How to Regain Control of a Difficult ESL Class

There are any number of reasons why a class can get out of control.  Maybe this was the first class you started teaching, when you knew nothing about classroom management; Maybe there are one or two difficult, strong-willed students who have wrenched control from you; Maybe you are struggling with a lack of disciplinary support from your school.

scream and shoutWhatever the reason, even the best teachers can have a class that slides beyond the breaking point and into near chaos.  Every day can feel like a battle, and instead of being able to focus on the students’ learning, it seems like all you can do to get through the class without screaming.

All hope is not lost.  It’s difficult to take control back from a class that is used to acting out and behaving badly, but it’s not impossible.  What it takes is patience, persistence, commitment, and a long-term strategy.  Follow these guidelines for taking back control from a difficult class, and you’ll find things starting to turn around before you know it.

Figure out where things went off the tracks

Was it crazy right from the get-go, was it because you didn’t get off on the right foot, was it a couple of students who you gradually let bend the rules and get out of control?  Taking some time to look back at the class and figure out where things started to go wrong will give you a good starting point for what you need to do to fix things.

Develop a system of clear and fair rules and punishments

This is the first thing you should do when you start a new class; it’s also the first thing you’ll want to do when you re-start a difficult class. Brainstorm the top ten or so rules that you need them to follow, and come up with a plan of escalating punishments for breaking those rules.

Come up with incentives for good behavior

You don’t want your students to be following the rules out of fear of punishment.  There should be rewards for good behavior to motivate them to stick to the rules.

For example, for every ten minutes that the class goes without breaking any rules, give them an extra two minutes of game time at the end of class; or create cool classroom roles like “class leader” or “scorekeeper” that students are only eligible for if they meet behavioural goals.

Make sure that you are consistent and fair with the rewards that you give out, and that you set it up so that every student will have an equal chance to benefit.

Don’t, for example, award coveted jobs like “scorekeeper” only to the best-behaved students.  It will end up being the same few students almost every time, and will only be discouraging to students who are struggling with their behavior.

A better method is to rotate the jobs each class so that every student will potentially have a chance, and if a student has too many disciplinary infractions, they miss their turn.

Recruit the help of school staff and fellow teachers

You won’t be able to do this by yourself. You need to have others on board to support you in turning a difficult class around. Often, you may have to initiate time-outs, or send students out of the classroom entirely. In these instances, you need to make sure that someone is going to watch them.

You also need to know that your administrative staff will stand behind you. If a student starts arguing or pushing back about a punishment, you need to have other staff to back you up.

And nothing is going to undermine your efforts more than if you send a student out of the classroom as punishment and your co-teacher just lets them play on the computers, or if you assign extra homework and the principal says they don’t have to do it.

Ask for help from the other ESL teachers at your school, too.  Sending a misbehaving student to sit in the back of a much younger or much older class, with a teacher that they are unfamiliar with, can be embarrassing enough to make it a great disciplinary tool.

Make classroom management your number one priority

Often, classrooms fall into chaos because teachers will overlook small slights or minor rule-breaking for the sake of letting the class have fun, or so that there is time to finish a lesson. The problem is that students get used to getting away with certain things, and it gradually escalates.

One of the key parts of turning your discipline around is committing to enforcing your rules, no matter what.  It might mean stopping a game right in the middle and erasing everyone’s points, or cutting a lesson short and making the class finish it as homework.

Make it clear to the students that you mean business and are not going to compromise anymore on matters of discipline.

Keep having fun

You will need to be strict and uncompromising at times, but you’re not running a prison camp here. If the class is boring or stressful, sending a kid outside isn’t going to be much of a punishment.

If the students don’t enjoy the games they’re playing in class, giving them extra game time isn’t going to be a very useful motivational tool.  Do everything you can to have fun yourself, and reinforce to the students that you want them to enjoy class.

Keep in mind that your goal is to reset their patterns of behavior so that everyone can learn and have fun in a structured and controlled environment.

Keep trying new ideas

All of these changes will take a couple of weeks or more to settle in, and you might have to try a number of different ideas before the class starts to turn around.  It’s tempting to just throw in the towel and wait until the school year ends.  But that’s not fair to your students – or to your growth as a teacher.

Instead, keep trying new ideas, new rewards, new tools, keep talking with fellow teachers and school staff, and keep pushing the students to help you make their class better.

Maybe the class will always be a challenge to keep control of, but as long as you keep trying, you’ll find that every day will get a little bit better and both you and your students will start to enjoy yourselves.

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