew Needleman and Tom Hobson.

Response From Jane Ching Fung

Jane Ching Fung is a National Board Certified (NBCT) first grade teacher in urban Los Angeles with 25 years of experience teaching primary grades PK-3rd grade. She is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network:

How to minimize unpredictable behaviors that negatively affect your classrooms?

Unpredictable behaviors (both positive and negative) are a common occurrence in primary classrooms. Young children view and react to the world in their own unique way. Their journey into the educational system and it’s expectations, procedures, and rules is just beginning. For some, it is their first experience in a formal classroom setting. That being said, I have found that by spending extra time on the following has cut down on some of those unpredictable behaviors in my primary classroom:


Young children need and like predictability! There is a sense of stability in knowing that every morning you will pick them up in the same spot at the same time, or when they hear a specific song, it means time to clean up and meet on the rug. Just as adults like to have an agenda for the day, young children need one too. I write our daily agenda on the board in front of the class and go over it with my students daily. On days when there are changes to our schedule, I let them know ahead of time so they are ready for it.


As a class, we discuss, evaluate, and agree on a set of classroom expectations. Together we define what they are and why they are important for our learning environment. Once expectations are clear and understood by all, we work as a team to help hold each other accountable for those expectations, and revisit them as needed throughout the year.


Young children need to know, see, and practice what is expected of them and you. I always spend extra time to model and practice classroom procedures and behavioral expectations. Don’t assume that students know what you mean when you say it, show them what it looks like, and practice it with them over and over again!


Highlight and celebrate the positive and minimize the negative. Young children love attention and specific praising of positive behavior or actions helps reinforce them and ensure that they will be repeated.


Try to limit the attention given to unpredictable or negative behaviors and deal with them quickly and move on. Taking a child aside for some reflective discussion about the unwanted behavior later on, and away from the spotlight, lets you and the child focus on the specific behavior rather than the emotions the behavior might have caused.

Keeping yourself calm and collect when dealing with unpredictable behavior is ideal, but there may be situations where your first response is to keep students and yourself safe first and foremost, and then address the issue later on when things have settled down.


One of the best ways to minimize unpredictable behaviors is to KNOW your students. It’s okay to use creative ways to address their needs. I have had students stand to complete their work, sit in a chair rather than on the rug with the rest of the class, or squish play dough in their hands while they follow a lesson.


I am not a big believer in giving prizes for target behavior, but I do reward students when I catch them doing something kind or positive. Some students need the added incentive initially, while others just take pride in doing the right thing. Using table tally points not only help students work as a team to earn the privilege of eating lunch with the teacher, but also help with addition and subtraction skills. In special cases, I may work with parents to use a point system (for a target behavior) with a student to earn extra computer time or homework pass. The goal of reward systems is to faze them out when they are not needed.

Response from Mathew Needleman

Mathew Needleman has been teaching primary grades for over a decade in urban areas of the Los Angeles Unified School District. He blogs about education at Creating Lifelong Learners and can be found on twitter @mrneedleman:

I believe in reasoning and talking about behavior with all students. However, it’s important to note that the purpose of reasoning with kindergarteners is to develop language around behavior and begin to develop an understanding of what’s appropriate. Kindergarten students respond less to talk and more to tangible rewards that are immediate and predictable.

It’s also important to target a particular behavior and supply a replacement behavior and not try to change a child’s entire behavior. For example, when students speak in the middle of me speaking I cannot teach. For a child, “Henry” who talks over me frequently I would need to ignore any other bad behaviors (except for those that risk student safety) until the calling out behavior is extinguished and replaced with Henry raising his hand to be called on.

One thing I’ve used is a laminated grid on a students’ desk. Every five minutes that Henry doesn’t speak out I would mark a square on the grid. If Henry fills in a row of the grid then he gets to go to the computer, the listening center, or play with blocks for five minutes. Any time Henry speaks while I’m speaking I erase a row and Henry has to start over. As Henry gets better at stringing out longer periods of time I would increase the amount of time necessary for Henry to earn a stamp on his grid. Once the target behavior is extinguished I would move on to another behavior.

It’s also worth looking at our teaching in general. If many students are calling out I would ask myself if I’m giving enough time for pair sharing in class. If many students are getting out of their seat, maybe they need more active lessons. A child who struggles with behavior is going to make mistakes but can be brought back on track with predictable rewards.

Response From Tom Hobson

Tom “Teacher Tom” Hobson is a preschool teacher, artist, and writer at Teacher Tom’s Blog. For the past 10 years, he’s been the only employee of the Woodland Park Cooperative preschools in Seattle, Washington:

My first reaction, Cheryl, is to point out the obvious: thirty-one kindergarteners and one teacher! That’s just a set up for one kid to eat up an entire classroom, especially in the early years. Why policy-makers can’t understand this is mind-blowing, but that’s a rant for another day.

The bottom line is that you need more adults in the room. When kids are acting out, especially in the on-going, persistent way you describe, it’s going to require the undivided attention of an adult: that’s what makes the “calm, supportive” non-punitive approach work. Because I teach in a cooperative school, I have the luxury of at least a half dozen other adults in the classroom at any given moment, people who can either provide an out of control child the one-on-one connection they need, or who can take over other classroom responsibilities while I huddle up with the kid myself. You’re right, reason and analysis isn’t what’s called for here. He needs nurturing and listening and it ain’t gonna be easy with one teacher and 31 kids.

How can you get other adults in the room? Are there student teachers around? Can you persuade parents to volunteer time to help out? Does your school have other resources, like counselors, who can pitch in?

Throwing chairs and strangling, especially if they aren’t just one-offs, are pretty extreme behaviors, ones that create a physical danger to the whole class, not to mention a disruption to learning. In my experience these may be signs that you’re dealing with something beyond “normal” (e.g., autism spectrum, ADHD, bi-polar disorder, abuse/neglect) all of which should make the child a candidate for an IEP (Individual Education Plan) which would in all likelihood result in more resources (hopefully of the human variety) for your classroom.

You shouldn’t have to deal with this alone. Being calm and supportive is the pedagogically correct way to interact with young children when they’re bouncing off the walls, but you need help with this.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Jane, Mathew and Tom for sharing their responses!

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. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

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I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” tomorrow.

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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.