Elementary school teachers are true superheroes. If you were to observe an elementary school classroom for one school day, you would be amazed at how many skills, tools, and talents teachers utilize to engage students in learning, anticipate and prevent conflicts, and model positive community participation.
Elementary school teachers are up early. They work on minimal unencumbered planning time. Throughout the day, they manage multiple transitions from subject to subject, often without a break for several hours.
Great elementary school teachers are on — you can tell through their open nonverbal signals, their positive and upbeat tone, and level of enthusiasm regarding the content. An enthusiastic teacher is ready to begin the day, to bask in the joy of moments where students make meaningful connections, to help students build relationships and demonstrate empathy, and to model patience as they strive to develop more advanced executive functioning skills.
Captivating elementary school classrooms are like portals to other planets or universes. Colorful and multimodal classrooms foster inquiry and camaraderie.
The K-5 years are pivotal in a child’s educational journey. It is critical enough that students learn basic literacy and math skills in this phase. Teachers striving to cultivate high-functioning, collaborative classrooms approach the task with creativity and excitement, but also a solemn commitment to setting students up for success in their lives.
Effectively managing elementary classrooms involves maintaining a balance between promoting convergent and divergent thinking and behavior. Teachers tap into the divergent, open-minded, imaginative faculties of young children, but also give explicit, closed instructions with the expected goal of convergent behavior. We’ve curated the top four strategies to lead within elementary school classrooms, as well as four traditional practices we’re abandoning for good.
#1 — DO build content-related anticipation
The best way to manage a classroom in elementary school is through an exciting, engaging curriculum. Elementary students — generally 5 to 11 years old — are still in the process of developing the prefrontal cortex and other parts of their brains responsible for executive functioning.
At this age, they are more willing to suspend disbelief and participate in make-believe. Teachers can take advantage of these natural imaginative proclivities by creating a sense of wonder and curiosity at the start of the day and making allusions throughout the lesson. If it is appropriate to do so, dress up in costume and encourage students to do so, as well! Incorporate movement. Promote inquiry. Dress up, speak in different characters’ voices, incorporate movement and promote inquiry. Maintain a positive and enthusiastic tone. You can also allude to a ‘surprise’ by using it as a reminder for positive behavior.
#2 — DO rehearse transitions
A transition gone awry can result in lost instructional time — as much as 45 hours per academic year! The most significant transitions occur when students enter a class and take a seat, switch from one academic activity to another, and leave the classroom.
Mike Linsin — founder of Smart Classroom Management — lists five steps for practicing transitions in the classroom:
- Secure students’ attention — make sure that everyone is focusing on you and listening before giving instructions.
- Explain the procedure — be clear and concise with quick beginnings and endings. It can help to direct the students’ focus to a task they are already doing, like writing or reading. It is important to make directions observable, clear, concise, and timed.
- Observable — students know what’s expected of them.
- Clear — consider your language and vocabulary, as elementary school students may not yet grasp abstract concepts.
- Concise — strive not to overwhelm working memory and developmental processing capacities.
- Timed — create a sense of urgency that translates into excitement and fun.
- Prepare students for the signal to start — use phrases like, “In a moment, we will” and “We are about to” to help students prepare themselves for a transition. This is particularly important if a student is enjoying the current activity and not pleased about having to stop it.
- Initiate the transition — give the nonverbal signal and/or verbal instructions.
- Observe — notice how students respond and who needs support in making the transition.
Rehearsing transitions and anticipated interruptions sets students up for success. Studies show that precorrectives reduce misbehavior during transitions. Discuss and role play real-life interruptions where students can consider their options; that way, when they inevitably encounter the interruption in the real world, they have already conceived of and practiced their response. This strategy is additionally helpful for de-escalating conflicts and maintaining a composed nervous system.
There are many transitions that move seamlessly without verbal directives. Teachers can make use of various nonverbal signals, including music, clapping and snapping, hand signals, turning the lights on and off, using instruments or objects to make sounds, using timers, and using signs with directives. Studies show that elementary-aged schoolchildren are excited to engage in routines and transitions involving music. Additionally, teachers can engage students to serve as leaders during transitions and interruptions. They can allow students to signal or initiate transitions.
#3 — DO coach students in self-regulation and mindfulness
Self-regulation pertains to our ability to control ourselves, including our physical body, emotions, focus, and attention. Children begin to develop self-regulation skills in early childhood according to Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of learning, which involves three stages:
- Children are regulated by other people, like parents, relatives, and teachers. They derive their rules for appropriate behavior from these adults, who monitor the children’s behavior as they practice learning regulation skills.
