Save Your Sanity and Find More Joy in Teaching: Starting Off the School Year Smoothly – Part 3

Save Your Sanity and Find More Joy in Teaching: Starting Off the School Year Smoothly – Part 3

This is Part 3 of my crash course in how to have a smooth-running, amazing classroomwhere the children are really learning!

Get Part I or Part II if you missed them.

After 25 years of teaching and observing new teachers, I have found that there are 5 steps that really good teachers use.  In this 3-part series, I am sharing the basics of these 5 steps from my book, The Positive Classroom Method

Step 4: Engage Learners

Keep lessons short.

Mini-lessons of 5-7 minutes are the most effective. Brain research (and careful observation) shows that children cannot sustain their attention in a whole group lesson for long and will not be able to learn the information after they lose focus.

Use Alternatives to Hand Raising

Are you exhausted from trying to keep the children from calling out and staying focused? Do some children dominate the discussions? Do children misbehave during your whole-group lessons? Here are better alternatives than hand-raising that will keep children engaged:

Turn and Talk. After the question is asked, pairs of children turn to each other. One listens while the other answers. This way half of the class is engaged in talking, and it is easier for children to pay attention to the speaker in a paired situation. Be sure that children know ahead of time who their partner is and that they practice how to pair up. This should move quickly, so keep the pace brisk.

Think-Pair-Share. This technique is similar to Turn and Talk, except that children are first given time to solve a problem or answer a question individually, then they turn to their partner, quickly share responses with each other and come up with the best or most interesting answer. Next the teacher calls on a few pairs to share with the class. Being able to listen to a partner is a challenge for young children, but the practice they get will help them develop more self-regulation.

Choral responses. To increase student engagement and reinforce simple concepts, allow the children to respond all together. This works best for questions with one answer, and as a quick review of previously covered material.

Individual whiteboards. Each child has a whiteboard and marker and they write down their answer to the question. Children hold up their boards so the teacher can judge how well the children are understanding the concepts.

Cold call. Keep a list of children’s names, put their names on cards, or sticks, and randomly pick children’s names to answer. This helps to improve the pace of the lesson, and keeps children engaged and ready to answer since they don’t know when they will be called on. It also ensures that all children get a chance to participate and a few children are not dominating the discussions. Keep it positive. This should not be humiliating or embarrassing. Make sure that the children are able to be successful with the content you are reviewing.

Make Seatwork Successful

Plan for when children are done early.

Be sure to plan something interesting for children to do if they are ready for the next activity before the other children are. When children have nothing specific to do, they will find something to engage themselves and this may not be what you want them to be doing. Some teachers use Choice Boards with activities listed on them to allow the children to choose an activity when they are done. I’ve also seen Task Cards and buckets with activities, and packets that children keep in their desk.

Stop the chatting during seatwork.

Many teachers struggle with children talking during seatwork. Review with the children how to work independently and what to do if they have a question. Give lots of positive feedback during seatwork, pointing out who is working appropriately. Make sure that your physical environment supports the behavior you expect. For example, many teachers group children at tables, or push desks together in clusters. This is very conducive to cooperative small group activities, but can be problematic during seatwork. Research suggests that involvement and efficiency during seatwork is higher when children are in structured rows rather than clusters, especially for children with behavioral or learning challenges.

Give good directions.

Use your quiet signal first and be sure that you have the children’s attention. Only give one or two directions at a time. Be clear and concrete; telling a child to “settle down” or to “get ready” does not state what behaviors the child should follow. Instead, say, “Sit back in your seat and use your whisper voice,” or “Take your journal out and put your pencil next to it.”  Give the children time to respond to your request before making another one. Monitor the children to be sure they follow your directions. Some children, especially those with disabilities, may need personalized directions (pointing, guiding, demonstrating). It is helpful to also have picture prompts for directions that are given often, such as washing hands, hanging up coats, getting books out for lessons, or pushing in chairs. For children with verbal processing problems, pictures can help them manage the complex verbal environment of the classroom.

STEP 5: Guide Children’s Behavior

Just like some children learn math quicker than others, some children will need a lot of guidance to learn appropriate behavior in classrooms. Punishment does not provide any long-term change in behavior and it can backfire as children grow resentful and act out. Change your perspective:

This child WON’T behave
This child CAN’T behave

Once we realize the child can’t behave we can figure out ways to TEACH and support new behaviors. Go back to STEP 3 – Teaching School Success Skills to get ideas for extra support children need. Teach those skills on a one-to-one basis. Think of this as tutoring in behavior skills.


Use these steps to have children practice problem-solving. Encourage their independence and give examples for them to practice.

Help Attention Seeking Children

Here’s a worksheet I use to help children who are starved for attention and act out to get it:


1. Schedule time. Plan when you will be able to spend time with the child. Sit next to him at snack or invite him to read to you one-on-one. Greet him warmly when he arrives and spend an extra minute talking with him at the end of the day. Have honest, authentic interactions. Find out more about his likes, habits, fears, and hopes. Think about connecting.
Interactions planned:  _________________________________________________

Time of interactions: _________________________________________________

2. Plan social interactions. Plan ways he can interact with other children in a successful way. Pair him up with a child who has excellent social skills for buddy activities.

Possible Buddies:  ____________________________________________________

Buddy Activities: _____________________________________________________

3. Send home positive notes. Once a week, send a note that describes a couple ofpositive things that the child did that week. Do not share the minor negative issues.

Day to send note home weekly:___________________________________________

4. Help connect child to other adults. Ask the child to bring a note to the office, help the teacher assistant set up lunch, or spend time with the librarian putting books away.
Plan for Connecting to Other Adults: ______________________________________

The Acting Out Cycle

The most important strategy in redirecting behavior is to INTERVENE EARLY! Don’t let behavior escalate and don’t nag or chastise a child who is agitated. You will only set them off and end up with a full behavior escalation. Always think about how to cool things off – including your own emotional reaction to children’s behavior! Look at the chart below and think about what it looks like when children are triggered and agitated. That’s the spot to intervene! If you let it go past agitation, you can’t help the child avoid a meltdown.

This Won’t Work with My Children

One of the complaints I get is that these steps won’t work with really tough kids whose parents or communities haven’t prepared them well for school, or for children with disabilities.

My suggestion is to try them out to see. You shouldn’t just believe me – have an experimental attitude and see what works! I can’t tell you, though, that I have spent 21 years working in urban schools with very difficult children and that’s why I developed this 5-step method. I’ve seen it work in the most challenging situations. But try it yourself!!

Don’t Have Time for These Steps?

I’m excited to announce a long-awaited new book that will help you in implementing The PositiveClassroom Method. After many years, and hundreds of hours of work, I’ve put together a field guide with lessons, activity plans, posters, visuals, step-by-step guides and everything else you need to start implementing The PositiveClassroom Method.


I’ll be sending you more information in the next few days about a special offer to get The PositiveClassroom Field Guide as soon as it is released. We’ll be offering a reduced price for a short time to celebrate the release. I’m so excited to be able to help teachers make good classroom management easier!