Student working diligently during remote learning due to good online classroom management

Online Classroom Management: Five Tips for Making the Shift

Do your students follow directions flawlessly? Are they highly motivated, effective collaborators? If so, you don’t need to worry about the challenges of online classroom management.

For the rest of us, student behavior can be a significant concern. It may even be our number one concern. It’s hard enough to manage disruptions when our students are in the same room. How can we maintain order and create a supportive learning environment when we can’t even see them?

Online classroom management isn’t impossible. In some ways, it’s easier than managing a live classroom. But it does require a different approach than traditional classroom management.

The key is to be pragmatic. Have the courage to manage what we can. The serenity to accept what we can’t. And the wisdom to know the difference. 

Online Classroom Management and Motivation

When teaching online, we must learn to do without many of the classroom management strategies we’ve become accustomed to. No stern glances. No flicking lights on and off. No detentions.

The first step is to forget about all the things we can’t do online. Instead, think about what is possible. And take advantage of the opportunities that online instruction presents.

These five tips will cut down on behavior issues and help to engage your students in online lessons. But even better, they are not just for online learning. Each of these tips will also increase engagement and build classroom culture in your live classrooms.

For more support with student-centered classroom management strategies, check out our upcoming virtual workshop, A Social-Emotional Approach to Managing Behavior.

Header image for virtual professional development workshop on a Social-Emotional Approach to Classroom Management, showing four students engaged in collaborative learningIn this virtual workshop, you’ll learn all the skills you need to manage your classroom, and motivate your students. You’ll assess your strengths and opportunities for growth, and create a classroom management plan that works for you.

Each session is conducted in real time with a live facilitator. Registration includes all the print and digital resources you need to implement what you learn right away. Participants earn a total of 3.5 PD Hours.



Five Tips for Effective Online Classroom Management

When teaching online, we don’t have the power to send students to the office or take away recess. And if we’re unable to motivate our students, they may not even show up for class. Or they’ll tune in just to tune out.

This doesn’t mean that online learning is a free-for-all. Online classroom management is a delicate balance. We need to set the tone for what the new normal will look like. But at the same time, we need to transfer ownership of learning to students. 

Understand that students are willing participants. Respond to their needs and interests. Change things up when they get bored or frustrated.

We need to trust students to do what we ask of them. And we need to accept that not all of them will honor that trust.

In that spirit of collaboration with willing learners, these five tips will help you avoid some of the most common sources of frustration when teaching online. And ensure you get the most possible from your students.

1. Test the Technology Beforehand

Nothing will derail your online lesson faster than fumbling with the your slideshow or your video conference.

It’s tempting to try out every new app that comes along. But the most effective online teachers don’t get distracted by the shiniest new app. They focus on learning a few tools really well.

If you’re teaching real-time (synchronous) lessons, you’ll need a conferencing app. But you’ll also want a learning management system (LMS) for assigning work and providing feedback. Other ‘nice-to-haves’ are a presentation program, collaborative documents, and a personalized learning platform.

Here are some best in class tools in each category.

the right online learning tools can support effective online classroom management

The most important is your video conferencing app, followed by your presentation app. Make sure you know how to mute a student.

A year ago, it was a real pain to launch breakout rooms. You had to set up multiple videoconferences, and manually switch students in and out of the rooms. But now, both Zoom and Google Meet allow you to send students into breakouts and bring them back with the touch of a button.

I like Google Meet because it integrates with other Google tools. It’s also user friendly, and it’s free if your school has a Google for Edu account. Zoom has more features, and tends to be a bit more stable, but both are fine options for most classrooms.

Once we’re all connected, I tend to use Google Slides for almost everything. Slides works for delivering traditional presentations, but it’s also a great tool for independent or collaborative activities. You can find a number of ready made slides activities in our online store. These integrate seamlessly into Google Classroom, or whatever LMS you currently use.

Student-Centered Learning Resources


2. Involve Students in Establishing Norms

Are you worried about students showing up in their pajamas? Some teachers are very concerned about online dress codes. Others couldn’t care less. You’ll want to set norms that make you feel comfortable, while also creating the best environment for learning.

The catch is that you might not know what norms to set. Most of us, even those who spend a year plus doing it, are still adjusting to remote learning.

It can be helpful to use someone else’s list of Online Learning Norms as a reference, but ultimately you need to establish norms that fit your teaching style and your students.

Engage students in the process. This should be the focus of one of your first online lessons. Here’s a simple 3-part structure for such a lesson:

  1. Explain to students the importance of setting class norms, and that you would value their input
  2. Send students to breakout groups to make their own list of norms
  3. Return to whole group meeting to compare lists, and create a “final” list. (Of course, you may need to update it later)

If students have a say in creating the rules, they will be more likely to follow them. I often find that students come up with many of the rules I’d have come up with anyway. In fact, they’ll point out some issues you wouldn’t have expected.

You may want to give them guiding questions for their conversations. What is appropriate dress for online meetings? When and how should we ask questions? Will we use hand signals?

In addition to meeting norms, establish norms for collaborative documents. I’ve found that most Google Drive arguments start when one student erases something another has written. So we established the rule that you can only comment on someone else’s writing, unless they’ve given you permission to edit/erase.

Be aware that norms will evolve. Having a “norms” check-in every Monday can provide structure to each week of online learning.

