How to Overcome Common Classroom Management Challenges

13 mins read
Rachel Coathup

It can be difficult to manage behaviour in a classroom setting. Your ability to create and maintain a safe and productive learning environment is fundamental to successful teaching practices. We have broken down classroom management challenges into categories with strategies that you can implement to counter them more effectively.

Administrative challenges

It is important to identify challenges in everyday teaching life that you have little to no control over. Class sizes, classroom allocation, and access to technology are examples of areas that have the potential to impact your teaching practices. You mustn’t internalise every problem in your classroom. This will help you to clarify a challenge you’re dealing with and develop practical strategies to overcome it.

Examples of administrative challenges include:

  • Scheduling
  • Classroom allocation
  • Resource availability
  • Admin assistance
  • Funding
  • Curriculum/Syllabus

Strategy:

1. Develop consistent procedures

Think about how you want everyday classroom practices to run. You need to design and explicitly teach procedures for each of these practices as early as possible. Reteach procedures as necessary until they become routines for your students.

2. Always ensure students enter a classroom on your terms

For example, make it your procedure that for your class students line up and wait outside the classroom. Students must wait for permission to enter, take their seats, get their equipment out, and begin working on a simple routine task you’ve instructed.

3. Allow more time for big classes

It’s not uncommon for teachers to have 30 students in their class to look after. Emphasise key learning goals and plan activities conducive to smooth transitions. Enlist students to help with handing out and collecting resources.

4. Allow for (a little) extra noise

Big classes will be noisy so make expectations about noise levels clear by explicitly demonstrating what is acceptable when you ask for silence, talking quietly, and group-work discussion. Use seating plans to separate disruptive students and use your proximity to motivate them to stop talking.

5. Have students complete feedback surveys

Differentiating your lessons to accommodate everybody’s learning style is challenging. Let your students know that at several stages during a unit you will ask for feedback to help you to address their needs in future lessons. Feedback will also provide you with an idea of students you can group to facilitate peer-supported learning.

6. Rotate students through activities

When whole group instruction, available space, and lack of resources cause concern, consider setting up activity stations that your students will rotate through in groups during the lesson. A simple, popular strategy involves the first group receiving teacher instruction, the second group completing independent or collaborative activities, and a third group engaged in online learning. You can use this approach to cater to different learner styles, increase agency, and promote peer-supported learning.

7. Focus on your classroom

In an ideal school environment, staff would be united in the classroom management front. Inconsistency from colleagues sends mixed messages to our students who will react by pushing the boundaries. In your classroom, set clear boundaries and don’t let your students cross them. When they try, stop the lesson, and reteach your classroom expectations. Pre-write a speech or activity for when this occurs so you can implement it automatically. Your students will become accustomed to your response.

Student life challenges

You know that so much of what happens outside of your classroom will impact how students behave during your lesson. As you get to know your class, you’ll develop an instinct for when things are off. Even adults have difficulty dealing with the challenges life throws at them. You can help your students deal with their challenges by maintaining a respectful and sensitive approach to your interactions with them.

Examples of student life challenges include:

  • Student relationships with their peers
  • Student home life
  • What students eat
  • Cultural and religious beliefs
  • Socio-economic circumstances
  • Special needs, Learning difficulties
  • Illness and misadventure
  • Mental health

Strategy:

1. Always be non-confrontational

Don’t back any student into a corner, especially in front of their peers. Your manner should emphasise de-escalating any disruptive situation and hopefully maintain the dignity and respect of the student. Practice responses so that you can remain calm in stressful situations and try to provide a student with a “safe out” of a potential confrontation with reasonable choices to encourage their compliance.

2. Discuss their interests

Knowing that a favourite football team won or that BTS released a new song can allow you to change the topic when you think the classroom atmosphere is getting tense, enabling you to refocus the lesson after. Ask if they built anything cool on Minecraft when you see them on lunch duty to increase positive interactions with them. You can also incorporate their interests into your lesson design to increase engagement during the lesson.

