How do you deal with misbehaving ESL students?

Dealing with disruptive behavior in the ESL classroom can be a frustrating experience, but it is important to learn how and when to deal with it to ensure your classes run as smoothly as possible. If you only teach adult learners you should not have too many problems to deal with other than minor issues such as time keeping, etc. However, in young learner classes the potential for disruption is much greater, with a wide range of potential behavior to deal with. If left unaddressed small issues can grow into bigger problems, but with a bit of knowledge and experience most teachers are able to confidently deal with any problems and keep the class running efficiently.

Different types of bad behavior

What one teacher considers to be bad behavior might not be an issue in another teacher’s class, as we all have slightly different views on how vocal or active our classrooms should be. However, there are a wide range of issues that can cause clear disruption to an ESL classroom that need to be highlighted and dealt with to ensure the best results can be achieved by all members of the group.

Bad behavior can be broken down into different levels of severity, starting with borderline issues. Some teachers might consider some or all of the following to be bad behavior, while others will be more lenient. In some cases the individual school will set the rules on this type of issue, while in others it is entirely down to the teacher:

  • Not standing or sitting straight
  • Laughing at inappropriate times
  • Wearing inappropriate clothes or jewelry
  • Showing rebellious, sullen or bored expressions
  • Staring out of the window
  • Doodling when the teacher is speaking or during activities
  • Not using polite language when asking for things

The issues above are unlikely to be deemed serious in many school environments, but they might go against local policy or simply annoy you into dealing with them. If you have students who regularly indulge in any of the above you will probably need to deal with them at some stage.

In the middle category of disruptive behavior you have a range of issues that might not cause major disruption, but can slow up the class and have a negative effect on other students and the overall performance of the group:

  • Practical jokes
  • Making inappropriate noises (rocking chairs, etc.)
  • Speaking in their own language when they should be using English
  • Deliberately going slow
  • Not doing homework
  • Making rude noises
  • Not listening
  • Cheating in games
  • Not following instructions
  • Speaking when should be quiet

In the final category we have a few specific behaviors that can cause major disruption to the class and have a negative impact on other students. These types of behavior must be dealt with as soon as possible to avoid things getting out of control:

  • Refusing to follow the teacher’s instructions
  • Cheating in tests
  • Saying hurtful things
  • Using swear words
  • Vandalism
  • Fighting
  • Making violent threats to students or the teacher

Dealing with bad behavior

When faced with bad behavior in the classroom it is important to deal with things quickly and as they happen, so every student knows what is acceptable and what is not. If you ignore disruptive issues you are not only making things worse for yourself in the long run, you are also doing the rest of the group a disservice as their learning will be impacted. Choosing the correct punishment to hand out in any given circumstance is important as children are very good at assessing whether it is appropriate or not. If the sanction is too soft, the child in question will likely continue their behavior. Too strong and they might push back as they feel hard done by. The following is a list of potential sanctions a teacher can impose on an individual or the whole class, starting with the least harsh:

  • Look at the students disapprovingly
  • Use the “hands up” instruction: All students must raise their hands and be silent. Hands can only come down once control has been regained
  • Countdown from 5 to 0
  • Deduct team points
  • Call out the name of the misbehaving student
  • Move the student away from their friends
  • Rearrange the whole class seating arrangement
  • Disqualify their team from the game
  • Point to the door (indicting that they will leave the room if they continue to misbehave)
  • Stop the game and move onto written work
  • Talk to the student after class
  • Send the student out of the class for 5 minutes
  • Tell the school’s head teacher
  • Tell the student’s parents

Rewarding good behavior

Although it doesn’t always work out as planned, rewarding good behavior can go some way to avoiding misbehavior in the classroom. Your school might have something in place already, or you might be free to set your own rewards, such as:

  • Give teams not misbehaving extra points
  • Keep the same teams for several lessons and give a prize to the winning team
  • Put stickers on a wall chart for good work/behavior
  • Praise good work/behavior
  • Point out the best student or team
  • Give a round of applause
  • Use positive gestures (thumbs up, victory signs, etc.)
  • Assign class captains (sometimes assigning a misbehaving student as a captain is effective)
  • Give badges for “The best at …” (spelling, pronunciation, giving answers, etc.)
  • As a reward when the class is good play a favorite game
  • Give out candies or small toys (if allowed)

Managing behavior

The following are a few tips you might want to try in order to maintain good behavior in your class. By following some of these you should have less need to resort to punishments in the first place:

  • Be consistent. The boundaries need to be clear and never change
  • Make sure students (and parents) know what you consider to be good and bad behavior
  • Start with a blank slate once a student has been punished
  • Do yourself what you expect your students to do
  • Teach a lesson on good behavior
  • Have clear gestures and phrases for things you want your students to do (ensure they are understood)
  • Play games where good behavior is encouraged
  • Manage energy levels
  • Make sure your lesson is fun
  • Bond with your students (e.g. find common interests, give nicknames, remember birthdays, etc.)
  • Plan classroom management into your lesson plan
  • Think about why some students misbehave and experiment with ways to change this

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