Maybe you’re struggling with one class. Maybe it’s all of them.
It might be your first year. It might be your 17th.
Perhaps your students are first graders. Perhaps they’re freshmen.
However you’ve found yourself in SOS mode with a class, we want to say first: We’ve been there. All of us. Even the teacher down the hall or on TikTok who seems to have it all together.
All of our teaching programs told us what to do with a tough class. Document behavior. Call parents. Ask administrators for support. You’ve either tried these with no luck, or your school doesn’t have systems in place to back you up when these interventions fail. That’s not your fault.
There are plenty of great behavior-management solutions that require significant time or training. But when you’re in SOS mode, you don’t have those luxuries. You need simple, practical strategies you can implement overnight to give you control of your class while you re-strategize for the long game.
That’s where we come in. Between our teachers on staff and advice in our HELPLINE group, these were the quickest, easiest, and most effective tips we gathered.
1. Change up the seating arrangement.
Put your surliest and squirrelliest kids in seats that are the farthest apart and facing opposite directions.
If you have students in groups or long rows facing each other, switch it up to have all students facing in the same direction. This way, you minimize students having a reason to be distracted by one another’s sweet faces. Once you have better control over your SOS class, you can readjust the seating arrangement again.
2. Get your main rascals in different classrooms.
Teachers often discover that their biggest stooges are completely different in classes without their friends. However, it’s not always possible (or a good idea) to transfer students to other teachers. But here are workarounds to get them in different spaces, even temporarily:
- For a temporary fix when things get tough, find a teacher who is willing to house one of your rascals while they work in their room.
- Send them to a teacher with a nothing note.
- For rascals who feed off each other’s energy, see if you can get one moved to a different class period of yours (this is, of course, easier at the secondary level).
3. Try this Secret Student strategy.
All you need is a sticky note!
4. Start offering a “Ketchup or Relish” Day.
At the end of each month, students who have turned in assignments and who don’t need to practice age-appropriate behavior can “Relish” their free time. Students with missing assignments or who need opportunities to practice some areas for improvement can “Ketchup” on their skills.
I honestly don’t know which age this would be more effective with: littles or high school seniors?
5. Use timers to transition between activities.
Limiting the amount of time for transitions keeps things from getting too squirrelly. Luckily, it’s very easy to gamify this: “I’m going to see if you can beat my earlier class’s record of 25 seconds to have every student get their journal open to a new page and have a writing utensil in hand. Do you think you can do it?” Here’s our roundup of some great online timers.
6. Start using attendance questions to begin every class on a positive note.
They build community and engagement. Plus, they take up no extra class time!
7. Post any instructions, expectations, and reminders where all students can easily read them.
This cuts down on the number of times you have to repeat directions. Similarly, it makes it very difficult for students to justify being off-task by claiming they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing. Students will inevitably still ask what they should be doing, but you’ll have to say “It’s on the board” exactly twice before your class will respond on your behalf.
8. Check out this Uno strategy.
You can listen to Monica Genta talk about it on her podcast episode starting at 9:15, but here is the gist of it: Each class starts at 100 points, a deadline that you set (I would go with a short deadline at first with an SOS class), and a particular reward. When they meet an expectation, they get to flip an Uno card in the deck for that number of points off their total as they try to get to 1.
9. Have a “reset” day where students work silently while you plan.
When I was a new teacher, I remember worrying that I had to be directly teaching every day. Not the case! Reducing the number of distractions and expectations for a whole class period can restore your confidence and sense of control while you strategize for what’s ahead.
10. Fake it ’til you make it.
Hear me out, because I know this sounds unbelievably eye-rolly.
Years ago, I had a class that I really struggled with. The mutual frustration and bitterness got to a point that was practically palpable when you walked in the room. I dreaded that class, and I know they did too. It was written on all of our faces.
So I decided to begin a social experiment. I decided to pretend they were my favorite class.
When they acted up, I responded with the sense of humor, gentleness, and tenderness that I did with my toddler nephews. When they talked too much, I decided to lean in, set the timer for 10 minutes of “Family Storytime,” and let them have at it. When they pushed things too far, I would say “Brain break!” and we’d take 5 or 10 minutes to get out of our chairs and moving.
Within a week, the mutual affection was actually genuine. They were still squirrelly and definitely pushed boundaries, but in a way that was actually manageable now. I’m glad I had a student teacher that year as a witness to the turnaround, otherwise I wouldn’t believe it.
Sometimes you need to crack down on rules and expectations with a class. But other times, everyone might just be stuck in a negative feedback loop. Try it and see what you think—there’s science behind it!
11. Listen to this teacher explain the clipboard strategy he swears by.
I wish I’d known this when I was in the classroom!