Classroom Management Tips for the Pandemic-era Classroom
By Betsy Jones, Behavior Specialist
There is no doubt that this school year will be one of the most challenging for many teachers, students, and school families. When most school districts were forced to close their building’s doors in the spring, teachers and administrators were forced to quickly change gears to remote learning instruction with little warning, and students and families were left to figure it all out. When our students return to us in the fall, they will be bringing along their own “pandemic baggage,” which includes the negative feelings, emotions, and internalizations that occurred while they were out of school.
Unregulated negative emotions often lead to externalizing behaviors (acting out) or, less noticeable, internalizing behaviors (depression, anxiety, self-harm). The stress of returning to school can be overwhelming for teachers, students, and parents alike. Whether you are returning to a face-to-face classroom, a virtual learning setting, or somewhere in between, here are some tips for teachers to get ahead of potential behavior issues before they take over your time and energy, so that you can focus more on teaching and learning.
Above all else, relationships matter most.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to actively and intentionally build positive relationships with your students. When I think back to my favorite teachers in school, those teachers all had one thing in common: they showed me they cared about me as a person, not just my learning or behavior. Teachers need to be intentional in getting to know their students in a positive way so that they have opportunities to express their negative emotions in a safe environment.
For students who are harder to crack out of their shells, I like to use the “two by 10” strategy for building positive relationships with students: spend 2 minutes for 10 consecutive days engaging in conversation with the student. Don’t talk about academics or behavior, talk about them. Ask them questions about their families, what they like to do at home, their favorite video games, or their favorite funny stories or jokes. It is a simple strategy, but you have to be consistent. If you miss a day, start over. Two minutes a day could change the rest of the school year for that student, and you could be the first teacher to make him or her feel truly valued. Positive student relationships are the foundation of the learning process. In order for students to positively connect with their learning, they need to positively connect with their teachers.
If you are teaching students remotely this fall, this will also be your most important step to a successful start. Reach out to students and families using multiple means of communication. Of course, there are the usual ways to communicate electronically, such as Class Dojo, Remind, email, and video conferencing. One way to connect individually with students is to have 1:1 or small group weekly check-ins. The groups could stay the same throughout the quarter/semester so that not only do you build relationships with your students, they build relationships with each other. You can do get-to-know you activities such as “Would You Rather” or “Show and Tell,” integrate social-emotional learning lessons, and check in with parents who may be there with their student. Another way to connect with students individually is to send each other video diaries. The teacher sends a short personalized video to each student, and the student responds with their own video. Each video has the same structure: describe one thing about yourself (i.e. a story about something that happened that week, your favorite food, etc), answer the question you were asked, and ask your own question for the other person to include in their next diary to you. You can set time limits on them (i.e. no more than 2 minutes). This is a great way to connect with students, see their learning environment, and allow them to feel a connection to you as well. Lastly, I would also encourage you to send good old fashioned snail mail to your students. Send short notes, surveys, or cards, and include a response card with a stamped return envelope for students to send a response back to you. This could be viewed by students (and parents) as going the extra mile, but it really doesn’t have to take that much time. Ask your principal for stamps, envelopes, and address labels, and print copies of student addresses to save time.
2. Practice consistent, predictable routines and expectations.
All students, especially those with challenging behaviors, need to know what is expected of them. I have moved away from using the term “rule” to using the term “expectations.” This gives students ownership over their behavior. Rules can seem arbitrary, or imposed on students. Expectations are behaviors students are expected to demonstrate. Students should know what to expect when certain situations arise, such as what to do if they need to use the bathroom during class, when it is appropriate to talk to their neighbor, or where to turn in their completed assignments. Our students with behavior challenges hold us accountable when we aren’t consistent, and often try to see how much teachers are willing to bend those expectations. Confusion and inconsistency can cause anxiety, fear or frustration, which can manifest in acting out or internalizing behaviors. You can prevent potential behavior issues with this simple solution.