3. Develop a supportive rapport

Challenging students often have a school history of exclusion. They may act out because it’s easier to be sent out of the room than to stay and feel stupid or threatened for whatever reason. Explain that you prioritise their wellbeing in your classroom. This means that they are still expected to follow the rules, but their focus is to stay in class. You will support them at their level of academic need, but the first goal is to develop better classroom habits. Finally, together you will develop a procedure for when class is becoming too much for them so that the other students’ learning isn’t disrupted.

4. Positively frame calls home (e.g. sandwich method)

Parents can get defensive when we call about their child, especially with behavioural concerns. You might not be the only teacher calling with complaints either, and this could become upsetting for them. Framing your concerns more constructively can increase the chances that a parent is willing to help you find a solution to the challenges you’re facing with their child. For example, you might say; “Tom is doing so well with online sections of classwork. He loses focus when he is asked to work in a group. I think he has potential to achieve better outcomes if he can maintain his focus through group activities.”

5. Give parents weekly updates on challenging students

Parents don’t want to be the enemy (try to believe it!). Keep them in the loop, especially about the progress their child is making. Let them know about the support that is in place and other options available to make sure their child makes the most out of school. You will strengthen ties with families (thereby the community) and gain valuable insight into factors that might affect how a student behaves. Remember to reassert why their child is valued in your classroom.

6. Supply suitable snacks if appropriate

It’s hard to concentrate when you’re hungry and sometimes home is not able to supply a student with suitable food for them. If appropriate at your school, providing healthy snacks such as muesli bars may be a viable option (and it can be used as a reward). Discuss with relevant colleagues if a budget for snacks can be made to make sure students who haven’t eaten have something in their stomachs before class.

7. Supply equipment when necessary

Sometimes even essential school equipment can be a financial burden for families. Your school might be able to supply a student with the necessary materials for your class if their family cannot. Consider creating procedures for handing out and collecting equipment and class resources for classes that have trouble bringing study materials to class. Finally, stationery makes good motivational prizes when your class is doing well.

8. Remember you can’t save them all

Education is an especially important privilege – but it is a privilege all the same. When a student remains unresponsive to continuous efforts made to improve their educational outcomes in your classroom, serious intervention needs to happen. The learning opportunities for the rest of your class mustn’t be diminished by the persisting poor behaviour of a classmate.  Evaluate these situations professionally, learn from them, and move on.

Low level disruptive behavioural challenges

Daily off-task, annoying little behaviours can make classroom management difficult. Learning to deal with these behaviours effectively will prevent escalation and loss of control and improve your credibility as a professional teacher. Consider the following behaviours and how you have been reacting to them.

Low level “off-task” disruptive behaviour examples include:

  • Arriving late
  • No equipment
  • Calling out
  • Chatting
  • Out of their seat
  • Eating
  • Off-task
  • Fidgeting

Strategy

1. Rule reminders (whole class)

When you have several groups of students talking, respond calmly yet assertively; “The people who are talking need to stop because it’s inappropriate and it’s disturbing other people. Independent work is quiet work. Thanks.” Don’t be afraid to stop and reteach expectations until they learn to respond appropriately.

2. Nonverbal gestures

Some gestures, such as the shushing gesture, come naturally. Teach your students to use and respond to nonverbal gestures throughout a lesson to cut through disruption. For example, in Auslan, the sign for finished is thumbs up turning side-to-side. When everyone sees this, they are to stop working and start packing up the classroom.

3. Eye contact

Eye contact increases engagement and communicates your awareness of what is happening in the classroom. Often, students who are a little unsettled will get back on task when they feel your gaze upon them. Frequently scanning your classroom will help you to identify students who are easily distracted and plan seating arrangements or other interventions accordingly.

4. Proximity

Students are less likely to be unfocused when you are near them. Studies show that lower-achieving students will usually sit at the back of the classroom. Distance from the instructor can affect levels of engagement, motivation, and behaviour. Be sure to keep moving so that students on the fringes are getting the support they need to make progress. You might also rotate seating plans so that everyone gets a chance to sit in the front.

5. Acknowledge students behaving well

It can feel disheartening when your well-behaved students roll their eyes during another disrupted lesson. So much negative attention is dedicated to off-task students, and this creates a tense, unpleasant atmosphere in the classroom. Start switching it up by making a conscious effort to provide as much positive feedback and support to students who are working well. This can motivate others to think about what they should be doing to get your positive attention.

