How to Set Limits for Effective Classroom Management

by | Aug 23, 2020 | New Teachers Tips

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

Learning how to set limits for effective classroom management will make teaching a much more pleasant experience. Many new teachers struggle with classroom management because they think that students will know how to behave or hope that they will behave.

While many students do know how to behave, it is a fact that some do not. Their previous expectations may not be the same as yours, so they need to be taught how to behave in your classroom. 

Other students simply choose not to behave either in a need for attention or in defiance. Some students who do not like school have also learned that if they misbehave enough they will be suspended and not have to go to school. 

With all those scenarios in mind, it should be clear that hoping students will behave isn’t going to make it happen. Instead approach your classroom management with the expectation that it will happen. Don’t leave room for doubt to enter the equation.

What is effective classroom management?

Effective classroom management is an environment in which students are engaged in their learning, and there are no distractions or misbehaviors that keep students from learning.

In a classroom that has effective behavior management, students know the expectations and exhibit them in class. It is observable and measurable. In fact, most teacher evaluation rubrics contain a section on classroom management and its effective use by the teacher, so it is a very important part of your teaching repertoire.

One key way to have effective classroom management is to set limits.

These 5 tips will explain how to do that.

Limit the number of classroom rules 

Start with a minimum number of rules that students can easily remember. The more rules you have the more difficult it becomes for students to remember and for you to enforce. 

Decide what is really important to you and make sure you teach those to your students. This means modeling them, repeating them, and having them repeat them. You will have to do this until it becomes a memory pattern for them.

If your students are older, you can have them help you come up with some of the rules. That will help build ownership in the classroom. It is also a lot harder for students to fight against rules they themselves made.

Make rules concrete

Be sure your rules are concrete and that behaviors can be enforced. Being very specific allows for little wriggle room. The less wriggle room, the less complicated your life will be. Post your rules and consequences on the wall in your classroom and share with your students’ parents.

Saying no talking is a vague rule you will constantly fight, because expecting there to be no talking ever is unrealistic. When do you not want them to talk? Instead be specific, such as saying “Do not talk when I am talking” or “There will be no talking until everyone turns in this test.” 

Telling students they can have a reward if they “do their work” is too vague. Does that mean if they work for 5 minutes, get some of it finished, or what? Students are deal makers, so beat them to the punch. Instead, say “If everyone turns in their assignment tomorrow, we will take a nature walk.” 

That is measurable and gives no room for argument. It either happens or it does not.

Have clear consequences 

For students who break the rules, your consequences need to be very clear. Each consequence needs to be fully explained. Everyone, including parents, need to be aware of the steps you take and what will happen if a rule is not followed.

Vague or ominous consequences will backfire because you will always have one student who will test it just to find out. Always be prepared to backup whatever consequence you come up with. 

You also need to make sure that your consequences are reasonable and fit the offense. That is why it is so important to figure that out ahead of time and not make decisions in the heat of the moment.

Consistently enforce your rules

The key to setting limits is to enforce them the same way, every time, with every student. If you make a consequence that at 3 violations students will be assigned a detention then that is exactly what happens every single time. You cannot let anger at a situation cause you to decrease the number of warnings for a student nor let your sympathy increase the number of warnings for another. 

You may see a situation and regret your rule or you may wish that you could show a little leniency toward a certain student, but resist the urge. Consistency is vital in making your classroom management plan have stability and believability. 

When you remain consistent, students will trust you to be honest and true to your word. That establishes you as the educational leader and will gain you respect. If you are not consistent students will no longer believe you and will start trying to take advantage of every situation.

Make sure your no means no

It’s hard to be tough sometimes, and it is a lot easier to just give in and say yes. We all want to be liked, right? Students are great at begging, pleading, whining, and manipulating. 

However, do not give in. Stay true to your behavior management plan and don’t wimp out. There should be no room for argument. 

Simply say, “I said no, and my no means no.” 

It may take awhile because many students are used to wearing adults down. Think of the number of times you have seen a parent give in to a fit at a store just to avoid the conflict.

Over time, however, they will learn that their tactics will not work with you. Once they realize that, they will respect you, and you will notice that they are more cooperative. You will also notice that the whining, begging and pleading decreases dramatically.

Effective nonverbal classroom management techniques

Develop the teacher look

Yes,  the  “teacher look” is a real thing, and you will soon have it mastered.  

When a student is behaving or acting out, do not overreact. Instead, face them and use eye contact to get them back on task. The point is not to scare, intimidate, or otherwise send an aggressive signal, but it is a way to send a warning to the student.

This look can be a nonverbal clue that they need to get their act together immediately and that you know what is going on. This look is invaluable in maintaining classroom behavior and showing that you mean business. 

This technique works well if the student knows what it means. If they don’t know what you mean, they may think you are just giving them a dirty look or don’t like them. In that case your intent has backfired.

You should discuss this with your class and make them aware of how you will use it and the message you are sending. If necessary, you should also follow the look with a brief, private discussion to make sure the student understands.

This leads to the second non verbal clue.

Be an active teacher

Moving around the classroom and actively monitoring what is going on will stop almost all misbehaviors. Students try to be sneaky and if you are a teacher who stands at one place in the room or sits at your desk, you make it very easy to get away with misbehaviors.

While you teach, move from spot to spot. This keeps the students’ attention and also allows you to freely walk in the direction of students who are misbehaving or thinking about misbehaving. (Yes, you will soon be able to recognize their facial and body cues that signal mischievous intent.)

When you do see a misbehavior, you can quietly walk over, even as you are teaching, and stand next to the student or place a hand on their desk. This signals to them “I know what you are up to, but it isn’t going to happen.” Sometimes you may need to whisper a gentle reminder of how they should be acting.

When you give students work time, circulating through the classroom allows you to not only help students, but to also monitor what is going on. Once students realize you are aware of what is happening, you will see a decrease in their effort to misbehave.

How you respond to misbehaviors are also important.

Don’t take misbehavior personally

Students misbehave for a variety of reasons, and it rarely is about you. However, if you show that you let them get under your skin, there are some students who will use that as a challenge. They will try to see if they can get you upset, angry, or even cry. Teachers who show reactive emotions to student misbehavior often have more classroom management issues than students who do not.

The key is that students need to know that you care about them. In fact, you care enough about them that you want the best for their learning and success. Part of that caring is you want them to behave in your class so they can be successful.

It is important that you act professionally when you correct a student and that you do not react with anger or emotion. The misbehavior needs to be addressed, but it should not be a personal attack toward the student or turn into a personal attack against you. Discuss the misbehavior not the student.

Likewise, do not feel like their misbehavior is a direct attack on you as a person. Do not let it affect you emotionally. 

Teaching can be a verbally exhausting career when you have to answer what seems like a few thousand questions and give hundreds of directions a day. Learning to use some nonverbal cues for your students can help with that issue and make some classroom management tasks simpler.

Tips you might find helpful include simple things like:

  • Giving a thumbs up
  • A negative or affirmative shake of the head
  • Raising your eyebrows
  • Holding up a finger to signal just a minute
  • Raise a hand to get student attention

We’ve looked at a number of tips that you can use for effective classroom management. This article from Smart Classroom Management looks at things you do not have to do.

The key to effective classroom management is to set your limits before any students arrive in the classroom. Know your rules and have a plan for the consequences when those rules are broken. Be prepared to be consistent.

With those actions in place you are on your way to experiencing fewer discipline issues and greater satisfaction in teaching.

If you have an effective classroom management technique you would like to share, drop it in the comments below.


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Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder


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