7 Classroom Management Myths and How to Combat Them

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Educators tend to think about the reactive part of challenging situations when it comes to classroom management – how to respond to inattention or misconduct.

But the truth is that classroom management is mostly about being proactive so that less of those situations arise.  According to author Harry Wong, “The number one problem in the classrooms is not discipline; it is lack of authentic learning tasks, procedures and routines.”

Laying a good foundation from the beginning will motivate most students to work up to expectations and reduce the number of confrontations that cannot only disrupt but also completely de-rail good lessons.  Unfortunately, there are still many common misconceptions among some educators about classroom management that persist despite 21st century research and reforms.

01. Myth: Teachers shouldn’t smile until December. Reality: Connect with students.

Contrary to popular belief, showing students that you care for them and can laugh every once in a while is not a sign of weakness.  In a study done in 2003 by Robert and Jana Marzano, they found that “teachers who had high-quality relationships with their students had 31 percent fewer discipline problems, rule violations, and related problems over a year’s time than did teachers who did not have high-quality relationships with their students.” It makes sense that teachers who show genuine interest in their students will inspire respect, and that teachers who are rigidly strict will motivate more negative behavior instead of less.  For ideas on how to connect with students, Love Teach gives some examples from multiple teachers in #3 of this article.  One of my favourite examples is the teacher who uses the sidewalk outside her portable to write happy messages to her students.

02. Myth: Teachers should praise students often to encourage them. Reality: Praise can actually be detrimental if not handled correctly.

On the flip side of the extreme of never smiling is giving too much of the wrong kind of praise.  Studies by Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor, have shown that recognizing students for inherent traits like, “You are so smart,” can actually deter them from taking risks or trying hard on difficult tasks.  In the world of classroom management, this can have the effect of students who throw tantrums or just refuse to do work.  Using more specific phrase for encouragement can let students know that their achievements come through effort and attitude rather than innate talents over which they have no control.  Here is a list of alternatives.  Also, as Katrina Schwartz mentions in this article, it’s better to praise students privately or non-verbally so that anxious students don’t become embarrassed by the attention.

03. Myth: Teachers should offer plenty of options for students who finish work quickly. Reality: Teachers should differentiate for students, and require genuine reflection so everyone is working to their potential.

The worst mistake that you can make as a teacher is to expect everyone will finish their independent work at the same time.  Students who finish early, or who think they are finished, quickly find ways to distract themselves and the class if they haven’t been given expectations for how to spend that time.  It’s easy to find ideas on the internet for “Early Finishers,” but some will argue that those activities will only motivate some students to rush through work, or will upset other students who are being expected to do more work.  The author of the above image advocates for differentiating work, and gives clear guidelines on how this can be done in a math setting. In this post, “Outlaw “I’m Done, the author makes a good case for teaching students to produce higher quality work by getting in the habit of reflecting.  With a combination of work that is on their ability and/or interest levels and a process for self-evaluation, your classroom will have fewer early finishers and an increase in the caliber of the products that are completed.

04. Myth: Deviating from structured routines will cause chaos. Reality: Throwing in unexpected “twists” will keep students engaged.

Routines are certainly important, as any classroom management reference will advise you.  However, breaking those routines up a bit will help to keep your students’ attention.  Sometimes, too much predictability can result in boredom – which often leads to misbehavior. Use unexpected cues: music, unusual phrases, etc…  For example, when I take attendance at club meetings, I give the students something silly to respond when their names are called, like, “If you could invent any ice cream flavor, what would it be?”  They are so busy thinking of responses and listening to others that they forget this is a boring routine that usually inspires inappropriate behavior.  I also like to tell them silly phrases to wait for when I am giving instructions so they will listen until I’m finished. (“Purple pandas play piano,” for example). For a great technique for adding interest to transitions, I like this “Action Cup” for transitions from “A Turn to Learn.”

05. Myth: Movement only causes disruption and makes it harder for students to focus. Reality: Movement can be beneficial for learning and gives students an opportunity to engage both physically and mentally.

