5 End of the Year Classroom Management Tips

end of year

One of my favorite education blogs is Michael Linsin’s Smart Classroom Management. Yesterday, he published a post titled, “How to Avoid Losing Control the Final Days of the School Year.” Like always, he offers solid advice, but his tips are somewhat general (possibly because he does a better job of writing for the entire spectrum of K-12 teachers than I do). Michael’s post made me think about some of the specific things I do to keep a handle on student behavior during the last few weeks of the year.

Less Me. More Them.

For the most part, my students like me. They respect me. They say nice things, make an occasional card for my bulletin board, and tell me they’ll miss me next year. That doesn’t mean they want to listen to me anymore. It’s a long year, and my students are sick and tired of my voice. I don’t blame them. I’m tired of me, too. Since I know listening is a challenge for them this time of year, I talk a lot less. Instead of spoken directions, I write them on the board or in Google Classroom. Instead of delivering lectures, I assign text. Rather than teach a particular math strategy, I show a video of someone else teaching it. Mostly, I try to keep them busy with work instead of asking them to listen to me.

Give In

Talking tends to go off the charts this time of year. Instead of fighting it by making students listen to me or by asking students to work quietly at their desks, I allow them to work with partners or in small groups on nearly every assignment. Since they’re going to talk anyway, give them something academic to talk about. I also require a certain amount of the work to be finished before I give the class a break. As I wrote in this post, I give my students five-minute breaks throughout the day when they can pretty much do what they want. But at the end of the year, some kids don’t want to work. So I set a timer for all to see and tell them that if their group doesn’t have x amount of work done when the timer goes off, we’ll skip the break, and I’ll provide more time to get the work done instead.

Recommit to the Rules

The embarrassing truth is that student behavior slips at the end of the year because I have allowed it to. While the same rules are still hanging in the same spot as they have all year, I started to selectively enforce them. Whereas in September I would nail any kid who leaves her seat during instruction without getting permission, I now see that Kylie has gotten up to get a Kleenex during the math lesson and instead of moving her clip down, I justify her behavior (“Well, what’s wrong with getting a Kleenex when you need one?”) and allow it. I become permissive, and students take advantage of it.

A simple way to regain control then is to tell your students that you’ve screwed up. Don’t blame them for a problem you caused. Explain that you’ve not been holding them accountable for some of the rules and that from here on out, you’re committed to enforcing your rules. Pick a couple of the most frequently broken rules and explain that you’ll be nailing students for violating them every time. Then do it. Follow through with the predetermined consequence without fail. You’ll see a quick decrease in those behaviors as long you do what you say you’re going to do.

Reward Tolerance

Familiarity breeds contempt. A lot of end-of-year behavior stems from students just plain being sick of each other. They’ve been together for many months and where they once showed patience and understanding and a desire to get along, they now quickly tattle or fire off a rude comment.

To regain the tolerance they showed each other earlier in the year, reward it. At the end of the day, have students share about tolerance they witnessed during the day. Reward the students who displayed the tolerance. Students may struggle with this at first, but when prizes are offered, they usually respond. They’ll be more tolerant in the hopes that someone notices. They’ll be more aware of their friends’ tolerance so they can earn them rewards. They’ll likely game the system — friends will report on friends’ incidents of tolerance so that both can get prizes, but that’s okay. Yes, it’s manipulative and Alfie Kohn would surely disapprove but 1. They’re not getting the reward themselves, which means their actions (even the scheming ones) benefit somebody else, which is a nice thing to encourage, and 2. You’re trying to get through to the end of the year. Pretty much anything goes at this point.

Head Down, Keep Going

This is a hard one, but it’s important. Don’t focus on the fact that the year is almost over. Don’t count the days. Don’t cross them off a calendar. Don’t pop balloons for each newly completed day until there’s just one hanging. Don’t discuss next year at all. Don’t remind students that they should be better at things because they’ve been in school for 165 days now. You may be excited about the impending summer vacation, but some of your students aren’t.

Some of your students will be going home to horrors you can’t imagine. They’re losing the one place in the world where they feel safe and accepted. Less dramatically, some are upset about not seeing their friends for three months. Some will miss you. Some are nervous about moving to middle school or high school or maybe a new town altogether.

