6 ways to prevent your students from misbehaving for other teachers

There are few things that annoyed me more as a teacher than picking up my students from P.E. or lunch (or having a small group return from a resource room pull-out class) only to discover that some students had been completely out of control while they were gone. With some classes I taught, it seemed like the moment I was out of sight, there was almost guaranteed to be an incident of disrespect to another teacher, a physical altercation between students, or something even worse.

Once I went to pick up my class from the media specialist and learned that a student had gotten mad and run out of the building! He was missing from school property for two hours, and the police eventually discovered him sitting on the railroad tracks behind the school. He was escorted back to my classroom with a huge pout on his face and told me, “Mrs. S. told me I couldn’t check out a new book because I didn’t return my old one, and that wasn’t fair, so I left.”

I mean…you just can’t make this stuff up. And it’s so, so frustrating, because you as the teacher aren’t even there. You have no idea what actually happened, who was in the right and who was in the wrong, and you have no idea how to respond. Do you discipline a kid for something that happened when you weren’t there? All you wanted was a few minutes of planning time to make your photocopies, and now it seems like it would have been easier to just keep the kids with you in class because now you’ve got a disaster to sort out.

This was an ongoing problem when I was a classroom teacher, so it’s something I gave a lot of thought to and continue to consider when I hear from other elementary teachers who are experiencing the same thing. And the good news is that while you can’t control what happens when you’re not around, there’s quite a bit you can do to pro-actively to prevent the problem from reoccurring and to open the lines of communication between you and other teachers.

6 ways to prevent your students from misbehaving for other teachers

1) Take into consideration your students’ perspective on specials and lunch.

Let’s start by looking at this from the kids’ perspective. Lunch and recess are times when students feel like they can be free and be themselves. They naturally exhibit less self-control at lunch because it’s their break, and most students view specials classes as a break from regular learning, too. That’s not true, of course, but it’s often how they see it. P.E. is just a second recess. Art is just a time to paint or color.

This means that the moment the specials teacher expects students to actually learn something, they start acting out. They just want to run or create or play music. If you’ve ever tried to conduct a lesson outdoors or you’ve done an art project with kids or brought instruments into the classroom, you’ve experienced this firsthand: the kids are so distracted by the potential for something really fun that they don’t want to listen to instructions and definitely don’t want you to make the moment a learning opportunity. They’re ready to PLAY.

This is an issue that’s compounded by the fact that students have been in their regular classroom for a very long period of time and were expected to focus, concentrate, and stay on task. When they’re finally allowed to move down the hallway to another space, they release all that pent-up energy, and continue doing so during lunch or in their other class. In many students’ minds, it’s not necessary to sit still and listen to the teacher or follow the rules until “real” learning takes place again back in their own classroom with their “real” teacher.

2) Recognize that the deck is stacked against “specials” teachers from the start.

Teachers of subjects such as art, music, media, and physical education are generally expected to teach the entire school, which means they need to memorize all the students’ names and learn all their personalities. That’s nearly impossible, of course, so it’s easy for a specials teacher to forget (or never even learn about) the triggers and quirks of individual students.

When they’re working with your class, specials teachers often have less than 30 minutes to get everyone settled, teach the lesson, ensure everyone has learned it and has had time to practice, AND get everything cleaned up and students lined up at the door so a brand new group of kids can come in literally ten seconds later.

You can see why there are so many behavioral issues that don’t manifest quite as seriously in your classroom, and why even a minor disruption can be enough to throw off the entire morning for the specials teacher. If the teacher before you was two minutes late in picking up his class, the specials teacher has to somehow manage the behavior of two wound-up classes at once, one group in the hall and one in the classroom, and figure out how to condense her lesson into the even shorter time period she’ll have left with your kids. When someone’s under that kind of pressure, it’s hard to have much tolerance for kids acting out.

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3) Plan your class time activities with specials and pull-out classes in mind.

Staying mindful of your students’ perspective on other classes and the conditions that specials teachers are working under will help keep you from getting aggravated. It can also help you make good decisions about how to structure your classroom activities. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out, but eventually I realized I was more likely to get a bad report from other teachers when I had administered tests during the morning or assigned otherwise unengaging tasks that involved lots of sitting still and being quiet.

So if you can, plan those less active lessons for the days students have PE or other specials that permit them to move around, and on the days when students will need to concentrate especially hard during specials, try to plan more hands-on activities in your classroom beforehand.