6. Describe appropriate behaviour

After explicitly teaching your expectations, provide commentary on the students meeting them throughout your lessons. Thank students for contributing to a great learning environment and provide feedback on improved academic achievements. When you notice an encouraging difference in a student’s attitude, tell them how pleased you are with their efforts in the class and you hope they can continue in the future.

7. Wait for desired behaviour

After giving an explicit instruction, Bill Rogers says to say “thanks” instead of “please” because it implies the students will be compliant (e.g. Stop talking and all eyes on me, thanks). Students may need just a little time to process the instruction, so resist the urge to start yelling “I told you to be quiet!” Keep directional cues to the class calm, clear, and positively framed – don’t escalate – and only after you have their full attention, briefly thank everybody before moving on.

8. Re-engage student

Does the student understand what they’re meant to do? Is the activity too easy or too challenging for them? Is your material outdated and lack relevance? Often, off-task behaviour reflects needs not being met and can be solved in your lesson planning. Experiment with differentiated activities, ask for feedback, and conduct surveys to help to address boredom and keep interest levels and motivation up.

9. Address primary behaviour

If several students are talking, keep focused on addressing that issue calmly and confidently. The aim is to be respectful but assertive and to keep interactions lowkey. Some students will test your composure and leadership, and you have the added pressure of all eyes on you. You don’t want to be a teacher who is easy to bait.  As a professional, avoid sarcasm and shouting matches with students. Give them the direction to stop talking. If there are any protests, give them a clear choice to follow the direction or follow it up in their own time. Turn and walk away to give them time and space to take up your direction.

10. Ignore secondary behaviour

Students will roll their eyes, scoff, tell you it sucks etc. etc., hoping to re-engage you into a battle of wills in front of everyone—an unpleasant, unproductive experience that takes time to bounce back from. Don’t re-engage. Ignore it. They lack the maturity to deal with the situation appropriately, you don’t. The good news is they’re learning and you’re setting a good example for them.

11. Give students choice

Losing face in front of your peers is worse than bowing down to a cranky teacher. Provide easy “outs” for a situation by giving your students clear choices. For example, “If you choose to keep talking, I’ll have to separate you for the rest of the lesson.” Next, “If you choose to continue distracting others, we’ll have to meet at lunch. Let’s just get on with it, thanks.” Follow a very calm, clear structure with logically escalating consequences that promote compliance and maintain dignity.

Medium level disruptive behavioural challenges

Sometimes a student is having a bad day. They are not responding to your reasonable requests to get on task and stop disrupting everyone. Even though they are pressing your buttons, it is important to remain calm and in control. Any of the low-level behaviours listed above can be considered higher level if the student is blatantly and persistently ignoring your requests and remains disruptive.

Medium level disruptive behaviours examples include:

  • Arguing
  • Disrespect
  • Refusal to follow direction
  • Swearing

Strategy

1. Reassert school policy

In the classroom, students will play with their phones, listen to music, eat, and do a bunch of little things that they know they are not supposed to. When you have respectfully asked for compliance and they are in the mood to argue, stay calm and ask them the rule about phones in class. In your classroom, we need to do what’s right in keeping with the school’s policies and responsibilities. They may claim that another teacher allows it. You can check on that later, but in the moment, it’s more important to follow the school rules.

2. Make the consequences clear

Again, this involves providing the student with a clear choice to comply or face a consequence. Act in a calm, assertive manner with the student. For example, “I’ve asked you to put your phone twice, now. You need to put your phone away in your bag, or we will be meeting back here for a meeting at lunchtime.”  If they continue to ignore requests, ask them to quickly step outside with you – taking away an audience – and give them some time to think about their actions with an expectation of re-entering class more productively. At this stage, you must follow through with the stated consequence later.

3. Use consequences as necessary

Follow your school guidelines regarding suitable consequences for behavioural management. Your students should be aware of the consequences of disciplinary issues. This could be detention, writing lines, changing seats, or a time-out. Consequences should follow a logical progression before the need to implement the more serious measures. Students should always be given the choice between complying with requests or a deferred consequence that you need to follow through with.

