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Responses: Sometimes, Teachers and Students Need a 'Start Over Day'

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How do you turn around a class that you've let get out-of-control?


This series began with responses from Bobson Wong, Rita Platt, Kevin Parr, Theresa Staley, Valerie Ruckes and Sarah Thomas.  You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Bobson, Rita, Kevin and Theresa on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Mary Beth Nicklaus, Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Cindi Rigsbee, Lori Jackson, Steve Peck, Becky Corr, Otis Kriegel share their responses.

Response From Mary Beth Nicklaus

Mary Beth Nicklaus enjoys inspiring vulnerable teens to become enthusiastic life-long readers, writers and learners.  She is currently a secondary level school teacher and literacy specialist with Wisconsin Rapids Public Schools in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin:

It's happened to most teachers at one time or another:  You are trying to begin class.  You are speaking, but three girls in the corner of the room are talking over you. They are giggling and laughing loudly as they chat about something that happened outside of your class. You try to get them under control. You begin again and two more students plus the students you just talked to, are ignoring you and continuing to talk over you as you are trying to get everyone back on track.  Joe gets up and goes to the Kleenex box.  He takes a tissue and blows his nose like a foghorn.  Pretty soon the whole class is laughing uproariously.  You raise your voice.  Nothing.  Frustration sets in.  It's been taking more and more time to get your students attention, and somehow, they have even become immune to your raised voice.

Is it possible to get control of your class once you have lost it?  Yes. It is.  With a little self-honesty and some hard work, you can get your class back and keep it on track.  

When creating a plan, consider these three elements:

  1. Ask yourself the hard questions.  How did this happen in the first place?  Did it happen all at once or little by little?  Was it something you did or are still doing? Do you need to rein in your yelling? (Yes.) How engaged are your students? Is there a certain part of your class that has more disruption than another?  How is your confidence level? Two questions whose answers can have the most transformative power: How is your relationship with your students? How engaged are they in your class?   It may help to begin a "Getting my class back" journal so you can work out your answers in black and white. Writing can be quite powerful.

  2. Look at your behavioral expectations.  Do students understand what is expected of them?  Did you make it clear on the first day of class and keep repeating expectations and practicing procedures until these routines have become ingrained? Or did you gloss over a list on the first day and move on with no going back?  Do you have procedures in place which control disruptions such as pencil sharpening or going to get a tissue quietly while the teacher is giving directions?  Have you practiced these procedures? How is your classroom organization?  Do students know how to transition from one part of the class to another, seamlessly? 

  3. Look at your relationship with students.  If students feel like you really know them, and you know their individual interests and what drives them, this can carry you a long way in keeping them interested and engaged.  Stand at the doorway and greet them, or if you feel comfortable, high five them or shake their hand.  Create an interest inventory or utilize a classroom journal for a bell ringer where students are writing about their interest and opinion.  Ask follow up questions about their favorite sports, or gaming.  Incorporate student interests into assignments or talk to students about their interests at different opportunities.

Put your plan in place after a vacation or at least after the weekend.   Get students involved in helping to create or solidify expectations.  Know that students appreciate a well-run class just as much as you do.  Letting them help will give them pride and ownership in a brand-new learning atmosphere.

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Response From Jeryl-Ann Asaro

Now a retired teacher, Jeryl-Ann Asaro loved her job as a middle school English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book "Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education." She has taught at four levels--elementary, middle, high school, and post-graduate, but she found that teaching adolescent-aged students was her true calling. Spending her days in her classroom with her 14-year-olds was her favorite place to be--crazy, but true:

It's time to exude confidence! Start a new "plan," share it with the class, and stick to it! Easy, no. Doable, yes! Baby steps. As you try new strategies, stick with them before you assume they're not working. Everything takes time.

Face it; when confidence wanes in any situation, it leaves you vulnerable and open for others to take advantage of you. "Fake it until you make it." When you show weakness, students will take advantage. It is YOUR classroom. Take it back! But, do it with kindness and smiles.

No matter what you were hired to teach, your major goal is to take a group of students from varied backgrounds and levels, and turn them into productive learners in a safe classroom community. No student (or clique of students) should ever stop the other students from learning. Until someone becomes a teacher, he/she has no idea what a difficult task it is. Now you know. It is time to make adjustments. Better planning will lead the way.

