Classroom Management Strategies: Practical Advice for First-Time Teachers

Teaching is a noble profession that brings immense joy, but it is not without its daily challenges. Picture this: a classroom buzzing with students, each with their unique personalities, backgrounds and learning styles. Although it is a beautiful mosaic of diversity, it can also present a multitude of classroom management hurdles that can bring learning to an abrupt standstill.

For example, let’s step into the 5th grade classroom of Ms. Anderson, a second-year history teacher who has prepared an engaging lesson, eager to excite her student’s curiosity. Within minutes of starting the lesson, the classroom dynamic takes an unexpected turn. A group of friends begin chatting, Noah is doodling in the margins of his notebook, and Maria, usually an attentive student, is gazing out the window lost in thought. Ms. Anderson’s heart sinks, as she is walking the tightrope between capturing the minds of her students while simultaneously ensuring classroom order — pause. Ms. Anderson begins doubting herself. She wonders if she is cut out for this profession and begins critiquing the hours of thought and preparation she put into planning for the day.

Although this can feel like an isolating roadblock, there is no need to self-sabotage. This dynamic is not unique to Ms. Anderson’s classroom. If you peer down the halls, chatter resounds from each and every classroom, teachers can be heard pausing their lesson plans to address behavior and teachers in the school district miles away share in the sentiment of finding themselves at a loss for furthering each child’s education while remaining attentive to their emotional needs.

In this blog, we invite you to join us on a journey of empowerment, as we strive to equip you with not only theoretical knowledge but practical, actionable steps and resources that can make a tangible difference.

Classroom Dynamics

Education consists of multiple curricular narratives, and depending on the school, managing behavior is approached with nuance. For example, the traditional curriculum, or “back to basics”, positions you in an authoritative, top-down position of instruction. Students play a passive role in their learning and engage in rote memorization of material, are tested via standardized means and are expected to adhere to pre-established social norms. The traditional curriculum is what should come to mind when you picture a room full of students, seated orderly in rows, busily scribing the lecture and studying for tests that show individual advancement and progress.

On the other hand, we find the progressive curriculum, which scaffolds you as a supporter to help kids take power and control over their learning experience. This model decentralizes you as an authority figure, instead leveraging you as a co-creator; encouraging kids to learn from the world around them, collaboratively with their peers, and outside the boundaries of formalized testing rituals.

Creating Community in the Classroom

At the beginning of the school year, working with your students to establish community classroom rules exposes them to fairness and gives them direction over compromising acceptable and unacceptable behavior, rather than forcing their identities into social compartments. These rules can be documented in a student handbook that includes student artwork, appropriate jokes, encouraging quotes and important dates for homework, tests and countdowns to breaks from school. It is also helpful to keep students in the know regarding the content that will be covered in class. This can build excitement for lessons, engaging students long before the material is delivered. It can also provide you with feedback as to which subject areas students are curious about.

While these student engagement strategies can create classroom cohesion, it is also important to understand the needs of specific students. Students with disabilities such as ADD, ADHD, Dyslexia, and Autism can have a particularly hard time engaging in group work, but failing to understand their individual needs can ostracize them from reaping the benefits of a healthy classroom community. Incorporate mental health awareness in your classroom and curriculum by offering students opportunities for movement, access to fidgets, and modifying materials to include visual, audial, or tactile components can help curate inclusion for students from each and every background.

Seating can also play a critical role in students’ motivation to learn and offering seating that meets their individual preferences can be a viable solution, so long as it doesn’t create more distraction. For example, rather than organizing your classroom in a uniform fashion, provide students with multiple options and orientations; part of the classroom in rows for kids who would like space, a collaborative circle for students wanting to engage with one another and yoga balls or adaptive chairs for kids seeking movement.

Another crucial component in developing effective classroom management caters to identifying, recognizing and celebrating diverse identities. Students come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, political backgrounds, religious backgrounds, have different personalities and different interests. Incorporating these elements into lesson plans and classroom materials helps each student feel connected to their education, bringing the birds eye view to a personal connection. A crucial recognition in this process is that you may not be the expert on specific components of identity, but finding experts, parents and community members who can bring a more personal, relatable and memorable component into the classroom can be an authentic step to show care and consideration to your students.

Managing Behavior and Building Rapport

Behavior is inextricably linked to a function. While Ms. Anderson had the best intentions of delivering her history lesson with enthusiasm and care, her student’s attention may have been waning due to the lack of collaboration and control they had over their circumstances. Each of the disruptive behaviors had a function, whether it was chatting, doodling, or daydreaming, but each also had one thing in common—they gave the student autonomy and directive in a rather restrictive environment.

Considering you go through at least four years of university before teaching, most would think you receive extensive training on managing behavior, but this is far from the truth. In an analysis conducted by RethinkED, the results validated that about a third of teachers are effectively trained to manage challenging student behavior and more than 40% of teachers think they are not fully prepared to efficiently manage their classrooms. As a result, you may rely on trial and error for managing your classroom, which can leave an open door for unexpected disruptive and occasionally violent behavior.

