Universal classroom management strategies

1. Model ideal behavior

Make a habit of demonstrating behavior you want to see, as many studies show that modeling effectively teaches students how to act in different situations.

A straightforward way to model certain behaviors is holding a mock conversation with an admin, other teacher or student helper in front of the class. Talking about a test or other relatable topic, be sure to:

  • Use polite language
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Keep phones in your pockets
  • Let one another speak uninterrupted
  • Raise concerns about one another’s statements in a respectful manner

After, start a class discussion to list and expand upon the ideal behaviors you exemplified.

2. Let students help establish guidelines

Young students sit in rows, raising their hands to answer the teacher's question.

Encourage all students to help you build classroom rules, as you’ll generate more buy-in than just telling them what they’re not allowed to do.

Near the start of the year or semester, start a discussion by asking students what they believe should and shouldn’t fly. At what points are phones okay and not okay? What are acceptable noise levels during lessons? This may seem like you’re setting yourself up for failure, but — depending on the makeup of you class — you may be shocked at the strictness of some proposed rules. Regardless, having a discussion should lead to mutually-understood and -respected expectations.

3. Document rules

Don’t let your mutually-respected guidelines go forgotten.

Similar to handing out a syllabus, print and distribute the list of rules that the class discussion generated. Then, go through the list with your students. Doing this emphasizes the fact that you respect their ideas and intend to adhere to them. And when a student breaks a rule, it’ll be easy for you to point to this document.

If you’re feeling creative, you can include the rule list in a student handbook with important dates, events and curriculum information.

4. Avoid punishing the class

Address isolated behavior issues instead of punishing an entire class, as the latter can hurt your relationships with students who are on-task and thereby jeopardize other classroom management efforts.

Instead, call out specific students in a friendly manner. For example:

  • “Do you have a question?”, not “Stop talking and disrupting other students”
  • “Do you need help focusing?”, not “Pay attention and stop fooling around while I’m talking”

This basic approach will allow you to keep a friendly disposition, while immediately acknowledging poor behavior.

5. Encourage initiative

A student stands at the front of the classroom with her teacher, talking to her classmates, who are seated.
Promote growth mindset, and inject variety into your lessons, by allowing students to work ahead and deliver short presentations to share take-away points.

Almost inevitably, you’ll have some eager learners in your classroom. You can simply ask them if they’d like to get ahead from time-to-time. For example, if you’re reading a specific chapter in a textbook, propose that they read the following one too. When they deliver their subsequent presentations to preview the next chapter on your behalf, you may find that other students want a bit more work as well.

6. Offer praise

Praise students for jobs well done, as doing so improves academic and behavioral performance, according to a recent research review and study.

When it is sincere and references specific examples of effort or accomplishment, praise can:

  • Inspire the class
  • Improve a student’s self-esteem
  • Reinforce rules and values you want to see

Perhaps more importantly, it encourages students to repeat positive behavior. Let’s say a student exemplifies advanced problem-solving skills when tackling a math word problem. Praising his or her use of specific tactics should go a long way in ensuring he or she continues to use these tactics. Not to mention, you’ll motivate other students to do the same.

7. Use non-verbal communication

A teacher stands at the front of the classroom, using hand motions to supplement her talking.

Complement words with actions and visual aids to improve content delivery, helping students focus and process lessons.

Many differentiated instruction strategies and techniques are rooted in these communication methods. For example, running learning stations — divided sections of your classroom through which students rotate — allows you to deliver a range of non-spoken content types. These include videos, infographics and physical objects such as counting coins.

8. Hold parties

Throw an occasional classroom party to acknowledge students’ hard work, motivating them to keep it up.

Even if it’s just for 20 or 30 minutes, they should be happy with snacks and a selection of group games to play. Clarify that you’re holding the party to reward them and they can earn future parties by demonstrating ideal behavior, collectively scoring high on assessments and more.

9. Give tangible rewards

A teacher high-fives a student who's completed her work, which is one of his classroom management strategies to reward good behavior.

Reward specific students at the end of each lesson, in front of the class, as another motivational and behavior-reinforcement technique.

Let’s say a few students are actively listening throughout the entire lesson, answering questions and asking their own. Before the class ends, walk over to their desks to give them raffle tickets. So others can learn, state aloud what each student did to earn the tickets. On Friday, they can submit their tickets for a shot at a prize that changes each week — from candy to being able to choose a game for the next class party.

10.Make positive letters and phone calls

Keep students happy in and out of class by pleasantly surprising their parents, making positive phone calls and sending complimentary letters home.

When the occasion arises, from academic effort or behavioral progress, letting parents know has a trickle-down effect. They’ll generally congratulate their kids; their kids will likely come to class eager to earn more positive feedback. This can also entice parents to grow more invested in a child’s learning, opening the door to at-home lessons. Such lessons are a mainstay element of culturally-responsive teaching.

11. Build excitement for content

A teacher stands at the front of her class, trying to build excitement by previewing interesting parts of the day's lesson.

Start lessons by previewing particularly-exciting parts, hooking student interest from the get-go.

As the bell rings and students settle, go through an agenda of the day’s highlights. These could include group tasks, engaging bits of content and anything else to pique curiosity. For example, “Throughout the day, you’ll learn about:”

  • How to talk like you’re a teacher (sentence structure)
  • Why you don’t know anyone who’s won the lottery (probability)
  • What all the presidents of the United States have had in common (social analysis)

The goal of this classroom management technique is to immediately interest students in your agenda and thereby dissuade misbehavior.

12. Offer different types of free study time

Provide a range of activities during free study time to appeal to students who struggle to process content in silence, individually.

You can do this by dividing your class into clearly-sectioned solo and team activities. In separate sections, consider:

  • Providing audio books, which can play material relevant to your lessons
  • Maintaining a designated quiet space for students to take notes and complete work
  • Creating a station for challenging group games that teach or reinforce curriculum-aligned skills
  • Allowing students to work in groups while taking notes and completing work, away from quiet zones

By running these sorts of activities, free study time will begin to benefit diverse learners. This should contribute to overall classroom engagement.