Here are some ideas:

  • Now that control is lost, rethink original plans, and return to and practice ideas from the beginning of the year.
  • Have a meeting with students. Review expectations again. Be honest and kind. Don't yell at them. Take ownership of mistakes. Set the new "plan" in action.
  • Discuss a discipline strategy. At the first sign of difficult behavior, do not be tempted to "let it slide." Make the consequences for difficult behaviors understood, immediate, certain, and appropriate.
  • From that point forward, stick to the new plan. Be committed and consistent.
  • Make the next assignment after "the meeting" an individual, engaging one where students have personal choice. Spread out the students, possibly putting them in rows. Provide a well-organized, multi-day, quiet assignment, and use this time to enforce the new "plan."
  • Be proactive, rather than reactive, in all your discipline approaches. As soon as inappropriate developments begin, speak to the involved students using "I" messages. "I expect you to . . . I need you to . . . and follow the "I" message with clear descriptions of what the student is supposed to do.
  • Allow a student to choose his or her own consequence for behavior. "I need you to work differently than you are working right now. You can either do it alone, or follow my guidelines and work with your group. What is your choice?"
  • As student difficulty begins again, kindly speak to the student privately after class or in the hallway. When a challenging student is spoken to in front of peers, the student takes the power! When the student is spoken to privately, the teacher can sculpt the conversation.
  • Involve parents. Use the phone. Make a list of what needs to be said. Don't get distracted from the point. Speak facts, not opinions. Usually, even defensive parents speak to their children.
  • Reach out to others in the profession. Chances are the same students are being difficult for colleagues, too. This discipline problem is common. Read blogs and books; go on Twitter and use a professional learning network (PLN) for educators.
  • Involve guidance/discipline department. Consider a group conference with the your colleagues, the guardians, possibly administrators, and bring the student into the meeting for an action plan. He/she will see that the adults are working as a team.
  • Be honest with administration. Talk with them about options in advance. Hopefully, just the idea that the student goes to the "office" is enough to send the "I mean business" message.
  • Have a sense of humor. Not every act is one against your classroom discipline plan. Humor can ease a situation.
  • The door is your friend. Greet students at the door. Guide them to meet expectations as they pass. Smile; make small connections. "Hi! Joe, Did you see that Yankee game last night?" "Please come in, find your seat, and read the board. Get busy!"  
  • Be sure the classroom is ready for instruction. Come in early and go from room-to-room. If needed, talk to the teachers whose rooms you share. Test equipment before using it. Organize all materials. Ask for a traveling cart. Have an easel in each room (or easel paper). Make Presentation slides for each class. The upfront work will make the most of the teaching time.
  • Be the center of attention before the lesson begins. Don't attempt to teach a class that is not focused on you. Don't compete with students for attention; it sends the wrong message.
  • Speak softly and in a relaxed tone. Force students to listen to your words. Don't shout over students. Use a normal voice. Be structured and disciplined without being loud, controlling, and unkind.
  • Give verbal time cues, so they can prepare in advance. "You have two more minutes to finish your discussion." Use an online timer! Timed activities force students to get the job done.
  • Try a focus technique. I use claps. I NEVER go over three claps. I use this idea sparingly but especially during group activities, and I explain in advance WHY I'm using it.
  • Let students hear the silence. Once they're quiet, let them hear what silence sounds like. Silently, count to 10, and then say the next set of instructions.
  • Circulate, circulate, circulate! Make the rounds; work the room; constantly check progress. When students see movement towards them, they will get on task.
  • Don't hold a grudge. You're the role model. After the incident is over, and a resolution is reached, act as friendly and nice as always.
  • Be patient. Kids are kids. They don't always listen the first time. You'll likely need to explain instructions twice, and in two different ways. You will still have to walk around and explain them again struggling individuals.
  • Teach to the well-behaved and hardest working students, not the ones giving you the most trouble. Don't create an atmosphere of fear, but rather an atmosphere of safety.
  • Remember; all students have baggage too. Find the balance between being firm, but friendly and flexible.

Think like a cooperating teacher. Is your management style something you would want a student teacher to learn from you?

Think like a student who wants to learn. Is your management style preventing that student from getting the most of the class?

You are not alone. Being proactive and reflective will help to transform the classroom into an area where students feel safe while thriving.

Count to five; take a breath. Relax! It is your room; they are in your world. Exude commitment, competence, and confidence.

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Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified ELA/Reading teacher recently retired from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction where she worked on recruitment and retention initiatives like beginning teacher support. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

Those who are not educators may believe that classroom management is only an issue for novice teachers, but in reality, classes can get out-of-control for many reasons and at various times across a school year (and across a teacher's career). I struggled during my first few years, of course, with no idea of how to turn things around. Most often back then, I just counted days until the year was over, hoping to start again with a new school year and a new group of students.

