Substitute Preparedness

10 Classroom Behavior Management Essentials

Learn ten essential strategies for classroom behavior management.
a substitute at a table with smiling students

Behavior Management Strategies = Success

Coming prepared with a set of strategies for classroom behavior management will put you and the students in the best position to have a smooth, positive class. Continue reading for 10 must-have strategies to make the day a success!

10 Essential Strategies

Jump to:

Welcome Students

Set Expectations

Circulate the Room

Keep Transitions Orderly

Give Time Frames & Reminders

Redirect, Redirect, Redirect

Praise the Positive

Brain Breaks & Reward Time

Discipline Privately

Know When to Get School Support

Welcome Students

Start the school day by standing at the door and greeting students with a smile and a kind welcome. Make sure that you are positioned so that you can monitor the students who enter the classroom while you greet those who enter. Do this again anytime the class returns from an activity, such as lunch or a specials/arts class. For older grades, stand at the door and greet students at the start of each new class period.

Once the bell rings for the start of class, introduce yourself so that students know your name and understand that you will be teaching the class. To keep attention while you take attendance, you can have students take turns sharing their name and answering a question, such as "What's your favorite movie or cartoon?" or "Would you rather be able to turn invisible or go back in time?" For older students, you can get some smiles with, "Would you rather have your parent follow you around school for one day or have them go through your phone?" This can build community and minimize misbehavior that might occur while you complete attendance.

Set Expectations

It is important to set expectations at the beginning of class. Begin with a general statement, such as, "We will be following school and classroom rules today." If the teacher has any specific rules for the day, share those with the class. For example, teachers may have students remain in their seats instead of sitting around the room during reading time, or the teacher may want students to work independently instead of with partners. It is best to be up front about those expectations so that it doesn't become an issue later, in the moment, if students are used to other routines.

You should also set expectations for common activities, such as having students raise hands if they need help, only allowing one student out to the bathroom at a time, and what voice volume is appropriate for each part of the day's activities.

One important expectation with students today is the use of personal devices. By middle school, almost all students have cell phones, smart watches, and/or AirPods. Many students bring gaming devices, like the Nintendo Switch. Even many young students have these devices! It is always good to ask specifically at each school what their policy is for devices. Generally, students are very defensive about having devices taken away, so they are willing to be compliant when reminded of school policy.

It is imperative that you uphold school policy. Allowing students to be on their devices might seem harmless or that it is something that you can't enforce as a substitute; you might even think it will make you the "cool" sub to let it slide, or that it's fine once students finish their work. However, it is not okay and can lead to significant problems, including cyberbullying, inappropriate content, and recordings of you or other students. Even if students tell you, "Our teacher lets us be on our phones," you are expected to follow school policy and will be held responsible for issues that arise for ignoring school policy. If repeated violations require a device to be confiscated, call for a staff member to help.

Circulate the Room

Students notice when a substitute is anchored at the front of the room or at the teacher's desk. This leads to students pushing boundaries, which can quickly become turn into situations that are out of control. Circulate the room as much as possible so that you are not only available to help students but also to monitor and make them aware of your presence. For students who are struggling with behavior, you can pause in their area more often and use your proximity to encourage them to remain on task.

It is also a good idea to circulate when you monitor students in other activities, such as outside during recess. This encourages students to follow school expectations, allows you to see more of what is happening, and helps you resolve issues early before they might get out of control.

Keep Transitions Orderly

One of the keys to successful classroom behavior management is putting students in good situations and preventing situations that might foster misbehavior. Transition times are a frequent source of behavior issues, with students going from one activity to another, such as listening to a lesson to working on a handout, or finishing a project to lining up for recess.

Think about how to keep transitions as orderly as possible. For example, how will you distribute papers or materials? Although it will take longer, it is best for you to distribute things yourself, or have a student help, or call on one group at a time rather than allow students to get up and grab things in a "free for all." When all students are invited out of their seats, the movement around the room, and the mass gathering to get materials, can create sudden behavior issues.

Give Time Frames and Reminders

Help students understand how much time they have for classroom tasks, and give reminders every so often of how much time is remaining. This gives students a sense of urgency and encourages them to stay on task. For any grade level, but especially younger students, consider breaking down assignments into smaller tasks with smaller time frames. Consider the difference between "You have 25 minutes to finish this paper" and "Let's get problems 1-5 finished in the next ten minutes."

