9 Essentials to Remember When Dealing With Any Classroom Problem

Here are nine fundamental classroom management strategies which will have relevance regardless of the particular classroom problem you’re dealing with. Remembering these two important factors will help you succeed when confronting challenging students.

1. Be Vigilant

Teaching is a hard job. Sometimes there is so much going on in the classroom that we might miss a note being passed around, we might miss an incidence of low level bullying and we might miss items being stolen or broken. Our eyes can’t be everywhere at once and it is understandable that some incidents go unnoticed.

The thing we have to remember is that whenever a student gets away with not bringing a pen to class, whenever they arrive late and we don’t say anything, whenever we let them interrupt us... we are effectively encouraging them to do the same again. The simple way to remember it is...

If we allow it, we encourage it.

And it doesn’t stop there; it’s not just the perpetrator who will repeat the action – other students who see these behaviours go unchallenged will also feel they can do the same, so a lack of vigilance can create an environment where ‘anything goes’.

The way to stop this is obviously to try and challenge rule breakers every time - even those students who are prone to retaliate fiercely – and to make sure you are present in every area of the room. Be on the move, teach from each corner, walk round the tables and speak to all your students – let them know this is YOUR room.

Which brings us nicely to the next point...

2. Remain Calm

Don’t get emotional when giving consequences and intervening. A calm, matter-of-fact approach is far more effective than shrieking and wailing – no matter how much eye rolling, muttering, complaining and swearing they try. Keep the emotional outbursts for the times they have done something right. If you have a penchant for standing on the table shouting, do it when Jonny has finished his first essay – by way of celebration – not in response to him calling you a fat ****.

Finally, don’t get drawn into students’ attempts to start an argument; this will not only give them the reaction they are trying to provoke (making you appear weak in the process), you will also run the risk of the situation escalating to a much more serious incident. Once they get you started, they don’t want the show to end.

On my live training courses I always deal with consequences last because I want to hammer home the clear message that there are a multitude of effective preventive strategies to encourage students to 

stay on the right tracks before needing to resort to sanctioning: focusing on building positive relationships; using sincere praise as often as possible; making sure instructions and directions are explicit; getting parents involved; setting up buddy schemes; having student meetings; integrating cooperative group work; putting humour in lessons; giving them responsibilities, to name just a few.

The reason I hammer home this message is not because I’m against sanctioning but because there is a danger people will rely on consequences as the only available behaviour response. Doing so can create a very punitive, oppressive atmosphere which causes more problems than it solves. We need consequences to enforce boundaries and kids need boundaries in order to feel secure – but like any tool they should be used properly, and not relied upon as an easy way out.

3. Make sure your interventions are less disruptive than the actual behaviour you’re dealing with.

Imagine you have thirty five students in your classroom, each working quietly with their heads down, and one student at the back of the room off-task. This one individual (we’ll call him Damien) isn’t doing anything particularly disruptive – yet – but clearly you need to get him on task quickly before he does do something to attract the attention of the other students.

An inexperienced teacher (or indeed an experienced teacher who hasn’t yet discovered ‘The Law of Least Intervention’) might call out to him and tell him to get on with his work.

“Damien; stop burning your book and get on with your work please!”

It’s a reasonable response. But what will happen now? Instead of one student off-task, there are now thirty five students off task – all very interested in what Damien will do next and how the teacher is going to deal with it.

‘The Law of Least Intervention’ states that we should always use the least intrusive or least disruptive method of dealing with a student so that we... don’t disrupt and attract the attention of other students in the room and aren’t seen as overly intimidating which will only provoke more arguments.

4. Be consistent.

All students – those you are dealing with, as well as those watching you deal with them, need to see you being consistent. They need to know that you will deal with anyone who is not doing as they should be every time they are not doing it.

Letting Vanessa wear her headphones (because she has an awful temper and really kicks off when challenged) sends a clear signal to her (and her friends) – she will wear them again, as will the six others who saw her get away with it. When you bend the rules for one, you create a rod for your own back.

In every classroom situation there are going to be students who push boundaries too far no matter how positive and student-centred you are. Some won’t respect a teacher who is too ‘nice.’ Some are intent on ruining a lesson no matter how engaging and exciting the tasks. Some think any teacher 

who doesn’t have tattoos is a push-over. These are all reasons why a system of stepped consequences, consistently applied, is essential.

Hopefully the setting you’re working in will have a suitable behaviour policy in place and will provide you with a nice selection of shiny consequences for you to take down off the shelf and use in response to each and every behaviour problem which occurs. But just remember, it’s the way you apply these consequences which affects their success – you have to be consistent. You can’t use them one day and not the next, can’t apply them to one student and not the next, or apply them with a patronising sneer to one student and an apologetic wince to another. You must do what you say you’re going to do – every time.

If your rule on not finishing work in class is that students have to return at break or stay behind after school for ten minutes to finish it - then it must happen. And remember, if you don’t chase up the ‘no-shows’ then you may as well not bother with having the rule in the first place. Yes, chasing up these ‘detention dodgers’ will be time consuming, but only in the short term. It’s a case of ‘short term pain for long term gain’.

Being consistent also means keeping detailed records every time they miss a scheduled meeting or detention. It might mean liaising with form tutors and heads of year. It might mean making countless phone calls home or even embarking on home visits. But all this leg work builds your reputation as indomitable and once they get the fact that you don’t give in, that you follow up every time - they will start to be tamed and you will start to save time. You’ll no longer have to constantly repeat your instructions and you’ll no longer be hunting for new management strategies. You’ll be the teacher who walks into a room and gets immediate respect and compliance from the rowdiest group. Short term pain, long term gain.

