Helpful Student-Centered Classroom Management Tips

As instructors of ESL classes, we all face similar problems with classroom management. Traditional teaching methods and classroom management often lessen student motivation and create the opposite desired behavioral effect. Using traditional classroom management methods, students become uninterested, unmotivated, quiet, and seldom reach their desired ESL goals. By using student centered rules, teachers can create a more motivating and rewarding classroom environment.

1. Setting rules.
On the first day of class, set the rules. These rules must be reasonable, culturally sensitive and promote a positive learning environment. If the rules are too severe or easily broken, the students will give up trying to stay within the boundaries. The teacher must also abide by the rules and value system. Rules and values are caught, not taught. Thus, students will follow the class leader, even if it is not the teacher.

2. Modeling.
Classes (not students), tend to model their teacher. If the teacher is hardworking, soft-spoken, and polite, the class tends to act in a similar manner. Decide what you want your class to be like, and stick to that description. If you are loud, do not allow students a chance to speak or participate freely in class, the students will react in the same way, both to you and their fellow classmates. If you want a quiet class, speak quietly. The students will strain to hear you and be more attentive.

3. Quiet start.
When the class starts, wait for all the students to be quiet and focused on you. The students will believe that you have something important to say if you wait for everyone to pay attention and be quiet. If students are still talking or not paying attention when you start, they may believe that what they have to say is more important than the instruction. Do not compete with the class for attention. They generally have more energy, outnumber the teacher(s), and love a challenge. If the class is speaking when the teacher is speaking, they think that the teacher will speak louder so that they can finish their conversation (which is more important anyways!). Every student should have the chance to learn. If one student is talking, it removes this possibility. Therefore, it is important for everyone to be focused on the instructor before proceeding. When the class gets louder, the teacher gets quieter. Inexperienced teachers tend to get louder as the class gets louder. This creates competition which inevitably winds up with the teacher shouting and not a soul listening.

4. The breaking of a rule.
If a student breaks a rule, do not give them too much attention. This may be what the student is trying to achieve. If they get the attention, then breaking the rule worked, and they will continue to strive for extra attention by breaking more rules. Always give attention to students who abide by the rules. Shift the attention away from the student.

5. Students decide punishments.
If a rule is broken, immediately shift the attention from the student to the entire class and have all the students decide the punishment. All too often the teacher hands out the punishments and the students resent the teacher for it. When punishments are offered up by their peers, they have no one to blame but themselves (and fellow students). The students often offer up silly punishments. This is a good way to take the focus off the unwanted behavior and onto the punishment itself. Students who seek attention through rule-breaking often do not like the attention attributed them through acting out silly prescribed punishments.

6. The breaking of a rule.
If a rule is set, for example: students cannot go to the bathroom during class, and a student has to break the rule (in this case: go to the bathroom), they should be made to pay a price to break the rule. Example: The student must give every other student a sticker to go to the bathroom during class. This will help the students avoid breaking the rule, but offers them a way out if they must break the rule.

7. Be serious!
It is important to appear serious when rules are broken. If the teacher is smiling while stating the rules, the students may think that the teacher is not serious. If the breaking of a rule is viewed as serious, more attention to avoiding it will be given by the class.

8. Reward good behavior.
Use rewards that can be displayed publically and privately. Students value rewards in different ways. Some shy students do not like to receive praise in front of the entire class while others love the attention. By writing comments of praise to parents in the students’ homework book, the student will receive commendation not only in class, but at home as well. Other students do not always have to visibly be given praise. Many benefit from quiet admiration.

9. Behind the rules.
If a rule is broken, especially repeatedly broken, listen to the student’s reason for breaking the rule. It may point to a more serious matter. Often students who are having trouble outside of class do not know how to attract attention to their problem. Often students are told not to tell anyone about something or they will face more problems. These students want to tell, but do not know how to go about it. If they tell, they could find themselves without their friend or get a family member in trouble. When encountering these types of matters, it is important that not only the teacher be involved but have someone else assist or intervene, be it a principal, supervisor or even another teacher. The more people aware of serious problems, the faster it can be taken care of without further incident.

10. Give and take.
For rewards, teachers of younger students may give out stickers for good behavior and take them away for breaking rules. If a student continually loses stickers (rewards), they will sometimes decide that they simply cannot get any, and thus become indifferent to the entire reward system.

11. Addition and removal of rewards.
Have younger students add or remove the rewards themselves. If a student is good, have them write their own name and star on the board. If a student breaks a rule, have them remove a star from the board. If the behavior continues, have the student remove a star from the entire class. This will provoke the other students to reprimand the one student. Peer pressure works great.

12. Linguistic creativity.
Allow creativity with language. After all, language is a creative tool. This may cause a lot of eye rolling, but students enjoy being creative, especially with language. When mistakes are made, they can be corrected. We do learn a lot from our mistakes.

13. Old class, new rules.
If new rules need to be set with a class that you have been teaching for a while, a re-introduction is necessary. During the beginning of the class, explain to the class how you have felt and the need for new rules. They must understand that this is to help them to continue learning. Tell them that you are going to leave the room and come back in to a new classroom situation and that you are their new teacher. When this happens, it signifies that all the new rules have begun. Once this happens, you cannot slip back into any previous management habits or problems.

