How to Turn Around Annoying Behavior Problems
Seven common challenging classroom situations and how to handle them
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
If student behavior problems have you feeling frustrated, rest assured that you are not the only new teacher who feels this way. It comes with the job description . . . even seasoned professionals sometimes have trouble quieting chatty students, redirecting high-energy kids, and curbing tattletales. Fortunately, it's still early enough in the year to develop new methods of managing behavior problems. Here are descriptions of seven common challenging classroom situations and how to handle them.
1. "John pushed in line and Maria said a bad word and Laura said . . . "
- The Scenario: Olivia has made it her business to let you know exactly what happens on the playground. While she thinks she's helping you to enforce the rules, her classmates have branded her a tattletale. (And, frankly, you can't help but agree.)
- Quick Response: The next time you hear "Teacher! Teacher!" ask yourself, "Is this telling or tattling?" Most 5- to 10-year-olds tattle on a classmate for the same reason they tug on your pant leg — simply to get a few moments of your attention. If this is the case, try simply replying, "Thank you for saying that." If a child is telling you something serious, then obviously you need to address the situation immediately.
- Long-Term Solution: Try making a tattle box. Students write down their name, the date, and what they want to tell you on slips of paper and put the slips in a box. Make a point of telling students that you will read their notes daily and get back to them if it is necessary. Be clear that students can still come to you if it's an emergency. Discuss examples of "good" telling versus "bad" tattling. This technique will cut down on the "bad" tattling, and it's not a bad way to practice penmanship.
Cindy Lynch, a specialist in gifted education in Oxford, Alabama, reports success with her tattletale students through bibliotherapy — the use of books to help students to solve problems. It works well with students without being confrontational or punitive," she says. Try reading Jeanie Franz Ransom's Don't Squeal Unless It's a Big Deal: A Tale of Tattletales together.
2. Jake's bothering me again!"
- The Scenario: Whether you're reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom or reviewing subtraction, Jake always has the wiggles. He speaks out and bumps into other children, who then add their voices to the chorus.
- Quick Response: It's hard not to resort to the broken record. "Jake. Jake, I said no. Jake, I'm counting to three." Instead of repeatedly reprimanding an easily distracted student, Sister St. John Delany, Ph.D., a professor of education at Pace University, recommends having him or her sit next to you. "Sometimes, that's all you need to do," she says. "You can also place your hand gently on a shoulder, which can be a soothing influence."
- Long-Term Solution: With any activity, it's critical that you establish a purpose and convey your expectations to students. Write a brief outline of your lesson on the board and review appropriate behavior, emphasizing how distractions will affect the whole class. "Because I'm going to read aloud, eyes should be on me. And we all want to find out what happens next, so please raise your hand before talking or asking a question." It sounds simple, but this will help cut down on disruptive behavior. Delany also suggests that less is more. "Children will stop listening if your explanations are too lengthy."
3. "What are we doing now, Mrs. Smith?"
- The Scenario: You just said that it was time to clean up and go to music. Three times, no less. But Henry is still surrounded by construction paper, and Cara is pulling on your sleeve asking what she's supposed to do. Sometimes it seems like your class has tuned you out.
- Quick Response: Try a strategy called, "Show, Don't Say." For instance, tell your students, "You have this many minutes to complete the activity," while holding up five fingers. By having to visually focus on your hand, they'll be more likely to remember your instructions.
- Long-Term Solution: You can appeal to students' multiple senses in other ways, too. Polly Matyorauta, the program coordinator at the Center for Excellence in Education at Central Michigan University, suggests trying a technique called visual paragraphing. Stand in place and say, "First, you will do this," and explain your instructions briefly. Then take a big step to your left and say, "Second, you will . . . " Then take another step to your left and say, "And third, you will . . . " By moving your body across the room, students will have to process the directions visually, as well as aurally. This technique works especially well for tasks with several steps.
4. "I don't know where my homework is."