5. Be Respectful: The way we respond will determine how they react

There are two ways of dealing with students who aren’t behaving as we want them to – fairly and unfairly. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t matter what our idea of ‘fair’ is; it’s what they think that counts.

Embarrassing them, picking on them, scolding them, shouting at them will be considered unfair – obviously – and will result in stress, arguments and tantrums. But in some cases a student will feel equally persecuted just by the way we speak to them or even just the way we’re looking at them -body language and facial expressions play a huge part in communication as we all know. I’ve witnessed, on more than one occasion, students launching into a full physical assault on a member of staff for nothing more than a raised eyebrow... “I f****** hate him! I hate the way he looks at me!”

Young people are experts at reading our inner feelings but have little control over their own emotions so when they feel that we dislike them or are against them, their reactions can often seem extreme. And when a whole group of students feel we are being confrontational or ‘unfair’ the problem suddenly becomes about thirty five times worse.

If we minimise or eliminate the opportunities and excuses students have to argue with us it makes classroom life much easier. I’ve explained some ideas for getting students to follow your instructions 

in the creatively titled resource in the ‘Communication’ module: ‘Getting Students to Follow Your Instructions’.

Here’s another way of doing it... try making general statements as to the behaviour you want to see rather than ranting and making potentially confrontational statements about things you don’t want to see...


“Don’t interrupt me!”


“There are people shouting out and I can’t teach when they’re doing so. If you’ve got a question, put your hand up please.”


“Put your pen down NOW!”


“There are people still playing with pens. Thank you Simon for putting yours down, thank you Carly for putting yours down too.”

6. Don’t try to deal with the whole group at once

It’s easier to get control of a small challenging group than a large challenging group. We need to ‘divide and conquer’.

Work on small groups and individuals – walk round table groups and desks and speak to individuals – calming them down, solving minor problems such as lost equipment, jackets left on etc. and explaining that you need them to be settling down so you can start the lesson.

7. Avoid asking ‘why’ in front of the audience.

“Why are you sitting like that?”

“Why do you have to behave like this?”

“Why won’t you listen?”

“Why haven’t you started?”

Just try bombarding your spouse/partner/children with ‘why’ questions like those above for the first few minutes when you get home tonight and see what sort of reaction you get. Asking ‘why’ is confrontational.

Instead, ask them ‘how’ they can stop the behaviour from happening again, ‘what’ needs to happen in order to prevent it happening again and ‘who’ they will seek help from if they need it. 

8. Think about the reasons for the behaviour

There’s a reason for everything. There is always a reason why a student doesn’t want to start work. There’s always a reason why they shout out. There’s always a reason why they hit each other. Whatever the problem, there’s a reason why it’s happening. I’m reminded of that fact every time I go to the bank and remember why I’m broke – it’s because I spend too much.

Telling Jonny to ‘get on with his work’ is a typical stock response when he is messing around but it doesn’t address the underlying reasons he’s off task and therefore doesn’t usually change his behaviour – certainly not for long. He might get his head down while you stand over him but as soon as your back his turned Jonny will revert to carving his name in the desk unless the underlying issue has been addressed – in this case that his etching master class is infinitely more interesting than the worksheet you’ve given him.

If you’re faced with students who flatly refuse to get started, are constantly chatting, are totally uninterested in the exciting task put before them or turn up to class two days late, it’s best to try and find the reason why this might be happening before trying to stop it happening again.

The problem could be any of the standard de-motivators such as boredom, frustration, lack of sleep etc. But why bother second guessing? The only way to find out for sure what is behind their reluctance to take part is to ask them. This is obviously best done out of earshot of other students and in a non-threatening manner and once a trusting, mutually respectful teacher/student relationship has been established.

For example, imagine you’re in your classroom with a group of students and you see a book land on the floor out of the corner of your eye. You didn’t actually see how it got there so let’s think of some possible reasons why a book might fly through the air in a classroom... - It could have been used as a weapon – thrown at someone

- It could have been passed to another pupil – thrown to someone

- It could have been knocked off a desk by accident

- It could have been slammed to the floor out of frustration (a student finding the work too difficult)

- It could have been tossed away out of frustration (a student finding the work too easy and boring)

Effective responses towards behaviour problems should focus on the reasons behind the resulting behaviour – not the behaviour itself. Ranting and raving at a student who isn’t working when the reason they’re not working is because they don’t understand the work, isn’t going to make them concentrate and work hard.

9. Keep a record

It is imperative that you keep an accurate record of individual pupils who are causing problems in your lessons. In even the worst of classes, there are seldom more than 5 or 6 main culprits who are responsible for the bulk of the trouble so this needn’t be as much work as it seems and the benefits far outweigh the extra work involved.

All you need is an A4 page in your teaching file for each pupil and in every lesson you record exactly what they say and do to disrupt the class. You then have a vital document which can be used for evidence when you speak to parents or senior staff about this child.

Being able to quote specific examples such as…

“On 17th March, lesson 2, Steven called Mark a ‘fat shit’ without provocation and threw a pencil at him.”

…is far more professional than making vague complaints such as...

“Steven is always disrupting lessons”.

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