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Classroom Management, Uncategorized   |   May 5, 2009

Who’s in control of your classroom?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

If your students think the answer is THEM, you might be doing something RIGHT.

Recently on the playground, a child asked to get a drink and I overheard his friend mutter, “Man, teachers get to make ALL the decisions around here.” I couldn’t help but laugh, but at the same time, I wondered if that child understood just how much control students have over how a classroom is run. After all, the teacher’s decision whether or not to let the child go inside to the water fountain was based largely on the student’s behavior: could he be trusted to walk in the hallways, refrain from splashing, and come quietly back outside?

Whether the teacher is conscious of it or not, students have a great deal of influence on how the day goes. When teachers recognize this fact, and show kids the power of their influence on how the classroom is run, a profound transformation can take place in which kids learn to self-regulate.

Here’s an excerpt from my book The Cornerstone: Classroom Management That Makes Teaching More Effective, Efficient, and Enjoyable about how to make a clear connection between the way STUDENTS behave and the way YOU behave:


Students’ cooperation or lack thereof has a remarkable effect on both the direction and outcome of a lesson. The problem is that children don’t realize the power of their influence unless you point it out to them. Students must be led to understand that when they follow the rules, you smile a lot, you give them privileges and additional freedom, and you trust them with fun activities. Similarly, they must learn that when they don’t contribute to an orderly classroom, you have no choice but to pull in the reins. This must be taught EXPLICITLY at first—students do not automatically make the connection between what they do and what you do! And once you’ve taught them that their behavior affects how the classroom is run, you must reinforce this understanding throughout the day by responding CONSISTENTLY to behavioral infractions.

Teaching students about the connection between their behavior and yours is a relatively simple matter of pointing it out. When students play around while lining up, say with a disappointed face, “Well, I guess you’re not ready. Have a seat, please. When it’s quiet, I’ll line you back up again.” When students look unhappy, say, “I know, it makes me unhappy, too. I don’t want to be late for lunch, either. The people who were playing around are causing me to miss my lunch time, too! But this is what I have to do when students misbehave, because I want them to learn to make good choices.” When students do line up correctly the next time, let them see how the right decisions also influenced the way things happen in the classroom by saying, “Wow! Almost every single person got right to their spot and didn’t say a word! I’m so impressed! See how fast and easy that was? We’re actually going to have an extra minute for our lunchtime because we didn’t have to wait around on anyone!”

Another conversation I have from time to time with my kids is about their behavior during projects and hands-on activities. If they start off well, I reinforce their behavior by saying, “Teachers don’t like using manipulatives when kids play around, talk to people, ignore directions, and get lazy during clean up. Those behaviors make teachers say, forget it! But when I see you all following along with me, using the materials the right way, listening to what I’m saying…that makes me want to use manipulatives with you all of the time. The more you behave like this when we do special projects, the more projects we’ll do.”

Students need to see privileges for what they are, and work for them. But they will only put forth effort if they believe it will impact the outcome. Conversations like the ones above have a tremendous effect on my students. When I say, “Today we’re going to use fraction tiles,” immediately five or six kids say, “Oh, thank you, Ms. Powell!” The whole class sits up straight and folds their hands automatically. They know from experience that I’ll only give them a few chances before saying, “You all aren’t showing me that this is something you want to do. You’re doing your own thing and you’re not trying to learn. Please put the materials back in their bag. I’m going to give you a page in your workbook to do instead. If you are responsible with that, then maybe we’ll try again tomorrow with the manipulatives.”

When students understand that their behavior impacts the way the classroom is run, they will be more motivated to cooperate with the routines and rules you’ve put in place. They will demonstrate a more positive attitude toward you and a willingness to work together with their classmates toward a common goal. They will show gratitude for the little things you allow them to do, and will think carefully about how to show you they are responsible and ready for additional privileges.

How do you empower students to make responsible choices in the classroom? Do you have students earn the use of certain instructional strategies, and if so, do you explain that decision to students? What do you do to convince children that they have control and influence over the way they experience life each day?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. I LOVE this post.

    At one of the elementary schools I teach at- each classroom is Love and Logic Based. The teachers collaborated and decided that each room would run by one rule:

    You may make any choice as long as it doesn’t cause a problem for anyone else.

    Since I work at two buildings, I can observe the differences this makes in the student populations, and it’s dramatic.

    Students who only have to consider one “rule” are constantly gaging their choices, and making the “behavior/outcome” connection that you talked about in this post. Connecting choices to consequence (good or bad) is a priceless real world skill that will help kids in countless ways.

  2. “This must be taught EXPLICITLY at first—students do not automatically make the connection between what they do and what you do!”

    I love that you talk about this topic. It directly ties to what I’ve been trying to teach regular ed. teachers about bilingual students as far as giving EXPLICIT information that you might think is common knowledge.

    I love the focus on consistence too. It is something that I’m continually learning as I refine my classroom management.

