Getting Control of a Very Difficult Class: TAKE TWO

Have you ever had a class that just tried your patience day after day? Have you ever felt like you could walk away from teaching forever tomorrow, and be fine with it?  This is a repost of a piece that I wrote several years ago when I was teaching Kindergarten.  I’m now in second grade, and finding that I have many of the same problems!  Since I actually went back and read my own post again, I thought I would post it here for you again, too, with a few of my updated comments inserted in italics.  Hope it’s helpful!

Getting Control of a Difficult Class: Take Two - HeidiSongs

This is the original post.


This year, I have one of the most challenging classes I have ever had. I am still working on training them to do what I want them to do, but I know that in the end, I will win! Meanwhile, we are spending a LOT of time on classroom management, modeling routines and procedures often. Here is a list of some classroom management tips and techniques that I have used successfully in Kindergarten, but I think that they would probably work in most any elementary grade classroom. I hope that some of them will work for you, too!


Have a (Naughty) Child Model the Correct Behavior
One thing that seems to work well, is having a very difficult child in class model the correct behavior. I usually start with a reliably good kid to model the behavior, and then switch to a naughtier one. Then you know that he or she DOES understand. The Daily Five book has a wonderful explanation of this technique. If you don’t have that book, I would get it and read at least the first chapter or two on training your class to read silently. The training method works for other activities as well as silent reading.  (I have been doing this with my second graders this year as well!)


Ask Parents for “Advice”
In this day and age, talking to parents about their child’s misbehavior and expecting them to back you up can often backfire. All too often, parents see their role as the person that is there to defend their child, rather than to discipline their child and help the teacher. Therefore, I have changed my approach when I call parents of misbehaving children, especially the FIRST time I call. I ask them if they can help me by giving me advice on the best way to get their child to cooperate with my instructions.

This is the basic technique.
1. Before I call, I think of a couple of nice things to say about the child. (This is very important, because as soon as parents hear that the teacher is on the phone, they tend to feel defensive.)
2. THEN, I tell them that I am calling them for advice, since they are the experts on their child, and I’m SURE the child behaves at home. (Ummm… not always! But a little white lie won’t hurt too much!)
3. Can the parent give me any tips for getting the child to ______?
4. Then I thank the parent profusely for their help, and let them know that if they can think of anything else that will help to let me know.
5. I encourage them to also speak to their child and encourage good behavior at school.
6. I ask him or her if they have any concerns or questions, and if they would like a follow up phone call, note, or email to let them know how the child is doing.
7. Get a notebook or clipboard and write it down whenever you make a phone call or leave a message. Keep a log of parent contacts, if at all possible. If you leave it by the phone, it won’t be too much of a burden. My phone log has absolutely SAVED me now and then!


Start with the parents of the ringleaders, if you can identify them. When kids are naughty, I start talking to parents after the first week or two of the school year. I prefer to wait until two weeks have passed if I can, but sometimes I can’t wait. As soon as I have to put someone in time out or discipline a child in any way, I grab my notepad and write it down so that I don’t forget what child did. I do tell the child that I will have to speak to his parents later, if I intend to do so.

(I have not asked parents for advice, but I have been communicating with parents OFTEN.  I’m finding that the more I get the parents to help with each individual child, the better it gets.  I’m just trying to solve one issue at a time until I’m down to the few most difficult.  Then hopefully, it won’t be too overwhelming.)

Put the Child on the Phone with Mom or Dad (Immediately)
This technique can stop a very insistent rule-breaking or defiant child in his or her tracks; but be sure that it does not turn into a “public shaming” type of thing. The phone call should be done in a corner of the room while the rest of the class is busy with something else.

Talking to a parent about their misbehavior often leaves a Kindergartner in tears. I don’t enjoy watching a child cry, but when a child is defiant and rude, and I KNOW that the parent will back me up, this works immediately. In my experience, it works better than calling the office and asking them to come pick up the child for a talk with the principal.

This is what I do: I just stop what I’m doing and take the child to the phone. Then I have them listen while I call their parents and tell them what their child was doing. Then I put the child on the phone and have that child explain. This is usually VERY effective, but you need to have a pretty good working relationship with the parent. If you think you might need to do this, you might want to let the parent know that if the need arises, you will be calling them during the day for help, and get permission to do this if necessary. And I would like to reiterate that the phone call should be done in as private a place as is possible.