Depending on the grade level, it can be helpful to write the tasks and times on the whiteboard to help with time management. For example, you might write:

10:00 - 10:15     read the nonfiction article

10:15 - 10:30     answer the reading questions

10:30 - 10:45    complete the writing prompt

             10:45    turn in assignment and clean up

Redirect, Redirect, Redirect

Working with students of any age requires you to be patient with the personalities and circumstances that you will encounter in the classroom. It is tempting to think that students "should know by now" how to do certain tasks and behave certain ways; there are so many factors involved in a classroom—from parenting differences to special needs, and from personal trauma to even just how a student feels that day—that there will likely be some behavior bumps along the way.

Since you are substitute teaching, you know that their routine is already off, but you can make a huge difference by being kind but confident, showing students that you are committed to helping them have a normal day of learning. You can do this by redirecting students to the lesson or classwork consistently. Whether you are seeing disruptive behaviors, off-task talk, or students who just aren't completing work, a primary strategy is to redirect, redirect, redirect. This is what sets the best substitutes apart: They are willing to keep encouraging students, helping them get started, helping them get back on track, and helping them focus on learning.

Praise the Positive

Students notice the things that are given attention in the classroom. As a substitute, it is important to use positive praise to keep attention focused on the good things that students are doing. Many students who aren't following expectations will respond to hearing you praise others and get back on track.

Positive praise also sets the tone of the class: If all you do is focus on the negative, students will think that everyone else is off-task, and they may follow along. By focusing on the positive, it sends the message that lots of students are doing what they are supposed to, which influences students to also stay on task.

When you praise the positive, make sure that you are naming specific behaviors. For example:

  • "Thank you for raising your hand to answer the question"
  • "Thank you for getting started on your assignment right away."
  • "Thank you for keeping your eyes on me while I speak."

Brain Breaks and Reward Time

Use short "brain breaks" to allow students to pause during long activities or between a series of activities. These are typically 2-5 minutes and can be used to raise up or bring down the class energy, depending on what activity they have been working on. It is very important that you set expectations before letting students begin: how long the break will last, what they are and are not allowed to do (no personal devices!), and what you expect them to do when time is up (be back in their seats, etc.). Generally speaking, you will want to consider allowing movement around the room, or an activity that incorporates movement, when you want to bring the energy up. You will want to consider calmer activities if you need to bring the energy back down.

For younger students, it is helpful to have an activity in mind, such as drawing or coloring on a blank paper, leading some stretches, dancing in place, or moving to either side of the classroom during a few rounds of "would you rather." For older students, they may be less interested in a whole-class activity (though you can definitely offer!) Older students may simply enjoy time to socialize, stretch, rest their eyes, or walk around the room. While there are many ideas that you can find online, it is a good idea to ask nearby teachers for ideas when you meet them in the morning.

Another strategy is to give students reward time after completing a class or lesson. This will be exactly like a brain break except that you call it reward time! It shouldn't be more than 10 minutes, and it shouldn't bend any rules (still no personal devices!). Reward time should only be used when all students are finished with their work and there is remaining time—you don't want to prevent students from finishing work or some feeling left out if they need to finish.

Discipline Privately

As a substitute, you are limited in the kind of discipline you can administer in the classroom. You will primarily talk with students to resolve behavior issues, and in some cases, might have students move seats to improve a situation. When you see a behavior issue, you should talk with the student as privately as possible, such as a quick conversation at their desk or talking in an area of the classroom away from other students. You should never be alone with a student, so do your best within the classroom.

You should not yell at or publicly shame students; if a disruption takes place in front of the whole class, you can reiterate the expected behavior and defer the private conversation for later: For example, "There shouldn't be any talking while I am sharing the lesson. You and I will talk privately when the lesson is finished.") By talking with misbehaving students as privately as possible, it gives them dignity, removes their peer audience, and can de-escalate some of the tension.

Know When to Get School Support

As a substitute teacher, you are expected to handle typical, minor behavior issues in the classroom using strategies like those shared in this article. Generally, minor behavior issues include things like

  • disruptions
  • disrespect
  • excessive talk
  • leaving seats
  • work refusal
  • minor student conflicts
  • nuisance items, personal devices
  • throwing harmless objects (paper, eraser pieces, etc.)

You are not expected to handle major behavior issues; in these cases, you should reach out to a staff member or the office for support. Generally, this includes things like

  • bullying, harassment
  • aggression, violence
  • illegal substances
  • vandalism, property destruction

Using behavior management strategies consistently will prevent the likelihood of any major behavior issues, but if you get to a point where a student or a class has become unmanageable, you should seek immediate support from nearby staff or the office.

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