How to Turn Around Bad Classroom Behavior

The Global Search for Education

Candy Nerds were put in a CD tray by one student. They talked. They misbehaved. Some kids tried to look at porn. At one point during the year, someone tied a crowbar and crushed cans under my car. (I guess he hoped I couldn't come to school the next day.)  Wow! What a terrible class. This was my first year of teaching and wow, was I wrong about the class. I no longer have these problems — here's what I learned that helped me turn around bad classroom behavior.

How to Turn Around Bad Classroom Behavior
Cathy Rubin asks, “What was your most challenging classroom and how did you turn it around?” in this month's Global Search for Education.

The boys didn't want to type. One boy was so disrespectful that we had a behavior contract he had to follow before I'd let him come back into class. It was turmoil. It was hell. But somewhere amidst the struggle, I glimpsed paradise.

1. Seek Advice from Seasoned Teachers.

First, I asked advice of the best teachers I knew: my Mom, my sister, my curriculum director. They helped me do things to solve the biggest problems first.

Find experienced teachers. Seek their advice. 

2. Read Books.

On the weekends, I read books. I learned about proximity, behavior management, and classroom management.

The answers to almost any problem can be found in the pages of a book. Reading helps you with leading. 

3. Talk to the Kids.

Everything changed the day I asked the students what would help them want to learn the keyboard.

“Only a steak dinner,” the boys said smugly.

So, I went to the principal and cut a deal. When they finished learning the keyboard, they could bring steaks. We could grill during their lunch period.  (The Great Steak Out is still an annual tradition 14 years later.) The positive excitement was so powerful, there wasn't time to misbehave.

Figure out what motivates your students. What are their interests? Enlist help from your administration. Motivate with positives and not just negatives. 

4. Change What You Can.

It was my first year of teaching. They were my worst. But it wasn't them – I'm convinced it was me. I didn't know what I didn't know. I started learning.

I changed the seating chart. I looked at my classroom procedures. I worked to bring things into the classroom that kids loved. I leveled up my teaching. I handled discipline problems privately (particularly if the student seemed to crave “an audience.”)

Change yourself. Take back your classroom. Control what you can. 

5. Study the Craft of Teaching.

Fourteen years later, I haven't had a discipline referral to the front office in over a year (maybe two.) My students are a dream.

Sure, student should “know” how to act. Some do. Some don't. They're kids. I'm a professional. In all those years, the kids haven't changed. I have. They still are someone else's “bad class.” But not mine. I don't have a bad class. I don't have a bad child. We're learning. But most of all, I'm more of a craftsman than I was that first year. That first year I had some head knowledge, but I knew very little about what really worked.

As long as someone is getting great results, I can learn what they do — and so can you. 

But What About When Teaching Is Hard?

Teaching is still hard. Last year was the hardest year ever – but it wasn't the kids. It was other things. But there's also something wonderful that happens amidst the struggle:

  • When a child learns to love himself.
  • When she better copes with hardship.
  • When she learns something new.

Before you get to great things, first you have to get past the worst. And for me, my first year was the worst. But I never quit on the kids. I never quit on myself.

This noble profession of teaching is worth the struggle.

Tips for minimizing teacher stress

  • Discover 10 stress-busting secrets for healthy teachers. What simple routines will help you handle the stress?
  • Simple advice for coping with stress at work.
  • Learn tips to help you deal with difficult colleagues and students (even those who "hate" you -- yes it is possible!)
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15 thoughts on “How to Turn Around Bad Classroom Behavior

  1. Hi Vicki,
    I was wondering what you think about using technology to help with behavior? Apps like ClassDojo (which you’ve probably heard of) that track behavior and present a kid friendly interface and reward system?

    • As with any technology, it is on HOW you use it. The one caution we always have is that if we get to the point where we extrinsically reward every single good behavior, then students don’t do as well when those rewards are removed. On the other hand, we KNOW that daily behavior report cards work and those have been used many years prior to technology being a glimmer in the eye of any teacher. So, it comes down to how you use it. Good behavior and good classroom management plans are grounded in respect for the student, privacy, and WHAT WORKS. Those who use any method to demean, embarrass or humiliate will always have condemnation from me. I hope this helps explain my thoughts. They can be great. I have done some work for Class Dojo and written for their site but am not using it right now. I really have so few behavior issues, I just focus on teaching.

  2. You’ve offered great advice for new and seasoned teachers. I think it is important that we, as teachers, continue to reflect on our attitude and behavior as well as the students. While it may be true that kids don’t change in the larger sense, every class varies. It’s up to us to figure out how to reach our students most effectively. At the same time, I have an issue putting it all on the teachers. The students and parents are involved as well. I believe teaching is a team effort, one that everyone should invest in.

    • Everyone should be involved. I would never put it all on the teachers. But when you have the same kids and they are in two classes and for one teacher they are awesome and another they are not- the difference is the teacher! I have found teachers who blame it ALL on the kids miss the immense amount of control they have. Likewise, those who blame it ALL on the teachers are missing the point that we are raising future adults and that kids are accountable for their actions.

  3. I think that with the rise of blended classrooms bad behaviour will start being increasingly less of a problem. That’s simply because I feel they would be more engaged, especially with gamifying elements. One’s got to remember most kids don’t quite have long attention spans.

    • I don’t know about blended necessarily being more engaging. I find in mine that I have to keep doing face to face things too. Boredom sets in either way. Also, not all blended classrooms are gamified. It could be, but I’ve found that no matter my style, how engaged I am determines how engaged they are.

  4. I really love your blog, I learn so much every time I check in! I am a child advocate and always hoping to learn a few tricks to the trade. Thank you for all of your insights.

  5. Hi Vicki. Greetings from Australia! I am sitting here in my pjs thinking about going back to school. It is a public holiday here and no one in our house is in a hurry. We have just had a 2 week break and we head into our final term on Monday. Recently I attend a professional development session and the presenter used sketch noting as she spoke. Having read your article, I am going to introduce this idea to my Grade 5/6 students with the help of your resources. I am also a long time Tribes trainer and advocate of learning communities. I feel that getting the environment right is the key to bringing all students into learning and co-operation. I started with my current class last term and will only be there for this final term but their work output and attitude has improved immensely in only one term (10 weeks) by being consistent and expecting and giving respect.

    • Hi Jennie from Australia. Thanks for reaching out. Sketchnoting is awesome – I don’t know if I could present and sketchnote at the same time. Wow, that sounds like it would be difficult!! It sounds like you’re ready to do an amazing job this final term! Good luck! I know you’ll be amazing!

  6. Loved this post. It is appropriate for teachers entering the profession (at ANY age) and for those changing schools. These are all things we learn along the way – especially if you’ve had that “bad” group. I remember having that group during my first year. It wasn’t fun for me. But I learned a lot about kids and myself. And, at the end of the year, one of my kids received the Most Improved Student award. I’m not sure who was prouder, me or him? Again, great post!

  7. I love some statements…. The students over the years have not changed; I have. I am a craftsman in the making. There are still bad students in some other class, those same kids, but not in my class: I don’t have bad students and ask the kids what would it take for them to have an enjoyable class. And having the genious of trusting the Administration will be supportive and talking with them. By making every kid bring their own steak also makes much more sense… I guess I have not been in situations where I could ask anything from anyone. It did not occur to me I could. This was helpful. Thanks.