Sometimes a kid just really, really wants to draw the characters from Frozen on the desk instead of following along with the math lesson. What can you do? It's an animational masterpiece.

That's where the D-word comes in. How do you find the right balance of strict, but not mean? What do you do when you just want them to put down the pen and listen up, and what do you do if there's something serious behind their doodling desires? How do you make sure the punishment fits the crime (so to speak)?

You're bound to get more than one upset in the zoo—er, classroom—in your teaching life, but chanting these rules to yourself should help prevent you from grinding your teeth down the gum. And if not, there's always dentistry.

Make Sure They Know the Rules Before They Break Them

"But I didn't know I wasn't supposed to put gum in Jimmy's hair!" Everyone's favorite excuse is not knowing that there was a rule to break. So a good rule of thumb for classroom management is to lay down the law—maybe even let them help make the law as a class activity early in the year.

So: set the rules early on, have them clearly visible, and offer the occasional reminder. Because memories can be pretty short when it comes to not whispering to your neighbor or checking your Instagram during class.

Remind Yourself: You Are the Authority

No one wants to look like the bad guy. Well, maybe Jafar, and Scar, and half of The Godfather. But teachers usually like it when their students like them. Better they behave based on respect, not fear. Right?

But there are always going to be those kids who you can't get on your side. Or maybe they are, but they're having an off day. In those particularly tricky spots, you've got to be comfortable laying down the law. Practice your do-not-eff-with-me face in the mirror if need be. Because if you want control over the rest of the class, you cannot let that one brat in the back row show that it is possible to unfreeze you.

What can you do aside from look confident? Well, actually be confident. Duh. Once you've mastered one or both of those, it's time to build up some balance between firmness and persuasion to get those young 'uns back in line.

This is my Angry Face

When the time comes to be firm, be firm. Would that look firmer in bold? Let's try: be firm. Better yet: BE FIRM. Get it?

So how do you get the kids to fear you at least a little, but not create a flock of shivering mice in fear for their lives, limbs, and liberty? Well, let's go ahead and have a nice, crispy set of bullet points for that.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

As promised:

  • The gist of this section is balance. Blend that firm thing we talked about with some understanding, persuasion, and positive reinforcement.
  • Stick to positive reinforcement and reminding them of the rules if they seem to be crossing that oh-so-tempting invisible line.
  • Sometimes bargaining is the way to go ("you can draw Elsa on paper and during recess, Billy dear"), but not if that gives the impression that the kiddos can take advantage of you. If a certain interaction gives them the sense that they can do what they want and you won't stop them, you risk never being able to stop them.
  • Which brings us back to that "be firm" thing. You knew we would remind you.
  • But…phrase your criticism in a nice way. No put-downs, no clear irritation, basically, no stooping to their level. That means making sure you're as attentive to your own tone of voice as to theirs. If you don't get hostile, they won't get hostile.
  • That's right: it's all about a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Sing it, Aretha.

So that's how to talk to the perpetrators. But what if you don't want them to perpetrate in the first place?

Talk to Problem Kids Early On

That's right: preemptive measures can get you a long way. The first? Instead of "problem kid" think something positive, like "child-in-progress" or "model-student-to-be." Of course you don't say that to them, but even changing the frame in your head can help turn that problem around.

That said, if this particular individual shows signs of problematic-ness early on, find a way to talk to the little angel about it. Tommy, do letters sometimes switch places when you read them? Tammy, is there something you're trying to tell your neighbor by poking her like that? Timmy, it's great that you like sharing your opinion with the class, but can you remind yourself to raise your hand before you start running your stupid little mouth?

Okay, not exactly like that.

After all, asking questions without seeming (a) threatening, (b) passive aggressive, (c) mean and unfair and scary is a skill that takes major honing. But figuring out the right tactics to reach out to individual students—letting them know that you're aware of their quirks, that you want to help, not punish, and that they're not in trouble (at least not yet) can go a long way in preventing an actual crisis, or even having something to work from if the Shmoop does hit the fan.

And if it does?

Time-out, a Spanking, or off with His Head?

Finding appropriate punishments—er, consequences—is a key element of discipline. You probably won't demand a suspension for Jinny if she was dog-earing pages in a library book. But you might if she was starting a fistfight with Johnny.

Acquainting yourself with the school policies on what deserves a trip to the office, a call home, or a bout of detention is a good step one. As for your own classroom, when you establish the rules for the class you might want to lay out what the repercussions will be for breaking those rules. Again, you'll want a balance between harsh enough to dissuade the bad behavior and not too scary that they'll tremble when you pass by.

As a side note, you probably shouldn't implement those second two consequences if you want to keep in the school/out of prison.

Positive Reinforcement

Don't kiddos today suffer enough? Many folks are saying (some with research to back it up) that supportive environments and reward systems are better than punitive ones.

So maybe toss out the dunce cap and keep your board free for actual lessons, rather than writing out "I will not disobey" 250 times. Emphasizing that we're all in this together and we might as well learn and have some fun is generally a better move—for the kids and for the teacher.

Sum Up

  • Stay strong. Mix up that authorial prowess with your debate-class chops to convince that kiddo not to do the thing they desperately want to do more than anything in the world.
  • Know where to send the worst offenders.
  • Have a trick up your sleeve. (We're not going to tell you what it is. Not because we're mean, but because it depends on the teacher and the kid. So ponder it.)
  • Have a plan for how you will rain hellfire on the offenders, and then turn around and be friendly (well, friendly enough) to the others. You want them to see that you wield the power; what you don't want is for them to notice that these things rankle you. That's for your therapist or your Livejournal to know.
  • Remember, it's all about that balance. You may choose to be Ms. or Mr. Nice Teach 90% of the time or 10% of the time, but however you act with them when there's not a problem, they should be able to tell the difference from how you act when there is one.

Now go polish your Frozen face, and you'll be ready to wield the ice wand of power in no time.


Need some help with positive reinforcement? Students love Shmoop! (Hint hint)