Please note that as an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Know that I only recommend products I've personally used and believe are genuinely helpful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy them. You get great equipment and I get to keep offering as many resources as possible for free.
The Right Tools Make a Difference
I'm terrible at home improvement. If I wasn't rocking that teacher budget, I'd just pay somebody to do the work for me. But as it is, almost all improvements are me trying, failing, reaching out to my neighbors, then watching them knock it out in minutes with the right tools. Of course my neighbors have a lot of skills I missed out on growing up but having the right tool for the job makes an unreal amount of difference.
Classroom management is so much like home improvement. You have to tinker with stuff and try out new tools until you get it right (or right enough). Not all projects are going to require the same tools but the more tools you have, the better off you'll be. Here are some tools that work for me. Maybe you can use them the same way or tweak them for your situation.
Start With Your Goal
Rules and expectations mean nothing without a solid goal. When you define what you're working towards, the rules make sense. And when they make sense, they're more likely to be followed.
For me, I start out explaining the following:
My job is to teach you to love moving.
When you love moving, you'll want to do it more, leading an active & healthy lifestyle.
For everybody in this class to love moving, every single person needs to feel safe and welcome.
I was never an athlete. I quit basketball in 5th grade because I just got yelled at by my coach and other players. I liked baseball okay, but I struck out every time I was up to bat and I pretty much just hung out in right field, catching sunburns. I hated "sports" because that's just where I failed, got yelled at, and made fun of.
In college, I started hanging out with an amazing group of guys, mostly athletes, who led active lifestyles and more importantly, were encouraging. There was a night when they all were going to play a game of pick-up basketball. I was intimidated because a couple guys played on our school's basketball team, some of the best players in the country. I showed up and I was out there bricking layups, air-balling threes and, as it happened, being encouraged by these guys who competed at elite levels. They made sure I felt safe and welcome. It was easier to take risks. And those risks led to small successes, which showed me what I was capable of doing. I developed real confidence, not the fake it til you make it kind.
That was a turning point, but the life-changing moment happened when seven of us did a 3 day hike of the Grand Canyon. Two hours into the hike, I was done. My pack (which I got at a garage sale) didn't fit me right. It was cutting off circulation to my arms. I nearly just chucked it into the canyon and went without my stuff. Thankfully I had these awesome guys around that helped and encouraged me through it. We got lost off the trail (if you could call it that) and climbed down rock faces we never should have tried. And that was just the first half of the first day.
We were inexperienced, young and a little dumb (climbing into abandoned mining caves in the pitch black comes to mind). We were there for each other. Another guy got severely dehydrated on the way back up. We all worked together to get out. By the end, I was maybe 20 yards from finishing the hike and needed to rest a good 10 or 15 minutes before I had enough energy to make it that far. I vowed to never see the place again.
Something interesting happened. I hated that hell hole but I look back at it fondly. Those guys turned from friends to family. That canyon showed me what I was capable of. It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life but I made it. Now I can't wait to put my own kids through that lol.
None of that could have been done without feeling safe and welcome so that's what I expect in my "gym."
Safe & Welcoming Space
A huge thing with any activity is that I won't let anybody participate while somebody else has a problem with them. We regularly talk about common problem solving strategies and it's their job to make sure they aren't causing problems with others and fixing them with they arise.
If somebody lets me know they're having a problem with somebody else, I call the other person over and ask them if they knew the other person was having a problem with them. Then I'll ask if they know how to fix it with them or if they'd like some help working through it. (BTW, this is a great strategy for talking to kids to make a difference and avoid power struggles)
My Problem Solving Strategies
Sometimes, they can fix the problems themselves, but it's also helpful to have some classroom norms on fixing them. Here's the four strategies I have for solving the most frequent problems I face in the "gym".
1. Are You Okay?
We've all heard it. "SO AND SO JUST HIT ME IN THE FACE WITH A BALL... AND THEY LAUGHED AT ME."
