How do I manage the classroom?

My class is bouncing off the walls and acting out, and making jokes about the material all the time. They can’t focus or pay attention. I just don’t think they’re mature enough for this. What should I do?

This kind of question is most frequently asked about 7th graders in an Our Whole Lives for Grades 7-9 program. Here is some of the wisdom from the OWL-L email discussion group on this topic. (Note: many of these suggestions require more than two facilitators.)

Examine your assumptions about what it looks like for a person to “pay attention.”

Some people need to focus their attention on more than one thing in order to stay engaged. Make the ground rule that participants can do what they need to do to keep them engaged, as long as they are not distracting or disturbing other participants.

Respect participants’ dignity and their right to make their own decisions:

  • Make a class covenant in the beginning of the program, in which participants list what is acceptable behavior and what is not. When there are problems, ask if their behavior is consistent with the group covenant.
  • Allow participants to self-select a short break if they can’t focus. Let them leave the circle, go out into the hall, and do what they need to do to refocus. It’s best if another facilitator can be available to make sure they’re not “refocusing” in destructive ways. If the group knows anyone has the option to take a break when needed, it feels less punitive if a facilitators asks if an individual needs a break. Some participants may want to sit or lie on the floor outside the circle but within earshot.
  • Rather than scolding or criticizing behavior, use, “When you … I feel … because …” statements, so they know why the behavior is a problem. Saying, “[Name], I’m having a hard time hearing [Other Name] when you’re having a side conversation,” will likely have a better effect than, “Can we stop with the side conversations, please?”

Incorporate structures that allow participants some control over the flow of conversation:

  • Use a “talking object”—where only the participant holding the object may speak. Ideas for objects include a beanbag or plush stuffed owl toy.
  • Use the anonymous question box for feedback. Ask the participants if they think things are OK or if they’re too chaotic, and what they would do to improve the situation.
  • Use a bell or chime, rather than shouting over them, to bring participants back to focus.

Give more focused attention:

  • Have a facilitator who is not leading an activity sit next to or between two participants who are having a side conversation.
  • If you have a big class, use smaller groups for activities. You can choose whether or not to re-gather and have the small groups report back to the large group.
  • It’s hard for anyone, especially young adolescents, to sit still for two hours. Make sure you have enough breaks built into each session, particularly after more “difficult” material. Make sure there’s space for active movement during a break. Add an occasional game such as elbow tag. It may be worth extending your meeting time a little in order to add more breaks.
  • Invite participants to help facilitate sessions by doing readings, offering chalice lightings, or writing lists on newsprint during brainstorming sessions. Participants will be more engaged if they are a critical part of the session’s activities.

Attend to different learning styles and needs:

  • If you have a very physically active group, incorporate more physical activity into some of the sessions. For example, you could add movement to a values continuum by inviting participants to run across the whole continuum before settling in the place that reflects their values.
  • Enabling fiddling and doodling can channel fidgety energy and help participants pay attention. Have paper and pencils available for doodling, or have clay or beeswax for manipulating.