If you’ve been listening to my Truth for Teachers podcast in previous seasons, you’ll remember I have a feature called Ask Angela Anything where I answer teachers’ questions. In the past, I’ve dedicated an entire episode to each question I answer so I can give a really thorough response. But that limits the number of questions I can respond to. Plus, if someone asked a question I didn’t feel I could spend 10-15 minutes talking about, or if I wasn’t sure I could make the topic feel relevant to the very diverse audience of teachers who listen to the show, then I just didn’t answer it.

So this season, I thought it might be fun to answer a couple questions briefly in one episode. In fact, I’m challenging myself to answer 5 questions in 15 minutes–quick and to the point, which is not necessarily my style (you guys know I like to be detailed and thorough) but I’m going outside the box here and doing something different. So here we go.

ask angela classroom management

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This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. 

When I teach 8-11 year olds they tend to get very noisy, especially when doing something exciting. I think, this is quite natural and shows that they’re enjoying themselves but at the same time, it is too hard to get them back. How can I cope with that?

Hi, Natasha! A noisy class doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing anything “wrong”—when kids get really involved in an activity, they tend to forget to monitor their volume. As you mentioned, that’s actually kind of a good thing—it means they’re really engaged in the task!

So first and foremost, you may need to adjust your own expectations for what a classroom is “supposed” to sound like. Many of us have a vision of a traditional classroom in which students are seated quietly in rows with their hands folded, and we have to actively create a new vision for what we want our classrooms to look (and sound like) today.

Then talk to your class about the situation. Tell them about the problem you notice and ask kids what their solution would be. You could say, “I love to see that you all are enjoying the activities we do and I’m happy you are excited about learning. Sometimes it gets loud in our room when you’re working. This hurts my ears and makes it hard for me to talk with you and answer your questions. Have you noticed this? What do you think we could do about it?”

Just sharing with the kids how you feel about the noise level makes them more sensitive to the issue and shows them that you’re not a cranky teacher trying to take away all their fun; you are on their side working for the same goal, which is a positive, fun learning environment. Invite them to take ownership over the issue and address it in ways that make sense for them.

Getting students “back” when they’re involved in an activity is best done with non-verbal signals so that you don’t have to shout over the kids or nag them. Teach your students clearly defined signals for which they know to “freeze”: it could be a bell, a clicker, chimes, etc. Some teachers like to also dim the lights to get students’ attention. Model and practice this signal with them as many times as needed. Try to use the technique sparingly so that students take it seriously: you don’t want to interrupt their work and thought processes unnecessarily.

How do you manage transition times? My class takes any opportunity to mess around so moving tables or tidying up is the perfect opportunity to play fight with each other, call names etc.

I have two good blog posts that might help with this, and I’m going to put them in the transcript for the show. One is called 15 creative and respectful ways to quiet a class, which I think will be helpful in getting your students’ attention when they’re noisy and not paying attention during transitions. The other post is called How to get students to follow directions the first time, which will help you make sure they get on task right away when the transition time is over and you’re ready to begin, but they’re not.

So I think these two blog posts will be helpful for you, but I do want to speak specifically to what I think is part of the root problem here, which is that students don’t know how to behave appropriately during unstructured time and assume it’s a free-for-all. You’ll want to model and practice that, and then even after the kids understand the expectations, you’ll want to be proactive in preventing the problem. Some groups of kids just really don’t do well with unstructured time and so you’ll want to minimize that as much as possible.

You can create urgency with a timer. I like using a variety of timers so kids don’t get bored: kitchen timers, an online stopwatch shown via the LCD projector, an old fashioned alarm clock, and so on. When kids know they only have 30 seconds to put away one set of materials and get out another, it feels less like a break to them where they can kind of kick back, take their time, start a conversation with a friend across the room, and so on.

Pick up the pace during your transitions, don’t let them drag on too long, and keep the momentum of your lessons going. Don’t walk around to the back of the room and have individual conversations with students during transitions–that signals to kids that you’re not teaching and you won’t be needing their attention again for at least another minute or two. Stay right in the center of the action and narrate what you see to the whole class: “Great, Team 2 has their notebooks and pencils out. Fantastic. We have 30 seconds left… I’m watching to see which team is going to be next” and so on.

When time is up, dive directly into the lesson, and give kids a task to do immediately, like finding an important vocabulary word on the page, or turning and telling a neighbor a summary of what they wrote the day before. Get them immediately engaged in an activity and THEN you can walk around and follow up with the kids who aren’t ready or are off-task.

One final thing that I’d say about this…if students are playing around during transitions, that’s pretty normal. I would expect that to some degree in any classroom. We’re talking about children and teenagers here, not robots.

But if anytime the class has a few moments of unstructured time, they’re fighting and name calling as you indicated, I’d also encourage you to do more community building activities. You want to create a class culture of supportiveness and kindness and collaboration. If a lot of students haven’t internalized that yet, go back to some of those activities you probably did in the first week of school and keep building your sense of community and establishing those class norms. If just a few kids are creating the problem and the rest are sort of reacting to them, then look into ways to provide more structure and support for the students who need it, both during transitions and in terms of appropriate social interaction with their peers in general.