3. Use clear and concise language.
Use clear, student-friendly language when setting expectations. Many students with behavior disorders (such as autism or oppositional defiant disorder) understand concepts in a literal sense. When routines or expectations are unclear or confusing, students may not be able to express their confusion appropriately, which causes anxiety. Heightened anxiety increases the potential the student will act out their confusion and frustration. A great way to prevent behaviors caused by confusion is to use clear language from the start, and check for student understanding before it becomes an issue. Classroom expectations should be short and broad. It may also be helpful to align your classroom expectations with your school’s or district’s PBIS expectations. Having common, building-wide expectations help to create a broader sense of community within the school.
4. Know your challenging students’ needs before they even walk in your classroom/video meeting.
If you know you will have students on IEPs or behavior plans, read those important documents and determine your instructional and behavioral approaches ahead of time. Set up your environment for their success before they walk in your door/video meeting. Consult with previous teachers about successful strategies, but do this with caution. It is easy to form opinions about students before they even come to you based on the opinions of past teachers. I believe students need a clean slate with each new year (and each new day). Focus on developing successful strategies that worked for the student, and less on opinions and negativity. It is important to note that any accommodation or modification listed on a student’s IEP is required by law, so take the time to prepare for your more challenging students before they enter your classroom.
5. Teach social-emotional skills on day one, and every day after that.
Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph, many students will be returning to school with “pandemic baggage” that could manifest as negative behaviors. This baggage could be caused by trauma, fear, and anxiety about contracting the virus, grief from losing a loved one, unreported abuse, or a myriad of other negative experiences. Teachers can help students unpack their experiences in a positive way by teaching them the appropriate ways to express and cope with negative emotions. Social-emotional learning isn’t just about how to deal with the negative stressors in our lives. It encompasses 5 core competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, Social-Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making. Students who have consistent instruction in social-emotional skills are more likely to experience success toward academic goals. One pushback I hear often from teachers is “I already have so much to do, teaching SEL skills is just one more thing on my plate.” I know teachers have a lot on their plates, especially now. But I would challenge those teachers by saying social-emotional learning is the plate. Without the appropriate social-emotional skills, student learning will be more difficult. Take time to implement SEL activities within your content lessons. You can incorporate read-alouds, writing assignments, and group activities that align with the Social Emotional Learning Standards.
6. Don’t take it personally.
I know how easy it is to take negative comments and behavior personally. You spend so much time teaching appropriate behaviors and connecting with students on a personal level. They become “your kids.” All of them. When one of your students is having a bad day, they usually take out their frustrations or negative emotions on those they trust most: you. Teachers need to practice rational detachment thinking when they are in crisis situations with challenging students. Rational detachment is the ability to stay in control and not take it personal. Remember, WE are the professionals, and we need to model positive reactions and responses to students, even when they are demonstrating inappropriate behaviors. We teach through modeling and example.
Always try to find consistent time to connect with your students, especially the most challenging ones. I always tell those students “No matter what you do, I will never give up on you.” In truth, there are difficult days. There are days that I feel like giving up, throwing in the towel, and throwing myself a pity party. I’m sure most teachers have had those feelings at some point. We need to take care of ourselves first and foremost so that we are ready to respond to anything students throw our way. Find your favorite self care activities, whether that is getting a massage, going shopping, unwinding with a favorite movie, or spending quality time with your family and friends. It is so important to take care of yourself so that you can make the greatest impact on your students’ lives. The seven words that can change a life are: “I love having you in my classroom.”
Betsy Jones is currently the Behavior Specialist at Northeastern Local School District in Springfield, OH. She works as a district administrator to support and consult with PBIS implementation and behavioral intervention practices at all grade levels. She has spent the first 9 years of her career as an intervention specialist at several districts, mostly in urban settings at the elementary level. Betsy has earned her bachelor’s degree in Special Education from Miami University of Ohio, and her master’s degree in Educational Leadership/Principalship from the University of Dayton. She has a passion for connecting with and championing for all students, especially those with adverse/diverse backgrounds. Every student has a voice. Education is their platform to grow their own voice.