Just Another Brick in the Wall?

Its better to deal with things in a positive manner

Most new teachers fear the whole subject of discipline and avoid talking about it, but it’s an important subject for English teachers to discuss.

How do you elegantly control difficult or disruptive students before they leak their behavior onto their classmates? How do you grab the attention of hyperactive learners who are doing everything except listening to you? How do you quiet the chatter at the back or forestall the note-passers (who are never as sneaky as you thought you were, back when you were in school)? In short, how do you make sure that your students get the most out of your class?

Be Proactive by Planning an Engaging Lesson

It’s important to be proactive about discipline. The first step any teacher can take to lessen disciplinary problems in class is to plan an active, engaging lesson in which all students will participate. If everyone is taking part in the class, your problem students won’t have time to be disruptive.

If you’re not sure your lessons are engaging enough, now’s a good time to review our blogs and podcasts about TEFL methodology – and elicitation in particular. When we elicit ideas from students, we’re giving them a stake in the lesson and a reason to be engaged in the class.

Of course, the world isn’t perfect. It’s impossible to engage all of your students all of the time, especially if you have a few learners who are in your class because someone else (a parent, a boss, a school adviser) told them they HAD to be there, and don’t really WANT to be there.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The number one thing to remember in discipline is, even if your class isn’t going how you want it to, don’t lose your cool.  Stay calm, stay rational, and don’t act in anger.  If you’ve got a student who has been acting up in previous classes, make a plan for dealing with his or her common problems before your next class. Go in with an action plan and nip bad behavior in the bud.

A good way to change behavior patterns is to mix up the geography of the class—move a student who causes distractions to sit closer to you instead of with his or her buddies.

 Lay Down the Law

Clear rules from Day One of your classes make it easy for students to stay in the clear of discipline issues; if your class rules are fuzzy, you may find students who you think are acting up are unaware that they’re doing anything wrong.

Rules of Thumb for Discipline

Here are some tips for discipline:

  • Explain the rules clearly in the beginning of your relationship with your students.
  • Be serious about the rules you set
  • Enforce your rules consistently. Why have a rule if you are not going to enforce it.
  • When you do enforce a rule, be firm but also smile. Don’t act in anger.
  • Practice “turning on” your smile at home in the mirror so that you can switch back to Happy Teacher Mode with the rest of your students after using Discipline Mode with a problem student—don’t make the whole class suffer for the sins of one learner.

Be a Calming Influence

Mild discipline problems, like scattered chatter in a class, can often be stopped if you simply station yourself next to the problem student.  Stand beside them, walk over to them, show them you’re not afraid of them.  Do this in a calm and friendly, non-aggressive way, of course.

If that still doesn’t do the trick, a light hand on a student’s shoulder—will gently and in a friendly way emphasize that you are paying closer attention to them and they will intuit that you want them to stop doing whatever disruptive action they have been doing.

Teaching Younger Students

As you might guess, discipline for children’s classes can be more difficult than discipline for older learners. One reason children act out is because they’ve lost focus. They lose focus when class activities are beyond their normal attention spans. Children have much shorter attention spans than adults—in fact, here’s a good rule to remember:  Children’s activities should be no longer than double their age minus two.  So, let’s consider a four-year-old child. Double the kid’s age would be eight, then take away two to make six.  If you’re planning a class for four-year-olds, it would be wise to limit all your activities to six minutes or less.

Other teachers cut the math out of the equation and just use the kid’s age as a good rule for the length of an activity. So, if you’re being conservative, that same class of four-year-olds would only have four-minute-long activities.  This is possibly an even better guideline/

Different groups of students may be able to handle more or less minutes per activity, but it’s a general truth that once you lose the kids’ attention you can bet a behavior problem will crop up toute de suite  on the heels of their boredom.

Mind Games

The thing is, kids who are acting out typically just want the teacher’s attention and they don’t care if it’s positive or negative attention. So, some kids are just as happy pushing your buttons as they are chatting to you.  They just crave some of your time.

This is important to remember, because when a teacher gives a child attention after he or she has done something against the rules, the teacher is rewarding that bad behavior.  Here’s a way to make this work for you in the classroom:

Envision the following—a group class in the six-to-ten age range. Little Johnny paid attention for eight minutes, but there are still a couple of minutes left before the rest of the class finishes their activity. Johnny stands up, strikes a kung fu pose, and begins acting out a scene from his favorite cartoon. Pow! Bang! Pop!

Meanwhile, little Lulu, sitting next to Johnny, is still busily at work in the activity.  Instead of focusing attention on Johnny, you (the teacher) might go up to Lulu and praise her for doing what you asked her to do. This is positive reinforcement of your class rules, gives a boost to Lulu, and shows Johnny what he is doing wrong without rewarding his behavior.  Johnny is likely to stop his shadow boxing and go back to the task at hand, hoping to be praised in turn. And, if he does wise up and play by the rules, don’t hesitate to give him positive reinforcement—pat him on the back, give him a smile and thank him for doing a good job.

Get Disciplinary Guidelines from Your Employer

Appropriate discipline varies from school to school and culture to culture. When you start a new job, it’s extremely important to find out what procedures your boss recommends for discipline. You may find that public schools are more open to discipline and that private schools or language training centers may be less willing to have students (ahem, their customers) disciplined—by kicking them out of class for bad behavior, for example. Also, after you ask your boss about the official disciplinary policies, also ask your new co-workers what they do in practice. Unfortunately, reality and the paperwork may be different and you need to know that before you make a big deal out of something that the school won’t back you up on.

