Effective Classroom Behavior Management Strategies for Substitute Teachers

I’ve read plenty of books on Classroom Behavior Management and tried plenty of strategies, which have not had consistent practical success for me. The problem I have discovered is that most of these materials were written for teachers who have day-to-day interactions with the same students. I have been fortunate enough to have had a few “long term” assignments and saw how classroom management works well when you are able to demonstrate consistency by providing both negative and positive reinforcement on a daily basis.

Students will misbehave for substitute teachers even if they respect and sometimes because they respect their classroom teacher. Students in all grade levels can have separation anxiety when their respected teacher is gone for the day — which may cause them to act out or they may elope from the classroom by asking for a bathroom break and never returning. Students are taught early about “stranger danger”, have routine “active shooter” drills and consequently have trust issues with a strange adult barking orders at them. Behaviors such as ignoring the substitute teacher, and running away from the substitute teacher are caused by mistrust, anxiety, and fear.

Don’t be upset or embarrassed if you have misbehaving students as a substitute teacher. This is expected and normal. Nonetheless our job (as impossible as it seems) is to maintain an environment in which students can learn. This isn’t easy — but it can happen.

When I first trained to be a substitute teacher, I was taught to “never yell”. As soon as I hit the classroom other subs and teachers told me to “unlearn that fast”. They were wrong. Yelling is an adult temper tantrum, yelling scares kids, and signifies that you are in fact NOT in control. If you find yourself screaming at the top of your lungs — take a step back and figure out a logical plan of action. Adult temper tantrums require adult timeouts.

The most effective behavior management starts with students all working on an activity which holds their interest. I hate seeing lesson plans that say “have students login into such-and-such on their laptops and complete assignment”. It’s a recipe for failure as there is no way for the sub to check to see if the work is being done, there is no academic interaction between the sub and students, and the students would likely rather be doing something else — and they will. I like getting lesson plans that have me playing a game of academic “term” BINGO with students, or another activity that involves learning, is fun, and interactive. I might still have to deal with a few misbehaving students but, I won’t have to deal with a completely out of control classroom.

Substitute teachers are expected to follow lesson plans. It is the responsibility of the classroom teacher to provide a lesson plan that is fun, engaging, and takes up the class hour. It’s the administration’s responsibility to see that this happens. It’s your responsibility to let the administration know if it is not happening as this is the most crucial element needed to do our job effectively.

Seating charts are the second most crucial item needed for behavior control. Most teachers have already separated the students who get on each other’s nerves, or team up to cause disruptions. Always check that students are in their assigned seats. If there is no seating chart you must identify and separate the students who routinely disrupt your class.

Providing consistent discipline, and well as a having a pleasant attitude will also make a big impact. Greet each student with a smile and hello as they walk in the door. Use a “Three strikes you are out” system. For example Joey keeps leaning back in his desk. First, explain your expectation in complete terms — “Joey, all four legs of your chair need to be on the floor — this is a school safety rule”. The next time, “Joey that’s strike #2”, and the next time “Joey, third strike — take 5 — take a five minute break at the desk in the corner.” If it keeps happening — move up the ladder of consequences available to you.

[PRO TIP: For talkative classrooms, I suggest using a voice meter (like the smart phone app “Too Noisy”), that provides an immediate correction, and rewards system.]

Substitute teachers should also provide a rewards system for good behavior and make “sub day” a consistently positive experience but, be careful to let let yourself get “walked on” for being a “nice sub”. Be friendly, but firm.

In conclusion, make sure you have a fun and educational lesson plan that fills up the hour, separate troublemakers, be friendly, be fair, be firm, be consistent, try to work at only one school, build trust, choose your battles, use tools, come prepared, have appropriate expectations, evaluate, and revise techniques as needed.

Remember that most misbehavior is not intentional and is caused by stress, fear, and anxiety. A strange adult appearing from thin air that attempts to control the classroom while interrupting the routine is often a source of anxiety — especially for the littles.

Today’s students have not known an existence without on demand information and entertainment. For most students, school can’t compete for their attention. Boredom has always created mischief.

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