I don’t remember how my first encounter with outrageous student behavior began. But I do remember the unmistakable sound of a desktop crashing against the tile floor.
I was a substitute facing a roomful of 8th grade students I’d never met before. They outnumbered me 30 to 1. I was bigger than most, but not all of them. I could feel my muscles tensing and my fight or flight response kicking in. The class was officially out-of-control.
Until then, I’d never encountered student behavior issues anywhere near this extreme. It’s a strange feeling to be responsible for a roomful of students that you can’t control. You can’t leave, but what should you do? Call the office? Scream at the top of your lungs? Pull the fire alarm?
When You’ve Exhausted Your Options
The problem I was facing was two-fold: first, I couldn’t prevent the chaos. Second, I wasn’t sure what to do once it occurred. At the time, I didn’t realize that the two were intimately connected. In much the same way that taking an umbrella usually means it won’t rain, having a plan for disaster can help prevent it from ever arriving.
Traditional behavior management involves “carrots and sticks.” Ideally, you never actually use the stick. When students know that you have one, you generally won’t have to use it. When they know you don’t have a stick, you’ll wish that you did.
For many of the teachers I coach, disruptive behavior is their number one concern. The first thing I like to know is their “last resort,” when every trick up their sleeve has failed. Too often, they don’t have an answer.
Aside from limiting a teacher’s effectiveness, operating without a plan B is also stressful. Studies have shown that student behavior is one of the largest causes of stress for teachers.
No matter what line of work you are in, you need someone you can call when you get in over your head. Unless you’re the CEO or the President, you answer to someone. It’s also that person’s responsibility to step in when you are facing a challenge you can’t handle.
Student Behavior: Somebody Else’s Problem
Maybe student behavior isn’t an issue for you. Whenever you have an incident, you simply send a student to the office. Better yet, you pick up the phone and the principal walks down the hall to help settle things down.
But many administrators prefer to steer clear of behavior management. And for good reason. When I was a teacher, it seemed perfectly reasonable to send unruly students to the office. It wasn’t until I began advising principals that I experienced disruptive students from a principal’s perspective.
One principal I worked with was hosting a constant stream of students who had been kicked out of class. His phone was ringing off-the-hook, teachers were waiting to ask him questions, and 4-5 of the most challenging students in the school were regularly camped out in his office.
He even created a chart to help teachers determine whether behavior warranted an office visit. On the left were teacher responsibilities, such as ‘missing homework,’ or ‘talking out of turn.’ On the right were principal problems like ‘hitting,’ and ‘defiance.’
Despite his best efforts, student behavior hadn’t improved. Since he was constantly supervising students, he had a hard time addressing the causes of behavior problems.
Addressing Student Behavior: A Two-Way Street
If there’s one thing that teachers and administrators can agree on, it’s that everybody wins when schools make sustained improvements to student behavior. Here are some guidelines for how teachers and administrators can effectively share responsibility for disruptive behavior.
1. Principals: Carry a Big Stick
Teachers need to know that the principal has their back. Some teachers tell me that they get push back for sending kids to the office. Worse yet, sometimes students don’t even mind a trip to the office.
I worked for a principal who prided himself on his relationships with students. When students got sent to the office, he listened carefully to their concerns and sent them skipping back to the classroom with a big smile. Later that day, the teacher would invariably get a follow-up conversation, letting us know the student felt unfairly targeted.
While his heart may have been in the right place, he was actually forcing teachers to play ‘bad cop.’ This principal was shirking his responsibility, not realizing that the teacher-student relationship is king, not the student-principal relationship.
I worked with another administrator who artfully balanced her need to connect with students, with the need for consequences. Students who were sent to her office were given a series of reflective questions, such as: “Do you know why you’re here?” and “How can you prevent this from happening again?”
After answering the questions in writing, she and the student would have a heart-to-heart. It was supportive, but focused on developing the student’s executive function. It was quite effective in making everyone feel supported, while reducing repeat offenses.
2. Teachers: Don’t Feed the Fire
While it’s important for admin to have teacher’s backs, it’s just as important for students to feel that their teachers support them. I’m not saying it’s easy to keep a calm and orderly classroom, but there are times when it’s best to lower your standards for the greater good.
I’ve messed this one up many times. Maybe I asked the class to take out their notebooks. Most students comply, but there’s that one student who just never listens. From across the room, I call out “Michael, did you hear the direction I just gave?”
At this point, no one’s learning – the entire class is focused on the showdown between me and Michael. Even if he complies at this point, you’ve wasted instructional time. Not to mention, Michael is now going to be looking for any opportunity to get you off-track in the future.
And that’s the best case scenario. If he doesn’t comply, now the whole class is eagerly waiting to see how you’ll respond. Too weak, and you’re the class doormat. Too strong, and Michael throws a full-blown tantrum.
I learned a long time ago to distinguish between non-compliance and disruption. If a student is non-compliant, but not disruptive, don’t escalate. Deal with it outside of class.
3. Principals: The Hallway is NOT the Wild West
Principals, you have to own shared spaces in the building. It can be challenging enough for teachers to keep their classroom orderly. Once students are in the hall, they enter a gray area between teacher kingdoms. In some schools, it can take 5-10 minutes at the start of class to get everyone situated. One student banging on the door can start the process all over again.
If students view the hallways as the Wild West (if this is your school, you know who you are) it’s much harder for teachers to maintain order inside the classroom. This requires a shift in school culture – administration needs to consistently address hallway norms (through assemblies, consequences, stationing themselves in the halls, etc.) until everyone in the building understands: “That is NOT how we behave in the hallways.”
4. Teachers: The Best Defense is a Good Offense
My mother used to tell me that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, and I believe it. Most student behavior issues start when students are bored. I used to resist this interpretation. On more than one occasion, I’ve insisted that I’m a teacher, not an entertainer.
But engaging students is not the same as entertaining them. Engaging lessons can include Socratic Seminars, debates, or inquiry-based learning. You can find more lesson ideas on our Teachers Pay Teachers page.
If you’re not sure what will interest your students, give them a survey – no matter how old they are, they’ll be thrilled that you asked.
5. If All Else Fails…
Of course, when behavior is out of control and nothing is working, administrators and teachers can agree on one thing: it’s the parents’ fault!
Addressing Student Behavior Issues Before They Start
Effective educators use multiple strategies to prevent behavior issues before they start. Whether the focus is on engagement, motivation, or relationships, it’s important to understand your needs and set meaningful goals.
That’s where reflective practice comes in. No teacher has mastered every aspect of the classroom. The best educators know their strengths and their areas for growth. They set goals and develop plans to take charge of their own professional development.
Whether you are a classroom teacher, administrator, or instructional coach, reflection can help you take ownership of your professional growth. Our free Guide to Reflective Teaching contains self-assessments and goal-setting sheets to help you take that next step.