4. Keep behavioural records

Many schools document behavioural incidences. Be diligent in completing behavioural reports to provide evidence of the efforts you have made to keep students safe and productive in your classroom. Make sure you keep emotion out of it, just detail the behavioural issue, your response, and the outcome. If there is ever concern about how you have handled a situation in the past, the records you have entered will be important to demonstrate you acted appropriately.

5. One on one discussion

Try to use meetings or detentions with the student to restore relationships and build trust. Explain your side calmly, focus on the behaviour, and explain how it distracts from learning. Hear them out about how they feel and allow them to respond with their concerns. By having the student write down their side, you can avoid possible arguments. You will probably be spending a lot of classroom time together, so encourage an amicable resolution in the meeting.

High level disruptive behavioural challenges

If the student is not able to make the right choice or the situation is unsafe, it is time for more serious repercussions. When a student must leave the classroom, make sure they take work with them so it doesn’t become a way for them to get out of classwork (they could write school rules out in a pinch). Some high-level challenges may be any of the following:

Examples of high-level behavioural challenges may include:

  • Throwing chairs
  • Damaging school equipment
  • Fighting/violence
  • Bullying
  • Truancy
  • Sexualised behaviour
  • Tantrums/Screaming/Insolence

Strategy

1. Exit student from class to designated area

When a student must leave the room for teaching to continue, it’s important to have a procedure to follow. There may be a desk set up outside the room, they may go to a head-teacher’s room, or they are sent to the vice-principal. If possible, send a note or a student escort and work for them to complete while out of the room (e.g. textbook questions). Follow up soon afterwards to facilitate reentry to the classroom and state the consequences for further disruption.

2. Document

It’s important to familiarize yourself with your school’s behavioural reporting system. Remain objective and fill out all sections with appropriate detail. Usually, you’ll be asked to detail what preceded the incident, what happened, the actions you took, how you followed up, referrals to senior staff, and recommendations to help the student reintegrate.

3. Send for help

If you’re having difficulty de-escalating a situation or it is becoming unsafe, ask a student to go to the next classroom or a designated teacher to ask for help. Schools will often have a team of staff members trained to respond to particularly violent and dangerous incidences with a special phone number to dial that you should have saved. Follow procedures to evacuate your students to safety or to lock down your classroom if needed.

4. Enforce consequences

You will lose credibility if a student faces no sanction for disrupting teaching time and making the learning environment unsafe. If you have stated a consequence, you must make sure that you follow it through. If it’s detention and the student doesn’t show up, you must take the necessary steps to make sure they attend or face escalating sanctions. Ask colleagues such as year group advisors for help and keep records if needed.

5. Follow up

When inappropriate behaviour warrants the intervention of senior staff, exclusion from the classroom, or suspension, you will want to try to salvage your relationship with the student.  Always keep the focus on the behaviour, how it detracts from the learning of classmates and their right to a safe learning environment. Negotiate how to make the student feel safe and supported reentering the classroom, including methods of communicating when they need a short time-out. Clearly define behaviour that can’t be tolerated and consequences for infractions.

6. Call home

Try to be constructive when speaking to parents/caregivers about your concerns. Explain things objectively, state what you would like to see change and how you will be supporting their child. Keep them posted about positive changes that you’re seeing. Alternatively, emailing the student and CC’ing their parents gives you a platform to clearly outline your concerns, changes the student should think about making and the support you’re offering them. This places the ball in the student’s court and brings their parents into the conversation in a less confronting manner.

Finally, always follow school policies when dealing with a defiant student. Be consistent and fair when you apply consequences for challenging behaviours. Allow the student to rejoin your class with positivity and support. Again, try not to internalize their actions; it is not beneficial or productive. 

As a professional, you understand better than anyone the context of your classroom and the nature of your students. We provide this as a guide, acknowledging it is troublesome to classify behaviours as low-medium-high level because any can cause a great disruption to your classroom.

We have some fantastic video resources with advice on classroom management because we know that challenging behaviours are something that every teacher experiences. Our goal is to help make classroom management a little easier for you. Best of luck.

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