14. Direct instruction.
Layout the schedule and learning expectations for each class at the beginning of the class. In this way, the students know what is expected of them by the end of the class. They can clearly see their progress throughout the class.

Classes which complete tasks quickly can start with a game. This will make the classes start on an enjoyable note. This will however leave slower classes with less time to finish the lesson. Classes which finish tasks slowly can be offered the chance to play a game at the end of class, when their work is complete. This allows the instructor some bargaining to encourage slower students to speed up. If the students finish all the tasks early, they are rewarded with a game.

15. Removal of free time.
Students who do not complete their homework or classroom tasks can be asked to complete them during break time. This severely shortens their time for social interactions. The loss of social time is often seen as more important than staying after school when no-one else is around.

16. Mixed level classes. Mixed level classes are the hardest to teach. Focusing on the lower-level students will promote boredom for advanced level students. Likewise, focusing on advanced-level students will create confusion and a lack of motivation for lower-level students.

Create lesson plans which involve all students at every level but with different activities. This is like creating three lesson plans, but each time a basic lesson plan is created, it can be applied to several subsequent lesson plans. An example of grammar usage for mixed level classes: Have students create grammatically different sentences using basic sentence patterns. Simple present for beginners, future tense for intermediate and past continuous tense for advanced classes: John/walk/to school = John walks to school / John will walk to school / John was walking to school. To make this more interesting, have the students make nonsense sentences. The purple elephant goes to my school every day.

17. Group work.
Have the class work in teams, groups or pairs. The teacher should choose the groups depending on the tasks and how they want the groups comprised. Group work promotes error correction; more advanced students will correct other students. More advanced students can delegate simpler tasks to others and offer up explanations for language usage.

18. Monitoring.
Walking around the class and make sure that everyone is focused. If the students are having a problem focusing, the teacher cannot always pickup on it from the front of the class. While standing at the back of the class the teacher can observe what the students are paying attention to, without being noticed. If many of the students are having difficulty focusing, it is time to change the style of teaching, lesson format, or play a game.

19. Timing.
Kindergarten aged students should have different activities every five to ten minutes.
Elementary aged students should have a change of activities every ten to fifteen minutes.
Junior High aged students can partake in activities up to twenty minutes.

High school aged students and adults can make it through activities for up to one hour, but it is not recommended unless the activity contains student movement, visual and audible stimuli. Students tend to lose motivation quickly if they are not being stimulated in all areas of learning; visually, aurally, orally, and physically.

20. Stretching and exercise before class.
Stretching and exercise increases the oxygen flow to the brain which in turn promotes brain activity and encourages learning. Students whose brains have been primed for learning tend to remember more and react more positively to instruction.

By using student-centered rules, ESL instructors can create a positive and motivating classroom environment. Students will feel empowered and will respect and adhere to the rules made. They will also feel that the consequences and punishments for breaking the rules are just and well deserved. If the entire class does not respond well to a teaching method, it is time to change the method, not punish the class by continuing the lesson. Every student has the right to learn in class. If the focus is on the students, each student will learn, be motivated, and be set on the path to achieving their educational goal.

Written by Aubrey Neil Leveridge for July 2008
Aubrey Neil Leveridge has a Masters of Education from Australia and is presently a teacher and lecturer.


  • Ma Ya says:

    In the above example, it seems to me that the student who received the punishment is actually rewarded by what he wanted. Wouldn’t this encourage him or other students to cross the line more?

  • Aubrey Neil Leveridge says:

    Good question Eva. I would never allow a student to feel humiliated in class. It is the teacher’s job to intervene before anyone gets their feelings hurt.

    If students choose the punishments, they are undoubtedly going to be silly (dancing, singing etc). This does not mean that someone is going to receive the punishment. Students tend to steer clear of danger when there is such a punishment looming. However, when a student is approaching the point of receiving a punishment, it is up to the teacher to warn them and remind them of the severity and consequences of the punishment. The teacher should also remind the students that they have prescribed the punishments, letting all the students know that it is from them and their peers, not the teacher. This is like a contract forming agreement. The teacher must make sure that all students can agree and accept the punishment.
    Q: “What will you do if you cross the line?”
    A: “If I cross the line I will…”
    Also, penalties handed out to a student by a teacher cause that student to see the teacher in a negative light. When punishments are given by the students, the teacher can remain as a positive influence. Students feel a greater need to perform for their classmates than they do their teacher. Receiving praise or chastisement from their peers keeps the students behaving properly and motivation to do so, high.
    I have, on occasion had students that passed the magical line. The other students pointed out the fault quite quickly. Before receiving the punishment, I had warned the student several times. The student kept on and finally the other students felt that the one student deserved the punishment. The student was quite happy to get up and perform. This is when we all found out that the student, in fact, wanted to do the punishment to gain laughs in the class. After the performance, everyone had a good laugh and the class returned to normal.
    I hope this is helpful.

  • Eva L. says:

    I had a question about one of these rules…wouldn’t offering up the decision for punishment of the student cause a great amount of humiliation for the student if you dont get a “silly punishment” suggestion?

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