Editor’s Note: Many new teachers find themselves overwhelmed during their first year in the classroom. So we asked Polly Greenberg, longtime ECT contributor and “Ask the Experts” columnist, to offer some advice to the teacher who wrote to us, saying she’d lost complete control of her classroom. Hopefully you’ve never dealt with a situation this extreme, but we hope some of Polly’s tips might help every teacher who has ever had difficulty managing the children in their classrooms. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about our content. Write to us at ect@scholastic.com!

Question: I need some advice – I’m a new teacher and I’ve already lost control of my preschool class! My threes and fours run around the room, take posters and the calendar off the walls. Lessons I’ve planned are useless because I can’t get them to listen to me. I’ve tried punishing children with time-outs when they behave inappropriately, but how can I implement this when a majority of the class is in trouble? How do I reassert my authority and regain control? Help!

Polly Greenberg: What a start to a new teaching career! But don’t worry - help is on the way! Here are “a baker’s dozen” tips for classroom management.

1.    Forget punishment until you’ve had time, at least a month or two, to figure out the problem.

2.    When children aren’t there, put up your posters and calendar and make sure the classroom is beautiful with large plants, attractively displayed books, and a pleasing color scheme. When you next see the children, admire the lovely room and tell them you need their help to make pictures and to help you keep the room pretty. Each day give a few children a chance to pin things up or help clean and sort.

3.    Also when children aren’t there, arrange your furniture so there are many play and learning areas, each with a theme (restaurant, family home, office, blocks and transportation toys) and interesting, accessible toys and materials. Boundry each area with shelves, each area open only on one side. Make sure there are no wide-open spaces or corridor-like temptations to race around in your room.

4.    As children arrive, stand tall and straight in the doorway (body language says a lot!), warmly greet each child by name (being part of a mob allows us to be unaccountable; being individually appreciated makes us feel more responsible), and direct him to put his things in his cubby, choose a book, and sit in his special place at his table. If you have threes and fours, you probably have an assistant. Also, at arrival time, you probably have—or can have if you set it up—lingering parents. Ask each adult to help the individual children who seem to need help follow through on what you asked them to do, and then to sit near one or two of the tables, helping children engage with their books.

5.    Don’t allow more than ten minutes for all of the above. Don’t wait for the last stragglers to come into the classroom. Cordially invite everyone to sit on the rug near you, each on the colored paper sitting spot you’ve put there with a name on it. Be sure to leave generous spaces on all sides of your seat mats. The teaching assistant and perhaps a parent or two can help gather the children.

6.     Start your fast-paced activities on the rug before everyone is seated; the energetic, interesting things you’re doing will attract laggards. (Always do this when attempting to get the children together for the next event.) I would certainly not start with calendar, but with lusty singing, a “Simon Says” type of physically active game, or something like that. (If you are mousy, stern, or joyless, you will lose the children’s attention.)

7.    Keep all seated together times short; lengthen them as the children come to enjoy them and remain involved. The teaching assistant can sit at the back of the group to remind a child who may not be paying attention to do so, and if necessary can put a distracted child on her lap. So can you.

8.    Explain that two children at a time, partners, will get a turn to play in each play area. Limiting the number of children in each area until the children learn how to play appropriately helps keep things manageable. Ask one child where she wants to play and with whom. Each day, give the choices to the half of the group that didn’t get to choose the day before. Assign play areas (learning centers) and dispatch each set of partners as you assign them. As children master this system, you can begin permitting partners to choose their center. Again, be sure that the next day different pairs get first choice of play areas.

9.    Observe so you can see which pairs have problems. Try different partners where needed. If you see individuals who can’t handle this freedom regardless of which center they’re in and which playmates they’re with, make them an adult’s partner. This should be a pleasing experience, not a punishment.

10.     Observe so you can see which sets of children are losing interest and switch them to another center. Always present things in a positive, not punitive, manner: “OK, now you two get a turn to play here.” Or, “Now you get a turn to play with So-and-So, he’s coming over here to join you.”

11.     When more than a few children are beginning to wander or disrupt, it’s time for snack, outdoor play, or whatever is the next thing on your schedule. Consider your schedule a sequence of activities with highly flexible start and stop times, which will largely depend upon how what they’re doing is holding the children’s interest. Do not think of the schedule as strictly attached to specific times.  

12.    Almost never leave space for transition times between events. Releasing a mass of young children at the same time is an invitation for out-of-control behavior. While the class is busy, send one or two children to the bathroom and to wash for lunch, or to get their snack, or to pack up to go home.  

13.    If, over time, you realize that one or two of your children have serious impulse control problems and cannot manage themselves regardless of what you do,  work with a counselor and the child’s family to discover what can be done to help the child become able to govern his behavior in an age appropriate way .

Good luck!