Kid Whisperer: How teachers can achieve a calm, compliant classroom

Dear Kid Whisperer,

I teach fifth grade. I follow your column and website and I know that I will be a better teacher this year because of you, so thanks. Anyway, what is the one piece of advice that you would give a teacher like me who has struggled with discipline throughout his career? What’s the one thing that I need to do that will make this school year easier/better?

— Johnathan


Thank you for your kind words. I am glad to help.

I did not have to think about the answer to your question for a second. There is one easy, simple thing that I do that is more important than anything else that I do to get a calm, compliant classroom. It doesn’t require training. It will make you a significantly better teacher the moment that you resolve to do it. It will make your life easier. It will bond your students to you so that they will actually do what you ask just to please you even if they have never done anything to please anyone in their entire lives.

Here it is.

When your students walk through the door to your classroom, every single one of them gets three things every single day:

  • Eye contact
  • A smile
  • Friendly, safe physical contact

When they leave for the day, every single kid gets these three things again — every single day.

While doing this is not the only method for building relationships with kids, it is the single best and most effective strategy that you can use to quickly and easily bond with students. Building positive relationships with kids is more important than anything else I teach adults. In fact, it’s more important than everything else I teach combined.

So then, how do we do this? Greeting kids exactly the way I describe here is essential. First, absolutely all classroom preparations need to done before your students arrive. You need to be able to portray calm, loving authority the moment your students see you. This cannot be done while fooling with your SMART board or preparing lessons.

Position yourself in the doorway so that you can see into your classroom, you can see into the hallway, and so that your kids can’t sneak by you. Again, calm, loving authority is the name of the game. Have an open stance and a smile on your face as your kids come in. Physically block the door until you have completed your daily greeting. As each kid approaches, extend your hand no more than six inches from your body so that you don’t lose face if a kid is able to squeeze by you and “leaves you hanging.” Model proper hand shaking: look in their eyes and give them a firm handshake with your right hand. If it is appropriate, the child initiates it and it is approved by your administrator, give the child a hug. At that moment, that kid is the only kid in the world. Normal small talk is fine here, but don’t be afraid to throw in some specifics such as, “I notice you wear red a lot!” or “I notice you are usually one of the first ones here.” Kids, especially difficult kids, have a high need to be noticed. For them, we are in a daily race to notice them for something neutral or positive… before we have to notice them for something negative. If we notice them before they act out, they are much less likely to act out at all.

At the end of the day give each kid the same smile, eye contact, and handshake. Again, if the aforementioned conditions are fulfilled, a hug would be great here. Also, be with your kids as long as you can be depending upon how your school dismisses. I stand at the door and shake the hands of my car riders and I walk all of my bus riders all the way out to each of their buses before I say goodbye.

Middle and high school teachers, you may be wondering if you need to greet and say goodbye to your kids at the beginning and end of each period. The answer is yes! A pat on the back or high five may be more practical, but all of the big three need to be practiced every day. There is no better use of your time.

Remember, teachers who don’t smile until Christmas lose their minds by Thanksgiving!

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