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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

Ways to Handle a Class That Has Gotten Out-of-Control

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 27, 2018 21 min read
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Many of us teachers, including me, have been there—slowly, but surely, after the newness of the beginning of a school year has worn-off, we find ourselves with a class that has gotten out of control.

What do we do in that situation?

This series will explore tried-and-true effective strategies, and we’ll begin today with responses from Bobson Wong, Rita Platt, Kevin Parr, Theresa Staley, Valerie Ruckes and Sarah Thomas. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Bobson, Rita, Kevin and Theresa on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I have certainly not been immune to this challenge during my my seventeen-year high school teaching career.

In fact, I have experienced it on three separate occasions.

Two of them were with ninth-grade classes several years ago. I wrote a piece for ASCD about my success the first time in A “Good” Class Gone “Bad” . . . and Back to “Good” Again.

The second one, occurring a later, was even more of a challenge. The strategies that worked the first time around weren’t as effective, and it required more creativity, and it, too, was successful. You can read about it at Have You Ever Taught a Class That Got “Out Of Control”? I’m happy to say that I’ve heard from a number of teachers who have had equal success with this strategy.

Both of these instances happened quite awhile ago, and I figured I was past that stage—that I had become a good enough teacher that “out-of-control” classes were a thing-of-the-past for me.

Hubris has a way of coming back at you, though.

Early this month, it was clear that things were going south in one of my classes—this time, one comprised of eleventh-graders. Because they were older—and I was, too—I thought a different approach from the first two times might make sense.

I knew that most students liked the class a lot, and I knew that—because of my relationship-building efforts—most liked me, too (and those feelings were reciprocated). Building on that foundation, I took time out of my prep period to pull each of the four main “offenders” from their classes to have very brief individual conversations.

I put my arm on their shoulders and told them that I liked them and what they offered in the class, that I wanted to continue to teach the class like a college seminar, and that I needed their support to make that happen. I reminded them of the key class rules (no talking when I’m talking, no talking when another student is talking, and only using classroom-appropriate language). I also reminded them that I had talked with them before about their behavior. I said that I did not want to go down “a negative road,” but would if necessary. And I ended by saying this was going to be my last “friendly request” for their help.

I also spoke individually with four other students who were lesser “offenders,” had a similar conversation, and ended by saying they were on “probation"—without indicating what that meant.

It’s only been a few weeks, of course, but those conversations had an immediate effect and classroom behavior is like the difference between night-and-day. If anything, it’s clear that students enjoy the class even more now.

Previously building strong relationships and having expectations that seemed reasonable to these juniors made this strategy effective. I’m no big fan of “threats” but, in classroom management, they sometimes have their place.

They just must also be kept in their place, too.

You might also be interested in previous posts appearing in this column on Classroom Management Advice, as well as in Best Posts on Classroom Management.

Response From Bobson Wong

Bobson Wong (@bobsonwong) has taught high school math in New York City public schools since 2005. He is a three-time recipient of the Math for America Master Teacher fellowship, a recipient of the New York State Master Teacher Fellowship, and a member of the advisory board for the National Museum of Mathematics. As an Educational Specialist for New York State, he writes and edits questions for state high school tests:

You’ve tried speaking to students, rearranging seats, calling home, and all the other standard techniques, but sometimes, a class is still out of control. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a magic bullet for turning a class around. Every class is different, so what works for one group of students may not necessarily work for another. Over the years, I’ve found myself often asking three questions that helped me reestablish control in chaotic classrooms.

What else are students going through? Like teachers, students have lives outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, much of that life is beyond our control. Students often act out for reasons that have nothing to do with the teacher, so blaming ourselves when students act out is counterproductive. Sometimes, knowing what else students are dealing with outside of our class can help give us perspective. While we may not be able to change what students are going through, knowing what they’re experiencing may help us establish better relationships with them.

Which students act out the most? Sometimes, it seems that everyone in a class is acting out, but usually a small group of students misbehave more than others. Focusing on these students first—using techniques such as separating them from each other, calling home, or speaking to each privately—makes the task of reestablishing order easier to accomplish. If these students can be more productive and less disruptive, they can even serve as positive role models for the rest of the class.