- The Scenario: Either the dog ate it, his sister colored on it, or his mom lost it — Thomas always seems to have an excuse. His desk is messy and his locker is even worse. As his fifth-grade teacher, you're worried about how he will cope with the increased demands of middle school, let alone high school.
- Quick Response: Try establishing more routines, says Joan Bohmann, the director of Professional Standards and Continuing Professional Development at the National Association of School Psychologists. "Have a set time every day that homework is collected," she suggests. "And use a designated basket in your room for assignments."
- Long-Term Solutions: Be sure parents understand the expectations you have for your students so that they can help their children better meet them. "Organizational skills aren't always intuitive for kids," Bohmann says. You can help students learn these skills by having colored folders for each subject, with one pocket for homework and the other for completed work. Some teachers will have students as young as first grade use assignment notebooks and require daily parent signatures on homework. What works for one kid may not work for another. It can be tough to have a dozen different systems, but some flexibility will help even the most disorganized child.
5. "It's too hard. I don't know how to start!"
- The Scenario: It's time for student to work in their reading journals, but Katelyn is just staring at hers. Soon she rests her head on her desk and refuses to work altogether. It's always a battle with her.
- Quick Response: Often students like Katelyn are feeling overwhelmed, so start by breaking the task down into smaller steps. Matyorauta suggests saying, "Let's brainstorm first. When I come back in two minutes, tell me what your first sentence will be about."
- Long-Term Solution: Your ultimate goal is to show students how to break tasks down into more manageable steps on their own. For now, walk them through the process. For many students, the hardest part is getting started. As a class, talk about what to do if kids are feeling stuck. Suggest brainstorming with a partner or checking a textbook. Once you've shown them how to do that — and taken time to work one-on-one with them, they will be better able to tackle the task at hand.
6. "Eli called me an ugly stupid-head!" "No, I didn't!" "Yes, you did."
- The Scenario: Eli and Cole are at it again. As soon as they walk in the door from recess, Cole runs up to you, saying, "Eli called me a bad name!"
- Quick Response: Take Eli and Cole aside and talk about how words can be hurtful. Encourage them to talk about their feelings using "I statements" and to apologize to one another.
- Long-Term Solution: When it comes to dealing with teasing, or even simple personality conflicts, prevention is the key. Brandon Beck, a fifth-grade teacher in Ossining, New York, plays a song for his students called "Don't Laugh at Me," by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The lyrics talk about issues of belonging and bullying: "Don't laugh at me; don't call me names / Don't get your pleasure from my pain." After discussing the song with students, Beck has them draw life-size outlines of themselves on a sheet of paper. "On the outside they'll write examples of negative behaviors, or put-downs. On the inside, they'll list some positive behaviors, called put-ups," he says. These activities are part of the "Don't Laugh at Me" curriculum developed by Operation Respect; some are available at minimal or no charge.
7. "Mr. Hayward, you need to learn to control your kids."
- The Scenario: Argh. Your principal comes to you after seeing your students swinging from the drinking fountain while walking from gym to lunch. You always have students line up in an orderly manner to go out, but sometimes the order falls apart faster than kids can say, "Hey! There's gum on the floor!"
- Quick Response: First, apologize and let your principal know you will address the issue. Then the next time you leave the room with your class, give your students clear expectations. ("We will walk in single file, and we will not talk in the hallway.") Convey the consequences ("If you choose to talk or to run, you will stay inside for recess"), and give lots of positive reinforcement ("Kate, you're doing such a great job of staying in line!").
- Long-Term Solution: A school-wide behavior policy is invaluable. Not only does a policy keep expectations consistent as students work with different teachers throughout the course of the day, but it also carries from grade to grade. At the Claremont School, where Beck teaches, they've adopted a national model called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS focuses on prevention of negative behaviors; the teachers at Claremont also use a "ticket system" to reward students who follow the rules. "It was really easy to integrate the program," Beck says. "It's also very motivating for our students." And that's the kind of news every new teacher wants to hear during the first few months of school!
This article originally appeared in Instructor magazine, published by Scholastic Inc.