8 High School Classroom Management Strategies That Empower Students
“Don’t smile for a full year.”
“Wear your hair up.”
New teachers — and younger ones, in particular — are often encouraged to lead with firmness, an authoritative presence, and a no-nonsense approach. Unfortunately, these well-intended suggestions may work against efforts to build personal relationships with students and establish class camaraderie.
There are several ‘golden rules’ to managing high school classrooms, the first being to recognize that well-functioning classrooms are founded on strong relationships. When teachers get to know their students’ names quickly and use them often, that shows that they care about them and value their input. When students feel valued, they are more likely to contribute to a class community.
It is best to involve students in the process of developing a class social contract. Phrase rules in a positive tone that focuses on the behaviors and attitudes you and your students want to see, versus what you want to avoid.
It is also important, when considering classroom management strategies, to take the students’ developmental phase into account. High school students may resist or be ambivalent toward strategies that worked with elementary or middle school-aged students.
Particularly with minor class disturbances, teachers should draw as little attention as possible to undesired behaviors and avoid entering into ‘power struggles’ with students whose nervous systems may be highly activated. Students in self-preservation mode may do or say things that intensify the problem if they feel challenged, judged, or victimized by an unfair response from the teacher.
Undoubtedly, students will act out and say things that others could perceive as harmful or offensive. As the teacher, strive to approach errors and disruptions with curiosity, as opposed to judgment. When you adopt the perspective that every student behavior represents a communication they are unable or choosing not to make through language, and you seek to understand the behavior rather than eradicate it, you can avoid taking things personally and make sound decisions that guide a student towards a direction that honors their goals and values. The curious approach is aligned with culturally relevant pedagogy, which encourages teachers to understand that their perceptions of what is behaviorally appropriate are influenced by their cultural expectations.
The following eight strategies for classroom management stem from the overarching belief that students respond well to positive reinforcement, support from a caring educator, and opportunities for practice. After defining each strategy, we will share its core advantages, as well as clarifications for using it appropriately and in ways that best empowers students to self-regulate.
Strategy #1 — Proximity
Proximity is the best classroom management tool for a high school classroom, and one that all teachers should consider using before deploying a strategy that draws more attention to undesired behavior. By simply moving or standing next to a student, the teacher can convey the fact that they are paying attention to the student’s current behavior and giving them the opportunity to correct the behavior without direct intervention.
Advantages: Proximity is like an odorless, tasteless, invisible chemical that can cause a strong reaction; as the teacher, you can use proximity to mitigate a situation without drawing attention to it or disrupting the lesson. Proximity enables you to have a conversation with a student without speaking or using direct signals. It is subtle and usually works with minor disturbances.
Clarifications: Get creative with your proximity — use it as an opportunity for building a relationship with students. While proximity is typically the first go-to, there are obvious circumstances that require quicker and more direct intervention. Also, getting too close to a student whose nervous system is escalated can actually put them more on the defensive and at risk for an outburst capable of disrupting the entire learning environment. Make sure that your proximity is respectful towards a student’s need for personal space.
Strategy #2 — Nonverbal Signals
The first cousin of proximity, nonverbal signals allow a teacher to convey a desired behavior adjustment through facial gestures, body language, physical stance, gestures, eye contact and touch. Examples include raising your eyebrow, clearing your throat, maintaining direct eye contact, tapping your foot, putting your hands on your hips or intentionally orienting your body away from attention-seeking behaviors.
Advantages: Like proximity, nonverbal signals allow the teacher to continue teaching the lesson without drawing considerable attention to a problem behavior. They are quick to issue and are typically effective with preventing future disruptions from students.
Clarifications: While proximity is more inconspicuous, other students may pick up on nonverbal signals and feed into a problem. Strive to use non-obvious nonverbal signals. If there are students who repeat problem behaviors, consider asking them to choose a signal that will not draw more attention to them. They may feel like they belong to the community if they feel they have a choice in how they are treated.
Strategy #3 — The 4 Questions
This strategy was created by Capturing Kids’ Hearts, a program that equips teachers, coaches, administrators and district leaders to implement transformational processes focused on cultivating relational capacity, improving school culture, and strengthening trust between teachers and students. Simply put, when an educator sees a student not on task or acting in accordance with the class’s social contract, and proximity or nonverbal signals have not been effective, they ask the students the following questions:
What are you doing?
What are you supposed to be doing?
Why aren’t you doing it?
What are you going to do about it?
Advantages: A question-based — versus a directive-based — approach puts the ball in the student’s court. They are not receiving a punishment; rather, they are being granted an opportunity. There is no judgment in the tone of the questions, which stem from a belief that the student is capable of getting themselves on task without help or intervention from a teacher.
Clarifications: Teachers may feel uncomfortable with what feels like the rigidity of a four-question structure. It is important that teachers have opportunities to practice engaging the student in different role-playing scenarios. If teachers do not sound confident and comfortable with the language, they may end up undermining their own efforts to manage the classroom.
Strategy #4 — Personal Plan for Improvement (PPI)
Many times, when students act out, they do so for attention. Teachers who can recognize this can empathize with students and help them get their needs met in positive ways that contribute to — rather than detract from — the learning environment. A PPI includes a one-on-one conference with the teacher where both the student and teacher can share their perspectives, concerns, and thoughts. Either the student or teacher can record a summary of the key points of the conversation on a form. The teacher then sends the student home to reflect upon the remaining questions on the form, which could include specific steps they plan on taking to maximize their learning and collaboration in the classroom. Students can return the form the next day.
