Choosing Your Battles Carefully


girls talking in class

During every lesson, you are constantly bombarded by stimuli and forced to make split second decisions.  Judy is looking out the window.  Timmy is asleep.  Roger is drawing a picture, and Karen is trying to get the mud off her shoe.  Chloe is listening intently, but across the aisle Theo is unwinding the spiral binding on his notebook.  Tristan heads to the garbage can with the pencil shavings from his pencil sharpener while Kevin is reading a book in his lap.  Which of these students’ behaviors need re-directing immediately?

All the while, you are giving directions, trying to monitor the progress of your students, keeping an eye on the time, and watching, watching, watching your students.

A common question of a novice teacher is “Which behaviors should I react to and which behaviors can I safely ignore?”  As a general rule of thumb, ask yourself these questions:

  1.   Is the student still mentally engaged in what the class is doing?
  2.   Could the student answer a question about content if you were to call upon   him/her?

If your answer to the first two questions is YES, continue to monitor the situation.  You may want to walk towards the off-task student, however.

Now, consider the following three questions:

  1.   Is the student totally oblivious to the lesson/activity that is going on in the     classroom?
  2.   Is the student distracting others?
  3.   Is the behavior going to become even more problematic without re-directing?  (i.e. The student who is unwinding the spiral edge of a notebook appears to be   fashioning a makeshift fishing pole to snag the bow in Twila’s pony tail.)

If you answer YES to the last three questions, intervene.  However, keep in mind that intervening does not necessarily mean calling the child out by name.  Try these steps first:

  • Walk towards the student who is not paying attention or is not on task.  Stand near his desk/work area.
  • Use the student’s name in the lesson.
  • Call upon the student to help you with something.  For example, send the student to the board, have him hold a poster, have him demonstrate how to focus a slide on a microscope.
  • Ask the student a question…not a “gotcha” question to point out that he/she is not listening, but rather one that will redirect his/her attention.

Unless there is a safety issue or a blatantly disrespectful action, try to keep the lesson moving without calling out each student who is off task.  Every time you stop the lesson to correct misbehavior, time is lost.  Choose your battles carefully.  You are the person who defines the classroom atmosphere.  For the sake of continuity and peace, be proactive rather than reactive!