GoNoodle and many other resources offer “Brain Breaks” for students, helping them to get active for short periods of time either between activities or during learning.  In elementary schools, where students usually stay in the same classroom most of the day, these opportunities to exercise their limbs are especially important.  However, older students aren’t very fond of constantly sitting in desks, either, and there are ways that movement and learning can take place simultaneously.  In fact, according to this article based on a study done in the Netherlands, doing both at the same time can actually increase learning.  At the very least, demanding that students remain in their seats for long stretches of time will certainly lead to classroom management issues from students desperate to combat boredom and sleep.  Instead of having students raise their hands to answer questions, you can pair them up to do “walk and talks” or move to different parts of the room to indicate responses.  Learning stations are another way to ensure that students get to move around during class.

06. Myth: Digital devices are a distraction. Reality: Digital devices can engage your students in new ways.

While the above “Cell Phone Daycare” photo is clever and amusing, it shouldn’t be the norm.  Students probably do appreciate the fact that they can charge their phones while they aren’t using them.  But why aren’t they using them to enhance their learning?  It shouldn’t be a requirement that good classroom management eliminates the use of personal devices.  Especially if a school does not offer one-to-one computers or tablets, a teacher can truly engage students by allowing them to use their phones for research, student response systems, etc…  The key to making sure this privilege does not immediately disintegrate into chaos is to have clear expectations for usage and enforce the consequences for abuse of this privilege.  Here is a good example of cell phone rules for the classroom, which can also apply to other digital devices:

If your students are borrowing school devices or need to take a trip to a school computer lab in order to utilise digital resources, here are some other things to keep in mind in order to respect others who share the same device.

07. Myth: Behavior is more difficult to manage in a student-centered classroom. Reality: Allowing students to have leadership roles and choices in some decisions leads to more engagement and less reason to look for other distractions.

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Some of us taught back in the day when noise in the classroom was perceived negatively.  If an administrator walked in and 100% of the students weren’t paying attention to the teacher at that moment, it was a reflection of poor classroom management.  But times have changed.  21st century teachers don’t just stand in front of the room.  In many cases, 21st century teachers are the room –  all of the participants in a class teaching and learning alongside each other.  If you reflect on your own experiences, you will probably agree that your most engaging learning experiences in and out of school have been ones in which you actually had a part and a voice.  The most frustrating, which are often the ones that create difficult classroom management challenges, are the activities in which you have no control or choice.  If I were an administrator assessing teachers, I would seek out active engagement in the classroom rather than a “sage on the stage” with perfectly silent students.  Noisy rooms may not always be signs of great teaching, but they definitely are not automatic indicators of poor management, and can often be just the opposite.

What Happens if I Do All of These Things and They Still Don’t Work?

They won’t work – at least not 100% of the time.  Nothing does.  Following these suggestions is a great start, and will certainly minimise disruptions, but there will be some deeper issues that will need to be addressed with individual students.  If you have already established an environment of trust and respect you will have a much easier time convincing them to make some changes.  Understanding the reasons for their misbehavior is essential (see the chart in this article by Robert and Jana Marzano for common reasons and helpful strategies), but relationships are just as vital.  Strategies for reacting to poor conduct vary with each student based on his or her misbehavior.  The important things to remember when you react are: this isn’t personal, I need to find out why this happened to avoid a repeat, and I need to keep all of my students safe.

All of these classroom management strategies have one thing in common: respect for the students.  Communicating respect is a constant job for a teacher, and takes a lot of work to sustain on a daily basis.  Students who misunderstand the message or don’t feel that respect will misbehave.  You can find classrooms where students comply out of fear, but they don’t learn.  I guarantee, though, that a lot more learning happens in the classrooms where students are motivated to behave by the mutual regard between the teacher and the students.  If you truly want to have a well-managed classroom, strive every day to be attuned to the needs of your students and to clearly communicate what you need from them.

Create a beautiful yearbook with your students.

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Terri Eichholz teaches gifted students in Kinder through 5th grades in San Antonio, TX. She's been an educator for 24 years, and is a proponent of guiding students to create, problem-solve, and personalize their own learning. You can read more on her blog, "Engage Their Minds," or follow her on Twitter (@terrieichholz).

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