How can you automate a classroom when you must put all materials away for others to use your space? I teach on a stage, and I have a different class setup every day and sometimes every class period. It’s very challenging to refocus classes of 26 kindergartners, 1st, and 2nd graders.  They receive Music and Physical Education from me, leave their classroom building 2 blocks away to attend my class at the end of the day. Transitions eat up all the class time.

Hi, Chris! It’s always tough when you don’t have your own permanent classroom space. I’d advise you to set up a rolling cart with your materials (a locking one, if possible) and teach your students how to quickly get the right materials, use them appropriately, and then put them back the right way. Spend as much time as you need to one practicing these routines: use the 7 steps for teaching any procedure.

Be patient with the kids, as they’re quite young and not in their familiar learning environment. Keep your lessons very structured and don’t try to cram too much into a short time. You’ll need to be very firm about your expectations and present the hands-on activities you do as privileges that must be earned.

Start small, maybe by giving them just crayons and paper for art or one simple instrument for music, and tell the kids they have to show you that they can handle these things responsibly. Guide and encourage them during the activity, giving lots of feedback, and then debrief afterward. Slowly work up to activities that are harder to manage, like painting.

It’s also a good idea to have some basic routines for starting and ending the class. For example, you may want to always play the same song as students come in: it should be something fairly calming and have some hand motions they have to concentrate on remembering and executing so that they’re not playing around and talking. Teach them to fall silent after the song ends and listen for you to explain the day’s activity. You could have a clean up and closure song to end the lesson, so that you can review the directions for cleaning up, play the song, and then have all students sitting in their chairs when the song ends, waiting to be dismissed.

Think carefully about these beginning and ending procedures and plan them out well, as they’ll set the tone for your instruction and provide a predictable framework for all the lessons you do in between.

What are your thoughts on whole class reward systems, like when the class earns a reward when they fill a jar with marbles?

What are your thoughts on “How is my day” behavior charts that kids are moved up or down on? I see these throughout the classrooms I visit in my district. What about ClassDojo?

I like reward systems that focus on the positive. There’s a number of pedagogical reasons to use reward systems that I think are solid, and I did an in-depth two-part podcast post about this last season. If you want to delve into that, check out the episode or blog post called Should teachers reward students for doing what they’re “supposed” to do? and the second part called Responsible rewards: using the “now-that” principle with students which gives specific ideas of reward systems that are effective not only in the short-term, but in achieving our goal of teaching students to self-regulate their own behavior.

But to answer Reuben’s question specifically about a whole class reward system where every time the class gets a compliment from another teacher or works together to accomplish a goal or accept responsibility when they make a mistake, they get a marble in the jar, and the full jar can be traded in for a reward that the class votes on, like extra recess or ordering pizza during lunch or something, I’d say, sure. There’s not a whole lot of fun things happening in many classrooms today with all the emphasis on testing, so why not? I like ClassDojo, too, when it’s used ONLY for recognizing the positive and kids don’t have points taken away.

I think sometimes we forget that teaching is supposed to be enjoyable and so is learning. Let’s not make it into this thing where we’re spending the whole day on watching for and reacting to behavior problems. A reward system like the marble jar or ClassDojo forces you to look for, acknowledge, and reinforce the good choices that students make and the great work they’re doing, and that’s only going to improve your attitude and motivation, which helps improve the students’ attitude and motivation. It is de-motivating to have behavior systems in which you are penalizing students and looking for infractions and issuing punishments all day.

Now I’m not going to tell you that some sort of consequence system is wrong to have, because every classroom is a different. You may want to use the whole class reward system in addition to a punitive system. That’s what I did at first, I had both, and I realized that the reward system solved 90% of behavior issues and I didn’t need the punitive system anymore. The reward system was not only more effective but a lot more fun. It put me in a good mood to be constantly reinforcing the great things kids were doing.  

So doing both can be a way to phase out the punitive system slowly as you get comfortable with it. I know there are a lot of teachers using those old clip charts and they want to get rid of them but don’t know how. So add a reward system on top of what you currently do, something that’s focused on the positive, and slowly phrase out the punitive system. This is what I did for a year and then my last 6-7 years in the classroom I only had a reward system–nothing punitive and it worked extremely well. Most kids do NOT need a punitive system—they just need reminders, and practice, and encouragement, and redirection, and for the ones who do need extra support, you can set up individual behavior contracts with pre-defined goals and accountability and consequences.

You can solve just about any classroom management problem by teaching students the what, the why, and the how of meeting expectations and being successful.

This episode is sponsored by Kiddom, a standards-based platform helping teachers personalize learning. With Kiddom, teachers gain access to an unlimited library of content, with beautiful, actionable reports. And the best part? Kiddom is free! Visit www.kiddom.co to learn more.

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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