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Tips for Managing Your High-Needs Classroom

Let’s talk about capacity. If you look into the world-weary and sleep-deprived eyes of any educator this year, you’ll realize one truth: meeting the complex needs of each of our students is no small task. As educators in the 21st Century, we are constantly on a quest for the golden mean between individualized curricular plans and teaching densely populated classrooms. We employ technology, standardized testing, creative grouping, and anything else we can possibly imagine that might ignite engagement to make each lesson feel tailored to the kids in our courses. But the differentiation of need is often still just out of a perfectionist’s reach.

And teachers are perfectionists, in the sense that we spend our life’s work finely tuning our practice – always looking to improve, to refurbish, to inspire. Nonetheless, even your most veteran educators struggle with the high demands of the modern education system. Today, Education World examines the kinds of student needs you’re likely to encounter at any academic level, as well as essential tools every educator should have in their pedagogical toolkit to make the sometimes seemingly impossible, very possible.

Student Needs

We’re not going to pretend that we can write a simple article that can problem-solve every type of student need you are going to find in the classroom. Our jobs are nothing if not unpredictable. And yet, if we were to break down the types of “needs” students tend to have in the middle of your lesson that might create barriers to their learning, we could very probably generalize most of them into “behavioral needs” and “academic needs”.

When we say “behavioral needs”, we’re referring to student struggles with some of the soft skills associated with the expectations around “being a student”: listening during a lesson, staying focused during worktime, staying in the chair when appropriate, modulating voice, transitioning from activity to activity, self-monitoring, avoiding excessive distraction, being respectful to the community, and participation. When a student struggles with managing these classroom habits, no matter what the cause or catalyst, it is hard to even begin imagining accessing the higher order thinking necessary to achieve in school.

“Academic needs”, on the other hand, are those specifically tied to understanding of the material: content acquisition and skill mastery. Many of our students also struggle with a wide range of characteristics and unique ways of thinking that can sometimes make the substance of the traditional learning process more difficult to manage.

In many cases, we find that students are often managing a combination of the two.

Regardless of the type of needs your diverse student population is facing, let’s be clear: the first step when you see students not accessing the content and skill you are attempting to transmit in your lesson is to identify what is going on. To truly do this, you need to look at each student as an individual. It’s too easy to try to group a problem together: “this class is struggling with __________”. Unfortunately, this approach never gets to the heart of the many different needs sitting in your class. You have to do you research. For the kids you are concerned about make sure you:

  • Check their docs: IEPs, 504s, grades history, testing scores…everything you have documentation on: What is the narrative here and how might it connect to what you are witnessing?
  • Talk to the student: What’s going on at home? How they are feeling about class? What has their sleep been like? What do they do after school?
  • Reflect on your classroom culture: How is your respect agreement working out? Is your class a rigorous working space?
  • Talk to your horizontal team: What are they noticing with this student in their classes? What’s working for them? What is not working?
  • Talk to the parents: How has the student been at home? Have there been any major changes? What are their concerns? Share what you are noticing.
  • Talk to the support staff (school psychologist, social worker, sped teacher, department head): Is there any information you should know about this student? Do they think a referral is necessary? What do they suggest exploring?

Going through this process for each student you are concerned about takes up a lot of time, but is also going to give you the most effective long-term impact.

But what do I do in class today?

In the meantime, however, you need to make your class period work. Below, find some in-class management strategies to help you best facilitate your high-need classroom, whatever that need may be.

1. Fine-Craft Your Groups: Sometimes, half the battle is how you set the students up in the classroom. Generally, kids get off task when it is too difficult, too easy, not interesting, or if the social dynamics just don’t feel right. Homogenous groupings with differentiated assignments for each crew can help kids to feel competent, yet challenged. Giving working roles to students during group work time can keep them engaged in the task at hand, making sure all members take on responsibility for the product. However you decide to group your students in the classroom, it allows you an opportunity for social engineering a successful lesson well before you even enter the classroom. An ounce of prevention, in this case, is often well worth the pound of cure.

2. Master Non-Verbal Signals: Whether you are dealing with insecurities associated with academic rigor or an otherwise behavioral response to external stimuli, teachers run a very real risk of escalating a distraction by making it public with verbal reprimands. Unfortunately, drawing attention to it often rewards off-task, attention-seeking behavior. Instead, have some non-verbal cues loaded into your classroom culture. Some of these can be for everyone in the class; some can be private communication for a specific student. Some that you might consider include:

  • A whole-class signal for quiet and to refocus attention back to you during work time. We like to use a hand, straight up in the air.
  • A signal to identify a specific noise or habit enacted by an individual student that is disrupting class. We like to point to the source of the behavior, hand extended, palm-side down.
  • A signal to suggest a student take a quick break from work and go for a walk or see support staff.
  • A whole-class signal for being interrupted during a lesson. We prefer folded hands, looking down, and waiting for students to correct the behavior of their peers.

3. Have A Break-Out Space: This is a life-saver. This breakout space could be a single desk in the corner of the room, a front table, a chair in a hallway, or even a messy desk. A space that is separate from the general classroom can do wonders. It can be used for impromptu minilessons to clarify or remediate with a small crew, without the distractions of their peers. It can be used for one-on-one conferencing, whether it is for academic support, revision, or behavioral concerns. It can act as a work space for students that tend to get distracted in their regular seating. For many of us, a temporary change in environment can help us to re-center and re-focus when we are frustrated, overwhelmed, or just need help and support. An all-purpose break-out space can help to facilitate just that.

4. Clarify Your System: Finally, it is absolutely essential that whenever there are behavior issues due to high levels of need, students need to very clearly understand what is okay in your classroom, what is not okay in your classroom, and how you approach discipline and support. If students do not know what to expect from you, it can be incredibly anxiety-provoking and make them feel insecure and unsafe.

What is your academic protocol? If they are struggling in class, where do they get support? What days are you after school? Where can they work quietly? How can they access support during the class period? If students are struggling in the regular classroom environment for any reason at all, they need to have options. It will make them feel supported and valued as a unique individual learner.

What is your behavioral protocol? After the non-verbal signal, what is the expectation if the behavior continues? How many warnings does a student get? At what point will they be expected to leave the classroom for support? Whatever the process is, make sure that your student understand it, and that you are consistent with it. Knowing the next step in the process of consequences allows students some control in the process, which can ultimately curb disruptive behavior.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.