Substitute teachers have it tough. They often encounter classrooms where there are one or two kids who are experts at pushing buttons and displaying the dreaded “sub behavior” in general.
The best techniques are the same ones that truly effective classroom teachers use, but the sub has some handicaps:
First, the regular teacher may not be controlling behavior at all. It would be much easier if you could simply step into a functioning classroom management system, but unfortunately, a substitute teacher must bring the management with her.
Second, the classroom teacher may never have set any expectations regarding behavior while she’s gone. Likewise, the students may never have faced consequences for the behavior they exhibit while a sub is there.
Many teachers simply write off sub time as if it never happened, regardless of what behavior was exhibited. In essence, they blame the sub.
So, what can a guest teacher do when there are those extremely challenging kids in his or her classroom? Even kids with a diagnosis that affects their behavior?
Be prepared for what you might face
Your first stop in a new building is always the office. Ask if there are special needs children in the classroom. If you have a child in your room somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, for example, then you must be very aware of that child’s triggers and established methods of regaining control that are already in place.
The process outlined here will help maintain a calm and orderly classroom (which will tend to help these children cope), but you need to know going in if there are any particular pitfalls to be aware of.
The office can also update you on other behavior issues or recent developments, plus advise if there are medication administration or other requirements for any kids.
And while you are in the office…
Ask about available resources
office identifies behavior issues, then ask how they are normally handled. Are there other other classrooms available for “cool down” breaks, for example? Is the principal available?
Introduce yourself to your backups. You don't want the first time you see them to be the moment you are asking them to watch one of your students!
Using the right “teacher voice”
It’s critical that everything I am explaining in this article is delivered in a calm voice and demeanor. We are not “laying down the law.” We are simply explaining how things are going to work.
In fact, at no time during the process of discipline do we raise our voices or assume physically threatening postures (i.e. using our height advantage) to threaten children. Using those methods will put you into exactly the kind of situation that you do not want to be in: contentious and full of ill will.
Such an approach may help you get momentary control of an individual child, but it will destroy the teaching and learning environment for the entire class.
Setting general expectations
There are two levels of classroom management that a sub needs to practice. The first level is setting group expectations that leave no room for misinterpretation. This should be practiced with every classroom, regardless of the presence of individual troublemakers.
Never assume that at any point during the year the children know exactly what is expected of them. You might think of some items would be simple common sense about the way to appropriately behave. But just when you make that assumption, you’ll be surprised or even shocked by children’s behavior that you could have avoided by simply telling them how you expect them to act.
The first set of expectations are explained right after you come in and introduce yourself. These include very broad expectations stated in a very positive voice:
“I know we are going to get along great and learn a lot together because we’re going to listen very respectfully to each other.
“We'll all get a chance to talk, so make sure that when somebody’s talking, whether it’s me or you, the rest of us are listening.”
Be certain to tell the children how excited you are to be there teaching them and that you’ve been looking forward to it all morning since the time you heard that you would be a substitute.
You don’t have to put on fake, over-the-top emotions. Simply be yourself – but be your positive self.
And while you’re at it, smile at them! You might even throw in a conspiratorial wink when you tell them that you brought your favorite read-aloud book that you’ll be sharing with them later when their brains need a break from all the learning you'll be doing together.
So, you get the picture: take just one or two minutes to set those general expectations with your body language, your tone of voice and your positive expectations.
Creating your classroom team
With this approach, you’ve taken very concrete steps to get the kids onto your team. Why? Because your team is an awesome place to be!
You establish yourself as a trusted and engaging adult and elementary kids (whether they want to admit it or not) want to like adults who are in authority. You just have to give them a few reasons to do so.
Make no mistake, creating a classroom team like this will not automatically get your troublemakers on board. But it’s extremely important for managing behavior as you’ll see shortly.
Having 95% of the class on your side will make managing the other 5% much more effective.
Setting specific expectations
The next expectations you set will be any particular items that you like to incorporate into your teaching. For example, if you like to give the kids brain breaks between subjects, you need to tell them exactly what that involves.
So instead of saying, “All right everyone, take a little break for thirty seconds,” with no context, you need to explain up front exactly what you think a little break should look like.
Remember that humans are visual and this is especially true for young children. So you need to show them how a break looks. Give your demo some drama! Sit in a chair in front of the class and make a big deal out of exactly how it looks.
You might feel silly but the kids will eat it up if you explain – and demonstrate – that a little break begins with their toes and works its way all the way up through their fingers stretched over their heads, all the while pointing out never to wiggle into somebody else’s space, and that they should only make a particular sound, such as a raspberry noise with their lips.
You get the idea. If there is something you’re going to be expecting the children to do throughout the day, then you need to set the exact expectation of how it looks and how it sounds.
That way, if somebody is not doing their brain break correctly you can remind them and ask somebody who’s doing it perfectly to demonstrate for the whole class again.
Establish a schedule
Next, give the kids ownership of what’s going to occur during the day. Put a little schedule up on the white board for the kids. Show the different subjects on it as well as when they go to lunch and specialists such as art or music.
Then tell the kids that you may not do things exactly like their regular teacher, but you’re going to do your best to stick to the schedule. Make sure you put your read-aloud up there as well!