But later, after gaining some experience, I realized that I didn't have to wait at all. A mentor to me, another teacher on my grade level, gave me the advice that there are several options for "start over days" - that are just like a new first day of school. This could be the first day after a break (like winter break or spring break), or a day after a teacher workday, or even something as simple as a Monday.

My start-over days always began with a conversation. I'd say, "We've gotten off track and this is a new day." I would explain that as a classroom community we would be having an open discussion, not a gripe session. I'd then ask the students to articulate what's not working. Then I would add what's not working for me, what's not aligning with my philosophy of teaching. Together, we would brainstorm new procedures that we called "norms" or "Words to Learn By" (but definitely not RULES!) I have found that students have more "buy in" to procedures that they participate in developing.

I have also used intricate (and sometimes time consuming) reward systems - although controversial and questioned by some of my colleagues - They would ask, "Why should we reward them for doing what they're supposed to do?" But for me these are fun ways to turn a classroom full of negative energy into something positive. Our interdisciplinary unit on Africa, and specifically the cacao bean, was very popular one year as prizes were earned via a "Chocolate Chart" on the wall.

But rewards aside, I found communication with parents to be one of the most important ways to keep my classes on track. One little project I called "A Phone Call A Day" worked well as I told the students that I would be calling one home every night to talk to parents about their children. What I said to those parents had the potential to be very positive, to literally make someone's day. But what I said to them was entirely up to the students, depending on their work ethic and cooperation in class, and most of them received glowing phone conferences as a result.

The most important practice that impacts classroom management is to continue to develop, to re-establish, and to repair relationships along the way. Mutual respect and a sense of family and community in a classroom lead to time to teach and time to learn. And that's why we're there.

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Response From Lori Jackson & Steve Peck

Lori Jackson is an educational psychologist who has been working with students and their families for more than 15 years, and Steve Peck is a special educator with over 15 years of experience working with students who have multiple and severe disabilities. Together, they are co-founders of The Connections Model, an SEL and education technology company whose KidConnect app helps students develop emotional regulation, the necessary foundation for all learning. Their research-based and real world-proven classroom approach teaches students to identify, understand, and manage their emotions and behaviors so they become Ready2Learn. Lori and Steve believe in engaging parents and families in the educational process, and in using technology to help students build their essential functional skills:

Wow, we have all been there! Even the most seasoned educator can have a situation that leads to a classroom coming a bit unglued. Teachers have so many things to manage all at once. A student needing one to one attention, a few others needing help on a project, a phone call from the office and all happening at the same time can turn the typically well-oiled classroom into one that might need a reset. No problem.

Step one: Calm yourself down first

Have you let your own emotions get out of sorts? It's likely that you are feeling overwhelmed or anxious by the classroom tussle. So use a strategy that can help you to manage your emotions. Combine an active strategy and a thinking strategy. Why? Because the action helps you retake your emotional brain and thinking kicks the rational brain back to work. So take a few deep breaths and think about how your classroom will be turned around in no time.   

Step two: Focus on what you know works

Our best tools come to the rescue all the time! We particularly love modeling in this situation. You've just gotten yourself regulated and calm, so model exactly this process for your students. Stand quietly in front of them and show them the steps. What we have experienced and observed is that a quiet teacher is often a very noticeable teacher! Walk around if needed to ensure you stop by kids that might be a little less observant than others, but remain quiet and model your breathing.

Step three: Resist the urge to review and dissect

You and your students have regained your emotional regulation, everyone is back to a reasonable level, and you've done it nonverbally! Return too quickly to a conversation and you are likely to lose the students that have a hard time with regulation. So, we suggest you resist reviewing the situation. Instead, lead them on a quiet walk around the classroom, the hallway or even outside if possible. If that isn't really possible, try a few quick jumping jacks or other quick energy activity right at their seats. The physical activity will help shift the mindsets of your students and really help change the tone in your classroom. You are looking for a reset, and this will absolutely help reset everyone's regulation!

Step four: Move on. Well done

It didn't feel in control for a few minutes but it ended well. Keep a close eye on the students that you know will have more difficulty staying regulated and model deep breathing again when needed. Remember to keep breathing yourself!