If you need the parents help right away but never asked them for prior permission, you can try calling and ask for advice on how to handle the child. Usually, in my experience, the parent will ask to speak to the child, and that is the end of that!

(I have been doing this with my second graders this year as well, believe it or not, using my cell phone!  It works!)

Have Children Earn Chips for Good Behavior in Teams
Something else I have done in the past is have the kids work in teams to get the most chips for good behavior. They each have a bowl and I add chips when kids in their row are listening, etc. I like to count them and weigh them in front of the kids with a balance scale, too! The kids like that.

We used to put one chip in front of the child while they were working at the table. If the child got out of control at a center, I quietly came up and simply removed the chip, usually without saying a single word! If the child asks my why he lost the chip, I tell him that we are working now, and I will explain it later. I sometimes ask the child to think about it and see if he or she can figure it out. Usually, they do already KNOW. Then at the end of that rotation, whoever still has a chip gets to put it in their group’s bowl. As they put each chip in, I quickly praise each child for a great job.

(I used the chip reward system last year as well in my first/second grade split class, but for individual points rather than group points.  It worked great, but seemed to take a lot of instructional time, so I wanted to see if I could get along without it.  I think that was a mistake!  My kids needed something to work for, other than just getting their names on the “Happy Face” board.  So I just started using Class Dojo, and they have responded to it really well!)

When Kids Respond Only to Their Parents, Sometimes They Respect the Video that Their Parents May See
Here’s another one. Get out a video camera and put it on a tripod or a countertop. It doesn’t even have to be ON, as long as they think it is on. (Of course, sometimes in my classroom the video camera IS on, ha ha!) Let them know that their parents will get to see it if necessary. Now that’s pretty tricky, and I wouldn’t do it unless I absolutely had to. I do, however, get a permission to photograph paper signed and take pictures of the inappropriate behavior, just to show the parents and principal. It can be destroyed after that. Please note that any photography of a child can only be done with parental consent or it is a violation of COPPA.

Sometimes, it is the only way to make a point. However, even just asking the child if their mom or dad would like what they saw on that video tape is enough to make the behavior stop. Just remember that if you are bluffing on taping the child, he’ll figure it out before too long.

(I have done this both last year and this year using my cell phone.  When a troubled child won’t give up on a tantrum, I’ve gotten out my phone and offered to take a picture or photo and text it to their parents immediately.  One of my second graders last year totally responded to it!  It sometimes just STOPPED the behavior in its tracks.  Of course, you must already have a good text message relationship with the parent, and be willing to use your phone- or have a different system set up.)

Try Teaching the Classroom Management Routines and Rules with Music, Stories, and Puppets
I always try to keep things positive whenever I possibly can, and having kids learn rules and routines with songs and motions is one of the best ways I know how. Here are some clips from my Classroom Management DVD. It also comes on CD.


This song about tattling is a sure fire winner! It is TOTALLY effective in my classroom! The kids really get the point: nobody likes a tattletale!


(Good heavens- even my second graders love the Tattletale song!  I’ve had VERY few tattles this year!)

Back Up and Try it Again
Now my class this year is very difficult! But they are improving in baby steps. Every time someone blurts out something without raising a hand, I stop, and back up. I say, “Okay, we’re going to try that again. I’m going to read that page again, and let’s see if you can all be quiet. Don’t say a word! Here we go, let’s try it.” Then I say it or read it again, etc., and see if they do better. The kids get so tired of my repeating that routine, that they pretty much give up on it after a while and will ask the naughty ones to quit. The teacher can WIN just by persistence.

This also means that I get to say “Good job!” rather than “Go to time out” more often. For the kid that keeps blurting after that, THEN I send him or her to time out. It helps us from spiraling down to the negative so much. Keeping things positive can be pretty hard with a very difficult class, but this is one way to get there.

(I have been doing this with my second graders this year as well! It works- but not as well as in first and kindergarten.  They don’t care as much if I go back and read the page again.  This class needs a reward or a consequence.  Oh, well!)