Is the level of work appropriate? Many times, I found that my students act out when the work I give them isn’t appropriate for them. If the work is too hard, they get discouraged and look for something else to do. If the work is too easy, they get bored and have little motivation to complete it. The trick is to find work that is just out of students’ reach—easy enough so that it relates to what they already know but hard enough so that it’s new. I’ve found that dividing work into different levels of difficulty, giving students different entry points, and frequently checking student understanding helped me to get a better sense of how appropriate the work is for students.

Is the class too predictable? Developing a classroom routine is important. By developing a structure, students learn what kind of behavior you expect from them. However, no matter how good your lessons are, too much routine can make students (not to mention you!) bored, and boredom often leads to misbehavior. The solution is to try something different from what you normally do. For example, if your teaching style is easygoing, try tightening up discipline for a few days. If you run a strict classroom, try loosening up. If your classroom is constantly high-energy, try some quiet, low-key classwork. The time that students take to adapt to a new routine—even if it’s only for a few days—can give you time to reestablish control of a classroom. Shaking up a routine occasionally is just as important as establishing one in the first place.

No matter what you try, it’s important to not take anything personally. Children usually don’t hold grudges. I’ve had students curse me out one day and give me a friendly greeting the next as if nothing had happened! Even if you can’t completely turn a class around, the end of the school year gives you a chance to turn the page and get a fresh start the next school year. Turning a class around takes time and effort, but fortunately it can be done with enough work and a lot of patience.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb:

Strong classroom management is the bottom line in effective teaching. A classroom that is “in control” is one where students are focused and learning occurs.

However, it is important to remember that a loud or active classroom does not necessarily equal one that is out of control. I am not dogmatic about what style of classroom management is best—there are many effective methods to keep a class productively humming. There are, however, some common “look-fors” to determine if a class is out of control and in need of a turnaround.

Check your responses to the questions below. In my classroom:

  1. am I and are my students happy and relaxed?
  2. is learning the focus?
  3. do students make demonstrable growth in the content I teach?

If you answered “no” to one or more of the questions, your classroom might be out of control and you may need to push the reset button. If so, there are four big-picture priorities to improve upon. Ask yourself these questions.

Do I consistently:

  1. ensure that expectations and routines are clear?
  2. cultivate strong mutually respectful relationships?
  3. provide differentiated meaningful and challenging work?
  4. celebrate student success?

If you answered “no” one or more, it’s probably time for a focused effort to learn how to change your classroom such that you can answer “yes” because unless the four elements above are in place, management or keeping kids “in control” will be a constant challenge.

Sometimes, even when you can answer yes to both sets of questions, a class can become hard-to-manage. When that happens, call on students to reflect on their behavior and set goals to make positive changes. Here is how I did that with my 7th grade reading workshop class, a behavior disorder inclusion group that was having difficulty working independently:

  • I video recorded students as they worked on an assignment and during instruction.
  • Later, in preparation for watching the video, students drew two “plus-minus” charts. The first labeled “What I Should See” and the second “What I Did See.”
  • I asked students, “How should students behave during a lesson or work session? How shouldn’t they behave?"and asked them to brainstorm answers to fill in the first chart in small groups and then whole class.
  • I showed students the video of themselves during class asking them to notice and record positive and negative behaviors on the “What I Did See” chart (without using specific names.)
  • Students did three quick writes: One, “How can I improve as a student?"; two, “How can the entire class improve?"; and three, “How can Mrs. Platt improve or help us do better?”
  • We use the results to develop the rubric below to help students self-monitor their independent reading workshop time.

From then on, I had students review the rubric before each class and set a goal for a score they would work for. After class, I had students self-assess. Occasionally, and without warning, I would also issue students a score.

Students quickly became aware of the choices they made and the class was back “in control.” After that, I used the rubrics to guide conversations with individual students who occasionally struggled and we finished the year strong.

Response From Kevin Parr

Kevin Parr is a fourth grade teacher from Wenatchee, Washington and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

Teachers spend a lot of time with students at the beginning of the year intentionally creating a strong, compassionate learning community which is safe for all to take risks and learn. At the same time, teachers are empowering students to maintain the culture that is being created. While student ownership of the class culture is an appropriate goal, it also comes with risk. The wheels can fall off the proverbial bus rather suddenly and the once safe place to learn can become negative and hostile. This, in fact, can be a good thing because it helps the class to understand culture, how fragile it is and that maintaining the culture is a shared responsibility.

Fortunately, the culture of a classroom can be repaired and can rebound stronger than ever.

