The Secret to Classroom Management—No Matter Where You Teach

Our students—like all of us—are often facing invisible challenges. Empathize first, and the rest will follow.

The Secret to Classroom Management

I’ve been teaching middle school for 12 years. I’ve been in an urban school in which 99 percent of students receive free lunch for nine of those years. And I’ve tried a lot of classroom management strategies with varying degrees of success.

I’ve tried policing the small stuff so I wouldn’t have to deal with the big stuff. I’ve tried establishing classroom procedures and sticking to them, but I can never remember if two fingers raised means a student needs to use the restroom or has a question. I set up a positive reward system and gained five pounds from fun-size Hershey bars.

These strategies work well for some teachers I know, but here’s the secret I’ve found for effective classroom management. You ready? It’s pretty simple.

Always default to compassion.

A kid shows up late. “Everything okay? We missed you.”

A kid doesn’t have his homework for the fourth time this week. “Hey, is something going on that’s making it hard for you to get your work done? This is really important, and I want to make sure you’re able to do what you need to do.”

A kid throws a tantrum in class. “Wow, you’re really struggling with self-control. Can you tell me why? Are you hungry or tired?”

Starting with compassion increases the odds that you’ll find out what’s really going on.

A couple of years ago, one of my girls stopped doing her homework and paying attention in class. As a new teacher, I’d have assigned a detention and hoped that solved the problem.

Instead, I asked her what was going on. I found out that her dad—her sole surviving parent—had been arrested the week before for driving without a license. This seventh grader had been living on her own for close to a week, and getting herself to school on time every single day, but the food was running out and she was hungry and afraid. We bought her groceries and bailed her dad out, and her grades went right back to where they should have been.

Compassion builds relationships with your students.

Taking a more aggressive approach might burn bridges. Will they see you as a sucker? Yeah, it’s possible. But they’ll know that you’re a sucker who loves them and cares about their needs outside of school, and that counts for a lot.

You might worry that defaulting to compassion will encourage kids to make up a sob story to get out of doing their work or behaving. And I’ll admit that this has happened to me once or twice. Last year, a kid explained that he never had his homework because he was in charge of looking after his little brothers at night and putting them to bed, and he didn’t pay attention in class because there was never food for breakfast. We scheduled a conference with his mom. She brought in a delicious homemade breakfast burrito—which he refused to eat because he doesn’t like black beans—and informed us that he didn’t even have little brothers.

As long as you follow up with what the kid claims he or she needs, you’ll generally find the truth. And I’d argue that if you’re going to make mistakes—and you are definitely going to make mistakes—it’s better to err on the side of understanding than to be overly harsh.

We read a lot about the school-to-prison pipeline and the needlessly punitive discipline policies we inflict on our most vulnerable students.

Compassion is the way out. I don’t promise it’ll solve all your classroom management problems, but it’ll go a long way. Treat a kid like a decent person and, more often than not, he or she will act like one.

We’d love to hear—what have been some of the successes and challenges you’ve experienced with classroom management? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, classroom management strategies that work.

The Secret to Classroom Management—No Matter Where You Teach

Posted by Elizabeth Peyton

I teach at a small urban middle school for refugee and immigrant kids. I spend all day with the most challenging, hilarious, exhausting group of people I can imagine, and I'm extremely grateful for it!


  1. Kristine Tolman August 1, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    I taught at a Title 1 school for 19 years and then went overseas. I’ve been in 2 different schools/2 different countries. The schools are private for wealthy nationals. And I have to say, children of “privilege” have many challenges as well. These strategies above will work to build a bond as well.

  2. sharnette straker January 23, 2019 at 10:49 pm

    I work in the high school setting. One of the things I learned is that you have to pick your battles. I like your techniques because oftentimes, children in urban schools come to school with many problems from home. If you lean on the side of compassion, you will not only save yourself lots of headaches, but you might build a relationship with the student who feels that you care about them. In return they will care about you and themselves, and this might lead to more learning, and less discipline problems in the classroom – the ultimate goal.

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