But what's really happening is more complex than that. Most of the time, when our kids hit somebody else on accident, they just don't know what to do or how to react. They think "oh, I'd better not look mad" so they smile. And that makes it worse. Which is why I give them the words to use... "Are You Okay?"
This one is HUGE! It stops most problems before they even start. If you do something that hurts somebody else (or heck, even if you just see somebody else hurt), just ask them if they're okay. If they are, great. If not, ask if they want you to hang out with them until they feel better or check on them later. If they're too mad to respond, just check on them later.
It's crazy how helpful this is. When we get hurt, even just a little bit, we want somebody to acknowledge it. We don't need a huge pity party, just somebody to check in with us. This lets us know that the player is more important than the game.
2. Only Touch What You've Been Invited to Touch
This is "Consent 101." Kids have such a hard time with consent... adults too. In my "gym," this goes for equipment and people. When you're moving equipment, it wastes time. When you're touching people, they probably don't want to be touched.
But one of the biggest problems is when somebody grabs a ball from somebody else. It may as well be an invitation to fight. I'll just ask the person if they were given the ball or if they were sure the other person was done with it. Then I'll remind them there's a problem to be fixed and send them on their way.
- - I overheard a student the other day channeling their inner me saying, "I don't remember inviting you to touch my ball." I loved it! - -
3. Be Kind, Remind
All we want is the benefit of the doubt. Picture this. Some students are playing a game and somebody is "cheating" (a Forbidden Phrase in my "gym").
Option A: "Quit cheating, cheater."
Option B: "Coach said if the ball hits the wall, then gets your legs, it still counts"
In Option A, the player is going to feel defensive and refuse to listen to logic and reasoning. In Option B, even if they weren't playing fair, you're giving them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they forgot a rule. And they're more likely to respond positively. Some people need a lot of reminders. And I make sure to tell my students that if you've reminded them several times, come let me know because maybe they need somebody to explain it to them in a different way and I'd be happy to do that.
This is how I teach it to my youngest students.
4. Define or Question the Problem
This one is easy. "I don't like it when people touch my face" or "Why are you poking me?" It stops the other person from being defensive. If it keeps happening, remind them. Beyond that, take action. I got an amazing idea from my neighbor who told her daughter to just get loud enough for a teacher to hear... "I TOLD YOU I DON'T LIKE IT WHEN YOU CALL ME THAT." You're not telling on them, but you are bringing the teacher's attention to the problem.
I spent a year trying to talk to the kids like I want them to talk to each other; meaning I tried to eliminate all "direct orders" or "boss talk." It was life changing and cut out tons of power struggles. Check out some strategies here (they're perfect for adults and kids).
It All Starts with Professional Listening
When it comes down to it, I'll only sit students out for (a) making decisions that aren't safe for everybody; (b) making somebody feel unwelcome; and (c) doing something that prevents themselves or somebody else from getting important information.
For all to feel safe and welcome, everybody needs to know what to do. Those that don't know what to do end up getting others hurt or making others mad. In my experience, it's the kids that aren't listening that get in the most arguments in class. So I have high expectations when it comes to listening.
It's Business Time
In my class, it's either Business Time or Activity Time. Usually, you know it's Activity Time because you hear music and people are moving.
Whenever I'm speaking to the entire class, it's Business Time. We consider it a meeting and I expect professional listening. I make sure to emphasize what it would look like if I was in a meeting with my Principal and other teachers. I might be sitting on the floor or in a chair. I might even be leaning back. But I'm sitting mostly upright. My voice is mostly off. My body is mostly still. And I'm usually looking at the speaker.
I also emphasize the why. When everybody knows what to do, we have to stop less frequently for reminders. In an ideal world, I don't spend any time talking and they just all know what to do. But since that's just a dream until telepathy is invented, I have to be descriptive.
Every time I begin speaking to the entire group, I remind them that "I'm looking for professional listeners that are sitting up, voice off, body still, eyes up here."
After that reminder, I'll immediately send any student not following those expectations to a Yellow Spot (see below).