Reading Books About Behavior (Social Stories!)
Another great technique is by reading the children stories about rules, etc. These are known as “social stories” and they are a commonly used tool by counselors, therapists, teachers, psychologists, and many other professionals. I love to tell social stories with books and puppets because the children see it as a treat rather than a lesson! Little kids sit up and listen when a puppet talks! If you do a search for “social stories,” you will come up with MANY, and tons of them are printable and free! Here are a few books from my collection (both of the puppets were purchase on Amazon, though):

We read one of these Wiggles books nearly every day as a way of teaching and reviewing the procedures and rules.
We read one of these Wiggles books nearly every day as a way of teaching and reviewing the procedures and rules.

(Unbelievably, my second graders LOVE Wiggles and the Wiggles stories!  They LOVE hearing from the puppet and ROAR with laughter with I have him talk with them.  Maybe it’s just the way I personally use the puppet… but they love it!)


Sittles Learns to Join In; A Book About Class Participation

(They love Sittles too, but not as much as Wiggles.  The Wiggles character is just so much fun….  The message of participating in lessons goes along well with the Growth Mindset lessons we have been doing and talking about.  Effort MATTERS!)

Give them STRUCTURE- and LOTS OF IT!
Children that come from homes where there is not a lot of discipline seem to need a lot of STRUCTURE and BOUNDARIES. They cannot be left on the floor to play with unifix cubes in a group of five. They will go nuts! They do better in chairs. Whenever I give them boundaries, they do better. So try to figure out how your class functions the most successfully and go from there. Whatever works- do more of that.

For example, I have a carpet with colored sections for each child to sit in. We have a seating chart. I may move children a couple of times a week if needed. Some groups need to sit in certain spots at the tables at group time. Certain kids can never sit together. I cannot give them a single inch, or they will take a mile. Hopefully, we will get them all trained and they will be perfect little angels by Thanksgiving, and then I will be able to relax with them a little bit. They do have their wonderfully sweet moments!

Here are some examples of structure and boundaries that can be tried:
– Each child can be given a certain spot to sit in on the rug- even without a colored carpet with squares!
– Try for a cheaper alternative to the big colored carpet with squares. (FYI, I do get commissions for the SitSpot links mentioned in this post!)

Sit Spots Shape Seats

– Have children enter the classroom and take a seat just five or six at a time, praising them as they walk in nicely.
– Have children move from one center to another just one group at a time as you all watch, and cheer for them as they follow instructions.
– Let children play with a certain manipulative within the boundaries of a rug or even a jump rope spread out in a circle. The toys and the kids playing with them must stay in the circle.
– Assign seats at the tables where you teach small groups so that children don’t have to run to sit next to their friends, etc. You can always reward good behavior with letting them sit anywhere on a certain day.
– If there is a certain toy that everyone wants to play with, make a check-off sheet and rotate kids through so that there is no fighting over it. If you know that only four kids can play with it at a time without a problem, then only allow four. I worked with a teacher that made “toy passes” for certain toys and passed them out at the beginning of playtime. If a child left the toy, they had to give it back to her and she would decide whose turn it was next.
– If kids cannot line up without pushing and shoving, try taping down names on the floor (or even sight words) and assign kids spots to line up on. Those that tend to push, etc., cannot stand near each other. SitSpots also make great line up spots, and can help space kids out.
– If kids fight over the “best” pencils or other supplies, put names on them and have them find their own. You could also put sight words or numbers on them and have them find their assigned one! Be sure to assign a word or number to the struggling children that they really NEED to learn! (Might as well kill two birds with one stone!)
– Make special arrangements for any child that cannot transition without pushing, fighting, etc., to simply not line up (or whatever) with the others EVER. I did this with one little boy who had decided that he just HAD to be first in line everyday, and would fight his way up to get there. So I told him that he never was to get in line. I made a chalk circle about five feet away from the line, and told him that was his spot. He HATED this- but later he earned the right to rejoin the class.

These techniques are TIGHT controls on the class’s every move. BUT… once you get them under control, you can start to gradually release them, one behavior at a time and then teach them methodically how you want them to behave, with more freedom. And if they can’t handle it? You can always go right back to the way it was before and try again in a month.

One thing to remember is that all of these little classroom management “fixes” do take extra TIME out of your day. That’s just the way it is. There’s nothing that you can do about that. So it’s likely that with a class like that, you won’t get to cover as much as you do with the kind of nice, cooperative class that we all would like to have! So remember that, gather up all of the patience you can muster, and take a deep breathe. Let it out slowwwly and then just let it go.