- Children internalize modeled rules and apply them to others. Known as the ‘tattle phase,’ young children may frequently tell on each other or point out when others are ‘doing things wrong.’ This behavior is actually a positive sign that children are beginning to notice rules and violations.
- Children finally apply the rules of behavior to themselves, even when they are not being monitored. At this point, the rules have become ‘engrained’ and serve as the default behavior.
Self-regulation skills are frequently linked as indicators of school readiness In particular, children should be able to perform the following behaviors with more success than failure:
- Verbally communicate what they want and/or need, like a bathroom break, a drink of water, or help with a problem
- Devote sustained attention to a single task or problem
- Show enthusiasm toward new and potentially challenging tasks
- Inhibit impulsivity
- Follow directions
- Take turns with others and show sensitivity to others’ feelings
Mindfulness education is also helpful for elementary-aged students. It involves teaching students techniques to calm their minds and bodies. Doing so can decrease the toxic effects of stress and increase students’ capacity to engage in collaborative and independent tasks. Studies have suggested that participating in mindfulness education results in significant improvements in sustained attention and a decrease in perceived stress. The amygdala is a structure in the brain that is associated with emotion and stress — mindfulness education has been shown to reduce the amygdala’s response to tense stimuli.
Schools should build consistency through school-wide buy-in and provide teachers with dedicated time to participate in mindfulness practices and collaborate with peers. Administrators can provide professional development opportunities where faculty can learn about how mindfulness promotes empathy, then learn strategies to make time for students to practice mindfulness. It is also important to make sure that mindfulness practices are integrated in a secular manner.
Other self-regulation and mindfulness tools and strategies include:
- Using games to practice self control
- Writing additional thoughts, connections, and questions in a journal shared between the teacher and student
- Reading books that highlight self-regulation skills and taking time to talk about how the characters demonstrate those skills, then making explicit connections to students’ lives
- Using visuals as reminders
- Offering movement breaks (with music involved)
- Offering quiet time for self-reflection
- Practicing mindfulness with breathing exercises or guided meditations
- Creating a calm space in the classroom where students can return to equilibrium
- Teaching students how to assess and accurately label their own emotions using visuals and vocabulary
- Teaching students how to distract themselves
- Playing outdoor games, which require focus on precise physical movements and directions
Strategy #4 –Use classroom jobs
Classroom jobs are a great tool for building a positive classroom culture. Having a job can help a student feel connected to their classmates and that they are contributing in meaningful ways. It can also give them opportunities to explore areas of interest and cultivate their talents. Further, these jobs can be personalized for each student by their interests, skills, etc.
In thinking of what jobs to post (students will need to apply!), it may help to anticipate potential problems in the class and use jobs as creative solutions. For example, if a handful of students tend to argue over the choice of music, they can ‘apply’ for rotating Class DJ positions. Use a position that relies primarily on public speaking for talkative students, so they can channel all of that social energy into a positive contribution to the class environment.
Keep in mind that not all jobs require extroverts. There are many ways to contribute to the class experience without speaking. More introverted students can participate through modeling the note-taking process, monitoring attendance, or caring for class plants.
It is important to highlight the fun in class jobs and to create experiences where students can connect positive emotions to philanthropy contribution. Middle school teacher Thom Gibson lists the following creative positions that students can vye for in the elementary classroom:
- Tutorial creator (screencast) — a technologically-skilled student who is comfortable sharing their screen with others through a video conferencing platform
- Notes modeler — a student with legible handwriting who takes meaningful, focused notes and is comfortable sharing them with others through a document camera
- Newsletter publisher — a student who shows enthusiasm for creative and informative writing, and who is interested in developing their writing abilities
- Athletic trainer (stretch, brain break, go outside) — a student who enjoys kinesthetic modalities and benefits from periodic thinking breaks
- Yogi (lead class in mindfulness activities) — a student who enjoys participating in breathing exercises and guided meditations
- Rotating DJs — students who select the musical playlist for an activity period
- Rotating Motivational Speakers — students who desire to share a personal story that means a lot to them
- Celebration Coordinator — caring student who acknowledges birthdays and other important days
- Zoologist — a student who cares for the class pet by feeding and watering them, keeping their cage clean, and providing adequate socialization
- Horticulturalist — a student who cares for the class plants
- Meteorologist — a student who gives the weekly or daily weather report
- Teachers’ assistants — these students may enjoy passing out or collecting supplies
- Attendance monitors — these students know the names of all students in the class and notice if they are not present
- Board decorators — these students may be artistically talented and use their skills to highlight exemplary student work and community happenings
Just because a strategy is popular and widely used doesn’t mean it is effective. The next four tools have been shown to have detrimental effects on student compliance and engagement. Additionally, they can perpetuate hierarchies that reinforce existing social inequities, or trigger a student outside of the threshold of their emotional regulation abilities. We discourage using the following four prevalent classroom management strategies in elementary classrooms.