*As a side note, reminding students that school is practice for acting professional is a great way to solve lots of problems. I'll ask students if it's professional to be running in the halls, using profanity, shoving somebody at the drinking fountain, etc. "Can you imagine seeing a teacher doing that to another teacher here? That wouldn't look good." It's also important for them to understand that they need to adjust how they act and talk in different environments.
During Activity Time, I have one expectation: Do Your Job. There are two parts to this. The first is knowing what to do and the second is effort. Which brings me to my number one rule:
If you're sweating, you're winning
You can read more about this rule here but the idea is that if you're trying and working hard, you'll get sweaty. By working enough to sweat, you'll improve. And when you improve, you show yourself what you're capable of. Nothing I love more than seeing sweaty and smiley faces walk out of the "gym" at the end of my classes.
Activity Time is also time that students can use the restroom, get drinks, come up and ask me questions or tell me a quick story. Any time the music is on, these things are acceptable.
What if there's no effort? That's where I let them know my expectation is that they show me their learning. They can show me by doing or by writing and that's entirely up to them. For younger students, they'll draw what we are doing. Older students write what we are doing and why. They almost never choose to write.
Behavior Management - The Stop Light
One thing I've come to observe with children is that they get defensive or upset if they feel like they're in trouble. When I used to have kids sit out, I'd get massive meltdowns. They didn't know how long they'd be sitting. They felt excluded. They felt like they were in trouble. I've noticed that when kids feel like they're in trouble, it's not their problem. They transfer the problem to the person that catches them. They're mad at you because you're the one sitting them out.
I also noticed that some kids have such a hard time being coached. And like anything, this is a skill that takes a lot of practice; but its also important that they feel safe and welcomed while being coached through a mistake.
I needed something that was halfway between sitting out and being with us. Something that says you have a problem. Fix it and join us.
So I developed my stop light system. If you're with us out on the floor, you're in the green and you're good to go when I say go. Yellow spots are for small mistakes. You sit there for a short while and you're right back in. Red spots are what our school refers to as Safe Seats or Think Seats.
Sitting at a Yellow Spot is no big deal in my gym. I expect nobody to be perfect. In fact, I want kids to make mistakes because that's the best way to learn. Fail. Fail a lot. Just try not to fail the same way twice. Which again is why it's so important that all feel safe and welcome. Feel safe and welcome to make mistakes and fix them.
When I ask somebody to move to a Yellow Spot, I expect professionalism from that moment. It may be Activity Time for everybody else but it's Business Time for you. If you're stomping, shouting, or saying "Why?" I just ask you to go straight to a Safe Seat (red).
I have low windows with a sitting ledge. These are my primary Yellow Spots. Although I usually move them around because I have a small space and use just about every nook and cranny.
At the Yellow Spot, they need to sit up with their voice off, body still, and not touch any equipment that might come to their area. It's not time for them to play or talk (in fact, if anybody interacts with people in yellow spots or safe seats, that person also moves to a yellow spot). It's time to fix their problem and demonstrate self control. If that's what I see, they're never there for longer than a minute of Activity Time. I don't release students from Yellow Spots during Business Time.
Most of the time, they know exactly why I asked them to go there. It's one of 3 reasons: not safe, not welcoming, or not listening professionally. I'm not going to stop the class and have a conversation about why you're going to a Yellow Spot. It's not fair to any student to involve everybody in their problem. If they don't know why I asked them to go to a Yellow Spot, they can come talk to me after I ask them to join us. If they really object, they can hold up a fist at the yellow spot and I'll come talk to them.
If a student is upset, I refuse to process with them. Anger and frustration always defeat logic and real communication. When I'm ready and they're ready, we can have a chat.
*I got an amazing tip from a mother of a student with terrible past trauma. She suggested that when I can, sit next to him when I ask him to go to Yellow Spots. It made a huge difference and I try to use it with more students who struggle there. Some kids lack self control but will change everything with proximity to you. It lets them know that you're with them and not against them. It gets them back into the activity faster and that's what we all want.
