by Allen Mendler

Early Year Teaching Keys For Effective Classroom Discipline

Back to school - portrait of beautiful young schoolgirl

It’s just the second day of school and already the honeymoon is fading.  Matthew is late, Juanita comes unprepared and strange noises are coming from Carson.  You can feel yourself struggling to keep your cool, not to mention the attention of your students.  Summer vacation is starting to feel like it never happened.

In an era of pressure to produce achievement, nothing can undermine a classroom climate conducive to learning more quickly than a host of minor irritating behaviors that by themselves aren’t worthy of reading the riot act, but collectively erode the positive energy we and our students need to attain success.  Although effectively managing student behavior is multi-faceted, there are a few especially important things to do very early in the school year to set the proper tone.

Make your first words and actions enthusiastic & welcoming 

Let your students know how glad you are to meet or see them again and how much you are looking forward to having a great year together.

I am so glad to have you all in our class and to get to know all of you.  There are a lot of great things we’ll be doing and lots of new stuff to learn.  (Depending on age) Some of you have loved school and done very well in the past while others maybe haven’t so far.  In this class, you will be successful if you bring your success “APPPP” every day (Appear, Prepare, Plan, Practice and Persist).  Soon I’ll explain what that means.  But first, I want to tell you a little bit about myself (share a little about yourself personally – family, hobbies etc).  Does anyone have any questions you’d like to ask me about myself? (If you are comfortable, do something next to have them get to know each other such as a “Find someone who” activity was born in the same month” (i.e. ‘Find someone who was born in the same month as you’ and nine or ten more specifics).

Cheerful smiling funny boy on a green background.

Set guidelines for how you plan to handle misbehaviour

In their widely acclaimed book, The First Days of School, the Wongs convincingly explain why routines are so important for effective classroom management and offer comprehensive suggestions about how to establish them.   As well, depending on the term they prefer, most teachers understand the importance of establishing rules, expectations, guidelines, norms and/or limits.  Equally important but often overlooked is to let students know the routine for how you will usually give individual feedback including consequences.

  1. There will be many times this year that I will be dropping by your desk with an individual message that is only for your ears.  It is the way I usually give feedback that tells you what I think you are doing well or how I think you could do better.  Since the feedback belongs to that individual, I will not be sharing it with anyone else in this class.  The individual message will be between that student and me and nobody else.
  2. I don’t expect rules to be broken but whenever lots of people share the same space, there are times that someone might do something inappropriate.  There will often be consequences for disruptive behavior.  However, the consequences will almost always be given privately and I will almost never discuss one person’s consequence with any other person in this class.
  3. Finally, I just want to let you know that I will not usually stop a lesson to deal with behavior that may not be appropriate.  It may actually look like I am ignoring it and maybe I am.  Maybe you should also since that is the best way to show that you care about school and want to do well.  But ignoring it doesn’t mean I’m not going to do anything about it.  It just means I think teaching is more important in that moment.  It means I’ll get with that person later and decide what to do.

I will try harder in class

Let students know when and how they can give you feedback

It is very important to let your students know that you take their feedback very seriously and would like to hear from them especially if they think there are ways that you can be a better teacher for them.  Establish a time and place for this process.  I like the idea of having “conference time” where students can schedule a time with you for this purpose.  If you prefer, have a “Mrs. Jones feedback” box where students can write to you to express appreciations and resentments.

It is very important for me to be the best teacher I can for each of you and I will try very hard to be respectful even if and when you do things I don’t like.  That is why most of the time I will give you feedback privately.  In the same way, if you are unhappy about something I said or did, let me know.  You can write me a note and put it in the feedback box, see me at conference time or tell me after class.

Define the difference between fair and equal

Make clear that if a student breaks a rule, you will do whatever you think is best to help that student fix the mistake.  Fair means giving each student what he needs, equal means treating everyone the same way.  Be fair, do not worry about treating everyone the same.

I expect everyone to follow the rules but if a rule is broken, I will do my best to help whoever broke it not repeat the same mistake.  Not everyone learns the same way.  That means consequences can be different and it will up to me to decide which consequence(s), if any, would be best for that student.   There will be times that I might even ask you what consequence(s) you think would work best.  Anyway, you might not always agree with a consequence.  If you ever think there is a more effective consequence better consequence, let me know in a respectful way and I might change my mind.  What I won’t accept are complaints like, “It’s not fair because Max did the same thing as me and you called my mother but not his.  I’ll talk to you about you but not about Max.  What I did with Max is between him and me and what I do with you is between us.  I will only listen to suggestions that you think could have work better for you?

You will make mistakes,learn from them

Be sure your rules and procedures make sense

Kids need to understand how a rule benefits either themselves or others.  Classroom and school rules should be limited to enhancing safety and promoting achievement.  The rules that are most likely to be broken by the greatest number of students are those that make the least sense.  If the best we can answer when students ask, “Why do we have that rule?” is to say “Because I told you so” or “Because that is school policy,” then it is likely a poor rule, which does little more than frustrate those who have to follow it.  If it is a rule that you have little control over, doesn’t make a lot of sense to you but are expected to enforce, let students know how you and/or they can go about getting it changed, but until it is, you expect it to be followed.

Involve students in developing classroom discipline

Students can develop some or most of the rules that are not directly related to instruction.  The more students are involved in the process of developing rules and consequences, the more they feel that the plan belongs to them.  Ultimately, they are more likely to follow the plan if they had a say in its development.  You can have students help in developing classroom values by asking “What kind of classroom do you want that will best help you learn?  How do you want to be treated by me and by each other?  Most students will say things like they want to be respected.  The teacher can then give students an assignment to propose a rule or two that are examples of “We expect to be treated with respect.”  Students can alone or in small groups write or say what that means to them.  Examples might include the following:

  • Don’t make fun when people make mistakes.
  • Do not take anybody else’s stuff without asking.
  • If you see someone doing something that is dangerous, tell an adult.
  • We want a chance to explain our side of the story.

Although some teachers are uncomfortable involving their students in developing consequences, I have found there to be fewer power struggles when they do.  Since the goal of a consequence should be to teach better behavior, it is more important to be concerned about the result of the consequence than its content.  Stay away from getting locked into a specific consequence or sequencing specific consequences where a first offense results in x, a second offense in y etc.  Instead, let students know that if they can think of a consequence that will work better than yours, you’ll consider it.  For example if a student says, “I am not coming to detention” rather than escalating, you can say, “You know what?  You won’t need to come if you come up with a consequence that will work better.  If you don’t come up with something that does, then I’ll see you at detention.”

Are there other vital early year classroom management strategies to get the year off to a great start?  Share them with me below.

Preschool Kids Education

About the author:

Allen Mendler, Ph.D. is an educator, school psychologist and the author or co-author of numerous articles and several books including When Teaching Gets Tough, Power Struggles, Motivating Students Who Don’t Care and Connecting with Students. As one of the internationally acclaimed authors of the original and revised editions of Discipline with Dignity, Dr. Mendler is a highly acclaimed motivational speaker with a wealth of practical strategies on what it takes to successfully motivate and manage difficult students.