I am not someone who would claim to be a classroom management expert. Student discipline is actually one of my least favorite aspects of teaching, so having simple things that I could do to improve my students' behavior is important to me.
After ten years of teaching, what is my number one tip for improving student behavior? Here it is... Ask students frequently, "What are you doing?"
I don't mean when they are doing something that they are not supposed to be doing. I mean all the time. Any time. Random times. Why?
First think about what happens when you typically ask a student that question. Here are some of the most common responses I have heard from my students:
"I'm not doing anything!"
"He's doing it too!"
So why would asking this more often help? I started asking students this all the time, especially when I knew that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Here is an example: I see that a couple of students are doing a great job doing their daily warm up. I walk over and ask, "What are your doing?" At the beginning of the school year, I would get confused looks and sometimes even "I'm not doing anything!" Then I would say, "But you are doing something. You are all doing a great job working on your warm up. Thank you! Great job!" Eventually the students will be used to the idea that when you ask the question, you really mean it. You really want to find out about what they are doing. This gives you the opportunity to praise your students for positive behavior.
The most important result of getting your students comfortable with this question comes into play when they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. Eventually, even the kid who at the beginning of the year would yell or get upset when asked the question, will come to the point that they know they can answer you honestly. So now when you walk up and ask, "What are you doing?" They might actually give you an answer! Back to the students doing their warm ups...
You see that one of your students is not doing their warm up, so you ask the question, "What are you doing?" His reply, "I'm playing with this eraser that my friend gave me last class." So what do you say now? Ask the student "What are you supposed to be doing?" He answers, "My warm ups?"
At this point the problem is likely solved. He knows he is supposed to do his warm ups and that the expectation is that he will get to work. Not only that, the emphasis is on his awareness of his behavior, not on your awareness of his behavior. When students are aware of their own behavior, and your expectation of their behavior, they are more likely to fix it on their own. The issue was solved without escalating the situation, especially with a student who is used to getting in trouble. You got what you wanted and the student was able to save face, very important for the preteen, teenage student.