Change can cause anxiety, and your constant reminders about this coming change can lead to student emotions which can lead to poor behavior. Keep teaching. Keep plugging away. Stick to your routines and schedules. Teach right up to the last day as if it’s the middle of October. Before you know it, the last day will be here and then you can celebrate.

One Simple Way to Steal Time for Grading

steal time

My next book is about how teachers can take home less student work to grade. Part of accomplishing this worthy goal is finding ways to grade papers during the school day. There are obvious times like planning periods, recess, or, if you’re really dedicated and/or desperate, lunch. But I like to use those times for other responsibilities (and in the case of lunch, to eat). That leaves grading while students are in the room.

A lot of teachers never grade papers when students are in the room. They feel like when students are in their presence they need to be actively engaged with them. They must be instructing, or working with small groups, monitoring, or assessing. After all, they reason, so many kids need so much, how can they ever justify grading papers?

They also worry about what others will think. What if the principal walks in and finds them at their desks checking math tests? What if the reading specialist comes in to work with at-risk readers? Would she look down her nose or think the teacher is lazy or lacking in dedication?

And there’s the guilt many teachers seem to carry around like a free tote bag at a reading conference. Guilt comes from violating our own beliefs. Since most teachers believe they should do everything they can to help students, taking time out of the day to score student work doesn’t feel right.

But if you want to reclaim your personal life and stop taking so much work home, you’ll need to carve out time while students are in the room to grade papers. There are many ways to do this that are educationally sound and good for kids. One simple way is to give your students breaks.

I started giving five-minute breaks because I hate managing transitions. Conventional classroom management wisdom says that teachers should train students to execute transitions between subjects with crisp, quiet efficiency to maximize every minute of the day. Teachers are warned that sloppy transitions lead to misbehavior and wasted time.

But I always hated demanding these kinds of transitions. They made me feel like a drill sergeant. I couldn’t help notice that with the exception of the military, adults rarely transitioned seamlessly from one activity to another.

So instead of quickly switching from one subject to the next, I give my students breaks. Now, after students have sat through a 20-minute lesson and worked for another twenty minutes on their math, I announce a five-minute break. Students can play games on their Chromebooks, read, draw, or just hang out and talk. I let them know when time is running out and count down so they’re back at their seats and ready when the five minutes are up.

Breaks are good for everybody. They allow us to recharge, change our mood, engage with others, laugh, stretch, and refocus. Science backs it up. A 2011 University of Illinois study showed that participants who experienced diversions once per hour did better at a task than those who plowed ahead with no breaks.

Breaks also help with student behavior. Because my students know I’m going to give them choice time on their Chromebooks a few times each day, they’re less likely to sneak on to a game site during work time. Breaks can also help students get over frustration. This morning I was picking jobs for our class lemonade stand. One student was upset because he wasn’t selected. If we would have moved into more academic work, his negative attitude would have led to a lack of attention and a poor effort on the assignment. Instead, we took a five-minute break. I could almost see his thinking: He could sit there and stew and lose the five minutes of free time, or he could do something fun. He chose to play a game. By the time we resumed work, he had forgotten all about his disappointment over the lemonade stand.

Breaks also help me. They free me up to do some of the work I used to take home. While I sometimes use the time to get ready for the next subject, I’ve also used student break time to work on my newsletter to parents, write sub plans, and check student papers. Throughout the course of the day, my students usually get three or four breaks, which means I get 15-20 minutes of work time. And it’s not as if I’m checking Facebook. Writing newsletters, making sub plans, and checking papers are part of my job. I should do them while I’m being paid.

There are teachers and administrators who will read the above and cringe at the “lost instructional time.” They’re hypocrites, and you can prove it to them.

The next time you attend a long professional development presentation with one of your critics and the presenter announces a break, interrupt her and ask if the break can be skipped. While everyone stares daggers at you, explain that you value your learning time too much to take a break. Tell her you don’t want to “waste” a single minute.

See how that goes over.

 

Old Stuff:

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Teach Like a Cat

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Why You Shouldn’t Take Away Recess

I stopped taking away recess as a punishment for classroom behavior two years ago. I’ve never regretted it. The elementary school where I work uses a stoplight system for behavior management. If you’re unfamiliar, students start out with a clothespin on the color blue. If they break a rule, they move to green. Break another and it’s on yellow. Three strikes and it’s on red. Many teachers take away 10 minutes of recess from students on yellow and the entire recess for those on red. I used to.