Three Yellows: After a student goes to a yellow spot twice in a class, I let them know that if they go a third time, they're done for the day. Normally, when this happens, they're just having a hectic day and need the time to refocus. It's just a day that they're out of control. There have been countless times where I started feeling bad and went against my gut... and always regret changing my mind for them. Usually that fourth time tends to be something pretty extreme.
Red Spots (Safe Seats)
At Safe Seats, I expect the same things as Yellow Spots, except I will usually give them something to write (or draw if they're in K-1). Normally it's one of these two assignments:
- Write/Draw what your problem was and how you're going to fix it
- Write/Draw how you're feeling right now
When they're finished they raise their hand so I know to come check in with them. After that, they show me how to sit at a Yellow Spot, then I have them return to activity.
I keep one of my Safe Seats next to the door. This is their reminder that the next step is what our school calls a Buddy Room.
Yellow spots are where you work on small problems. Safe Seats are for when you have several problems or big problems (physical aggression or being belligerently unwelcoming). Buddy Rooms are where you go when you just need to get away. Taking a break from a problem is not the same as walking away from it. Of course, Yellow Spots and Safe Seats are great places to take a break from problems, but sometimes you just need to be away from the problem for a while. I get it. Sometimes I get in an argument with my wife or kids and I just need to take a walk down the street to clear my head, stop being upset, and get back to being logical. The Buddy Room is perfect for this. Be in a space away from your peers and watching eyes. Take the time to work through your anger or frustration or whatever emotions you're having. Allow them to run their course without taking any actions that make your problem worse.
But whenever they're sent out of the room, I make sure to check back in with them. This is tough for me because I have a hectic schedule; but usually I'll send them with a note that says "back at 11am if they're doing okay." This way, they know when to come back and it will be a time when I should be able to check in with them and help them work their way out of their problem. After our chat, they show me the correct way to sit in a Safe Seat and a Yellow Spot and send them on their way.
Some students have very specific struggles. If you can anticipate their needs and give them what they need on time, you will encounter less resistance. One alternative strategy I use is to give them a break but also a job. It's the "autograph collection." I give them a walking pass and tell them to get 4 teachers' autographs and bring it back to me. I use this with students who consistently struggle with Business Time and totally derail the class.
I used to just say FREEZE or use a whistle. But FREEZE was only rarely heard over the commotion and I like running around way too much to have a whistle dangling from my neck (also feeling the need to sterilize the thing after every class... and one time a sub used my whistle - WHO DOES THAT???!?). Then I stumbled on The PE Specialist's "1 2 3 HUUGGHH." I say "1 2 3" and the kids all grunt "HUUUGGHH" and they stop, drop, and listen professionally. I've been using it ever since.
Clean Up, Line Up
The expectation for cleaning up is that we are no longer playing, and that includes throwing equipment. When kids start playing around, somebody gets mad or hurt. Usually, they're playing, drop their ball, and somebody else grabs it to put it away, making them mad. Normally, when I see somebody throwing a ball or goofing off, I'll just let them know it looks like they're playing. If they continue, they go to a yellow spot.
I also try to assign as many jobs as possible and when I don't, I give them a limit such as "no more than 3 items at a time." When kids try grabbing too many things, they end up taking a long time and it's just incredibly tempting for others to grab equipment from them.
Every student has a line number that they go to. I just write the numbers on floor tape.
I try to be as much of an entertainer as possible when I speak. But sometimes that can get the kids a little out of control. Also at the end of class, I let them talk in line until their teacher arrives. But when it's time to get quiet, it's helpful to have a silent signal.
Sure, there are great ones out there like putting two fingers in the air to signify "peace & quiet" or "if you can hear my voice, clap 20 times (then take a bow, like they're clapping for you." But I wanted something that felt like it was made for older students, especially the ones that are To Cool for School (yes, I spelled it that way on purpose).
