Picture your students sitting in neatly aligned rows. Their eyes are fixed upon you as you speak. There is no scuffling. There is no noise. Seem unlikely? While many of us wish for perfect order, a smoothly running classroom is often elusive.


But is a silent, well-oiled machine what we really want, after all? How do we maintain control in the classroom yet still give children the freedom to explore, create, and experiment? The key is keeping them actively engaged. By involving students in the rule-making process, addressing different learning styles, and being consistent and clear about behavior policies, we can prevent problems even when the classroom is a hive of activity.

Strike the Balance

We already know that too much stimulation can lead to chaos. But too much control can often rob youngsters of their innate curiosity and exuberance. Don Robertson, headmaster of the Walker School, in Marietta, Georgia, where I taught for several years, says, "Those teachers who suppress involvement to keep control aren't really in control at all. Instead, I marvel at those teachers who can silence a classroom when necessary with a look or a thought-provoking question. Keeping kids on the edge of their seats may be the best way to maintain order."

When a teacher is passionate about his or her subject matter, this enthusiasm is often infectious. If a teacher is bored, the students will sense it. If the teacher is learning along with the children, exploring and discovering, students will notice this, too.

Effective educators also experiment with alternative teaching methods to reach students with diverse intelligences. Walker School psychologist Neal Clark, M.A., says, "The more a teacher varies his or her methods to get all types of students involved, the fewer behavior problems he or she will encounter." For example, one of my students whose constant movement often disturbed his classmates seemed to me a kinesthetic learner. When I gave him the chance to move around in class by having him come to the board, letting him perform a skit, or allowing him to tap out the rhythm of a poem on his desk, his behavior improved. Being flexible and making compromises often brings success.

Set the Rules at the Start

From day one, communicate your behavior expectations clearly and explain why students need to abide by the rules. The "because I said so" response gives the impression that the teacher is being arbitrary. Students may be more inclined to break rules that make no sense. Instead, lead a discussion on the most important guidelines, encouraging students to discuss why they are necessary. Indeed, many teachers involve students in the discipline process. Liz Meadows, a first-grade teacher, spends a portion of the first day of school having children create a list of the five most important classroom rules &151; for example; I am respectful in the halls; I am a good listener; and if I don't have anything nice to say, I say nothing at all. If a child breaks the same rule three times, Meadows writes a note home to the parents, first sharing it with the student. Next, the child and parents must work together to propose a solution to the problem. For instance, says Meadows, "I had a child who was so curious and eager, he was constantly interrupting both me and the other students. After discussing it with his parents, he decided he would close his eyes and count to 10 before speaking out. I think the solution worked because he was part of the process." When students feel they have helped to establish the rules, they are more invested in them.

After setting the rules, post them in a prominent place. Leila Wheeles, a middle- and upper-school teacher of French and English, posts a list of commonly asked questions for which the answer is always "No." If a child sees "Can I go to my locker?" followed by a prominent "No," he or she will be much less likely to seek an exception. Finally. Don't spend the entire first day establishing your rules. Devote some time to exploring an exciting curricular topic to pique youngsters' interest in the learning ahead.

Consistency, Consistency

Perhaps as important as establishing the rules is consistently enforcing them. Jennifer May, a high-school language teacher, says, "No matter hw tired you are on a particular day or regardless of your mood, you simply cannot ignore behavioral problems in the classroom. You should try to confront the situation openly and directly. If other students see that you are serious about enforcing your rules, they will be less likely to test your limits." And test they will. For example, if on some days you let students have conversations among themselves during class, they will assume that this is acceptable every day. When you do address the behavior, the child whom you correct may feel he or she has been singled out unfairly.

Keep Your Cool

No matter how frustrated you become, you should never embarrass your students or use abusive language. Such tactics can have lasting effects on impressionable youngsters. Deliver feedback in a calm, even voice and focus on the behavior rather than on the child. For example, it is better to say to Sue, "Your talking is interrupting out class discussion" than "You are really annoying me today, Sue." It is easy to give students the impression that you don't like them of "have it in for" them, so avoid personal attacks. If you focus on concrete behavior patterns, such as interrupting or passing notes, children will understand more clearly how to correct the problem.

I have also found it essential to model the behavior I expect from my students. If I ask them not to interrupt their classmates, for instance, I make sure not to interrupt them. Likewise, frequent loss of temper invites students to do the same.

Set Up Your Space

Many discipline problems are related to practical details. How you use your classroom space, for example, sets the overall tone. One year I taught in a vast, long room, and the students gravitated toward the back while I stood at the front. I noticed they were talking, passing notes, and tuning out more than ever before. When I exchanged the large classroom for a smaller one and arranged the desks in a circle, the improvement was immediate. I also make a habit of rarely sitting at my desk. Instead, I circulate among the students, making eye contact and asking questions frequently.

Seeking Outside Help

It is important to know that sometimes, no matter what lengths to which you go, problems with particular youngsters will persist. Cristin Deronja, an assistant counselor at the Walker School, notes: "Educators have to realize that it is impossible to be the ideal teacher for every student. One of they best things teachers can do to handle persistent behavior problems is to recognize that when a student is beyond their resources, school counselors, administrators, and parents can help." Students may face serious problems that require a team approach.

The following behavior patterns may indicate that you cannot confront the problem alone:

  • A sudden change in the personality of the student. He or she may become very withdrawn or excessively animated.
  • Consistent and open hostility to teachers or other students.
  • Discussion of high-risk behavior.
  • Signs of physical problems in a student who is normally healthy.

Creating a lively, respectful, and orderly classroom is a constant and ongoing process, one that requires tremendous creativity and patience. Set the tone early and the improved learning environment will benefit you and your students all year long.