 

I stopped for a selfish reason. Then, I justified my decision with other, better reasons. Here are the reasons you should stop taking away student recess for classroom misbehavior:

 

Stop Punishing Yourself

There were days when I made sure I didn’t put any students on yellow because I didn’t want to babysit during recess. I had stuff to do. If I was going to take away a student’s recess, that student had to be supervised by someone. Often, that someone was me. I’m a big believer in not punishing people who don’t deserve it, especially if one of those people is me.

 

Those Students Need Recess the Most

For the most part, the same kids lost recess over and over again. You know the type. They couldn’t sit still. Couldn’t leave other kids alone. Distracted others and interrupted me with their impulsive behavior. They weren’t made for sitting for long periods. They needed to move, make noise, and run into things. So what did I do to punish them for moving, making noise, and running into things? I took away the one time of their day when they could move, make noise, and run into things. The students I punished by taking away their recess were the ones who needed recess the most.

 

Everyone Deserves a Break

Some people see recess as a privilege, something to be earned. They tell their classes that if they want a recess, they better work for it. That’s wrong. Recess is a break. Everyone needs breaks. When you attend a training, one of the first things you want to know is when the breaks will be. If your trainer blithely blows past your break time, you’re going to be pissed. If your trainer makes your break contingent upon you working hard and participating, you’ll likely feel condescended to. The United Nations mandates that all prisoners receive at least one hour of exercise in the open air daily. Murderers and rapists get an hour of recess. But you won’t give Marcus a fifteen minute break because he interrupted your lesson a few times?

 

It Doesn’t Work

If the same students are losing recess more than once per week, that should tell you something about the effectiveness of taking it away. It doesn’t work. Most of the students whose recess I took away had problems self-regulating. They were impulsive. They acted, then, like thirty minutes later, thought about their actions.

 

Sometimes.

 

These are not the kinds of kids who think to themselves, “Hmm, if I squirt water on Sally’s hair then the teacher is going to move my clip. Since I am already on green for shouting out, “My butt is stinky!” in the middle of the social studies lesson, I shouldn’t squirt this water because that will result in my clip being moved to yellow, which will subsequently lead to me losing ten minutes of my recess in three hours.”

 

When stuff doesn’t work, don’t keep doing that stuff.

 

Snowball Effect

Some students have a difficult time settling down in the morning. Their home environment is loud and chaotic. They may have not gotten enough sleep. They didn’t get breakfast. As they enter the room with their classmates, they quickly become overstimulated and do something stupid. You catch them. They’re on green. Ten minutes later, they’re talking while you’re teaching. Boom. They’re on yellow. They’ve already lost ten minutes of recess. Again. “Well,” they say to themselves, “today’s shot. Might as well go all in.” You’re not setting up students for success when they know they’ve already lost the one thing they look forward to all day long. In fact, you’re making your job much harder. Why would you want to do that?

 

The Lone Exception

I do have one exception that I explain to my students on the first day of school: “I will not take your recess away for your behavior in here. I know some teachers will take it away if you’re on red. I won’t. But I will take your recess away if you are ruining other people’s recess. Everyone has a right to have fun at recess. If you are making it not fun for others because of your choices, then you can’t be outside.”

 

Students want to hear this. They want recess to be fun. They want to know that adults won’t allow jerks to run rampant on the playground.

 

Parents like the policy. Parents with students who have lost many recesses in the past really like the policy. Many have written to thank me for it.

 

So what do I do about student misbehavior? Just ignore it?

 

No. I send emails or texts to parents any time their child ends the day on yellow or red. The great majority of parents want their children to do well and behave in school. Most of them are willing to do their part to make this happen. But they can’t do anything if they don’t know about the problem. The email simply states what the student did to get on yellow or red. I should also note that students can move back off their color if they improve their behavior, so there’s always a chance they can avoid having that email sent.

 

It doesn’t solve all problems. But it works better than taking away recess.

 

Feel like reading some old stuff? Try these:

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Why Student Disrespect Shouldn’t Bother You

I once had a student throw a water bottle at me while shouting something that rhymed with “stuck glue.” I’ve had more than one flash me the middle finger while my back was turned. There have been countless eye rolls in response to what I thought were reasonable requests. If you’re a teacher, part of the job is being on the receiving end of occasional disrespect from students.

