Do you know a superteacher with ninja classroom management skills? Whose kids seem to always be on task and listening during lessons and worktimes? A teacher who has a classroom of respectful little cherubs following them down the hallway in a line like baby ducks? I’ve known a few. I often wondered what their secret was. Were they just innately gifted? Perhaps that was part of it. But when I dug deeper, the main ingredient of their classroom management suddenly drew into focus. And I realized that any of us could get the same results.
It’s this. Less is more.
Of course, this can and does apply to all aspects of classroom management, but what I’m talking about here is something three-fold: body language, language choice, and voice manipulation.
Why it works
To understand why this trifecta works, let’s put ourselves in the students’ shoes. Have you ever been to a lecture or talk where the speaker doesn’t seem to know what they’re doing? They look unsure of themselves. Maybe they’re saying a lot, but you just can’t seem to pay attention. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? Sometimes, if we’re in a generous mood, we feel compassion for these people and, rather than focusing on the content of what they are saying, we try to buoy them up with encouraging looks and smiles. If we’re crankier, we’re irritated that they’re wasting our time, so we pull out our phone or glance at our watch.
That presenter may be brilliant and the best in their field of expertise, but without essential teaching skills, they fall flat, as does our attention.
Now picture the same situation but this time a confident, friendly-looking soul walks on stage. She doesn’t look like she’s out to prove anything. She’s just delighted to be there, sharing something she’s passionate about with a crowd of lovely people. You didn’t worry at all for this person, do you? You forget you even have a phone. Because this person is in total control. You are learning. You are attentive. You may even be entertained. The time seems to fly by.
This is the kind of educator we all want to be. The kind of person whose teaching skills make kids glad they are there. The teacher they can’t help but listen to and learn from.
These three classroom management skills will get us there.
Try this. Pick an educator who’s got incredible classroom management skills and begin to study him or her. Maybe it’s a teacher in your school, a karate instructor, or the principal. Specifically, study her body language. Observe her shoulders. Her hands. His eyes. His feet. His breathing.
Powerful body language
While every educator has a unique style, the person you are observing probably exhibits several of the following tendencies:
- shoulders back and down
- eyes relaxed
- eye contact with all parts of the audience
- an open face
- arms relaxed
- feet planted firmly on the ground
- body calm and still
- if excited, uses deliberate movements
- friendly and genuine smile (most of the time)
Whether she is a dynamic jumping-on-the-desks teacher or a quiet presence, you will notice that there is a confidence in her stance. She is not mindlessly fidgeting but looks purposeful and deliberate.
What powerful body language says
When you internalize these tendencies, you are communicating the following to your students:
“I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m really happy being here with all of you.”
“I have a solid plan for today’s lesson.”
“You can test me if you like, but my reaction will always be calm and comfortably predictable.”
“We’re going to have fun today!”
“I got this.”
“I like you.”
“I see you.”
“I respect you.”
Ineffectual body language
Contrast that to a teacher who doesn’t have those classroom management skills yet. You’ll likely notice these tendencies:
- shoulders up/tense
- rounded shoulders
- arms folded across chest
- hands nervously playing with his hair or touching his face
- closed face // tight, defensive expression
- unsure face // not maintaining eye contact
- if standing, one foot crossed in front of the other
- trying to appear small
- OR trying to appear tough
What ineffectual body language says
This kind of body language clearly communicates to students,
“I’m not sure what I’m doing.”
“I’m very uncomfortable being challenged.”
“I don’t mean what I say.”
“I wish I wasn’t here.”
“I feel intimidated.”
“I’m focused on myself.”
“I don’t see you.”
“This is going to be a long and unpredictable day.”
“You can test me, and I won’t be sure how to react.”
Changing these habits takes concentrated work, but it’s worth it.
Changing our body language
For most of us, being a respectful and commanding presence doesn’t come naturally. Like any learned skill, we have to practice it.
The first time I attempted this, I treated it like an acting exercise. I pretended I was that calm, in-control educator I wanted to emulate. And, amazingly, I found my shoulders sank into a new relaxed position. I fidgeted less. My body got edgy at first and tried moving into its habitual nervous movement, but I held firm. It felt foreign and liberating at the same time.
Incredibly, many kids responded immediately to the shift. There was backsliding of course, as there is with any habit change. I’d be back at square one again, with my old reliable habits and not-so-strong classroom management, but I’d center back on pretending to be that individual I admired. After a few months of continued practice, the pretending stopped and I was owning this new body language and adding my unique stamp on it.