Advantages: By not involving the parents and by giving the student at least one full day to decompress from a potentially overwhelming conflict, the teachers afford students the chance to take ownership over their own adjustment (versus having it demanded or directed by an adult authority figure). The document can also serve as a reference for when you reinforce certain behaviors.
Clarifications: Students may not complete the form or turn it in. In the case that parents are involved in student management, the teacher may reference the PPI — that being said, strive not to use it as a ‘gotcha’ mechanism that the student is not doing what they said they would do. Use it as proof that the student is aware of their behavior and capable of coming up with good solutions — they just may need help practicing the adjustments with consistency (and reinforcement from home).
Strategy #5 — Call-and-Response
Call-and-response is a fun and quick way to capture attention, signal a transition, or start/end an activity in any classroom. Call-and-response originated in Sub-Saharan African cultures, where a leader would issue a call to a public gathering and the participants would share a unified response. In the classroom, the teacher might audibly issue a 1-3 word call, to which the entire class would (ideally) stop what they are doing and respond. Examples include: “Stop…collaborate and listen!” “Marco…Polo!” and “We are..limitless!”
Advantages: Call-and-response feels more empowering than “Be quiet!” “Settle down!” and “Alright, class…” It is fun, it is personal, and coming up with a call-and-response in the beginning of the semester is a great way to break the ice with new students and start to build relational capacity.
Clarifications: It may take a few times for a class to get the call-and-response strategy down. Make sure to give ample opportunities for practice in the initial period of learning the strategy. It can also be a great idea to give students the chance to come up with new call-and-response pairings. While this technique works for any age level, teachers should strive to make sure the phrasing is mature and age-appropriate, as students may disregard a strategy that makes them feel like elementary or middle school students.
Strategy #6 — Turn It Around
Students striving to gain attention through disruptive behaviors may enjoy and benefit from the “Turn it Around” technique, which is less time-consuming than the four questions strategy. The goal of issuing a clear, non-confrontational directive is for a student to, independently, change an undesired behavior or mindset to one that maximizes learning and effective collaboration in the classroom.
Advantages: Encouraging a student to “turn it around” has positive connotations of opportunity and focuses on what the student can and should do versus what they cannot or should not do. Also implied is a belief that the student will take advantage of the opportunity to ‘do better,’ and that the teacher knows that the student is capable of turning “it” (the problem behavior) around. Some students may be enthusiastic to prove that belief to the teacher. The strategy also has low potential for disrupting the learning or drawing more attention to a problem behavior.
Clarifications: More literal students may be confused if they don’t know what “it” refers to when you challenge them to “turn it around.” It is important, if you’re going to use this strategy consistently, to teach and model expectations for responding to that directive and to reinforce students who manage to “turn it around.” Teachers can acknowledge those students with verbal or displayed recognition and/or points and prizes, depending on what incentives best motivate their learners.
Strategy #7 — Badges/Levels System
No need to make it complicated! A badge or level system is a hierarchy of rewards that students can attain based on clearly defined behaviors and attitudes they demonstrate in the classroom. The higher a student climbs in the reward system, the more appealing the rewards may be. There are a lot of fun and engaging apps out there like Pocket Points and ClassCraft that essentially serve as class behavior ledgers. Students can ‘level up’ by participating in class, adhering to the social contract, demonstrating strong leadership skills, monitoring their phone use, etc.
Advantages: Badge or level systems work great for students who are incentivized by rewards, which can come in all forms: food/treats, special privileges, gift cards, and leadership opportunities. Presenting a badge or digital level-up to a student can be a great way to reinforce positive behaviors in front of the class.
Clarifications: Badge or level systems can be effective for all age groups, but it is possible that some older students may find the strategy childish, and decide not to participate. Also, maintaining a rewards system, especially without an existing app, can be time-consuming. Teachers are additionally encouraged to use less extrinsic types of rewards to incentive students. While food and gift cards can certainly be fun in the moment, research consistently shows that those types of extrinsic motivators fail to produce desired long-term results, which are more effectively manifested by intrinsic motivators. When teachers use more privileges or leadership opportunities, they communicate the message that the teacher is invested on the student’s personal growth.
Strategy #8 — Positive Notes Home
Pen. Paper. Positive feedback. Sometimes that is all it takes to reinforce desired behaviors. It is especially beneficial to start this end-of-day or end-of-week ritual in the beginning of the school year and to remain consistent.
Advantages: Notes are personal. In an age of mostly digital communication, receiving a thoughtful handwritten note can signal what behaviors parents can continue to reinforce at home. While high school students are the eldest of the K-12 bunch, they still want to feel valued and validated. When a student recognizes that their teachers recognize their hard work, they may be more inclined to continue demonstrating those positive behaviors and attitudes.
Clarifications: Some students may lose, throw out, or forget about notes. Writing out individual notes can be time-consuming, depending on how many students teachers wish to acknowledge.
It is so easy to approach challenges with the mindset that they reveal flaws and weaknesses in a student’s character. Teachers may not realize that in using an authoritative or inflexible approach, they are teaching students to be inflexible in their thinking and behavior. By focusing on building relationships with students, turning potential conflicts into teachable moments, and supporting them through modeling expectations and giving opportunities for practice, teachers can empower students to be responsible for their own outcomes.