And remember this: once you master teaching a class like this, you will have learned that you can do and teach just about ANYTHING, if you try! When you’re done, you’ll have so many tricks up your sleeve, you’ll be the expert that everyone goes to for advice. So cheer up! It’s not all bad!

Back to Desks - HeidiSongs

(I am sad to say that I have had to let go of Flexible Seating for a while.  I think that if I had kept my desks and tried Flexible Seating with desks, it would have worked for this group probably.  However, this group needs TONS of structure, and for so many of my boys, a pile of pillows is an invitation to PLAY, not READ!  So we put all that stuff aside for now until we get used to the desks again and the structure and rules that go with them.  Already things are better.  But it’s SO sad and disappointing!  I was excited to give them those choices.  I am hoping to roll out the choices again to my students that can handle them as soon as possible.  The ones that can’t will have to stay at their desks, seated in their chairs.  The problem is that I can’t stop my small group lessons every two or three minutes to correct the children that make poor choices, and without a “home base desk,” there is nowhere to have them sit otherwise.)

Flexible Seating - Before and After - HeidiSongs

Think About WHY the Struggles Are Happening- and See if Any Can Be Eliminated
It is true that children often have a reason for their misbehavior. I am no child psychologist, that’s for sure! But I have read a lot of great books on the subject, (here’s my favorite by Ronald Mah) and I know that many of the behaviors that appear to be designed to make a teacher’s life miserable are actually a cry for help from the child.

This is my favorite book on behavior management, by Ronald Mah. ALL of his books are EXCELLENT. I especially like listening to him speak in person! Come to the CKA Conference each January to hear him live.
This is my favorite book on behavior management, by Ronald Mah. ALL of his books are EXCELLENT. I especially like listening to him speak in person! Come to the CKA Conference in January to hear him live. He is usually a speaker there.

The question is, is it possible for the teacher to help the child resolve the problem? For more on this topic, see this outstanding blog, Teaching Through Turbulence, written by a teacher named Heather who has taught classes for emotionally disturbed special needs children for MANY years. This blog is GOLD! Here are some of my favorite posts:

Recognizing Triggers

Behavior Management Linky (Recognizing the Functions of Behavior)

This chart is from the blog Teaching Through Turbulence, and is an excellent example of how you can look for the function or cause of the behavior and try to fix the problem THAT way. It's perfect, if you can manage it!
This chart is from the blog Teaching Through Turbulence, and is an excellent example of how you can look for the function or cause of the behavior and try to fix the problem THAT way. It’s perfect, if you can manage it!

(The question of WHY this is happening is always important, and one I have been looking into and working with, as always!)


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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
  1. Thanks for your honesty and for sharing your experiments in training this difficult group to work productively. It is encouraging to hear that ALL of us have classes from time to time that nearly drive us out of teaching, and that with persistence and courage we can not only survive, but ultimately, thrive!

    • Thank you! It can be hard to admit that we are struggling, but even after 27 years in the classroom, this group has given me problems I’ve never before experienced. Perhaps it’s because they are older? But I know that last year’s teachers also struggled.

  2. Thank you for the post! I too have a very complicated class this year! We are only day 19 in to the year together, and I have found that every year, following the approach of Dr. Marvin Marshall has been very beneficial! Here is a link to his website…. I also love receiving his newsletter, and have bought his book! He came to our district a number years ago and I was hooked…

  3. I am interested to know with the chips, do you give a reward when each table fills their jar, or is it just a visual reminder to stay on task and knowing that your jar is getting fuller is it’s own reward? I have a crazy group of Kinders this year and have been toying with doing something like this but struggle with the idea of rewarding them for behaviors that are expected.