Teacher admits role: First, teachers must raise awareness to the erosion of the culture in the classroom and acknowledge their role in the community. In raising awareness the teacher should begin the conversation with statements like, “I have been noticing” or “I have been feeling,” rather than simply coming out and dictating that the class has made an undesirable turn. By phrasing things this way, the teacher invites discussion and further demonstrates that they are a partner in the classroom culture.

Taking stock: After the teacher raises awareness, they can open up dialogue by probing students about how the current culture of the class is different than it was before it started to deteriorate. Reflection should also include the ideas students had the first days of school about what their ideal learning environment would look, sound and feel like and if those conditions are reflected in the current situation.

The way here: It is also important for the teacher to help students identify the factors that lead them to the discussion at hand. A simple question the teacher can ask is, “How did we get to this point?” Teachers, especially those of younger students, need to be aware that students may not be able to identify the incremental changes that started to break down the culture. There are, however, a variety of factors that could be at play. These include outside stresses, social exclusion, a extended period with a substitute teacher or cognitive demands that are either too easy or too difficult.

The way out: Students and the teacher should leave the dialogue about the current state of the classroom community with things they can do collectively, as well as at least one thing they can individually, to help repair and strengthen it. Furthermore, the teacher should schedule periodic check-ins for the class to reflect on their feelings, concerns and celebrations.

When a class of normally well-mannered students suddenly goes awry, it can be a deflating moment for teachers. Surprisingly, however, a class that has gotten out-of-control can actually have hidden benefits if teachers use it as an opportunity to audit the culture of the classroom and, through honest dialogue, rebuild it stronger than ever.

Response From Theresa Staley

Theresa Staley is a Staff Developer with Learning Sciences International. Her educational career began in 2001. She has held positions as a classroom teacher in elementary and middle school, as an intervention specialist, and worked at the district level. She is a relentless advocate for literacy and upholds an unyielding dedication to teachers and children. Follow Theresa on Twitter: @EdgyEducation; connect with her on LinkedIn: Theresa Staley:

I’ve spent hours contemplating and organizing what I thought to be the most innovative, student-centered, standards-driven lessons, only to end up flabbergasted, frustrated, and many times, in tears because the students weren’t behaving quite the way I had envisioned. I imagined I had failed them and, I admit, exclaimed on more than one occasion, “This is not what I signed up for!”

However, when I sat down and really analyzed my instructional strategies and the lack of my students’ readiness to participate, engage, and interact with the content or one another, something dawned on me: Had I created these lessons for my students or for me?

As I grappled with what I wanted my students to know, and what it looked like/ sounded like when they were ready to try it on their own and within a team structure, a multitude of other questions came into play—questions that all teachers should be asking themselves to foster a productive and engaging learning environment:

  1. Who are my students? Socially? Emotionally? Academically? Physically? Behaviorally?
  2. What do I want my students to be able to do? How am I going to get them there?
  3. Do they know what they’re learning? How am I communicating the learning target?
  4. Do they know why they’re learning what they’re learning?
  5. What’s my plan for when a student is stuck?
  6. What plan do I have in place to monitor their learning
  7. Are my students at the appropriate skill level to engage in this task and with this content? If not, what are my scaffolded teaching points?
  8. Did I plan for differentiation and adaptation?
  9. What activities are in place? How am I verifying progress?
  10. Do students know why they’re completing the activities? Can they explain its relationship to the learning target? Do they know how to execute the task? How do I prepare them to be ready? Do we practice? Do I clarify?
  11. What does engagement look like?
  12. How are my students grouped? Are there defined and accountable leadership roles?
  13. How do students know if they are on the right track?
  14. Do students know what success looks like?
  15. Do I allow for productive struggle?
  16. What plans are in place to resolve conflict?
  17. What resources did I select? Are they task- and skill-level appropriate?
  18. What student evidences am I looking for? What will I see them doing? What will I hear them saying?
  19. How do we celebrate our learning?
  20. Do my plans reflect the quality of learning or the quantity of the curriculum?
  21. What am I doing during the lesson? How am I supporting my students’ learning?

What it all boils down to is that there are two explicit teaching practices that, when executed during lesson planning, can turn around any out-of-control classroom: intention and reflection. To transform students’ behaviors, we need to acknowledge responsibility at the onset through planning and preparation and adopt the dogma, “The best discipline is a great lesson plan” as our instructional mindset. Thoughtful implementation of this concept can transform any chaotic classroom into a harmonious environment of engaged, excited learners.

