Developing an effective classroom management plan at the high school level requires an entirely different mindset than one might apply for younger students.
As seasoned educators of high school students know, teenagers are experiencing rapid changes at both the physical and mental level. Their hormones are out of whack. They may be overly concerned with their social status, anxious about peer pressure, and feel awkward and uncomfortable in their own bodies. According to the National Institute of Mental Health the teenage brain has a great deal of “plasticity,” or the ability to grow and adapt—yet teens are more likely to experience stress and to need more sleep than children and adults.
The lingering effects of the pandemic may have also left high school students feeling depressed or isolated, further compounding the challenges that any typical teenager faces. It’s no wonder that such students may be distracted—and may sometimes present behavioral issues that can throw teachers for a loop.
How can we best guide these students through their high school years, helping them to maintain focus and grow socially, emotionally, and academically? Having a high school classroom management plan in place prior to the first day of school is key. And focusing on positive reinforcement, building relationships, and creating a safe and supportive culture—rather than enforcing punitive consequences and rigid rules—is what many teachers say works best.
Mapping Out Your Classroom Management Plan for High School
According to the American Psychological Association, “Classroom management systems are effective because they increase student success by creating an orderly learning environment that enhances students' academic skills and competencies, as well as their social and emotional development.”
Here are eight examples of high school classroom management strategies that will help you with behavior management, and will also help students to feel respected, nurtured, and safe to express themselves.
1. Set Reliable Routines
Here is one area in which a high school student doesn’t differ that vastly from a kindergartner. Young children and teenagers alike benefit from routines and consistency. Routines give our days a sense of order, helping us to feel safe and to know what to expect.
Examples of regular routines for a high school classroom might include:
- At the start of a language arts class, students can respond to a writing prompt on the board and freewrite for five minutes. You might post a quote of the day from an author, historical figure, or a celebrity as an idea starter.
- When you take attendance, use the opportunity to ask students a fun question that they can answer instead of just saying “here!”
- Have a designated spot for students to place completed work before they exit the classroom for the day. You might wish to label bins in alphabetical groups for easier organizing.
Certainly, some unexpected detours (such as having a local author suddenly drop in to greet your class) can surprise and delight your students. Once you have your routines in place, breaking them now and again can be a welcome change. Here are yet more ways to establish classroom norms and a positive classroom culture.
2. Establish Clear Rules
Know what your own “deal breaker” rules are and communicate them clearly—these are rules that you consider non-negotiable. Examples might include an expectation that students will keep devices in their lockers throughout the day, will be punctual and in their seats when the first bell rings, and will refrain from interrupting another classmate when they are speaking. But your rules may differ depending on your own philosophy and classroom environment.
Francis Jasson Villanueva, who teaches 11th and 12th grade science at La Salle Green Hills High School in the Philippines, starts every course with three key rules:
- Before doing anything, consult with the teacher and ask for consent. (This rule is imperative for him, he says, due to safety concerns in the science lab.)
- Make as many mistakes as you can before your work is graded. This is a chance for students to explore and ideate as they embark on what’s usually an unfamiliar process. So mistakes are a positive thing!
- Know how to make a 4-point apology. This means that students can acknowledge and own that what they did was hurtful, express remorse, make amends, and then promise that it will not happen again. Many students are polite enough to thank others, but don’t know how to properly apologize.
Although some rules should be ironclad, such as asking students to avoid any demeaning speech or physical altercations, you don’t need to be a dictator about all the rules. “Students are more likely to buy into your expectations for the classroom if their voice is heard. Work with your students to come up with a list of classroom rules and consequences,” writes Brittany Mamphey in this blog.
3. Build Relationships
“This year it is particularly important to build relationships with and among our students,” says Dr. Debbie Silver, former Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and a speaker, author, and presenter. A teacher for 30 years, she now coaches other educators in professional development around the world. She adds: “Social and emotional skills took a hit when students were mainly interacting online. Common courtesy and manners need to be reintroduced and reinforced as we weave appropriate social- and self-skills into student learning. Building a considerate, caring environment is as good for the teacher as it is for the students. Let’s work to restore civility in the places we control—our own classrooms.”
