keeping students busy is fundamental to having a positive, productive classroom atmosphere
Tips for School & District Administrators

4 Keys to Developing a Positive, Productive Classroom Atmosphere

By Brian Gatens
keeping students busy is fundamental to having a positive, productive classroom atmosphere

A positive, productive classroom atmosphere — along with high expectations and good communication — is a “tent pole” for your work with students.

It’s tempting to focus on creating a happy place where the kids like the teacher and vice-versa. Yet what seems positive at first glance can turn negative if classroom time isn’t helping everyone (including the teacher) to grow. Sometimes a shared mediocrity creeps into a classroom: An unspoken agreement that the teacher won’t make the class too difficult, and in exchange the children agree to behave and everyone floats along together. Obviously, you don’t want that, either.

Let’s look at the key components of a positive and productive classroom:

Productive ‘busy-ness’

By this I don’t mean busywork — the worksheet, round-robin reading, group homework completion — but rather work that is engaging and student-focused, challenging the children to use new knowledge or skills. Examples include:

  • Problem-based learning units.
  • Developmentally appropriate reading and writing pieces.
  • Extended projects that help them to build knowledge, rather than just memorize stuff.

It’s easy to identify these classrooms. The class is abuzz with the noise of work — children speaking to each other, sometimes disagreeing and working it out, and making out-loud decisions about how to proceed. It’s the same noise you hear when teacher teams are writing curriculum or designing new units of study.

So, yes, a noisy classroom isn’t always a bad thing. I’ve been to quiet classrooms that look serene on the outside but aren’t helping the children grow as learners and class members.

Minimal downtime

The old expression that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” still applies today. Anyone left with too much time on their hands is prone to get in trouble, make bad decisions and waste time.

Teachers need to limit transition time during the day by creating a schedule filled with important and valuable work, posting that schedule either online or in the classroom, and paying attention to when the students are getting restless during the day. When I was a middle school vice principal, I learned quickly that disciplinary situations often erupted when the children were sitting around with time on their hands.

Purposeful breaks

Don’t forget that children are people too, affected by the same work/break/work cycles as the rest of us. If you bring an ethic of productive busy-ness into your classroom, be prepared to alternate the more intense student-centered work with breaks that give them a chance to rest and recharge.

Try to make this an automatic part of your class (where age and developmental needs allow) by having the children take breaks as needed while keeping an eye out for the infamous wandering student. I once visited a high school where the principal expressed frustration at students who took multiple breaks but still earned solid grades.

Work hard to fill your class with experiences that the students don’t want to miss. An engaged child, not bored and looking to get out of the classroom, doesn’t want to leave if given the option.

Mix of groupings

Just as students need to work alone from time to time, they also need to be assigned to groups. Random selection of grouping, perhaps with a little nudge from you to ensure equality, is the best way to go.

As eventual adults, your students will have to work with all types of personalities, and now is the time to learn that social skill. If there are significant issues between students, avoid putting them together — you’re not going to force them to become friends. Instead, be deliberate in how you group students together.

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