Controlled-Chaos Classroom Management for Learning Centers

There’s nothing quite like the feeling in the pit of your stomach when an administrator walks into your classroom while some students are sprawled on the floor with markers and others are in the back practicing their presentations, all the while you are trying to get a student’s slideshow to work on the Smart Board. While this is what an active, creative learning center looks like, it isn’t always clear from an outsider’s perspective how all the chaos is aligned to standards and if the mess is actually indicative of learning. Here are five tips to help everyone (even an unannounced visitor) see the magic in the moment:


Daily learning goals

Every single day, post your daily learning goal. This is what your goal for the class actually is—not just a standard to post. It can say, “Today’s DLG is to complete projects,” or “Today’s DLG is to interview classmates for our project.” Then you need to explain the goal to the class so students not only understand it but also are able to explain it to a visitor if necessary. If an administrator asks one of your kiddos, “What are you doing?,” the student should be prepared to respond with something like, “Our daily learning goal is to finish interviewing our friends. We are doing that so we can put our results into a spreadsheet for our presentations.” Practice this with your students from the beginning, and they’ll be ready to share your daily learning goals with others.



Students frequently need reminders about your classroom expectations. Instead of repeating my expectations, I like to post my CHAMPS, so only a cue is needed. I post it on my Smart Board on any day that students will be working independently. Here’s an example during a recent project:

If a student is wandering around distracting others, all I have to do is say, “Let’s check our movement everyone.” No one is singled out, but I shoot the offender a friendly nod and raised eyebrows, which they know means “Yes, I’m really talking to you.”


Get their attention NOW

I used to flip the lights and raise my voice to get students’ attention, but I wasn’t successful with either approach. For one, when I flipped the lights, I had to go across the room, which messed up whatever I was trying to do. When I raised my voice, I seemed like a lunatic, trying to praise students’ efforts while screaming it. It sends weird mixed messages.

I was chaperoning my daughter’s third-grade field trip when I picked up the best method for getting students’ attention: NOW. I listened as a teacher clapped once and every kid in the group stopped and clapped twice back. I immediately went back to school and started this with my eighth-graders (you can also try the call-and-response method, but I still feel too self-conscious about that).

When I explain NOW to new students, I warn them that it is lame, but I explain that if they are going to have freedom to move and chat, I have to be able to get their attention quickly, and the room has to be still and silent immediately. Believe me, we practice this until it is second nature. The cool thing about this strategy is that as the year progresses, I ask students to be monitors of the noise, allowing them to own their own environment. Also, when researching or trying a new technology, I teach them to clap when they figure out how to do something we’ve all been working on, like how to add a picture to their Wix website or control the speed of a slideshow. A student will clap, we all clap back, and then the student shares what they have learned. When this happens, you know you’ve created a learning center where students own their own experiences by regulating the atmosphere and sharing what they’ve learned.



With so many students diagnosed with ADHD (approximately 11 percent), and a whole other bunch that might not be diagnosed but certainly fit the bill, it is important to honor what works best. This article explains the reasons why we should be consistent with students who have ADHD, and it is clear that all students benefit when the adults do what they say they will do and attempt to keep things on an even keel. This can obviously be difficult when learning centers are always changing; however, it is easy to keep some things the same. For example, my seat numbers, table names and stations remain the same, even when the activity changes.

This way, when approaching a new activity, students who need a little grounding can at least understand what is being asked of them logistically, even as something different is being asked of them intellectually and socially.


Give students a way out

This one might not sit well with some of you, but it has revolutionized my classroom management in the last several years. When a situation is escalating, give the student a way out. Don’t trap, prod, mock, shame or otherwise back a student into a corner, allowing only one escape from the situation—through fighting you. Always have a back-out plan for students spiraling out of control. Trust me, it is sometimes better to allow students to save face, and then you can handle the problem later, privately. The best advice I’ve ever received about teaching is “don’t pick up the rope,” referring to the tug of war that can happen if teachers and students are publicly pulling in different directions. The fact is, it’s a lose-lose situation. Even if you “win,” you’ve alienated your student and embarrassed him or her (and probably yourself). And if you “lose,” you’ve given the classroom community over to an out-of-control child. Check out this great resource explaining interventions to help stop a situation before it starts.


Share My Lesson also has a great collection of resources to help teachers (new and veteran alike) with classroom management. This collection is a great resource. Additionally, “Peaceful Classroom Management” has excellent user reviews and provides the type of social and emotional-scaffolded structure that benefits all students. Sometimes teachers need data in order to move forward with modification or behavior plans, and these forms are ideal for all students, not just those with special needs. Share My Lesson has searchable options that will help narrow down the plethora of resources. A good idea is to search by grade level, but I also was intrigued by the classroom management resources that were geared toward the arts.

As we enter the new year, it is crucial for us to remember that we are privileged to borrow these children—from different homes, with different expectations and with different family dynamics. Yes, we must “control the chaos” of our learning centers, but don’t forget that  learning is messy, non-sequential and almost always a little loud!