The worst-case scenario is students physically fighting, threatening one another, or harming you. A recent study published by the National Center for Education Statistics found that more than 80% of U.S. public schools report the pandemic has negatively impacted student behavior and socio-emotional development. Teachers across the country have seen a substantial increase in student misconduct, rowdiness outside the classroom, acts of disrespect towards staff and prohibited use of electronics. While these are unintended consequences of a global developmental and emotional delay for students, the remnants of COVID are increasingly infiltrating classrooms at the same time that the U.S. is seeing a record number of teachers leave the profession.

Allowing students to do as they please is not the answer and will only lead to stress and burnout, but if students do not feel safe to express their individuality in the classroom, learning will always be placed on the back burner. Developing rapport with each and every student is a crucial first step in establishing effective classroom management, and though it takes time and consistency, it will pay off in the long run. Acknowledging that students are a walking tapestry of their experiences allows more space for collaborative learning.

In the midst of major life interruptions, proceeding as normal often adds fuel to the fire. Students more than ever need reassurance that their emotions are valid, and although the pandemic has receded, you must leave room for repair. For students to have the space they need; you need to have the proper resources to restructure the curriculum to include breathing room. As a resource, there are many online modules that can equip you with the foundations for managing challenging behaviors as well as teacher forums that provide you with empathy, encouragement and motivation in this universal struggle.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

Even on your best days, finding the patience and care to manage student behavior can be overwhelming. As such, teacher self-care is of paramount importance as it directly impacts classroom management. When you prioritize your well-being, you are better equipped to handle the diverse challenges that arise in the classroom.

Your emotional and physical state significantly influences your ability to maintain patience, empathy, and resilience. At the same time, practicing self-care sets a positive example for students, teaching them essential life skills related to self-awareness and stress management, ultimately fostering a more harmonious and conducive learning environment.

While there are professional boundaries that need to be respected, encouraging students to share their emotions in the classroom, utilize social emotional learning check-ins when they enter the room, or taking learning breaks when emotional needs are interfering with teaching are all valid strategies and reactions that simultaneously bolster a student’s perception of safety and acceptance within their learning community.

Engaging with Parents

Student behavior starts at home and it is rare that parents are unaware of the triggers and tension spots their children are experiencing. While students may act differently in school than they do at home, parents are the ultimate resource for understanding students and developing actionable plans when the aforementioned strategies are falling on deaf ears and idle hands.

For behavior to change, it must be reinforced in each and every environment a person finds themself in, and if this is not the case, students learn how to become expert code-switchers which will become a major deficiency to them the further they trek into their educational and professional careers.

Although many parents are often passive in their child’s education, providing them with check-ins via phone or email can establish a relationship that transcends the classroom. Rather than waiting until problem behaviors erupt, notify parents with positive feedback, warranted praise and questions about their child to help bring outside information into the classroom.

This element adds a personal aspect to teacher-student relationships that doesn’t leverage authority as a strong-arm demanding attention, but engages the child and parent with empathy demonstrating a genuine desire to help the student succeed and feel supported.

Utilizing Technology

Technology is an ever-evolving entity that has become a powerful tool and a distraction all at the same time. Students are using laptops, cellphones, tablets and video game consoles on a daily basis. Many schools have implemented technology free zones which bring students into conversation, provide them space to rationalize, collaborate and explore while also giving them a much-needed break from the 5-7 hours of screen time they average each day. Not to say technology doesn’t have a place in the classroom, but assuming the invasion of technology into our personal lives must coexist in schools may contribute to poor classroom management.

Digital textbooks make materials more accessible, collaborative games such as Kahoot! and Quizlet bring excitement and informality to usually mundane tasks, and in downtime or earned free play, technology can be a great reinforcer.

As a teacher, AI can be one of your best allies. You can establish individualized student plans which can take the after-hours workload off your plate while still prioritizing student needs. AI tools can also help you to develop engaging lesson plans, create one-of-a-kind resources and expose students to the utility and futility of machine learning.

The bottom line

In the dynamic world of teaching, where daily challenges often feel like a maze, you are not alone in facing these hurdles. Whether you’re a seasoned educator or just embarking on your teaching journey, the classroom landscape is a diverse terrain, filled with students of varying backgrounds, behaviors and academic levels.

For instance, envision Ms. Anderson’s 5th grade history class, where the daily quest for engagement and order often feels like walking a tightrope. These scenarios are not unique to her classroom; teachers worldwide grapple with similar challenges. By implementing some of the strategies above, like establishing classroom rules collaboratively with students to recognize and celebrate diverse identities, you can foster inclusive and effective classroom management.

In a time when student behavior is influenced by technology and the lingering effects of the pandemic, it’s important to remember that as you invest in your students’ growth, taking care of your own well-being is equally crucial to set an example of self-awareness and resilience.

Alongside these strategies, effective communication with parents can provide valuable insight into your students’ lives outside of the classroom and help create a cohesive support system. At the same time, nurturing student autonomy allows them to take ownership of their learning experience. By giving students choices, encouraging their input in setting classroom expectations and providing opportunities for self-directed learning, you can establish a sense of responsibility and independence in your students. This approach not only promotes engagement but also helps in managing behavior by giving students a sense of agency in their educational journey.

Together, you, parents, and students can navigate the intricate landscape of teaching, ensuring that each student’s unique tapestry of experiences and needs is woven into a successful learning journey.