Student Behavior: Lessons Learned from On-the-job Experiences

Group of elementary students typing on computers

Whether you went through a traditional teaching program at a university or pursued the path of alternative certification, rest assured, you are not alone in that you probably did not receive much preparation or training that focused on effective classroom and behavior management strategies. Classrooms are dynamic places reflective of the young people inside who possess widely diverse social and emotional needs. That means there is much more to teaching than merely academics and curriculum, and there are many lessons to be learned from on-the-job experiences with student behavior.

More teachers leave the profession within the first three years, not because of the workload or academics of teaching, but rather because of student discipline problems that often spring from these diverse needs. Creating and maintaining a positive and orderly classroom culture can seem overwhelming at times for both new and veteran teachers, but we know this can be accomplished by implementing effective classroom and student management practices.

As you look to your next year of teaching, much can be gained from lessons learned from others’ missteps, frustrations, and struggles. Your students also teach you lessons in “what not to do” as you probably learned quickly what didn’t work well. Here are a few lessons learned to help you hone your own practices.

Spending too little time covering expectations, rules, and procedures.

  • Spending just the first day or a little time the first week covering your expectations, rules, and procedures won’t do the job.
  • The first days should be spent not just stating and posting the expectations and rules, but modeling and providing specific examples and non-examples for each.
  • Students should be able to restate and demonstrate what is expected of them.
  • The basic procedures for the room’s operations and functions should be clearly conveyed.
  • Covering procedures for activities that won’t arise until much later during the year is wasted time on the first days of school. Those procedures should be covered immediately prior to the activity instead because they will be forgotten in the interim.
  • There are certain procedures that should become routine with students within the first week; such as:
    • entering the room
    • leaving the room
    • asking for help
    • storing, distributing, and collecting supplies and materials
    • moving about the room
    • turning in homework
    • making up work for absences
    • sharpening pencils
  • Procedures should be modeled and practiced daily until they become rote habits for the students.
  • If students do not understand or follow routines, the class will be chaotic and unruly. Much time will be taken from instruction to address the chaos.

Being inconsistent in enforcement of expectations, rules, and procedures.

You remember the day well. The expected procedure is for you to call the students by sections or rows to exit the room as the bell rings. You’re finishing reviewing the homework assignment and the bell rings mid-sentence. Students start grabbing their book bags and head to the door in a rush. You relent, and let them leave in mass, finishing your sentence over the din. What message did this send to students?

  • The message is that this procedure is not important to you on an everyday basis, so it becomes unimportant or unnecessary to them, also.
  • You chose when to enforce the expectation, and they will choose when they want to follow it.
  • It will be necessary to re-teach the procedure and ensure you plan well to leave time at the end of class for the procedure to be in place.
  • When rules are arbitrarily or capriciously enforced, their significance for the classroom operations will be weakened.
  • Additionally, if the rules apply to some students, but not others, the inequity will be obvious and compliance will diminish.
  • These actions can affect not only the students’ behaviors, but also their attitudes toward the teacher and each other.

Failing to establish a consistent attention-getting cue.

  • How do you want to get everyone’s attention quickly focused on you? Ineffective teachers raise their voice, often repeatedly, and resort to pleading for students to settle down and pay attention. Directions typically are repeated and large amounts of time wasted.
  • Effective teachers establish an attention-getting signal and teach this signal at every opportunity over the first days of school.
  • The attention cue is modeled, practiced, mimicked, and reinforced.
  • Demonstrations are conducted to show what students should do when the attention-getting signal is given if they are working individually or in groups, out of their seats, at the computer, and in every other possible scenario both inside the classroom and in common areas.
  • Consideration should be given to the age of students when selecting the attention signal.
  • Likewise, you should decide if a verbal cue, non-verbal gesture such as clapping or raising your hands, or auditory or mechanical cue is used such as chiming a bell or flashing the lights.
  • Uniform corrective language should be used for non-compliance.
  • Some teachers post the steps to follow when then attention-getting cue is used.
  • Teachers of young students often use pictorial representations of the steps or color codes.

Failing to define the acceptable noise level for the classroom activities.

  • Establishing parameters for the acceptable noise levels for different activities in your classroom is important.
  • Students should be clear about when no talking is allowed (during tests, silent reading, individual work), when whispering is permissible (paired partner work), when low voices are acceptable (group work), when normal conversation voices can be used (presentations, oral responses), and when loud voices can be used (outside, pep rallies, recess.)
  • Specific examples of the decibel of each type of voice should be demonstrated.
  • A poster or pictorial representation of the information is also most helpful to use as a reminder and to reinforce the expectation. For example, one teacher developed a 5 level system and only had to hold up her fingers in count to let students know the acceptable level (i.e., holding up 3 fingers represented “low voices.”) She posted a pictorial to identify what each number represented.

These are just a few lessons learned, now we would love to hear from you. What advice do you have to help manage behaviors in your classroom?


About the Author
Cheryl Axley

Cheryl Axley

Cheryl Axley is a career educator having served over 30 years as a classroom teacher and campus administrator in the Dallas Independent School District. She completed her career in central administration as the Operations Executive for the Deputy Chief providing her skills and expertise in school administration and principal development, new teacher training and development, project management, and staff development. Cheryl currently works with Review360, a Pearson flagship digital solution, in product development. She is also a contributor and editor of The Behavior Matters Newsletter which offers best practices and strategies for improving student behavior and enhancing positive school climate.