Managing Today’s Elementary Classrooms


Every minute of every day, elementary school teachers face the demands of managing a class: How can I make recess run more smoothly? How do I stop Tyler from constantly blurting out answers? How can I prevent Jaden from having a meltdown today? However, most teachers receive little training or professional development in classroom management, and learn how to manage their classes largely through trial and error and informal hallway chats with colleagues. This was one finding from a recent study I conducted in Alberta schools that throws some light on the challenges of managing today’s classrooms and teachers’ varied responses to those challenges.

The mixed-methods study used individual interviews (20 participants) and an online survey (200 participants) to pose questions about teachers’ views on classroom management and strategies they use to support positive behaviour and respond to misbehaviour. Study participants were fulltime grade 1 to 5 teachers randomly drawn from five southern Alberta school districts. They were mostly female and evenly distributed by age, years of experience and grade taught. The majority taught in small town or urban schools, but a substantial number taught in hamlets or villages, reflecting the largely rural nature of the school districts.

What are the ongoing daily challenges of managing an elementary classroom? According to the teachers we talked to, perennial and predictable minor behaviour issues occupied most of their time and attention: students blurting out answers, being off-task, socializing with neighbors, not listening or paying attention, and student-student relationship problems. A typical response from a teacher asked to describe her top three student behaviour issues: “shouting out in class…not remaining in their seats… getting very loud during discussion or group work.” Other frequently cited behaviour problems were students not respecting others, being non-compliant, lacking motivation, and “tattling.” Less typical responses described more severe behaviour problems, involving students with ADHD, oppositional defiant behaviour, Asperger’s Syndrome, and those experiencing major behavioural melt-downs. Although routine behaviour issues (“just kids being kids”) are what these teachers deal with most of the time, they often have to put time, energy and patience into dealing with tougher management problems.

When asked about their goals for classroom management, the vast majority of teachers’ answers revolved around creating a safe classroom environment and having students fully engaged in learning. Relatively few identified or endorsed more traditional goals like maintaining control of student behaviour or ensuring that classroom rules were enforced. The teachers, in other words, expressed a strong focus on preventing misbehaviour in their classrooms, and employed a relatively small cluster of strategies to achieve this purpose. Preventive strategies most often identified were: developing and maintaining relationships with students, building classroom community, communicating and reinforcing expectations and planning engaging lessons to meet students’ needs.

Despite the common purposes and approaches shared by the teachers in the study, one thing that struck me is the extent to which the details of classroom management practice vary between individuals. No two teachers amongst the 200 in the study gave the same response to the question, Which classroom management strategies are you using to address behaviour problems? Over 40 different management strategies were identified in the data, presenting a picture of a highly individual and idiosyncratic area of practice. As one teacher put it, “You name it…every teacher has his or her own way of doing things.” This may be partly due to the lack of systematic professional learning in classroom management that teachers described, but also could be related to the ever-changing and contingent nature of classroom management.

Contingency refers to situations where something depends on uncertain future circumstances that may or may not apply—which seems very apt for classroom management. Teachers emphasized that “classroom management is a guessing game to see what works,” and ” there are no pat answers — it always depends on the situation.” They pointed out that what works in classroom management depends on a wide array of factors: the individual student’s characteristics and needs; the teacher; the grade level; the size, composition and dynamics of the class; the community; the physical space; the time of year and day, and possibly, unknown factors. No one method, they told us, is necessarily right for any one child, and many different strategies will be needed, depending on the situation. This is daunting information for classroom management “experts” promoting single approaches or strategies, and a challenge to teacher educators and others involved in professional learning.

Although about 90% of the teachers had a similar approach to classroom management, there was one aspect of practice in which teachers held quite different views. In response to a survey item, Negative consequences such as loss of privileges are effective classroom management tools, a little over a half agreed, while about a third disagreed, and a third were undecided. Another item asked how frequently teachers used specific consequences such as making students make up lost time in recess, giving time-outs, and writing students’ names on the board. A significant minority of around 20% claimed to never use such strategies. Interviews provided a more nuanced account of participants’ views on punishment and negative consequences.