Then ask the kids to help you stay on track. And give them the exact words to say if you’re starting to go over little bit or you’re about to miss lunch:
“Mr. Lake, you need to check the white board!”
This whole thing has taken just a few minutes in the morning but you have firmly established:
- Who is in control (a fun person, by the way!)
- What is going to be happening
- That this is going to be an awesome place to spend the day with their new favorite substitute teacher
And then you began your instruction.
Don't be a boring substitute teacher!
Expectations and schedules will only get you so far. No matter how engaging you start off the day, you will lose the kids quickly if you have a command-and-control instructional style.
Remember, keep the lessons short, then support them with individualized instruction. Those little brains need a lot of breaks! It is better to give them smaller doses of learning rather than a big long one.
And keep setting expectations
Again, it takes just a few seconds to set expectations but it can avoid so many issues. Every time your teacher sense tells you that you are about to ask the kids to do something that could deteriorate into bedlam, set those expectations very quickly.
“All right, we are going to wrap up reading and move on to math. So when I say go, were going to quietly put those papers back into our reading folders, slip them into our desks and pull out our math worksheet.”
That took only three seconds, but it told the kids exactly what you expect to see.
If they’re not meeting your expectation, don’t hesitate to say:
“Whoops! Let’s go over that again. Take those folders back out and get your reading paper out. Now this time, this is what I want to see…”
It will take a couple of these do overs for kids to really understand that they need to listen to your expectations and that you expect them to follow them precisely.
Handling group misbehavior
Substitute teachers will find that most of the time, setting expectations and reminding kids of expectations will be enough to get the behavior you want.
This is even true if you have an entire class that is just a little bit on the rowdy side. If you set an expectation and several kids are not following it, then you simply take a seat at the front and say:
“Well, I guess we're going to wait until everybody can follow those expectations.”
And then you shut your mouth and sit.
For regular levels of misbehavior, it will hardly ever take more than fifteen to thirty seconds for the peer pressure of the rest of the class staring and whispering at the offenders get them to do exactly what you want.
Of course, after fifteen or twenty seconds you can you can say:
“I really appreciate those of you who are meeting these expectations. You guys are awesome.”
Handling individual misbehavior
Finally we come to the situation where there is “that student” who is just ready to push every button and turn your instructional day on its head.
The first technique that you need to be aware of is the “step-aside” technique. Essentially, it involves separating a child from their peers for a very short period of time.
Humans, including kids, are like pack animals and do not like to be separated from the group. Separation can be done in a very nonthreatening way. Just ask the student to step aside and tell them exactly where to stand or sit. Not too far from the group! We aren't branding them by sending them to a “naughty corner” as it's not necessary.
Thirty to sixty seconds later, make a quick trip over and have a discussion in a low voice asking what the expectation was and having them repeat it. Then have them explain how they’re going to meet your expectations.
It can take one or two short periods of thinking time for them to finally explain how they are going to be an effective part of the classroom team. And then, in a positive voice, you send them right back to the activity so they can demonstrate that to you.
This step aside technique can often help kids who are having more than the usual trouble controlling themselves. I have more information about it on this page.
But there are times when you’re still going to run into that child who is over the top. Then what do substitute teachers do?
Steps for extreme misbehavior
As a reminder, here's what needs to be in place by this point:
- You've laid the groundwork that there are classroom expectations that you expect to be met.
- You've created (in a short period of time) a group of kids who want to be on your classroom team because you are an engaging teacher.
So when you have that child who’s pushing buttons through their behavior, it’s time to bring the entire focus of the team to bear. Let’s take an example of a child who turns a “wiggle break” into an excuse to launch into an air guitar solo in front of the class.
If you sense that a simple step aside will not work and may only escalate such a situation, it is time to simply state:
“Wow! I think somebody forgot what a wiggle break includes. We’re all going to sit here and wait until John can meet those expectations.”
And then sit and say nothing. It may seem like the longest thirty to forty seconds of your life, but don’t say anything. Simply look at John.
After a minute or so you can congratulate the rest of the class for knowing exactly what to do and sitting quietly waiting for you to keep teaching.
And then you wait again. It won’t take very long for your classroom team to start pressuring John with whispers and stern looks so they can return to the comfortable classroom environment which you have established and that he is disrupting.
Choices are the final step
If this goes on for a minute to a minute and a half and he shows no signs of slowing down, then it's going to be time to move up to the next level. And that level is to explain to John that he has choices.
His choice is that he can stay in the room and meet expectations, or you will call the office so that he can leave the room and meet those expectations with the principal.
Notice this: We are giving choices, not threats. When substitute teachers threaten a kid with only one consequence, the student will feel backed into a corner and will continue to strike back.
However, if you give them a choice (even if the choices aren't really all that different), you have provided a way for them to maintain a bit of control and save face. You have avoided a head-to-head confrontation by taking a bit of an angle – and that makes a huge difference.
Don’t be afraid to follow through if this child chooses to go with the principal. That is the choice they made and the rest of the class will see that that is exactly what happened. You don't ever force a child to a disciplinary step – they choose it.
Subbing is hard work – every day a new set of kids. And what mainly makes it hard is behavior. Follow these steps to establish your presence and get some real teaching done!