How to Calm a Disruptive Class: The Quick & Easy Method that Saved My Sanity
During my first year teaching middle school students, I found myself in a bit of a dilemma. When the bell rang, I knew that my class should be orderly and on task. But it simply wasn’t. In fact, it was often a bit of a disaster. I had an activity on the board for the students to complete, but no one did it. Instead, they just kept chatting and laughing.
Now some teachers have a natural air of authority and a voice that commands respect, but I do not have those gifts. I cannot (and will not) raise my voice loud enough to be heard. In fact, I often struggle with losing my voice altogether. Moreover, I knew that even if I could get their attention that way, I didn’t want to have to yell for class to come to order each day. I had repeatedly told them that this behavior was unacceptable, but I wasn’t following through with anything, and I wasn’t sure what to follow through with. With half the class talking, I wasn’t about to give them all detentions.
I desperately needed some classroom management strategies that actually worked. Eventually I went to my mentor teacher, and she gave me the following idea: When the bell rings, calmly walk to the board and start writing down the names of everyone who is talking. When they notice, tell them that each student with their name on the board now has a warning because they were talking after the bell. If they speak out of turn again during the class period, they will receive a discipline essay (or whatever penalty is appropriate at your school).
Well, this seemed a bit juvenile to me, but I tried it, and wow did it work wonders! The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong explains how to make this method work on a regular basis. I tweaked their plan to fit my situation and soon had a surprisingly effective discipline tool. Here’s how it works.
- Explain to your students that if they are communicating in class without permission that they will receive a warning. You will give a warning by writing their name on the board. Take a few minutes to talk about how this is not meant to embarrass them or to treat them like little kids but as a way for you to give them a warning without stopping your teaching. Explain that if they talk again, you will give them another warning by putting a mark by their name. If they get a third warning in the same class, they will receive a consequence. (This, of course, will vary depending on your school’s policies. If you need some ideas, click here to request our consequences idea list.)
- Watch carefully for the very first person who talks and be sure to give him a warning in the form of his name on the board. This shows right away that you mean what you say. When you give the first warning, say something such as, “Taylor, you see I’m putting your name on the board. Remember that talking is not permitted and that this is just a warning to you that you were talking and that you need to stop. You are not in trouble at this point, but you will be if you continue to talk without permission.” This shows the class that you are not demeaning the student and that he isn’t yet in trouble but that he is being warned to correct his behavior.
- From then on, simply walk to the board and write down the name whenever you need to give a warning. The student is warned, the incorrect behavior ceases, and the flow of your teaching is not interrupted.
So what happened when I started giving visual warnings?
The level of talking decreased dramatically, students were more on task, and I was less flustered.
In addition, I found that I hardly ever actually have to give out any discipline. I probably give out consequences for talking only about ten to fifteen times in an entire year. Having a visual warning serves as a deterrent and helps students get back on track without my actually having to hand out many punishments. Please note, however, that you do need to be ready to hand out the penalty when a student gets too many warnings. Otherwise, the students will quickly see that you don’t mean what you say.
This method made the biggest difference at the start of class. There would still be days when the bell rang and half the class was still talking, but instead of allowing my stress level to rise, I would calmly walk to the board and start writing names. It didn’t matter if I got everyone because it normally only took three or four names for the class to notice. Then they would quickly quiet down and get to work. What a better option that is than yelling!
Now the obvious downside to this method is that it seems juvenile. Elementary teachers, you have no problem there. For middle school, yes, it seems juvenile to me, too, but I can’t believe how well it works!
If you teach high school, sub, or are just not crazy about putting names on the board, look for ways to modify this method. For example, you could give a student a warning by putting a post-it on their desk. Of course, you’d go through a lot of post-its, but it should work as effectively. Class Dojo is another great option. The key is that you 1) personalize the warning to the student and 2) don’t interrupt your flow of teaching.
This method may not be a good fit for everyone. But if you’ve had trouble keeping order in your classroom, I do highly recommend that you try it. For me, it was a miracle worker.
And if you’d like some help implementing this idea, get my free video mini-course that will walk you through how to turn things around mid-year and regain control in just 3 days.
Or if you even more help controlling your disruptive class, check out our full Classroom Management 101 course. It has even more strategies that cover every aspect of classroom management.
Update: Since writing this post originally, we’ve found a lot of great alternatives to writing names on the board. My favorite idea is “yellow cards” (like in soccer). Simply laminate yellow cards and place them on a students’ desk as a warning. You could also use a tool like Class Dojo – or, honestly, give a warning any way you want. Just make sure it’s something you can do without interrupting your flow of teaching.
- Post: 30+ Powerful Classroom Management Strategies that Work!
- Post: “Should You Use a Behavior Chart?“
- Post: “What to Do if Your Students Control You“
- Tools: Class Dojo
- Book: Create Your Dream Classroom
- Free mini-course: Classroom Management Solutions: 3 Days to Regain Control
- Audio: Podcast season 1 on classroom management
- Full classroom management course: Classroom Management 101