Are they Cheating or Just “Helping A Friend?”

A small digression to the topic of cheating. I’ve never personally worked at a school where cheating was officially allowed. But I’ve worked at lots of schools that didn’t do much to stop it. There are important cultural differences here.  The line between just plain flagrant cheating and ‘helping out a pal’ is not clearly defined. In fact, if you catch too many cheaters and bring them to discipline, your school may turn on you and ask, “Why are so many students cheating in your class?”  “Why are YOU having so many problems?” So, my advice is, don’t focus on catching cheaters, focus on preventing cheating.

Making a difficult environment to cheat includes really preparing the students for what they need to know for the exam.  If they know the material, they won’t feel the need to peek at a neighbor’s paper.  Spread out the chairs during test time.  Put seats back-to-back. Or, test the students over two days, half at a time with different questions. During the exam period, walk around the class  quietly and look for cheat sheets. If you catch a student using one, don’t make a big deal right there, but confiscate the answer sheet so they have to do the rest of the test on their own.

 TED’s Tips™ #1:  Your responsibility, for cheating and really all other discipline-related issues, is prevention.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Prevent disciplinary problems by having an active, engaging class with activities of an age-appropriate length

TED’s Tips™ #3: Prevent cheating by teaching the students the material they need to pass the exams; and by being vigilant during testing periods.

Teaching Internships in China







Maintaining Order and Sanity in the EFL Classroom

Discipline can be easy or difficult – it’s up to you.

This post is part of a series called ESL Blog Carnival
– hosted this month at Go Teach Abroad on the topic of Classroom Management

Don’t blame it on the students if things are falling apart around you.  The teacher is the leader in the classroom and it may be time for you to lead!

The best way to deal with discipline issues in the EFL classroom is to have a good lesson that is relevant, active and encourages the participation of every student in the room.

An engaged and active student is not usually a problem student.

That said, many students are not in the EFL classroom because they want to be.

Many are there because their school or university program requires it, their company/employer requires it, or their parents put them in the class. Thus you can expect problems sometimes.

Relevance is the Key

Making your lesson relevant to your students’ needs is the first step.  Check these posts for how to do that:
Motivate your Students by Localizing your Lessons
and Teaching Functions in the EFL Classroom.

Keep your Cool

No matter what the problem, the best policy is to keep your cool. In fact, the best advice is to always act on a problem BEFORE you get upset, while you can still think rationally and calmly about solving it.

Plan ahead for dealing with common problems like being late for class, talking in class, playing with a cell phone in class, etc.  You already know what the common problems are.  Be ready for them.

Set clear rules and explain them to students the first day of class.

Be serious about the rules, enforce them consistently, without showing any upset, and you are on your way.

Students who talk a lot or misbehave in a mild manner can often be quieted just by your presence if you simply stand next to them.  I’ve spent a good portion of my teaching career standing right in the sea of students, it really does work.  Even quite disruptive teenagers can often be settled down with a gentle hand placed on their shoulder. You don’t have to say anything, they get the message.

Try not to take things too seriously, just enforce rules with a smile on your face so as to not upset the rest of the class. Adults generally are not too problematic, though in some cultures they can be.

Children present a special challenge.

Remember the old rule that the length of an activity for a child should be no longer than double their age minus two. Thus a four-year-old child can probably only tolerate an activity of six minutes or less – then you had better move on.

Children will often act out for your attention and it would be best to study some basic psychology and behavior modification techniques to keep a handle on them.

Generally speaking, giving a child attention for unwanted behavior is not a good idea. It is far better to target the child right next to the misbehaving child and reward them for doing what you want the problem child to do (like sitting down, or working on the assigned task).  Do it very purposefully and most kids will get it.

What does the Boss Think is Important?

It is important to get some idea from your employer what rules they feel should be enforced and what they recommend you do about discipline problems.

Language schools are typically private businesses and need you to deal with any problem gently, positively and in a way they doesn’t chase their customers away.  Many universities these days are businesses and discipline needs to be handled carefully.

When you are new at a school, ask the other teachers what the school enforces and if they “back up” their teachers. Some don’t, and it is better to know that before you have to press the point, and lose.  Some schools will give lip service to certain rules and you can find yourself out on a limb if they don’t support them.


Know that what might be perceived as “cheating” in the Western world is sometimes considered “helping your friends” in other cultures. Here, prevention is the best action, spreading desks far apart and even all the way up to the front and back walls if need be, during examinations.

Don’t allow cheating, but don’t get too stressed by it either. It is a cultural issue more than anything else.  You can teach you students to not cheat by talking about it several times before the actual test or examination.  Teach them how you want them to behave.  You are, after all, a teacher.  See our previous post about Cheating in the EFL Classroom.

Discipline in the EFL classroom is no different than discipline in any other type of classroom.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Nobody likes an angry teacher.

An angry or upset teacher can easily distract everyone in the classroom from the task at hand and it is not professional. Learn how to discipline with a firm serious face, followed by a gentle smile when returning to address your class.

Practice in a mirror and you will be surprised at how good you can get at it.  Do it many times if you need to, so you can get comfortable with it.  It is an important skill to develop.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Plan ahead for repeat offenders.

Think through your plan of action before you have to correct a student’s behavior, then you can assure that you are not acting in anger or frustration. Students usually have the same problem repeatedly, decide what to do before class and watch for the behavior early, catch it and correct it.  Then smile to yourself that you handled it so nicely.

Do it all with a calm manner and don’t forget to smile when returning to other students.