We’ve all been there: classes that are chatty, rambunctious, and hard to manage or engage. They make every day a challenge, and leave you wondering if teaching is really for you. Some classes are harder to deal with than others, but I have a secret for you that can help you get better at dealing with them. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that it’s the key to classroom management in secondary classrooms.
That may seem like a pretty bold statement, but what I’m about to share is something I learned decades ago in teacher training, and it’s helped me feel confident in my ability to engage and manage a class during my career. There have been times when I struggled, that’s for sure, but those were times when I wasn’t following what I know to be true: the key to managing and engaging a class lies in meeting students five basic needs.
Now don’t click away or roll your eyes, because I’m not talking about meeting every little need for every helicopter-parented child. Instead, I’m referring to the five basic needs that we humans all have, ones that keep us happy and, when we are in school, ready to learn.
Glasser’s Basic Human Needs
According to Dr. William Glasser, everything we do is done to satisfy one of our five basic needs for security, belonging, power, freedom & fun. When any of these needs is threatened or missing, we behave in a way to get it. Sometimes this results in positive behavior, but more often than not it means that a student is acting out or disengaging.
Here’s an overview of how we see these needs in our classrooms:
Classroom Management Key #1: Safety
This need has two components: physiological and psychological survival. Physiologically, we need food and shelter to survive. Psychologically, we also need to feel safe and secure, in the present and in the future.
Therefore, our students need to feel secure both physically and emotionally. When either of these is threatened, they are not ready and able to learn. Many schools have breakfast and lunch programs to help students who are hungry, and bullying and lock-down procedure to help keep students safe. However, there are also things that you as the teacher can do to make your students feel secure in your classroom, things that will let them know that their personal or psychological safety is not threatened.
It may be surprising, but one of the best ways to deal with this need is to set clear expectations for behavior in your class – as well as the consequences for not meeting them (consequences, not punishment). However, I’m not saying you need to create a strict, rigid environment. There are ways you can meet this need for students without doing that. As long as your students know that they can rely on the routines and expectations in your classroom, they will feel more secure in your room.
Take-away: you need to establish clear routines & expectations as well as clear and consistent consequences for not following them.
Classroom Management Key #2: Love & Belonging
We humans are social creatures with a strong need for love and belonging, and because of this, relationships are key to the learning process. That’s why when we think back to our school years, it’s often the people – and the bonds that we formed with them – that stand out the most. You may not remember the math formulas from your algebra class but you will remember that teacher who believed in you and made you feel welcome in her classroom.
The better job you do at making connections with your students and creating a climate where everyone feels welcome, the more engaged your students will be. When students like and respect you, they will want to work hard. Likewise, when they feel a sense of community with their classmates, they are more likely to want to work together.
Take-away: work hard at building and maintaining relationships with your students and a climate where they feel like they belong.
Classroom Management Key #3: Power
The idea of needing power may be seen as negative, as it’s associated with someone who craves control or dominance over others. However, power is also what helps us feel competent, recognized, and respected. Glasser saw three different ways that our need for power shows up in school:
1. Power Over lets us exercise our power over someone or something.
2. Power Within occurs when we feel personal empowerment: we know what to do and how to do it, and this gives us the power to achieve competence and even excellence.
3. Power With comes from working with others to achieve our goals.
When we give our students opportunities to achieve power with and within, we empower them. When they feel this way, they are much less likely to try to take power over someone or something.
You will be quite familiar with these situations: a students tries to feel their need for power by disrupting your class to show that it’s not you who’s in control. They might exert their power by bullying another, by destroying property, or by cheating on an assignment. It’s because of this need that we end up in power struggles with students – struggles where no one ever really wins.
Take-away: structure your lessons and activities so your students can use power with and within to avoid struggles for power over. In other words, show them what to do and HOW to do it and allow them to work together as they learn.
And, when dealing with misbehavior, do so in a way that the student feels like they haven’t lost their power because you’ve exerted yours: “Darius, you’re struggling today. How can I help you?” will go a lot further than “Darius, you’re going to do this or go to detention.”
Classroom Management Key #4: Freedom
This basic need is all about our need for autonomy and choice, and it has two components:
1. Freedom to is about having the ability to make choices. We all want the freedom to decide what we will do, when we will do it, and who we will do it with. In other words, we want options.
2. Freedom from involves 0ur need to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. We’d all like to be free of fear, stress, boredom, discomfort, etc.
This need for freedom is not often met within the structures of school what with all of the things we “must” do, and the standardized tests that many students need to take.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways that we can offer choice to our students. For example, they could choose to work alone or in a group. They can choose the topics for a persuasive essay – or even different formats to be persuasive, like a speech, a blog, or a podcast. And, we can offer freedom from boredom by varying the activities we do in our classrooms.
Take-away: offer students choice whenever you can, so they can choose how they will learn or show evidence of their learning, and vary the structure of your classes.
Classroom Management Key #5: Fun
We all want to have fun and play, no matter how old we are. There’s a great deal of evidence that fun and play are an essential component of learning. That doesn’t mean that everything we do in school has to be one big game or amazing learning experience. Nor do I think that it’s our jobs to be entertaining our students. But, I firmly believe that kids can and do have fun when they are engaged in meaningful learning. (You can read more about my thoughts on that on this blog post )
Take-away: create lessons and activities that get students engaged. These can be critical thinking activities, collaborative work, or group challenges.
This is just a quick overview of how our basic needs are met in the classroom. The details – and lots of strategies, lessons, and resources – are the basis for my course on managing and engaging secondary classes. If you’d like learn more about it, and how to feel more confident managing and engaging your students, check out Creating a Climate for Learning