 

It used to bother me. I’d see red. How dare she! How could he? I’ll show her! I’d upbraid the impudent offender in front of the whole class. If a student was going to challenge my authority, I was damned if I was going to let her get away with it. I’d put her in her place. If I didn’t, wasn’t I inviting more of the same?

 

It was the wrong approach. It often gave the insolent student the very thing he wanted. It raised everyone’s stress level. It ruined my mood and wore me out. It damaged the relationship I had with the student and negatively affected the classroom culture.

 

There’s a much better way to deal with student disrespect. It starts by changing how you think about it.

 

It’s Probably Not About You

We teachers tend to be sensitive people, and we sometimes accept too much responsibility for what happens in our rooms. A lot of student misbehavior has little to do with the teacher. When a student mouths off or audibly sighs at a benign request, it’s often the culmination of a series of negative events. You may have provided the spark, but the fuse was already lit.

 

I sometimes say insensitive things to my wife. It’s rarely the result of something she has said or done. More often, my poor behavior happens as a result of an accumulation of trying circumstances. I had a long day at school. I lost my planning period because of a lack of substitutes. I got stuck behind a tractor on the drive home. I’m hungry because I haven’t eaten a thing since 11:30. The only thing I want to do is eat a can of Pringles and zone out, but my wife wants to tell me about a dream she had last night. So I say something awful like, “I don’t want to hear about your dreams.” I take my frustrations out on her.

 

Kids are people, too. This also happens to them. Their disrespect, while hurtful and seemingly personal, probably has little to do with you.

 

 It Might Be About Power

Some students challenge authority as a way of seeking power. All of us, from a very young age, want to feel in control. Children, who are in charge of so little of their lives, sometimes seek to acquire power in disrespectful ways. I used to think I had to win this power struggle. I thought that to win meant I had to put down any threat to my authority. I needed to show the offender, and the whole class, that I was the boss.

 

Now I know different. There’s another way to win. You can do so without demoralizing students in front of their peers. You can preserve their dignity. You don’t need to emotionally stress out yourself or your class. You do this by doing the very thing we tell students to do when they’re being teased. We tell them to stop showing how much it matters to them. “Just ignore them,” we say. “He’s only doing it because he’s getting a reaction out of you.”

 

There is no reason to show your students that they have the power to affect your emotions. Your students shouldn’t know how to push your buttons, because whenever they try, you ought to react impassively, as if you have no buttons at all. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t use “I feel” statements. “I feel” statements admit vulnerability. They’re a sign of weakness. They let students know that they have the power to single-handedly affect your feelings.

 

The message your students receive is simple: You don’t particularly care what they think about you. Act like their words don’t bother you, or even better, don’t act at all. Why would you give a nine-year old (or a fifteen-year old) that much power over you?

Consider the source

For those students whose disrespect is more frequent, stop and consider why. These kids often come from rough home situations where disrespect is prevalent and where they haven’t been taught the proper way to interact with others. By responding in anger, you damage the relationship with the student and make it more likely you’ll get even more disrespect. You turn it into an ongoing battle. You also reinforce the behavior they’re  seeing at home. Instead of responding in kind, as their parents and siblings  do, show them there’s a more mature way to handle disrespect.

What To Do

You’ll need to assess what kind of disrespect you’re receiving. If it’s an anomaly and likely the result of frustration, you might simply smile knowingly, sending the message that you get it. You’ve done the same thing yourself at times. You know how they feel. You might shrug, as if to say, “Oh, well. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then move on as if it were any other minor transgression.

 

More often, though, you’re going to send the message that while you personally don’t care about their opinion of you, their disrespect is socially unacceptable. It will lead to future problems. Dispassionately give your predetermined consequence outlined in your classroom expectations. Make it no big deal. Then teach. Assume they don’t know the right way to act. Even when that’s demonstrably untrue, it’s a more charitable view and will make you more likely to offer patient guidance.

 

Assume the student doesn’t know an acceptable way to express his anger. Model better ways. Explain that there are people in the world (not you, of course) who will get very upset if the student treats them with similar disrespect. People who feel disrespected will be less accommodating. The student will be less likely to get what he wants. And there are some people in the world who respond to jerks by punching them in the face.

 

Once you’ve taught the student a more appropriate way of responding to others, forgive and forget. We all have our moments. Just ask my wife.