I call it the BOOM BOOM CLAP silent signal. I bang the wall (or a piece of equipment two times) and they clap once (it sounds like the beat to We Will Rock You). They love it. Of course, like any silent signal, it takes work and upkeep. I don't normally like to single students out, but it works well with this one. After two tries, I'll do the BOOM BOOM part, then while they clap, I say student's names who need a little extra nudge. "BOOM BOOM Dave, BOOM BOOM Claire, etc."
Some of my classes have assigned spots and some don't. I have a low ceiling, so I have markers on the ceiling and call mine Ceiling Spots. I put them on the ceiling so they don't get ripped up but having a marking on the floor is just as good. When I ask them to go to their spots, I count down. You need to be there by the time I get to zero. It's so important not to be wasting time during transitions. This is when I started to lose classes. Kids would take too long finding their spots, then others would get bored and start doing other things.
My K-2 classes all have assigned spots as well as any classes where they just take too long to choose a spot for themselves. I also have some older classes where I just have assigned seats for certain students. I call them Office Spots (not taking credit for it, my whole school has Office Spots).
Waiting in a Line
It's insane how many people don't understand how lines work. If any place has mastered the art of the line, it's Chipotle. Everybody there knows just to bury your face in your phone until you're at the tortilla warmer. Or, I suppose amusement parks also have it down. Teenagers use the waiting as an opportunity to just bury their face into somebody else's.
Yes, you should always go to the back of the line. No, do not go to the front just because the person there invited you to be there (and subsequently anger everybody else behind them). It's cool to join your friends in line, just go to the back to be there with them. Also, don't touch people. Wouldn't it be weird if I was waiting in line at Chipotle and just started shaking the person in front of me.
I love ending my classes with meditation. It's the perfect compliment to Yellow Spots and Safe Seats. It's so important for kids to learn how to focus inward and calm themselves. The day is long and hard and having breaks to just be are so important for one's well-being.
Right now, I'm mostly doing it with K-2. Hour long classes can be really hard on the younger ones, so I make the most of opportunities to do alternative things when I'm sure they're gassed. When I notice my older students are getting out of control or tired at the end, I'll also stop them and we'll end in Mindful Meditation. I just have them move back to their spots, spread out, and remind them that the expectations are to have their voice off and their body still. This way they aren't disrupting other's (or their own) meditation. It's also a great time for me to end the class positively and make sure they're calm and ready for wherever they are headed next.
I'll also call students who are doing great to go get drinks. It's a great incentive to just stop and focus inward.
I used to use hall passes. Then they would get so gross, I absolutely refused to touch them. If I didn't want to touch them, I felt bad for the kids having to do so. And if I'm the one teaching healthy lifestyles, why am I asking kids to bring a pass to the restroom, then have other people touch it? The other thing is that nobody checks for a hall pass in the halls. We just need no more than one boy and one girl out in the hall at a time. So I got this idea from @mrb_physed and created my light system. On means gone. The lights I use toggle between white, red, green, and blue. If a girl is gone, they press it to red. Boys do blue. If I ever have a student that identifies as neither or other, they can use green. When they get back, they turn it off. It's important that only the person who leaves touches the light. If another student notices that they forgot to turn it off when they get back, they can remind that student to go turn it off (believe me, if this wasn't a rule, they'd be over tapping the lights like it was nobody's business).
Download the ON IF GONE sign by clicking the button above and get the lights from Amazon below.
Expectations in the hall and restroom are simple. Be professional. If you're having a hard time, you just get a note in my roster that you need a hallway escort. This is frustrating for kids because they need to wait for an adult to be able to make it to them to escort them through the hallway. Normally, it happens once, then they figure it out and get it together.
Students can only ask to use the restroom during Activity Time. Never during transitions and never during Business Time. If it's an emergency situation, I have them come back and go to a Safe Seat (this way there's less incentive to leave during instruction and I remember to fill them in on what they missed out on while they're gone).
When it All Fails
I know my procedures and expectations work. They work with almost all classes. But every now and again, you get classes that are on that next level. The classes where they go on a field trip, miss your class, and have you looking like this.
When I get to that point with a class, it's time for a Big Fix.