Acting like another person doesn’t come naturally to all of us, though. If you have trouble with that too, try focusing on one part of your body instead. So for week one, try breathing deeper and slower. Set a timer on your watch or phone every 15 minutes of so to remind you to do this. The following week, add your shoulders to the mix. Pull them back and down. They should look and feel comfortable, relaxed, and confident, not rigid. As time goes on, the changes will begin to travel to all parts of your body. Your knees won’t feel tense anymore. Your face and jaw will relax. You’ll probably find yourself smiling more.
And the best part, aside from feeling loads better? Your kids will react to this change. They will still test you, naturally. Their behavior won’t be perfect, but it will improve markedly because your classroom management will be vastly more effective. Your children will subconsciously pick up on the clear signals you are giving and will respond in kind.
The words we use are vital. And if you’re already worried about that, I’ve got great news. You don’t have to be a skilled wordsmith to command a room. Again, LESS IS MORE.
kinda // kind of
sorta // sort of
These words are worse than fluff because they detract from your message by muddying it up. About twenty years ago, when I was stationed as a K-12 teacher in Bolivia, I was as green as teachers come. Other than enthusiasm, I had zero teaching skills. (Plus I was teaching in Spanish, a language I had just learned. Yikes!) I very quickly discovered that I unwittingly used “Okay” as a placeholder/comma in most sentences. How did I figure out I was doing this? The students, naturally. They joyfully mimicked me each time I uttered it, repeating, “Okay!…hahaha! Okay! Okay!”
It didn’t take long to omit this word from my speech.
Cutting mundane words out of your vocabulary will result in an increase of student attention. Thus, instead of saying, “You should kinda look your work over before you pass it in to see if you made any mistakes,” say, “Use the checklist to edit your work. Then pass it in.” The former gives the message that reviewing one’s work is an option. The latter is clear cut.
Phrases to delete
Some other phrases that detract from our efficacy:
We’re not going anywhere until you are quiet and ready to walk in the hallway.
If you could just …
I used to rely on a few of these. Then one day I noticed that I was frustrated, the kids were frustrated, and, most notable, nothing was improving. These days, I stand at the front of the classroom with a friendly smile (’cause I do love these kids!) and say nothing. Perhaps I’ll remind them at recess line-up, “Your fifteen minutes of recess starts now.” Then I’ll shut my trap. The only time I’ll utter anything is to oh-so-quietly give praise to the kids who are right on track. So perhaps I’ll say (again, super quietly), “Alex, you look ready to go. Go enjoy your recess. We’ll meet you out there.” Boy does that get the line quiet, particularly when you are subtle, as though you’re trying to do it without their noticing.
If we’re walking in line in the hallway and they start chattering, I’ll stop the line, turn around and wait. Again, it’s imperative to do this with a genuine happy face. Giving the death stare might work once in a while, but as a general rule it’s just exasperating to everyone and comes across as a challenge rather than an invitation. Often, if we’re walking to specials, I’ll tell some quiet kids they can go on ahead of us. Getting to walk early to specials with no teacher is a big thrill for the kids — they love the independence and the chance to have some extra attention from the specialist teachers. (Letting kids out to recess/specials early is something that depends on your circumstances. I won’t send kids out early to recess if I don’t know that there is another adult there. Do what works for your classroom/school culture/comfort level. This is just one of many options for quietly rewarding the kids who are on task.)
This teacher silence works equally well at the beginning of a lesson. Just stand comfortably at the front of the room with a goofy smile on your face, and they’ll settle down pretty quickly. Silence is so powerful and it’s easy to forget its magic. But I promise that if you use it — again with friendly love, not with angry stares — those kids will be eating out of your hands. Because when you speak, they know that the words coming out of your mouth matter.
The following phrases are oh-so-common, but if you can train yourself to omit them, you’ll notice the difference.
“I want…” change to “You will…”
“I need you to… ” change to “You will…”
As an example, instead of saying “I want you to pass in your assignments and to be quiet while you work,” try this: “Work on this quietly and pass it in when you’re done. If you forget what to do, the reread the instructions on the board.” You can even go a step further and get them jazzed up to do their best: “As you work quietly on this, refer to your list of transition words and use at least three in your piece. You will see an immediate improvement in your writing, which a pretty cool feeling. If you forget what to do, reread these instructions. If you need to ask each other questions quietly, can you do that. But otherwise keep the volume silent so that everybody can do incredible work. Have I created any questions? … Go to it.”
See the difference? It goes from teacher-centered to student-centered. Because the point is that they learn to do these things for themselves, not for us. We’re simply coaches who help them become independent with new skills. In a year or so, we’ll be old news, but the gained skills will last forever.