3. Emphasize Engagement

In a traditional classroom, engagement is a “nice to have.” We would like to engage our students. But if it’s a choice between engagement and order, or engagement and standards, engagement loses out.

When teaching online, the priorities flip. If we can’t engage our students, it’s easy for them to just stop coming to class. And if they stop showing up, we may never get them back.

Another difference is how easily they can access information. They don’t need a teacher to explain something for 45 minutes. Keep whole-group sessions short, no longer than 10 or 20 minutes. Use this time to prepare students for a hands-on activity. If you need help planning hands-on lessons, refer to our post on Lesson Plans that Increase Student Engagement.

Let students know that you’re there for them, make a few announcements, and send them off to complete their activities. Research has shown that students learn more through activities and problem-solving than they do by absorbing information.

This is true even in an in-person classroom. But it’s especially true during online learning. If we can engage our students in our lessons, online classroom management begins to take care of itself.

4. Create Connections with Small-Group Sessions

Students, like all of us, are starved for personal connections right now. Whole class meetings can help create a sense of normalcy. But it’s hard to have meaningful online conversations with 30 people.

Make sure to schedule some time with small groups of students. They don’t even need to be lessons, per se. Get to know your students. Encourage them, and listen to their frustrations about learning online. Maybe even share your own (with a positive spin).

teacher having an online coaching conversation with a student

If you have a homeroom, make sure to have a 1-on-1 session with each student at least once a month.  Students will need extra encouragement during these difficult times. And they will need to set their own goals to stay motivated. Have them write down their online learning goals, and have them reflect on their progress throughout the process. When shifting ownership to students, they also need room to fail. If a student misses a deadline, our instinct is to step in and take back control. Instead, try to avoid judgment. Instead, encourage them to reflect on what wrong and how to correct it in the future.

If you’re not comfortable chatting with students privately, include their parents, another teacher, or just meet with students in pairs. You might also consider providing weekly office hours, where students and parents can drop in to ask questions. 

The important thing is to ensure your online class doesn’t become a correspondence course. The human element will make your students more motivated. And their motivation will reduce disruptive behavior during whole group lessons.

5. Start Slowly

The shift to online learning has been extremely sudden…again. We can’t expect to continue instruction at our usual pace. We’ll all need some time to adjust.

Realize that the first day or two, at least, will focus on the process of online learning. Students will need to adjust to the new expectations, schedules, software, etc. For many of them (and us), there’s also the emotional and psychological adjustments to be made.

I’ve talked to many teachers who say the biggest mistake they made was assigning too much work. If you start at full speed, it will get messy. Students will get overwhelmed. And by the time you figure things out, some will have already checked-out.

One sure fire sign that you’re assigning too much is that your students aren’t doing it. If 80% of your students are completing the work, than the other 20% need to adjust. But if the majority of your students aren’t doing the work, then you need to be the one who adjusts. It doesn’t matter what your lesson plans and pacing guides say. You can’t teach students who aren’t willing to learn.

First, focus on making sure the online learning experience is fun and easy. Be supportive. You can always pick up the pace once you and your students are comfortable learning online.

Eventually, you may find that your students can learn as quickly online as they can in a live classroom. Many students actually cover more content when learning from home.  

Why Use Student-Centered Approaches to Classroom Management?

You may be thinking that this list bears little similarity to the classroom management that you’re used to. And that’s no accident.

Traditional classroom management focuses on getting students to follow directions en masse. ‘Everyone in their seats. All eyes on me. I’m waiting for silence.’

There’s nothing wrong with asking students to follow directions. It’s common sense. You can’t teach a room full of students who are running around and shouting. The problem is that it’s easy to overuse these management strategies.

The MLS system (manage, lead, support) for classroom management helps educators shift from punishment and rewards to intrinsic motivation and student ownership of learningEvery veteran educator has experienced the diminishing impact of classroom management tricks. They work well at the beginning of the year, but eventually, you need newer and better tricks to keep students orderly and attentive.

Demanding compliance without buy-in reduces intrinsic motivation (our internal desire to do well). And the more we rely on extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments), the more we erode students’ intrinsic motivation.

The strategies above all emphasize a student-centered approach to classroom management. Seeing ourselves as leaders, rather than managers. Helping students understand the reasons behind our directions. And making them feel that they have a voice in creating classroom norms.

It’s the idea behind the MLS (Manage, Lead, Support) Classroom Management System. It’s ok to start with extrinsic motivators. But it’s critical to build trust and ownership before your students become desensitized to the tricks.

Getting Started with Online Classroom Management

As stressful as the shift to online learning may feel, the trick is to stay relaxed.

Take a breath. Have fun. Let your students make mistakes. And make them feel ok, no matter how much work they are getting done.

Some students will take longer to adjust than others. But eventually, you’ll get more out of all your students with a supportive and understanding approach than by trying to force things. Because during online learning, students have the final say in how much effort they will put in.

So rather than worry about the students we can’t control, take the opportunity to shift control. It may seem counterintuitive, but taking a step back gives students the chance to take a step forward.

Be open to the possibility that our students will learn self-reliance, develop social-emotional skills, and master more content than they ever could in a live classroom.

As you prepare to teach online, make things easy on yourself. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, take advantage of the resources available:

And to stay up-to-date with the latest on student-centered learning, sign up for our free newsletter.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff