Troubleshooting Problem Behavior in the Classroom

logoI may be a bit obsessed with classroom management because, well, I used to be really bad at it.  Most of my teacher training took good discipline for granted so when I stepped out in to the world for myself, I got quite a rude awakening.   In a frenzied search for answers, I read literally dozens of books and articles and used my own classrooms as living laboratories to try out this or that method.  Most failed miserably.  Too complex, too arbitrary, too wishy-washy…nothing seemed quite right.

Going into my third year of teaching, I finally hit on an epiphany:  keep it simple.  Direct, concrete communication and modeling are far superior (and easier to handle on a day-to-day basis) than laundry lists of policies and consequences and elaborate “behavior modification” systems.

The findings and methods that follow are, in a nutshell, what I found works best, not only in terms of getting what I needed from students, but in terms of “managing” my classroom in a simple, effective manner.


Most kids who misbehave in class aren’t inherently malicious.  They are “testing.”   They wonder if the rules you talk about and the rules you will enforce are really the same thing.  They are seeing if you can be trusted at your word.  Students will not respect adults they can’t even trust to do a basic thing like provide secure and fair boundaries.

Kids are concrete, hands-on learners.  In providing reinforcement of your boundaries, an endless series of “warnings” or “dirty looks” or stern lectures don’t DO anything and are thus not very effective.  They need more than words in order to understand.  They need to have those words coupled with confirming experiences; i.e., what HAPPENS if those rules aren’t respected. The following methods will resolve most problem behaviors.


Drake, an eighth grader, is playing his trombone while his band teacher is trying to give important instructions to the class.

Teacher: Drake, it’s against our rules to interrupt while I’m addressing the class. If you continue to do so, you will have to pack up and sit by yourself for the rest of the hour.

Drake: Fine. (he stops, but a minute later, starts up again)

Teacher: Drake, you need to pack up and sit here now.

Drake: What?! No fair! I never have time to practice my part!

Teacher: We are not discussing this right now. You made a choice. Please pack up and move to this seat. (Drake complies, albeit grudgingly.  After class, the teacher takes Drake aside and explains that, while he’s a valued member of the band, he needs to respect the rules if he wants to continue his participation).

Drake was reminded of the rule and, at the same time, given a CHOICE: comply or face a consequence.  When Drake chose not to comply, he was immediately given the consequence.  And the teacher did not let Drake argue his way out and engage in a public power struggle.  Not only does this teach Drake the correct behavior, but it serves as a concrete example to the rest of the class about the interruption policy.  It’s important to note also that the teacher remained calm and assertive throughout.  The teacher is not attacking the student but correcting a problem behavior.


Gretchen, a fifth grader, was asked to clean up around her seat before leaving class but she is trying leave without doing it.

Teacher: Gretchen, what did I ask you to do?  (The prompt)

Gretchen: Clean up around my seat?   (Student indicates understanding)

Teacher: Yes. Please do so or you won’t be ready to leave.  (Confirmation and a choice)


Most problems can and should be handled by the teacher.  Constantly sending kids to the principal’s office not only irritates the principal (and demonstrates some evident professional weakness on your part), but it’s only teaching your students that somebody else has to solve the problems in your room.  You are not teaching them to respect you.   However, there are some instances where solving the problem yourself may not be preferable or possible.  In cases of extreme defiance and/or violence, requesting assistance from administrators is certainly not unreasonable.

Communicating regularly with a child’s parents is always a good idea, especially when there have been problems with their child in your classroom.  Having an ally at home is a valuable asset for any teacher and parents generally appreciate knowing what’s happening with their children and want to help.  However, try to avoid only calling with something negative to report; an occasional call home about something positive enhances your rapport with the parent and doesn’t train them to be afraid to answer the phone when “school” comes up on the caller ID.


What I’ve detailed above can be a highly effective approach, but there are no “silver bullets” for classroom management.  Flexibility is required  here and I suggest that, in addition to these methods, you search out teachers who seem particularly impactful and effective and pick their brains.  “Stealing” ideas here is not weak or wrong but a good way to hone your own approach.

Effective discipline is a valuable and necessary skill if any learning is to take place in your classroom.  No child can be expected to learn much in an environment that is unfair, chaotic, or overly punitive.   Finding the right balance for your classroom environment is key and the concepts in this article (gleaned from years of positive and negative experiences) provides a sound basis for that journey.


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