In favour of negative consequences, one teacher argued that, “You have to use them, or students just run over you! I give them a warning, then I cut off a good behavior stamp.” On the other hand, another said that, “Just dishing out a punishment, like making them sit at their desk, doesn’t help them learn anything, or accept any responsibility.” In-between positions, such as the following, underline teachers’ ambiguity over negative consequences: “I have to use punishment, negative reinforcement, at times, but I try not to, and I don’t find it very effective. I try to get back to the positive as quickly as I can.”

Turning to rewards and incentives, feelings were somewhat less mixed, and a narrower range of perspectives was expressed than with regard to negative consequences. Although almost 70% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, Rewards and incentives are an effective classroom management tool, 17% of the teachers disagreed or strongly disagreed. One of the interviewees exemplifies the disagree side: “I don’t think it works anymore. When they aren’t rewarded…they don’t do it…One Gd. 5 said to me, Why do teachers think they need to bribe us?” Another, less experienced, teacher tries to have it both ways: “I start the year with incentives and try to wean them off by end of year. Rewards should be intrinsic—you don’t want them doing it for the wrong reasons.” More typical is another teacher who favours group incentives, but not individual rewards: “Sometimes I use a behaviour mod system where the child gets treats if they get enough checkmarks. But I prefer the whole class getting points towards a movie or something where everyone has a part of it.”

Looking at the bigger picture, two current worldwide trends in classroom management are reflected in the way these elementary teachers manage their classrooms (Freiberg, 1999). For a variety of reasons related to ongoing changes in societies, families, children and curriculum and instruction, there has been a decreasing emphasis on intervention along with an increasing emphasis on prevention, “positive discipline,” and meeting students varied needs (Belvel & Jordan, 2003; Evertson & Emmer, 2012; Nelsen, Lott, & Glenn, 2011). There is also a more widespread focus on problem-solving interventions, rather than behaviourist approaches such as negative consequences and rewards (Bennett & Smilanich, 1994; Kohn, 2004). However, in our study, the behaviourist legacy of negative and positive reinforcement lingers on amongst teachers at all career stages. The contradiction between trying to nurture a positive classroom environment while assigning negative consequences is becoming clear to many educators. So is the conflict between reward systems founded on extrinsic motivation, and present-day curricula stressing independence, responsibility and intrinsic motivation.

As societal values change, new curricula are introduced, and student populations become more diverse, managing a classroom is becoming more challenging. However, the public and even teachers themselves, may not realize or acknowledge the formidable complexity of classroom management, the degree to which it is contingent on a myriad of factors, and its idiosyncratic and its highly personalized nature. This raises the question of how much diversity in classroom management practice is desirable in schools. In Alberta, the provincial government and its partners published Supporting Positive Behaviour in Alberta Schools (2008), a research-based resource promoting an integrated system of behaviour support “requiring a comprehensive school‐wide approach that involves all students and all staff.” Is a more consistent team effort in classroom management what is needed today?

Alberta Education. (2008). Supporting Positive Behaviour in Alberta Schools. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Education, Learning and Teaching Resources Branch.

Belvel, P.S., & Jordan, M.M. (2003). Rethinking classroom management: Strategies for prevention, intervention, and problem solving. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Bennett, B. & Smilanich, P. (1994). Classroom management: A thinking and caring approach. Toronto, ON: Bookstation.

Evertson, C.M. & Emmer, E.T. (2012). Classroom management for elementary teachers. (9th ed.) Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Freiberg, H.J. (1999). Beyond behaviorism. In Freiberg, H.J. (Ed.). Beyond behaviorism: Changing the classroom management paradigm. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Kohn, A. (2006). Beyond discipline: From compliance to community. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Nelsen, J., Lott, L. & Glenn, H.S. (2011). Positive Discipline in the Classroom: Developing Mutual Respect, Cooperation, and Responsibility in Your Classroom (Revised 3rd Edition). New York: Three Rivers Press.


Keith Roscoe
Keith Roscoe is an associate professor specializing in science education in the Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge, in Alberta. He has had extensive K-12 classroom experience in Canada and the UK. Keith currently teaches courses in curriculum and instruction, classroom management and science methods, and conducts research and publishes in the areas of classroom management and assessment.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Nov/Dec 2013 issue.

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