    Thanks for this post! 🙂

  3. Earlier this year, I was having a reeeeeeeeeally hard time with one of my classes. They just. would. not. shut. up. and do their damn work. Nor would they do any homework – like a 50% return rate when I was getting 75% to 85% from my other classes (which I worked my butt off to get, but anyway).

    It drove me crazy, and I ended up yelling at them far more than made any of us happy. I was talking about the situation with a colleague one day and I said, “They just don’t get that my attitude depends on their attitudes, and they have bad attitudes.” She said, “So tell them.”

    I seriously felt like the clouds had opened up and a ray of light was beaming down out of the heavens to spotlight me as a choir of angels sang the Hallelujah chorus nearby. I started talking to all my classes about that concept the next day, and it actually helped tremendously, especially with that group.

    I’m still not as explicit with that idea as I should be, as explicit as you recommend, but I’ll keep working on that! Thanks for this post – I’ll remember it.

  4. Angela, I don’t disagree with anything you say in your post. I do want to add and reinforce the following point: students rise to the level of expectation we set for them, whether in the classroom or in the home. To me, I see far too much parental and instructional leniency, and not enough clear boundaries, parameters and high expectations. There is too much, “Oh, that’s ok. You don’t have to try very hard.” “Trying” equates to high achievement in our society, for adults and youth alike. That needs to change.

  5. I was noticed I had to pull the reins tighter last week because my kids were getting summer fever. I really like doing projects with them but they seem to get crazy this time of year. I have your book and remembered this section when I read your post. I never really had a conversation with them about how their behavior affects what they get to do and also affects how I behave. I can never assume they know this. I had that talk today and we had a great day. During their individual Science activity, they were sooo quiet because they were so busy putting a lot of effort into their assignment. They knew that if they couldn’t handle it, they would get a boring workbook page instead. I am going to make sure that I do this on a regular basis. It makes my job so much easier!

  6. Marcy, we get a lot of that at my school, in terms of parental leniency. I have a girl in my class who is not an angel by any means and can be caught red-handed doing something wrong (such as teasing an autistic child which she did do) and if she denies it to mom, mom believes her no matter what. We get that attitude a lot with homework too. I teach 4th grade and have started asking them if they ever want to be able to go to college, get a NICE job and be someone important in their life because this lackluster attitude about homework and such isn’t going to help.

    I am very upfront and real with my kids (inner city). To that end, I can say with certainty I have the best behaved class in the school. It isn’t because I am better than the other teachers, it is because the kids KNOW and HEAR my expectations EVERY.SINGLE.DAY. and know the consequences when they do something wrong (they are bad, they have a not-so-nice teacher; they are good, they have a super nice teacher who gives them extra recess or whatever). It makes a huge difference. If the parents would all get on board with us, our school would have a 180 degree turn around in terms of motivation and behavior.

  7. Brazen: That’s so interesting that you can tell the difference between the two schools. Kids definitely need to be taught to connect their choices to outcomes, yet teachers are never taught how to help kids with this.

    Teach En Espanol: Consistency is hard, but I think many teachers misinterpret it to mean “you must respond the same way to every behavior every time”. To me, consistency just means that the should be a similarity and predictability in the way problems are handled, and deviations from the norm are explained to children so they understand why things were addressed differently. This makes the concept of consistency far less challenging.

    Teaching’: I felt the same way with the ‘ray of light’: the idea of teaching kids the connection was huge, and I couldn’t believe no one had ever taught me that! Just be as explicit as your kids need–some groups need more help than others. 😉

    Marcy: Good point. Just trying is not enough for kids. Did you read some of those posts/articles out there about 6 weeks ago re: college students thinking they should earn at least a B in their courses if they put in effort? This is a huge problem in our culture.

    Marlene: You know, I don’t want to present workbooks are punishment, that’s the fine line. I let my kids know that we need to us them sometimes because they’re a great way to practice skills. But I do explain that sometimes teachers give extra worksheets (more than necessary) because it’s too much trouble to do hands-on stuff. And a big reason why it’s too much trouble is because of the kids’ poor behavior. They can change teachers’ feelings about that by being responsible. I think it’s cool that your kids responded to that!

    R Wood: I totally agree. It’s frustrating at times when we work so hard to teach the kids consequences and then they go home and the parents undo it all. Fortunately, we are able to give the kids a taste of the real world 35 hours a week. That’s got to count for something. 🙂

  8. I may have sounded like I used workbooks as punishment (that’s how it sounded once I re-read my post) but that’s not what I meant. I did tell them that sometimes we do need to do workbooks or worksheets but that sometimes, doing an activity is a great way to learn information. I told them they can only be trusted with activities if they behave and follow directions.