You can coordinate this with certain specials or pull-out teachers if they repeatedly have issues with your students. You could say, “I’m so sorry my class has been giving you trouble lately. I’m wondering if they’re spending too much time sitting before I drop them off. Can you give me a heads-up first thing in the morning if the kids will need to sit and listen quietly for the whole specials period, or do mostly paper and pencil work while they’re with you? I’ll try to make sure they get to move around in my room beforehand. If nothing else, we can do a few stretches and brain breaks to help them get the wiggles out before I drop them off.”

If the teacher is unwilling or unable to do this, you can automatically incorporate those movement opportunities into your instruction on the days your students will be attending that special or going to that pull out class.

4) Make it clear to your students (in words AND actions) how much you value their education in other classes and respect other teachers in the school.

Talk to your students about how physical education, art, music, and so on benefit them developmentally and help the growth of their brains and bodies. Find out what they’re learning in other classes and tie it into your curriculum (“Hey, this is exactly what Mrs. Jones taught you! Remember how you learned in her class about that?”) This helps students understand that the learning they do with other teachers is just as important as the learning they do in your classroom.

Try to occasionally arrive a few minutes early to pick up your students and join in on (or observe) the activity. This conveys to students that you respect the other teacher and the instruction happening in his or her class, and are working together as a team. It also allows you to observe your students, provide support, and make sure kids know that you think what they’re doing in the class is valuable. You might be able to recommend that certain kids aren’t seated near each other, or you may able to spot attention-seeking behaviors or other sneaky things kids try to get away with when the adult in charge doesn’t know them very well. Just a few minutes spent observing your students can result in positive changes.

If your students frequently misbehave at lunch, sit with them in the cafeteria for a few minutes sometimes. Let them see you having conversations with the cafeteria monitors so they know you care about how they behave at lunch. This sounds like a small thing, but I assure you that hanging around the cafeteria and ensuring kids are following the rules sends a powerful message to your students. It’s the opposite of the message that’s sent when you drop them off at the door and run the other direction, then pick them up 30 seconds late each day and don’t interact with the teachers in charge at all. Spending just two or three minutes from your own lunch break to ensure a smooth transition in and out of the cafeteria can work wonders.

6 ways to prevent your students from misbehaving for other teachers

5) Pro-actively seek out teachers who have a hard time managing your students and create a communication and accountability system.

Often when other teachers give you a bad report on your students, they’re doing so out of a sense of desperation. They don’t know the kids as well as you do and are in great need of insight and backup. So if a particular teacher frequently has a hard time handling your class or certain students in your class, talk with him or her about it when the kids aren’t around. You could say, “I know John can be challenging sometimes. One thing I’ve tried in my classroom with him is ___. I’ve also tried ___ and sometimes that works, too.” Find out what kind of routines and behavior management/reward systems the teacher is using, and share what has worked in your room.

You may even want to allow the teacher to utilize the behavior management or reward system you use in class. Some teachers like to have a “compliment jar” where a marble or other small item is added each time the class is complimented by another teacher. (A variation on this is the compliment chain, where a paperclip or construction paper link is added to a chain which is hung from the ceiling.) When the jar is full or the chain reaches the floor, the class earns a reward. You can allow the specials teacher or lunch monitor to hand you marbles or links when you pick your class up (or give some to the special education teacher to send back with pull-out students) so that the kids feel some greater accountability for their actions outside your classroom.

Another option for creating some additional accountability for students and collaboration with other teachers is to figure out an easy communication system. It’s never easy to discuss behavioral issues in a 30-second transition period with your entire class standing there listening in.

In some schools, each class has a traveling clipboard or binder to document communication wherever they go. Special notes can be written there from you or other teachers about anything from early dismissal to behavioral issues. Even if your school doesn’t provide these forms, you can easily and quickly develop something simple for use with your own class. Just hand the clipboard or binder to the teacher at the door during drop off and she or he can hand it back to you at pick up. If you see any issues while the class was away, you can discuss them in your class meeting or individually with students as needed.

This communication system has the added benefit of reinforcing to students that you know and care about what they do when they’re not under your supervision. Often students act up in specials or pull-outs or at lunch because they think they can–they know when their teachers aren’t communicating with one another. They pick up on the fact that you view music as solely a 30-minute planning break for yourself and have no interest in finding out what happened while you were gone. Just the presence of the binder or clipboard and occasional two-way communication sends a powerful message of accountability and collaboration to students.

6 ways to prevent your students from misbehaving for other teachers

6) Don’t take undue responsibility for how students act when you’re not with them, or allow their choices to make you feel like a bad teacher.

I hope the ideas here will prevent problems from occurring when students aren’t under your watch. Ultimately, though, you cannot control how your students behave when you’re not around. It’s up to each individual teacher to set, model, practice, and reinforce expectations for his or her classroom. Don’t put yourself on a guilt trip about something that happened while another teacher was in charge.

