We’ve all been there — that point in a classroom where things are moving along nicely. There is a busy energy in the room, the kids are working productively, and the volume in the room is manageable.
But then it gets a little louder, and then a little louder, and before you know it, things feel out of control.
The only thing you can do is raise your voice to settle down the room–something you didn’t want to do.
You think to yourself, There must be a better way. These kids are out of control. What can I do to calm them down?
The hard part is there usually is not one magic answer that works every time in every situation. But there are strategies you can use to prevent disruptive behaviors before they begin.
In the book Running The Room: The Teacher’s Guide To Behavior (click for a free summary), the author, Tom Bennet, describes two ways of addressing student misbehavior. One way is the Fire Brigade Model, where you are constantly running around putting out fires as bad behavior comes up with little time or energy left to focus on teaching.
Another method is the Fire Prevention Model, where you get ahead of those bad behaviors and focus on shaping your classroom environment and routines to avoid as many fires as possible. This method saves you time and stress, so you can focus on what you love most- teaching.
The way I look at it, classroom management is broken down into four key areas, and all of them are important. Designing SPACE, creating ROUTINES, building RELATIONSHIPS, and having firm EXPECTATIONS. They all can be used to settle down a room or, even better yet- keep it calm before the tipping point arrives and things start to feel out of control.
Consideration #1: Space
Have you ever walked into a room that suddenly made you feel welcome and at ease? Certain spaces have a way of doing that. There are many ways you can arrange your classroom to create an inviting space for children.
Designing an environment that is organized, free from clutter, and has well-defined places for students to work and play all contribute to a room design that sets your classroom up for success. Consider these strategies when designing your room:
- Flexible seating is an attractive option for children and allows them to choose a workplace that is most comfortable for them.
- Organized materials help children grow in their independence and confidence in the room by quickly being able to find what they need. It promotes a sense of comfort and engagement by having work materials easily accessible to them.
- Cozy reading corners with a clearly labeled library give children a designated space to read, relax, and take a quiet break when needed.
- Decorating with warm, neutral colors, soft, dimmable LED lights, and decorative plants can create a calming environment.
- Using area rugs and furniture can create a variety of clearly defined workspaces that provide opportunities for small group and partner work to happen.
Student-centered environments make children feel welcomed and valued, knowing they matter and belong in this space. These strategies contribute to a well-designed space that sets the tone for a calm, centered workday where children can succeed.
Consideration #2: Routines
Establishing routines that work for you will be the cornerstone of your classroom management.
How do you want your students to behave in the classroom? What happens when they do not comply? What learning protocols do you value and want to use regularly with your students? How do you want to design your daily schedule? How will you guide students through transitions?
Teachers must make these important decisions ahead of time, teach these routines through explicit modeling, and practice each one repeatedly.
Some people think you need to put as much time into teaching routines as you do teaching your content because, with well-run classroom routines, it is easier for focused instruction to happen. Think about these critical parts of the day and what you and your students will do when:
- Entering or exiting the classroom
- Transitioning between activities
- Taking bathroom breaks
- Collecting and distributing materials
- Asking for help
- Signaling for quiet
- Finishing work early
You can download a free script for teaching, modeling, and reinforcing procedures here.
Once routines are established, be consistent and maintain them daily, reteaching them to students throughout the year or tweaking them when they no longer seem to be working. The structure of daily routines provides a sense of order and predictability to the day. Routines are calming for children who feel anxious when they do not know what is happening next and help create a safe learning environment.
There are many different kinds of routines to incorporate into your day. Some can be used to build classroom community, such as starting with a Morning Meeting every day. Others can guide student learning through protocols like think-pair-share during classroom discussions. Routines can also bring calm to a room when the energy is rising. For example, meditations, breathing exercises, or even going outdoors for activities in nature are all routines you can introduce into your day that can bring new energy, reset student behavior, and help children focus more.
Investing time in establishing and maintaining the routines you value most in your classroom will allow you and your students to enjoy a classroom that runs smoothly and calmly most of the time.
Consideration #3: Relationships
A strong classroom community is built on genuine relationships with students that allow them to feel a sense of belonging. When students know they are seen, valued, and heard by their teacher and peers, it helps them know that even if they make a mistake, there are people who still want them to succeed and do well. Forming relationships with students is one way to show them you genuinely care about them.
When students face social-emotional challenges that impact their behavior, they respond to teachers who have earned their trust and respect. In this article, Dave Stuart Jr. talks about forming Moments of Genuine Connection with students, so students feel valued, known, and respected.
You can do this by checking in with each student individually as often as you can. It could be as simple as greeting every child by name at the classroom door before class begins. Or creating a checklist where you make sure to have a private, brief conversation with several students every day, making sure to get to everyone within the week. (You can download a free checklist here.)