Response From Valerie Ruckes

Valerie Ruckes is in her 18th year of teaching and currently teaches first grade with Rochester Community Schools in Rochester, Michigan. Val is involved as a mentor for the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP) in her district and she serves as a member of the Instructional Leadership Team in her building. On Sunday nights you can find Val on Twitter (@valruckes) where she co-moderates #1stchat and connects with other first grade teachers:

To be very honest, it’s a difficult endeavor to turnaround a class once things have gotten out of control. I’m convinced that most educators will agree the best practice is to start off on the best possible foot from the very beginning, tolerating only those behaviors that you can live with during the school year. You can ease up as the year progresses, but it’s very difficult to start off with a relaxed classroom culture and then try to tighten things up later.

With that being said, it IS possible to turnaround a class that you’ve let get out of control. It will be challenging work, but it’s possible if you are up to it.

The first thing I think we must do is be honest. Honesty is always the best policy. We simply admit that we made a mistake. That we allowed things to get out of control and that we are taking full responsibility for that. It’s not their fault but ours. I believe students respect this approach rather than pretending that things were not that bad before or playing the blame game. (“It’s your fault because you guys don’t know how to act.”) Tell your students that it’s a new day and from now on things are going to be different.

Next, everyone gets a clean slate. Past discretions will not be held against them, or you for that matter. Emphasize that this will be a classroom where we will respect one another. Students will demonstrate respect for each other (and you) and you will respect them in return. Additionally, hold no grudges. Give your students a clean slate on a daily basis. This last part is not something you need to announce, just do it.

Finally, avoid power struggles. When we engage in a power struggle with our students we run the risk of not winning it. How do we come back from a point of no return? We usually don’t. In the heat of the moment, and we all experience them—heated moments, you might try the following:

  • Stop and take a deep breath, or two or three if necessary.
  • Stay calm. If you become angry and lose your temper, students will likely become angry, too. Keep in mind, we CAN’T control what our students will say or do. We CAN control our response to their behavior. Our students are watching. We are the lead learners in our classrooms and that includes social/emotional learning, too.
  • State the expectation. Keep it short and sweet. This is not the time for a lecture or big speech. After all, the goal is to get back to the teaching and learning. Move on, resume your teaching. Remember we can’t control what our students say or do only our own response. This response demonstrates that teaching and learning will continue and no one student or group of students will prevent that from happening.
  • This is also not the time to negatively engage a student or focus on any negative behaviors. When our students are not self-regulated, it’s not the time to try and reason with them. Wait until the student has calmed down, this will likely be the next day. Have a conversation about the negative behavior that was demonstrated and do so privately to maintain the student’s dignity. Isn’t this how we would interact with a colleague or another adult? Our students deserve the same consideration.
  • Have high expectations and stick to them. Students may push back but they will also come to appreciate the fact that you care about them too much to give up on them.
  • When interacting with students regarding a challenging situation, I often ask myself this question to gauge the level of respect I’m demonstrating: If this were my child, (niece, nephew, etc.) how would I want his/her teacher to respond in this situation?

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Don’t expect things to turnaround overnight. With patience, persistence, and a positive attitude, they will get better. Before you know it, you’ll discover that in your classroom there is teaching and learning going on again.

Response From Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, PhD is a Regional Technology Coordinator in Prince George’s County Public Schools. She is also a Google Certified Innovator, Google Education Trainer, and the founder of the EduMatch movement, a project that empowers educators to make global connections across common areas of interest. She has presented internationally, participated in the Technical Working Group to refresh the 2017 ISTE Standards for Educators, and is a recipient of the 2017 ISTE Making IT Happen award. She is also a national advisor for the Future Ready Instructional Coaches Strand, and an Affiliate Professor at Loyola University in Maryland:

I have definitely been in this situation before. In my fourth year of teaching, my darlings were perfect little angels until Halloween.

I’m not sure exactly what happened and, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the class back with me. However, if I could do it all over again, I have a few more tools under my belt. First, I would reflect and try to figure out where it took a turn. Then, I would talk to students individually, especially those where the relationships have changed, and listen to their thoughts and suggestions on how to turn things around. Afterward, I would likely talk to the class as a whole group to recalibrate and re-examine and/or revise our norms, and ask us to hold each other accountable—including me.

Thanks to Bobson, Rita, Kevin, Theresa, Valerie and Sarah for their contributions.

(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you turn around a class that you’ve let get out-of-control?

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.

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