Step five: Review

When you have some time later in the day, maybe on your ride home or when you are on the treadmill at the gym, think about what happened and what worked to turn the situation around. Can you add any of these strategies to your daily routine if you aren't already using them regularly? How about adding a minute of mindfulness to your everyday routine? Research shows that mindfulness exercises can help reduce stress and anxiety. Are you teaching your students how to use strategies to manage their emotions? In our work, we note the root of what we call "off-target behaviors" come from unmanaged emotions. We teach students that strategies that are both active and thinking can help them to manage their emotions and, in turn, their behaviors. Just as you used deep breathing and a positive thought about your students to manage your emotions in the moment, so can your students!

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Response From Becky Corr

Becky Corr is the President of EdSpark Consulting, which is dedicated to igniting partnerships for diverse learners through professional development, technical writing, and systems analysis.  In her role as an English Language Development Team Lead in Douglas County School District, Colorado, she coaches, mentors and supports teachers, and facilitates family engagement opportunities:

In an effort to establish strong relationships and have a comfortable working environment, norms are occasionally bent, or routines set aside.  Even the strongest teacher can find themselves in a situation where they need to steer a class back on course.  If you've found yourself in this situation, as I have, here are some strategies for turning things around and getting your sanity back.  

When I co-taught with math teacher, Danny Uyechi at Chaparral High School, he used this strategy at the start of the year, but it can be useful at any point throughout the year.  The beauty of this strategy is that it harnesses the power of positive peer influence to help a teacher turn a class around. First, give students a notecard and ask them to think about and write their answers to these three questions: What do you need to do to be successful?  What do you need from your teacher(s) to be successful? What do you need from your classmates to be successful?  Next, ask students to share their responses with one or two students.  Collect the notecards.  Using the website Wordle, or another word cloud generator, type in student responses and create visuals--one for each question asked.  Save each of the images and print them or create posters.  Tell students that the visuals were created using their responses to the three questions.  The largest words and phrases are those that appeared most frequently.  Ask students to identify common themes among the three visuals.  Ask them, what do your classmates expect from you?  Explain that these expectations were generated by students and this is what they expect.  Commit to supporting their success by providing clear and consistent consequences.  Find this and more strategies here.  

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Take a step back to reflect.  Consider students' responses to the questions asked.  Make a list of the top five behaviors that are causing the class to get out of control.  Even though it is tempting, refrain from naming particular students.  For instance, maybe students are talking out of turn, not staying on task, or using technology at inappropriate times.  Narrow down the list and choose only one or two issues to focus on.  Next, consider how you will curb negative behavior and encourage positive behavior.

For example, if students are talking out of turn, a teacher might consider reminding students to raise their hands prior to posing questions.  In addition, a teacher may choose to implement a talking stick strategy where students may only talk if they have the talking stick. Be clear with consequences for negative behavior and follow established policies.  For instance, is it written in your classroom policies and school handbook that teachers will call parents or guardians or assign detentions for not following expectations?  Consistency is the key.  To get results, the plan must be followed each and every time.  Yes, it is time consuming, but students will benefit from and appreciate clarity and consistency.  Someone once told me, "If you put a person in a dark room, the first thing they will do is search for the walls."  Kids appreciate and thrive with clear boundaries.  If in doubt, look back at the word cloud they created.  

For more ready- to- use classroom management resources, visit my blog.  Remember, even the most seasoned teacher can find themselves in this position.  Take a deep breath, avoid power struggles, and implement bite-sized strategies. 

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Response From Otis Kriegel

Otis Kriegel is the author of Starting School Right: How do I plan for a successful first week in my classroom? (ASCD). Kriegel has taught elementary and middle school students for 15 years. He has taught in dual language (Spanish/English and German/English), monolingual, and integrated coteaching classrooms. Connect with him on Twitter @mynameisotis:

STOP. Don't throw more gas on the fire. Whatever you are doing is obviously not working. You need to gain control of the class in a simple, calming way.

Classes get out of control for many reasons, such as when the students are unclear about what they are supposed to do, unclear how they are supposed to complete a task, or if what they are doing is way too hard for them. Shift gears to an activity that you know they can do and have had success with before. For instance, listening to a read aloud, using a prompt to write a story, or begin an activity with which they are familiar, such as singing, poetry, or silent reading. Once your class is calm and focused, you can reintroduce the lesson you were attempting when you lost control or save it for another day after you have had time to rethink it over. Wiser now, you will have set standards for participation, eliminated confusion, and thought through ways to insure each student's success.

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Thanks to Mary Beth, Jeryl-Ann, Cindi, Lori, Steve, Becky and Otis for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder--you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom Management Advice

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Implementing The Common Core

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

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Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & The Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

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Professional Development

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Best of Classroom Q&A

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

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