The “I need you to” phrase makes me cringe. It not only subconsciously weakens your credibility but it comes across as naggy and whining. (Trust me, I used it for years.) Nothing turns kids ears off quicker. So instead of saying, “I need you to listen to get line line and stop talking,” try “Get in line,” or “Switch spots in line.” Instead of “I need you to put that away and go to your small group,” you say, “Put that away. Then go to your small group.”
These tweaks might seem a little blunt or even rude at first, but they can be delivered in a very friendly, confident, and easy-going way. You can say it with a wink and a smile. (It’s vital that they know you like them even while you’re correcting them. Otherwise it feels like a power-struggle to them. And many of them are more than willing to play that game if challenged.)
To learn more about word choice in teaching, I highly recommend you check out The Power of our Words by Paula Denton.
Like a good storyteller, an educator needs to vary his volume. Sometimes a loud voice is just what is needed. And a whispered, engaging voice can be equally effective — if not more so — at getting kids excited. Experiment a bit with this. Watch popular TED videos and notice when they soften their voices and how that affects the audience. Become a student of volume and have fun with it!
Pitch is how high or low one’s voice is. All of us have natural tendencies in pitch. Our voices often hit the same 4 or 5 notes. Vary it a little. If we keep with our comfortable tones, we can often put our students to sleep.
Particularly useful is paying attention to your pitch at the end of sentences. Does your voice go up at the end of each sentence? Or direction? Does every statement sound like a question? Sort of like this paragraph?
Train yourself to end your sentences with confidence. When we’re nervous or unsure, our voices tend to rise in pitch. Practice lowering your voice pitch and see how that sounds. Again, have some fun with this. You can even share this experiment with your students so that they speak more effectively as well.
Most of us speak much too quickly for people — especially kids — to comprehend all that we are saying. This is one area I’m still working on and have been since I was a youngin’. (My Gramma kept trying to break me of this habit. I’m almost there, Gramma!) This year especially, I’m practicing slowing down my naturally rapid speech so that my lessons and directions are easily understood and more powerful. It takes practice, but I’m already seeing a difference in my kids’ retention of the lessons.
Are kids like dogs?
A while back, we took our sweet dog Sadie Nugget for some obedience training. It was something we had previously avoided as the whole I’m-the-master-alpha-do-what-I-say thing was unappealing. But as the months progressed, we noticed that when we took her for walks, she was getting very barky with strangers. It made us nervous, so we signed her up.
How my dog taught me classroom management
Our trainer was excellent and she changed my perspective on the whole alpha-thing. When we the humans don’t take the lead, the dogs feel like they need to protect us, which can result in aggressive/confounding behavior. They want to get in front of us and keep all the dangers away from us. But when we confidently and kindly communicate through our body language that we are their protectors, the dogs chill. “Oh,” they realize. “Mom’s got this. I can relax now.”
And the “less is more” deal applied amazingly to Sadie Nugget’s training. If we began talking to her as we adjusted her behavior, the teacher corrected us. “No words. You’re just confusing her. Bring the leash back. That’s the signal. The consistent calm action is all they need. Keep it simple.”
As you’ve probably guessed, this worked. Less was WAY more.
And I realized that this was exactly what strong educators do in the classroom. They communicate to their students through their body language, words (or no words), and voice manipulation — “I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing. You’re safe.”
And the unexpected cherry on top of gradually owning these three classroom management skills? Teaching becomes SO much more fun! You can get silly and really get to know your kiddos. They’ll trust you and they’ll love coming to school. Because you’ll be that wonderful someone who clearly communicates not only boundaries and expectations but the all-important information that you like them and you GET them.
Now it’s time to hear from you, lovely educator! In the comments below, tell us:
- Have any of these classroom management strategies worked for you?
- Which of these do you need to work on?
- What changes you have made that have improved your classroom management?
As always, if you found this valuable, please share on social media using the handy buttons below.
Have a great week, loves, and talk to you next Sunday!
Want more good stuff?
Remember to sign up on my home page to receive “8 Ways to Create Lifelong Readers.” I’m in love with this downloadable PDF! Each year, my classroom goal is for every child to have a book or series s/he adores, and every year I hit that goal. I’ll show you clear step-by-step instructions for making this happen in your classroom as well.
Go to my Teachers pay Teachers Store and click on the green “Follow” star under the store name. You will receive monthly messages through your Teachers Pay Teachers free account, plus all my new products will automatically show up in your TPT feed. I share lots of wonderful products, including useful freebies, all of which I use in my own classroom. You won’t find any fluff there. Sign up and join the party!
Follow me on Social Media for daily ideas!