We teachers know how hard it can be to reorient students once bad behavior has taken root. That's why it's important to nip behavioral issues in the bud—and to prevent them when we can.
You can start using behavior management strategies in the classroom on the first day of school, and they'll help you and your students have a great year. The key is building strong teacher-student relationships from the beginning.
Further Reading: 6 Tips for Skillfully Managing Extreme Student Behaviors
Rules and Relationships
Focusing on classroom rules and expectations seems like the logical way to begin the year. Students need to know what's expected of them, after all.
But starting this way suggests that you believe that kids will misbehave—that's why you have rules. Instead of starting with this assumption, try welcoming students into your classroom and engaging them in day-one activities. Show your students that you're interested in getting to know them and that you're looking forward to working with them.
Studies support the idea that strong teacher-student relationships are a bulwark against disruptive classroom behavior. Writing in Education Week, Sarah D. Sparks says that strong student-teacher relationships improve "practically every measure schools care about: higher student academic engagement, attendance, grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates."
Sparks also points to a study in the European Journal of Psychology of Education that shows that a teacher's relationship with students is the best predictor of "how much the teacher experienced joy versus anxiety in class."
Set the Tone on the First Day
So if teacher-student relationships are the key to a great year, make the first day of the school year about building relationships, not reviewing rules.
Start with an ice breaker; pair students up and ask them to interview one another then introduce their partner to the class. A math teacher in my school assigns kids to small groups, gives them popsicle sticks and glue, and tells them they have 15 minutes to build a structure and then explain what it's for. A history teacher I know starts each year by asking how many of his students don't like history. Then he asks them to write down why they don't like it; his job, he says, is to make his students love history. When his students are done, he collects the papers and reads them aloud—often to laughter and groans.
Telling kids a little about yourself and your subject is a great way to build relationships, too. Give examples of what your students will be learning. Ask for questions. Before class ends, give them a quick preview of what you'll cover tomorrow.
When you talk with your students— and not at them—you're actually using sound behavior management strategies in the classroom. Engaging your students, demonstrating your interest in them, sharing a little about yourself, and being enthusiastic about your class sets the tone and gives kids a sense of what kind of teacher (and person) you are. These relationships are critical to preventing behavioral issues that tend to arise as the school year progresses. Instead of acting out, students will come to you with their concerns. Instead of avoiding their work, students will talk to you about struggles they're having with the material. Establishing strong relationships early on will benefit everyone as the year progresses.
Tips for the Rest of the Year
Of course, there's a lot more to building relationships with students than fun opening-day activities. Writing on theNational Education Association's website, teacher Dave Foley offers several tips to connect with kids on the first day of school—and every day after. Here are a few.
- Preserve students' self-esteem. "As teachers," Foley says, "we are dealing with fragile beings. Being accepted by their peers is the key to their self-esteem. Being criticized by a teacher in front of their peers humiliates them. To avoid 'losing face,' students may react by talking back, smirking, or walking out of class. They will do whatever it takes to preserve their dignity." So, Foley says, teachers should correct behavior quickly, privately, and without drawing the whole class's attention. Don't be sarcastic, and don't raise your voice. Focus on the behavior, not the student's worth.
- Don't ignore good behavior. Good behavior rarely attracts attention. But you can reinforce good behavior by recognizing it. Praise students when they're prepared, when they work hard, and when they listen respectfully to you and to one another. Make giving specific positive feedback a habit.
- Be fair and consistent. Treat every kid with the same level of respect. A mentor once told me that all teachers like some students better than others—but no one, especially the students, should be able to tell. Consistently show that you hold high expectations for all of your students.
- Ask students for their opinions. Students want to feel valued. Asking what they think, listening carefully, and acknowledging that their opinions are valid goes a long way toward building strong teacher-student relationships.
Creating these habits on the first day of school and sticking to them throughout the year will not only help your students grow academically; it'll go a long way toward preventing behavioral issues.
Making the Most of Your Time
If you're a secondary school teacher, you teach your students for 50 minutes a day. So over a typical 180-day school year, you'll spend 150 hours with your students. If you're an elementary school teacher, you could spend up to 1,000 hours with your students.
Further Reading: How to Deal with Entitled Behavior in the Classroom
Kids connect with teachers who demonstrate consistency, fairness, and respect. They're far less likely to misbehave when it means jeopardizing that connection. So start the year off right by using these behavior management strategies in the classroom. You might end up feeling joy—not stress—during the many hours you spend with your students this year.