Here are a few of Dr. Silver’s favorite tips on getting started:
- Try to begin the year with as clean a slate as possible. Dr. Silver always preferred to have as little information as feasible from secondary sources about her new students. Aside from medical concerns, she wanted to be able to make up her own mind about kids, as well as give them a true chance to begin anew.
- Immediately have students fill out inventory sheets about their strengths, preferences, motivators, and so on. The more we can know about a student’s self perception, the better we are able to connect with them.
- Do quick team-building activities to help students feel welcome and safe in their class. Forget the pacing guides for a while and try to weave social and emotional learning (SEL) skills in with the curriculum from the start. Play name games to help everyone learn each other’s names.
- Consider making a bulletin board on the topic “Know Your Teacher.” Along with current pictures of who you are and what you do when you’re not at school, post pictures of you when you were the age they are now. If you’re brave, you can even display an old report card or two. Let the students know you are human; build empathy with them.
4. Don't Talk Down
Teenagers know when they are being spoken to in a way that suggests they are five years old, disempowers them, or conveys a lack of respect. If you respect them, they are more inclined to respect you. If a teacher treats their students like willful, disobedient children, those students may well decide to act exactly as they are being portrayed.
The key to not “talking down” is actually to listen with your full attention. Really tune into what the students are trying to tell you—even if they may seem argumentative or disagreeable. Sometimes they just want to know that they are being heard. Find creative ways for them to express their feelings and needs. For example, you could allow a student who is complaining of boredom the freedom to pursue a unique community project that fuels their passion.
5. Create a Safe Space
High school students need caring and reliable mentors more than ever. They may be struggling with many issues: mental health, body image, bullying, and more. So it’s important to build a community of mutual trust and respect.
Designate your classroom as a safe space in which students are free to express themselves honestly; you can model this for them by doing the same. Don’t be afraid to share your own personal stories and feelings with them, as long as it’s within appropriate boundaries.
Setting up a safe space doesn’t mean that students should be allowed to make hurtful statements. Make it clear that such language will not be tolerated in your classroom. Gently remind students to respect and acknowledge one another’s differences.
While you should strive to be authentic with your students, keep in mind that you’re not there to be their friend. Maintain the role of adult and mentor.
For more ideas on how to meet students’ social and emotional needs, read 5 Social-Emotional Learning Strategies for High School Students.
6. Be Consistent
Sometimes it’s difficult to maintain firm boundaries, especially for new teachers who may really want students to like them. It's important for teachers to remember they are in charge.
It's hard to backtrack from a position and say “no” when students have already sensed that a teacher is on the fence and could be swayed. So if students come to you begging for a free period when you know it’s crucial that they study for an upcoming test, be firm.
However, teachers don’t have to be entirely inflexible. Tell students that you’ll give them a “rain check” and will grant them that free period if they meet certain expectations. Don’t back down on your standards, but also don’t renege on your promises.
7. Incorporate Humor
Many high school students appreciate a clever meme or a funny video. Bringing a little humor into your lessons can re-engage them and acknowledge their interests. Throw a few jokes into your lessons now and again; for example, on a quiz about history, include one ridiculous question to make students laugh and put them at ease (and see who gives the most creative answers!)
But what if you’re not a natural stand-up comedian, or you don’t find yourself funny? Get your students to bring the laughs! You can ask them to create their own humorous memes about a science concept, sketch a cartoon that tells a story from history, or write a silly limerick for language arts.
8. Create Engaging and Authentic Lessons
Get students to do what you want them to do, rather than prevent them from doing what you do not want them to do. This starts with incorporating lessons that meet students where they are. For example, bring in real-world, hands-on projects that demonstrate that students can make an impact on society.
If students are enthused about your teaching materials and lessons, they’re less likely to become disengaged, bored, and frustrated. Students in those latter three categories are more likely to act out and cause problems, which can interfere with their own learning as well as their classmates’ learning.
Finally, reward students who are staying on task and diligently applying themselves. Say “thank you” to students who are pushing themselves to try harder or who reach out to help a peer.
More High School Classroom Management Strategies
Do you have creative ways of keeping your high schoolers engaged and learning? Maybe you have ideas about how to improve the techniques we've shared here. We’d love to get your thoughts. Share your strategies with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or email us at Shaped@hmhco.com.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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