  9. Marlene, it didn’t sound like you were using worksheets as punishment at all. I totally got what you were saying. Your comment just got me thinking, because it’s something I’m in danger of at times. Especially since I give sooo many test prep assignments. Sometimes I feel like I have to explain to them: look, this is what we need to do, and I’ll give you some fun activities soon. Other times, I have the freedom to give them fun stuff but they can’t handle it. So it’s a constant balance. I enjoyed reading how you handle it. 🙂

  10. When I used to substitute, I’d implement 2 things for classroom control. One was “wiggle time” and the second was a timer. For the younger students, the wiggle time was very effective for grades 2-4. Grade 5 seemed “too old” for the wiggle time. But… the timer, i used in grades 2-5 with ease.

    Wiggle time happens approx every 20-50 minutes depending on age group/class/attention span. The average for most groups was about 35-40 minutes. When I noticed the class getting restless, i’d have them get up and “wiggle”… aka shake it out. I implemented a “wiggle, freeze, wiggle, sit down” pattern. Soon the kids kept asking when is wiggle time. Wiggle time would be implemented when i noticed the class getting “antsy”. The time usually lasted no more than a minute, but it broke up the monotony of worksheets/sub material for the children.

    The second tool i used was a timer. Everytime the class would waste my time (ie if i had to repeat myself or wait for them to get quiet to listen) I would start a timer. That “time” would then be taken off their recess. The class could “earn” that time back if they were exceptionally good once time had been added to the timer. Usually i had less than a minute and a half of time, but that minute is a LONG time to a 2nd-5th grader when recess is at stake. Most of the classes i worked with were able to earn their recess time… and most of the time i’d get the “shhhhhhhh she has the timer!!!” kids self monitoring themselves responsibly. All in all, i only had to make one class “waste” time for recess (all 30 seconds)

    sorry for the winded post.

  11. Angela,
    I’m on a team with a dominant teacher. I’ve stood up to her on behalf of my partner who was being bullied. My partner was able to get moved to another grade level, but I’m stuck next year. Any advice on dealing with an antagonistic alpha?

  12. Angela,
    I agree with you completely about explicitly stating the expectations and making the connection between the student’s behavior and the activities they are trusted to utilize. Even kindergarten kids get it! They understand that if they “waste our time” by taking too long to clean up, using materials unwisely, or taking too long to settle down, we won’t have the time for the extra fun learning activities, such as the flashlight word wall game, or dancing around the room in a conga line chanting out our newest sight word. I think explaining and making these connections aloud for them is critical. Great post!

  13. In my k classroom we use the language “Are you making our classroom a great place to learn?” We point out when it is happening and when it is not. We try to make it clear from the outset that this is our goal, a classroom full of learning, and that children’s choices make it possible.

    Enjoyed your post!

  14. From what I have read and seen, you Miss Angela are in control of your room.

    That is not a criticism of any kind, just what I have observed from reading your blog and looking over the pictures you posted.

  15. The Bus Driver: Thanks for sharing those excellent suggestions. That, my friend, is why you are the best. bus. driver. ever.

    Anon: Got you covered in the May 8th post. 😉

    Joan Young: You are absolutely right, kindergarteners can get this. Imagine how differently the older kids would act if they had made the connection between behavior and results as five-year-olds!

    Pamelamama: I love the phrase “Are you making our classroom a great place to learn?”. Totally stealing that, thanks!

    CowboyJoe: Ah, I can always count on you for a dose of reality. Yes, *I* am in control of my room. Really, every great teacher is. The trick is getting the kids to buy-in and recognize the power of their influence.

  16. I with the majority as far as agreeing with this post. I teach middle school and these students still need to go through this behavior modification process. My saying is, “Behavior = Choice” Good behavior = a classroom with 5 minutes ‘social time’ at the end, no seating chart, etc. Bad behavior = seating chart, no social time, no off-time bathroom breaks, no use of my games if they finish work early, etc.

  17. “Yes, *I* am in control of my room. Really, every great teacher is. The trick is getting the kids to buy-in and recognize the power of their influence.”
    Excellent points, they also have to feel safe, with the home lives of some of these kids it’s the least we can do, that and show them a little compassion.

  18. Teachers should make students understand the importance of rules and benefits they gain when they follow those rules.students should be motivated to understand the privileges for what they are and work accordingly.An excellent website brings out information about controlling a class in an effective manner.
    classroom control

  19. Great post. You must have stepped foot in my classroom as the conversations you depict have come right out of my mouth. My first few years of teaching I would let their behavior ruin me as well as the flow of a lesson. Learning to stay calm was hard, but effective. Level with them. I agree with your reader that they will rise to expectations. I find it funny when kids catch each other not following rules and angrily point out they could ruin it for everyone. That makes me step back, give over the control, and smile. LESSON LEARNED!

  20. My kindergarten students learned good choices=good consequences, bad choices=bad consequences. We talked about this constantly; that they had a choice in everything. At the end of the year I would hear them tell other kids your bad choices got you bad consequences.

  21. Totally great post that EVERY new teacher should read! I use these types of strategies and nuances in my classroom and I am known both for having kids who behave AND my kids having fun learning. I always point out to my students at the beginning of the year how the rest of the year can go, depending on the choices THEY make.

    I LOVE that you point out that IT HAS TO BE TAUGHT!

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