Rebooting Your Classroom Management

There’s something about February and March that ushers in the collapse of all of my best laid classroom management strategies.

Every year. 

Kids that didn’t have a single problem all year suddenly argue with you over every.little.thing. That kid who likes to toe the line every once in a while starts doing it at every turn (and you can’t catch him crossing it). Any small change erupts into World War 3. 

It’s not just my classroom, either. February and March see more fights in the hallways from students and more flared tempers from teachers than any other time of the year at my school. From some of the teacher posts I see on social media, I’m guessing this isn’t uncommon.

It’s really demoralizing to go through this after carefully planning out your classroom the previous summer. Most resources I see talk about setting expectations and procedures at the beginning of the year, emphasizing smooth sailing if you can only get the kids trained in the first few weeks. No one talks about the inevitable mid-year struggle. 

The truth is, every classroom needs a reboot during this time to meet our changing kids.

You should be encouraged! Our kids are growing and changing as they move through the year. Their needs are changing. What worked in August isn’t going to work in March, and that’s ok.

We just need to make sure that we change with them. That means doing a reboot of our classroom management plan around this time.

I know, it’s scary. Our classrooms already feel like they’re teetering between managed chaos and uncontrollable apocalypse with every new activity. Surely switching up our teaching approach mid-year will summon the Four Horsemen themselves!

Really, though, your kids need this, and while they may not show any gratitude (someone’s always a critic), they appreciate it when their classroom doesn’t feel like the Cold War. It doesn’t need to be another day of “first day” lecture about expectations and rules, just a refresher and/or redirection on how your classroom works.

You need to think of this as a public relations game.

Ultimately, how you teach and what the kids need to do doesn’t change. What’s really happening is that you’ve somehow lost your kids’ attention or willpower and you need to bring them back in a way that they want to stick with you to the end of the year.

You have to up your public relations game to your kids. This means reframing your classroom, your expectations, and your activities in ways that will make them go “Ok, I can keep it together a little longer.” When they’re willing to buy in to what you’re doing a little longer, their behavior will improve. They want to stick around to see what’s happening next, and they don’t want to jeopardize what you’re doing.

 

Start with honesty (and maybe an apology)

Classrooms get off track for a bunch of reasons. Sometimes it’s for circumstances outside of your control. Your class is constantly disrupted by testing or assemblies. Or, like what happened to me, you suddenly lose your classroom and have to float for the remainder of the year for safety reasons.

In those cases, be upfront with your kids about what’s happening and how it’s changed the classroom. Something like, “I know it’s been crazy around here, and we’ve had to deal with (fill in the blank). It’s thrown us off track where we’re not learning as well as we could. But we’re going to make this better for the rest of the year.”

Let them in to the fact that this is a great life lesson about how to deal with life when events don’t run as smoothly as they have before. Teach them that adjusting course is a normal part of living. Most importantly, emphasize that you’re going to show them how to overcome these obstacles. You aren’t just going to bark orders about their behavior and actions. You’re going to model and teach it like anything else.

If the classroom has devolved into complete chaos because students are misbehaving right and left, then an apology might also be in order.

“What, apologize for their bad behavior? Who’s side are you on?”

Kids are responsible for their own behavior. But ultimately, you are responsible for your classroom environment. If your classroom has been chaotic for the last three weeks to the point that no one can learn, then, ultimately, that is your responsibility.

Say something like, “Things have gotten out of hand the last few weeks. This hasn’t been a good learning environment for everyone, and I apologize because that isn’t fair to you. But now, we’re going to get back on track.”

This works two fold: you are letting the class know that you are adjusting the classroom norm away from a disrupting learning environment, and you are setting the example of someone who takes responsibility for their behavior. This will bring your well behaved students, who may have resented the chaos, back to your side. For the ones who have been misbehaving, this signals that you view their behavior not as a power struggle between you and them, but as an obstacle that’s keeping their classmates (who they fear more at the high school stage) from learning.

Remember, this is a PR game that you’re playing. 

Don’t lower your expectations. Instead, review them.

