11 Time-Tested Classroom Management Strategies  for Elementary Counselors

By: Neeti Sarkar

Let's face it. We're licensed professional school counselors, not trained teachers. And yet, somehow, a good amount of our day is spent in the classroom teaching guidance lessons. I'm not sure about you, but grad school didn't prepare me to 'teach'. It was only when I was thrown into the deep end that I had no choice but to learn, through innumerable cycles of trial and error, the basics of classroom management.

Almost 10 years on the job (the first six spent as a K-12 counselor) and I still cannot say I've 'mastered' classroom management, but I'd like to think I have come a long, long way since almost visibly tearing up in an unruly Grade 10 classroom where two well-built and (eventually) empathetic 15-year-old male students took it upon themselves to get the class to quieten down and listen to me!

When I moved into the role of Primary School Counselor at my current workplace, about 2.5 years ago, I thought to myself classroom management would be a walk in the park, what with having only 15 students (as opposed to 50 in my previous school) all between the ages of 3-12. How wrong I was! There was so much still to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

If you can relate to anything I've just said and are still looking for strategies you could use, here are some tried-and-tested ones that work for me.

1. Ensure you have a well-planned lesson

making lesson plans

Considering we are not classroom teachers and might have only weekly/monthly lessons with all students, it is imperative to plan a lesson that is thorough. In my experience, the key elements of a good lesson are a hook or a provocation (this could look like an icebreaker, a mindfulness activity, or even a scoot game or a read-aloud related to what I plan to teach), the lesson itself (I tend to use SEL books, videos, and usually have a short Google Slides presentation for explicit teaching), an application/practice component (role plays, discussion cards, sorting games), and a reflection element (a Kahoot, exit ticket, survey, craft, or journaling).

Account for all the time that you have so you can use and manage your time effectively. Make sure to also either carry the supplies you need for your lesson or arrange for it with the homeroom teacher in advance.

2. Set Expectations and Routines

How does your lesson start and end? I find that using a mindfulness activity at the start of the lesson, especially if it is after recess, is a great way to get students to settle down and pay attention. Does the class have a set of rules/expectations? Either go over these before you begin your lesson or make sure to have your counseling-specific class expectations modeled and reviewed. A visual schedule works wonders. I used to think kids enjoy suspense and surprises, until I realized they thrive on routine, and knowing what they're going to be doing next helps them stay more calm, focused, and less anxious.

3. Incorporate Movement

In my school, a period lasts 60 minutes, and that is a L-O-N-G time for littles to sit still. I've observed that 15 minutes at a stretch is the maximum time I'm able to have students sit and pay attention, following which there needs to be a transition - working in small groups has proven to work wonderfully, across grades. Make sure to give your kiddos brain breaks. 'Simon Says' and 'Freeze Dance' are a crowd favorite during my lessons.

4. Plan Transitions Well

hour glass

Have you also noticed that it is between two activities that things can get a bit out-of-hand. Be it moving from the carpet to the desk or from indoors to outdoors, I prefer using signals (a bell or music) to let students know we will be moving on to another activity. It's important to give students 30 seconds/a minute to wrap up whatever they are already doing so the transition is smooth and seamless. I also love using a sand timer to give students a visual of the time allotted or remaining for a specific activity. With a countdown clock or a sand timer, kids are usually more aware of the time and are generally on task.

5. Get to know your kiddos

Fist bump

Knowing students by name is one trick that will go a long way, especially when it comes to managing classroom behavior. As soon as I enter a class, I make sure to greet students by name, individually, if possible. It could be complemented by a handshake, a fist bump, a high-five, or just a sincere smile. When students see you take a personal interest in them and their lives (they love it when you ask about their pets/dreams/vacations), they are more likely to comply when asked to follow classroom norms.

6. Use a Call Back

Call backs are great before providing further instruction or initiating transitions. This was something I learned only when I started working with elementary students, and in my opinion, it is easily the most underrated classroom management strategy. '1-2-3 eyes on me, 1-2 eyes on you' works really well with my first graders. A more rhythm based call back is what my second graders are familiar with. The kindergartners I have this year use a clap-based call back, and to keep it uniform, I use it with them too.

7. Get on their level

students sitting on the floor

One of the biggest mistakes I made, and for a long time, was getting students to sit on the carpet while I would stand and teach. With me towering over them (short as I am), it didn't quite create a collaborative space. Sitting with students at their desk or joining the circle on the carpet are small tweaks that are bound to make a difference in the classroom.

8. Keep it short

school counseling activity

Another area which has been a challenge for me is keeping my instruction/teaching time short. Kids get bored and restless, and you can't really blame them, especially if there is more monologue and less movement. No matter the activity, try not to keep the same one going for longer than 15 minutes. This is especially hard because often your lesson is so meaty or the curriculum you have to cover is a lot or you don't have enough time for a follow-up lesson soon enough. As one veteran homeroom teacher advised me, 'Utilize the great resources that you have, differently. It need not all be direct instruction.' I'm trying it and it seems to be working!

9. Mix it up

Providing differentiated instruction and learning experiences is what makes our classrooms more inclusive. Make sure to have a lesson plan suited for different levels (academic, required skills, and language) of students. Knowing your students' learning styles will help you plan effective classroom lessons and thereby better manage negative behaviors in the classroom. From videos and SEL books, to craftivities and movement-based activities, there are a number of different elements you could use to make your lesson more engaging.

10. Encourage group work

Collaborative learning is powerful. When students work in small groups, they are put in a situation where they need to learn to socialize better, listen actively, consider others' viewpoints, and work together towards a common goal. Assigning roles or tasks within the group helps each member stay focused and engaged. From role plays and sorting activities, to escape rooms, there are a number of interesting ways to promote working in small groups.

11. Have a Calm Corner/Peace Corner

This is one strategy I advocate for big time. Having a calm down corner in your office is important but having classrooms replicate or recreate their own calm corner in their own space goes a long way in classroom and behavior management. That said, it is imperative to teach students (and teachers) how to use this space effectively.

With all these tips and tricks enlisted here, it might seem like I have my act together, all day, everyday. But the truth is, much like anyone else, I don’t. And like Robert Frost said, I too have “miles to go before I sleep”!

About the author: Neeti Sarkar is a Primary School Counselor at an IB school in Bangalore, India. Over the span of almost 10 years, she’s worked with students aged 3-18, but enjoys working with the littles the most. Neeti’s also a seasoned journalist, so when she isn’t making behaviour plans, teaching guidance lessons, and supporting her school community in various other ways, she makes time for her other passion- writing.

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