Be careful not to take your students’ misbehavior personally, and don’t take the comments from other teachers to heart. Your job is to instill a strong sense of community, respect, and personal responsibility in your students while they’re in your classroom. Often, those qualities will be reflected in your students even when they’re not in your room.

But just as children who are raised a certain way by their parents often behave very differently when their parents are elsewhere, it’s unrealistic to expect students to follow your behavioral expectations perfectly when they’re away from you…and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher if all your students aren’t angels when you’re not around.

The key to getting students to behave appropriately no matter where they’re at is teaching them to make wise decisions for themselves and exercise self-control rather than depending on teacher control. Obviously that’s not something you can accomplish in just ten months with every single student, but it’s a goal you can strive for as a school community, and you can work with other teachers to help nurture those qualities in your students.

If students misbehaving for other teachers has been an ongoing problem for you, don’t wait another day to create change. Set your kids up for success by making sure they’re getting enough brain breaks and movement in the classroom before going to other classes. Go talk to the other teachers and create a communication system or accountability system for students. Pick your kids up early and spend time observing or participating in what they do in other teachers’ classes. Take an interest in what students do when they’re away from you, and watch how quickly you see an improvement in their behavior.

Next week: 10 tips for conveying bad news in a parent-teacher conference

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Emily March 27, 2016 at 8:04 pm

Dealing with this now. Our P.E. teacher is completely incompetent (really) at dealing with children with behavior problems. I went to “visit” (spy) a time or two when one of my students starting having a lot of trouble in P.E. (fighting, running away, BANGING HIS HEAD AGAINST THE WALL…). She has them sitting spread out all around the gym talking to one student at a time. The gym has horrible bright lights and echoing walls. The majority of my kids literally sat for 20 minutes, and if they moved or spoke, they got yelled at. The good kids can handle pretty much anything, but my naughty and troubled little friends…wow. I shared my behavior plan with her and made some other suggestions (like, why are the kids sitting still for half of their P.E. hour??, and hey, if a troubled child is banging his head against a cement wall, you need to get help right away, and hey, if kids are fighting in P.E. you need to follow the school discipline plan and write that up). I’ve told her she can call anytime and I’ll come help out. She’s turned a deaf ear. I’ve just gotten used to having a little buddy once a week because he can’t go to P.E. anymore.


2 Ruth March 27, 2016 at 9:02 pm

How do you keep the students from bringing the problems to you and stop all the tattling.

My kids will fight in other classes and then expect me to discipline them or “fix it.” When I pick them up. If I didn’t see it, I can’t do anything.

This is a major problem.


3 Angela Watson April 3, 2016 at 2:39 pm

This is a tough situation. I wonder if using a clipboard as suggested in the article would make a difference? Maybe that would help keep you and the specials teachers in the loop so the kids wouldn’t feel the need to recount every little incident when you pick them up?

If you hold class meetings, that might be a good time for them to talk about it, too. You can encourage them to talk through the issues themselves with you as a facilitator since you can’t weigh in as an observer. I think that’s worth doing when students are really upset and feel like they need some kind of resolution.


4 Gaynor March 28, 2016 at 11:48 pm

As a specialist teacher of many years I have taught all types of children and dealt with many different teachers as well. Yes, some children certainly saw my lessons as not worthy of effort, I was not a real teacher. Interest in my class was zero for some, despite having a mix of activities. When I have gone to the class teachers for help/advice/complaints with “special” students of theirs I have had some very interesting responses. Some teachers bend over backwards to help, others just look at me and say they don’t have any trouble, implying of course that it is my fault their students are acting up. Speaking with other specialist teachers in the school soon clears up that notion though – the same kids act up with them and aren’t always easy for the class teacher either, despite what they might say. I was glad to hand some classes back to their teachers, and very thankful I only saw some of these children for an hour a week. Other children were lovely and it would be perfect if I had had a class made up of them. Unfortunately you have to teach all types, but I do wonder where the rude, over indulged, responsible for nothing children are going to end up.


5 Laura March 29, 2016 at 7:53 am

I teach English, but when I used to teach the Creative Writing elective, yeah– same thing. I saw the difference, too. “Oh, it’s just an elective” and sometimes kids were placed in my class after getting “kicked out” of other classes!!! Seriously?? I had to really make sure I treated myself, the course, and the students as though this class was a mandatory, required, “core” class. No exceptions. I followed our school disciplinary procedures to the letter. It helped, but it didn’t solve all the problems, especially when I had a mix of kids who couldn’t WAIT to take this class and write and have a blast along with kids who got stuck there and hated writing. Ugh! Frustrating!


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