Kids are tired at this point in the year. It’s why you see more arguments and fights and breakups in the halls and in your classroom. They’ve been putting up with minor annoyances that don’t seem so minor anymore. They’ve been working hard in class or studying for standardized tests to the point that they crave a break beyond Spring Break or Easter.

So they push back, usually in ways that don’t seem to have anything to do with the above.

All you see, as the teacher, is that a kid refuses to do their work. Or they’re breaking your science equipment. The class as a whole does less and less work. Their grades are dropping. 

It’s tempting here to give up and lessen the workload in hopes that they will at least do that. Really, they’ll just keep lowering the bar for themselves until you either give up entirely or drive yourself insane.

You aren’t helping anyone by holding them less accountable. Once you’ve started the ball rolling by acknowledging that the class is off track, review your expectations with them. Tell them how much they’ve grown already and how much you know they are capable of. 

They really don’t see their growth or know their potential. You have to remind them of it. Your high expectations won’t seem as unfair if they can picture themselves as a growing, capable human being. 

Introduce any changes as ways to help them achieve more.

It’s tempting to chew out our kids and begin a no tolerance crackdown, writing up even the smallest infractions. But that’s only going to grant you a lot of paperwork. Doing that sets up a battle of wills between you and the kids, which they will always win, because there are 30 of them and one of you. 

Instead, introduce any changes as ways to help them achieve more. Remark how well they’ve done with X in the past, so if they can do X again, you’re going to let them do Y activity. If they did really well with a particular lab in the past, for example, you can offer a similar (or more fun) lab in a few weeks if they can do this other (a little drier) lab just as well. 

Or, you could phrase changes as a “level up” experience. For example, I implemented a project based learning unit with my students one spring. I told them, as Seniors who were about to enter the real world, that I was going to teach them how real adults tackled big projects (versus the slapdash “copy and paste some stuff” method they’d been doing). They were leveling up into the adult way of doing things. The reframing of a unit that would require more thought and effort in the middle of their “senioritis” piqued their interest enough to keep them working.

 

Consider offering rewards

You don’t have to break the bank or throw a party every week for this one. I’ve seen high schoolers get excited on the rare occasions that I pulled out stickers for their papers. Boys would very seriously ask me for specific princesses when I would pull out the Disney Princess stickers!

The reward can be a piece of candy or a sticker, or a cool activity that you know they’d enjoy. You could be planning to do that special activity anyway, but if you frame it like a reward to build anticipation, you could help your classroom management game. 

Simply saying, “I plan on doing X fun activity with you, but I can’t do it unless I see Y and Z behavior” can work wonders. Just be prepared to back up the last part of that statement: if their behavior is truly horrendous, don’t do that X fun activity (or at least not without making them do something to earn it back).

Time is also a precious commodity, especially for high school kids. At the end of the year, they usually have one day with me after their grades are locked, in which they know and I know that their fate is sealed. I “give them the time” to organize and throw a party if they wish. The time is my gift (and maybe some plates and cups): they figure out the food.

You can also give smaller sets of time, like a moment to check their Instagram as long as they post a picture of their lab results too. Or a 3 minute funny story about your dog, if they can finish their notes in a set amount of time. 

I like to give the smaller kinds of rewards as a surprise, not at the beginning when I give directions. Some kids miss out the first time I do something like that, but once they know that small privileges can happen at any time, they try not to miss another opportunity.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Take a mental health day or build in some time during Spring Break to really unwind and relax. Eat some chocolate and read a good book (or whatever floats your boat). Mentally gear up for the reality that the last two months will be like the first two months: constantly reminding your kids of what you expect.

You’re tired, they’re tired, everyone’s tired. You feel like, at seven months in, you shouldn’t have to do all of the above to get them to cooperate. But remember: they’re changing over the course of the year. In the excitement of new things happening to them (like a boyfriend or a new car), they’re not functioning in the same way they used to. They have to fit these new experiences into their current way of life, and some awkwardness ensues. 

But if you follow the above tips, and build positive relationships in the classroom (like in this post), your end of year classroom management will run a lot smoother.

What tips and tricks have helped you in this more stressful time of the year? Share in the comments below!

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