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.