    • Hi, Tanya,
      Yes, I TOTALLY understand what you mean about rewarding them for behaviors that are expected. I struggle with it. too.
      This is what I did with the chips in Kindergarten. At each center, when the children sat down, I would put one poker chip or token in front of them. If a child was misbehaving during that center time, I would ask that child or those kids to bring me their chips, and I would put those back into my pot. At the end of each center rotation, whomever still had their chip would put it into their group’s container. The children would compete to see which group had the most chips. The group with the most chips got to go out to recess first. That meant that they were then the first ones to get the balls and best sand toys! This was enough of a reward in itself for the children, so most of the time, nothing else was necessary. However, for the kids that would just talk and talk incessantly, taking away the chip didn’t change much. They just lost their chip and got frustrated and gave up. Their group tended to lose all the time. So the groups that had the children with the most behavior problems typically tended to lose. This was the biggest problem with the system. I had to have individual contracts with those types of kids to keep them accountable for their own behavior. I think that with kids like that, it’s often a matter of simple immaturity, ADHD, or insufficient discipline at home that causes it (or all three, a triple whammy!)

      We would often use a balance scale to weigh the chips rather than count them, and that was exciting for the kids, too. They really liked the use of the balance scale, and it was often quicker than counting the chips aloud in front of the kids. It helped that the balance scale had transparent cups.
      I hope that helps!

  4. I have been thinking about you ever since I read your blog post about your change to flexible seating and have been meaning to respond. I admire you and your teaching from what I’ve seen on your blog and have purchased some of your DVDs to use with my kindergarten class.
    I started teaching in 1980 and have had a few “teacher killer” classes in my time, but I have noticed a definite change in kids lately that I call the “new normal .” When the grade one teacher asks me “Is it normal for a grade one student to……..?” I say no, but it is the “new normal.” More students now come to me with poorer language, fine motor and social /emotional skills than they did 5 years ago. It especially hit me a few years ago when 17 out of 35 kindergarteners failed the speech screen and were put on the speech/ language caseload. This puzzled and worried me, as I had never encountered so large a percentage of children with delays. Then in June of that year I was driving to school and the radio DJ said “Happy Birthday to the iPhone. It turns 5 today!” I thought SO DID MY KINDERGARTENERS! I guess there’s no app to replace actually talking and interacting with your children (instead of your phone?.)
    So now these children come to school, and we expect them to be “21st century learners” . It has been my experience that these little humans need the same thing that 1st century learners needed– love, security and a sense of belonging. It reminds me of what Harry Wong was saying in the early ’80s. From the first day of school children need their own space. I find this to be especially true for the increasing number of children with anxiety disorders. This is the primary reason that I am going on the record to say that flexible seating will be a fad…another swing of the education pendulum.
    I am blessed to have a large kindergarten room where I can have cozy nooks, as well as tables and chairs for each child to have their own space to work and eat. I do offer Hoki seats, a rocking chair, and wiggle cushions in the circletime area, but we do our “written ” work at our tables. During the first days of school, I observe where and with whom the children sit as they choose their own spots. I also notice the anxiety that some children experience when they don’t know where to sit. Then when I label the tables with their names( separating children who don’t work well together), it is a calmer, less stressful experience for the children to get down to work….not to mention quicker ?. Which of us would not be uncomfortable going into a restaurant and be told to just choose a spot on the floor…unless it was a Japanese restaurant haha. Or going into a crowded conference session and having to search out a seat?What if you came to school each day and had to find a classroom to teach in because someone else got yours?
    I would not be surprised if school was the only place my students were expected to sit in a chair at a table. I do know that the thing that excited my kinderkids most about going to grade one was the opportunity to have a desk….their own personal space ,especially after having to share a table in kindergarten. It is a rite of passage and a lesson in responsibility to have a desk and keep care of it.
    Sorry for the rant, not just because I’m Canadian?, but this is a topic I feel strongly about. When does offering alternatives actually turn into enabling behaviours? I let go of the pendulum years ago and do what I know is right for the little humans that I am entrusted with. Play in kindergarten anyone ??

    • Dear Bonnie,
      What a thoughtful response! I loved it! Thank you for taking the time to write it and share. I, too, used to have a beautiful, large Kindergarten room with tables for all, just as you describe. I never had desks in Kinder and never missed them. But I have to say that once I put the desks back into my room with my second graders, things IMMEDIATELY improved!

      I wish that more of them had better self regulation skills, and but I cannot say if more playtime in K would have produced that. Maybe, but it also depends on the skill and techniques of the Kindergarten teachers. You can’t just sit back, let them play, and find them magically on grade level with great social skills at the end of the year. You have to be determined to teach that THROUGH play, which is a different thing entirely- at least in my opinion!

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