When getting to know your students, ask yourself, “What is the emotional tone of my classroom? How do my students feel in this space? Have I greeted all my students by name today? Have I had at least one positive interaction with each student today? Is there a student who needs extra support or attention today?” Try to create a welcoming space that allows you to connect with each student as an individual and take a genuine interest in their lives.
In knowing your students well, you will be able to notice signs of distress if a problem develops in the class with one student or a group of students. Then you can intervene early- ask questions, listen, and try to find out where the root of the problem started.
One way to address the issue is by determining the need behind the student’s behavior. This can go a long way in preventing behavior problems from escalating.
Beneath every behavior, there is a feeling. And beneath each feeling is a need. And when we meet the need rather than focus on behavior, we begin to deal with the cause, not the symptom.”
Despite everyone’s best efforts, problems in the classroom do happen, resulting in disruptive behaviors and hurt feelings. Bringing your class together after disruptions occur to model genuine empathy and respectful language for those involved can be a way to acknowledge and process those difficult feelings.
Ask your students questions like, “How are you feeling? What is something you can do to calm your emotions? How can we show empathy to those who are struggling?” These are ways to validate and process the challenging moments that arise in the classroom.
Hopefully, nurturing relationships and a sense of belonging will encourage students to reset during challenging moments so they can move calmly through the rest of the day.
Consideration #4: Expectations
Having clear expectations for students means setting clear rules, teaching what they will look like, and establishing logical consequences. Classroom rules and expectations are essential in creating a calm learning environment.
Once you have established rules together, use direct, concise, and simple language to remind students of them throughout the day. What we say and how we say it can tremendously impact the classroom. Our teacher language can model respectful, fair, and caring interactions for students. Using effective language encourages children to respect and follow the rules.
Even simple, direct two-word phrases can be enough when given in a strong voice to recenter a classroom and remind students of your expectations. “Calm bodies.” “Kind words.” “Eyes here.” “Voices off.”
Be ready to respond, reiterate rules, and teach consequences when children do not follow classroom expectations. Responsive Classroom teaches the use of these specific strategies to use when developing logical consequences in the classroom-
- “You break it, you fix it” can be used to mend emotional and physical messes. For example, a child can rebuild a block tower after accidentally knocking it over. Likewise, a child can repair hurt feelings with an “apology of action” by doing something to soothe the injury, such as drawing a picture or playing a game.
- Temporary loss of privilege is a simple way to help a child remember to responsibly use that privilege (art materials, group time). For example, losing a privilege for a class period or a day can help a child pause to remember or relearn a rule.
- “Time-out” or “Take a Break” is a strategy to help children learn self-control. A child who is disrupting the work of the group is asked to leave for a few minutes. This gives the child a chance to regain composure and rejoin the group when ready.
Creating quiet spaces such as a Calming Corner in the classroom for students to take a break can create a place for students to leave the group when they are disregulated to reset while other kids continue learning. By having separate spaces in the room, students having a challenging time meeting expectations have a place to reset themselves.
Have a sensory toolkit available to help regulate students who need to be away from the business and noise of the classroom, and hang a poster in that space to remind students of other strategies to use:
- counting backward
- deep breathing
- getting water
- journaling or drawing
Another strategy is to give students who need to take a break a special job, like running an errand or being a helper to the teacher by organizing or passing out materials. Redirecting off-task behavior by providing reasonable choices and options for alternative activities at that moment is a positive way to help kids to reset. Sometimes, these strategies can be enough of a distraction to refocus students’ attention and better prepare them to meet expectations for learning.
Children can rise to high expectations, but they need to be clear on what those expectations are and know that limits and logical consequences will be consistently followed to create a successful and safe school day for all.
What happens when these strategies aren’t enough?
Despite all your best efforts to keep a calm environment for your students, moments will arise when things are different from what you anticipated. There may even be many moments when it’s a struggle to think of a logical consequence or to find the right teacher language or the calm voice you want to use. Sometimes things escalate more quickly than expected, and we do not always use the best response. In those moments, give yourself grace, knowing you are doing the best you can and tomorrow will be another day to try again.
If someone in the classroom is having a bad day or the daily schedule has to be changed to accommodate a special event, these things can contribute to the whole day feeling off. Students will react to these changes differently, and not all of it is under your control. Sometimes you need to be flexible and do the best you can in a given moment.
In those challenging moments, sometimes even the teacher needs to “take a break.” That might mean pausing to take a few deep breaths before responding to a situation or calling a colleague for help. Talking with another teacher about the ups and downs of the day might help you find humor in the situation or process the problematic parts when humor cannot be found. Either way, it can help you get ideas for how to address similar problems in the future.
If these strategies are not working, it may be time to seek the support of other professionals who can look at the situation differently and be better equipped to meet the mental health needs of specific students.
But most of the time, looking at your classroom space, routines, relationships, and expectations is an excellent way to start creating positive experiences in the classroom for you and your students. It will help you bring more calm moments into the room so you can focus on what you love most- teaching!
Alissa Alteri Shea
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