#1 — DON’T use visible behavioral management trackers
And while you’re at it, avoid seeking to regulate students’ behavior all day, which the chart promotes. Common behavior charts typically involve moving cards, objects, or pieces to one of several areas that denote a level of behavior.
For example, students may start the day off in the ‘green’ area, which signifies perfect behavior and compliance. If a student receives a warning, the teacher may prompt them to move to the ‘yellow’ area. If a student is consistently off task, disruptive, or disrespectful, the teacher may direct them to move their card to the ‘red’ zone.
These systems serve to reinforce students’ perceptions of themselves, to view their negative behaviors as fixed, and to see themselves as antagonists to authorities and communities. In this model, students are taught the message that they are wrong, rather than given an opportunity to correct the behavior.
Charts also teach students that perfectionism is an ideal and that they are wrong, weak, or bad for veering even slightly away from green territory. The greatest function of the behavior charts is that they visually project what are likely reflections of the teacher’s cultural biases (who more often than not represents the dominant white perspective).
The act of physically moving a card draws more attention to the negative behavior than if the teacher used an alternative management strategy. Instead of issuing a yellow card to signal a warning, educators can give students a signal, like ‘take ten,’ which gives them time to use their mindfulness tools and techniques to calm themselves down, repair any harm, and recommit to the learning task or community.
#2 — DON’T use shame to achieve student compliance
Handling individual student problems publicly is generally a no-go, for any age group. When students feel targeted, they may go into fight-or-flight self-preservation mode, which may be perceived as acting out or shutting down. When their nervous systems are highly activated, students who act out may be more inclined to say or do something that they don’t mean.
Teachers should be calm and supportive in discussing negative behavior with students, giving them the necessary space to calm down before participating in a mindful discussion. Teachers should convey, through their tone, that they realize the behavior is not personal, and that they are interested in helping the student participate in class, accessing content, and engaging in meaningful ways with fellow students.
We encourage teachers to adopt the perspective that every student behavior represents a communication. Teachers should strive to approach those student behaviors with curiosity, as opposed to judgment. Make sure to listen to each student to understand what value was threatened, what rule was broken, or what boundary was crossed before they decided to act out or shut down. If teachers can understand what triggers a student to go above their threshold for self-regulation, and work with the student to mitigate those triggers, they can potentially avoid future conflicts and disruptions.
#3 — DON’T punish an entire class
All teachers have likely received one all-staff email admonishing the behavior of a select few. There are few things more professionally annoying than when the authority doesn’t proactively correct deviations from the school routine and expectations. Students may equally resent a teacher who punishes the entire group for the transgressions of one or a few.
When students resent you, they are less likely to trust you, respect you, or follow your instructions. If you punish the entire class with enough frequency, you may end up turning yourself into the class antagonist — someone the entire class can unite against. Students also need to know that their teacher can handle inappropriate behavior in order to feel physically and emotionally safe in the classroom. Make sure to handle issues privately and professionally with those who are responsible. Students will feel reassured that the authority held rule-breakers accountable, and others may be less likely to deviate from the rules when they see them enforced fairly.
#4 — DON’T rely primarily on verbal instructions
While no one student learns solely in a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic manner, it is critical to be multimodal when issuing directives. Use visual, auditory, or physical signals to model appropriate behaviors and skills. Make sure you are visible to all students and that you repeat or have other students repeat the procedures until the whole group demonstrates proficiency. You can also use a call-and-response technique incorporating body/hand movements and sound to prompt students to repeat instructions. The helpful factor about visual and nonverbal instructions is that they take less time away from instruction and collaboration.
One of the keys to effectively managing elementary school classrooms is in leaning into what feels like relinquishing control — tapping into the creative, imaginative, and often-times spontaneous faculties of children. By capturing student attention with an engaging curriculum, showing enthusiasm towards learning, and committing to fairness and understanding, elementary school teachers can ensure that minimal instructional time is lost to class disruptions. Elementary school teachers understand that K-5 students are learning how to filter data, learn procedures, and develop prosocial patterns. They show grace when students inevitably falter, and support students in making better choices.