10 Ways to Stop Sending Students to the Principal

“I wish I could just get my students to behave!”  Does this sound all too familiar?  It’s a common issue we face as educators, and let’s face it, parents too.  The rules are all too clear.  Why is it that the kids can’t just follow them?  We feel frustrated and angry, and sometimes we truly believe that one “difficult child” is just out to get us.  The truth is, sometimes that is completely accurate.  So what’s the solution?  Give students more responsibility for their behavior.  This article is part of our series on How to Become an Educational Superhero. 
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Now, on to avoiding the principal’s office:
1. Introduce Must-Haves

What are must-haves? They are the goals you have for your classroom.  Come up with 3-5 must-haves on your own that you desire for your classroom.  Think of it as your classroom mission statement.  You want all students to learn right?  That’s a must have.  Many of us
like to create a positive environment.  That is a must have.  Bullying?  Not on my watch.  Kind friends are a must-have in my classroom.  You get the idea.  The key is to get your students on board, so find goals they will likely agree with.  Make this list and discuss it with your students.  Then ask them what types of behaviors lead to achieving these must-haves.  You can write them down to post in the room without using the word “rules.”

  • Assignment idea-have each of them write a
    sentence describing a desired behavior in the classroom and post them around
    the room.

You can employ a token system to encourage desired behaviors.  We have a post that goes into more detail on that HERE.  This creates an overall classroom culture that students want to maintain.  We use the idea of quality students.  You can watch a video about that below or just type “quality” into our blog search for
a number of articles.  It often helps to have students sign an agreement to uphold the must haves in the classroom.

What you achieve:
-This page by apa.org has a number of articles on why it is important for students to take
responsibility for their actions.  Giving
them responsibility makes them more likely to desire a harmonious classroom as
it is now their choice.
-By challenging students to come up with
their own ideas about what actions lead to your “must-haves,” you are
encouraging them to think more closely about cause and effect relationships,
and to strategize to accomplish a goal.
These as you know are important life skills.
2. Teach Empathy
Help your students understand how important it is to
consider their fellow classmates or friends.
If you want to make it simple and use the golden rule, go for it.  Challenge them to think about how their
actions might affect others.  Would they
want someone to make them feel that way?
The likely answer is no.
What you achieve:
-Students recognize a natural consequence when they behave a
certain way.  Instead of seeing how it
affects the teacher(aka frustrating the teacher or making the teacher angry),
they see how they are affecting one another.
-You remove yourself as the “bad guy.”  You’re not imposing, you’re facilitating.
3. Explain Consequences
You would be surprised how many children just want to learn.  Again, I refer you back to the apa.org page.  I can’t tell you how many times teachers would dismiss me in school when I asked how a formula works.  They would often respond with “just learn it,” or “it’s too complicated.”  How many times have you either heard or said, “because I said so?”  Students do not respond well to this because it still leaves them with questions.  Instead, explain to them why we have consequences.  You’re not “punishing” them to be mean, you are trying to achieve your “must-haves” in the classroom.  If they are doing something that affects the
classroom culture, there has to be a solution that puts a stop to it.  Encourage them to think about what would make them stop.  Use this example: “if there wasn’t a consequence in your house for eating cookies before dinner, would you eat them?” They will likely say “yes.”  You explain that this is why there are consequences for our actions, to keep us from doing certain things that aren’t good for us or others.  I actually did this with second graders and it was amazing what they came up with.
What you achieve:
-Students again see an example of cause and effect
-Students better understand the purpose of certain
consequences, and try to avoid them.
4. Empathize and Understand
As the adult, you have a responsibility to first try and see
where your student is coming from.  If he or she is acting out, attempt to determine the cause.  Is this student looking for attention?  Is he or she distracted?  Is he or she upset by something that happened
before and is lashing out?  While children may not reason quite like adults, they do feel more than we
realize sometimes.  Once you are able to determine the cause of the student’s behavior, target it.  If it’s attention, ignore it to the best of your ability and wait to praise the student for desired behavior.  You can also distract him or her by delegating a certain responsibility.  Once he or she accomplishes the task, deliver praise.  Once the child is feeling positively, he or she may obtain the desire to work and achieve more praise.  If it’s distraction, try to remove the distraction.  Gently encourage the child to sit elsewhere.
What you achieve:
-You pull ideas of misbehaving and acting up from the
equation.  Instead you objectively see a
problem and strategize to resolve it without the student’s knowledge.  This eliminates argument with the student.
5. Discuss Consequences
Use this step if the child’s behavior persists or if he or
she begins to argue with you.  It is
highly non-productive to have a disagreement with a student in front of the
rest of the class.  It generally provides
attention that the student wants in the first place, or causes undue
  • Call him or her over to your desk.
  • Explain to him or her the behavior you are seeing and how it is affecting the must-haves in the classroom.  Remind the student of their signed agreement to uphold the must-haves.
  • Remind the student that a consequence must occur to discourage him or her from continuing this behavior.
  • Strategize with him or her to come up with a solution.
  • For example, if it is distraction, see what he or she thinks will lessen the distraction.  Sometimes, this means removal from the room entirely.  See if you can collaborate with another teacher or your librarian to have a “quiet space” available for distracted students.

What you achieve:

-Teaching the student to strategize while taking
responsibility for his or her own actions

-Making the student feel respected when you ask for his or
her input 


6. Remove Anger from the Equation

I know this is the most difficult step for me to follow.  For me personally, my pride gets in the way.  The student isn’t listening
to me, they are disrespecting me, and that makes me angry.  The trick is to remove yourself from the situation.  The student’s behavior is not directed at you.  It is simply a response to something else.

What you achieve:

-When you are not angry, you can objectively look at the
best way to solve the problem in front of you

-Removing yourself from the situation eliminates the
fulfillment of the student
’s desire for attention and it removes you as the
source of “punishment.”

7. It’s a Collaboration, Not a Power Struggle

This goes hand in hand with removing anger.  Many times, a student is challenging your authority.  Again, this isn’t personal.  The student is testing his or her boundaries to see what you will allow.  He or she may also be testing how to get your attention and push your buttons.  Sometimes it is a matter of asserting his or her independence and not knowing quite how.  Collaborate with the student on how to remedy the situation rather than chastising him or her about a specific behavior.

What you achieve:

-Collaboration gives your student a voice, making him or her
feel respected and grounded

-Allowing your student choices gives him or her personal
responsibility, and removes the response that you dislike or are being mean to
him or her.


8. Ask Your Student “Why.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as asking a student “why”.  Now I know you’re thinking “well my student always just says ‘I don’t know’.”  If your student responds this way, pry further.  Give him or her a list of
feelings to choose from.  Was he or she mad at a friend? Upset about something? Bored?  Ask in a way that makes them comfortable to answer without judgment.  “Why” can also be a dangerous word because it prompts defensiveness.  Be aware of this and proceed with care.  Once you and your student identify the cause of the behavior, give him or her alternative actions that are appropriate responses in the future.



What you achieve:

-Asking open questions promotes reflection and self-awareness in a child, while promoting critical thinking.

-Asking questions makes the child feel heard, and thus cared for, leading to a greater respect for you as an authority figure.

9. Open Up A Little

In addition to asking your student to be open, be willing to be open yourself.  Tell the student how his or her behavior makes you feel.  Again, this one is tricky, because you have to assess how the student feels about you.  He or she may not care about your feelings.  Try something like “That makes me sad because I see how it hurts your friend’s feelings,” or “I get frustrated when you act that way because I know you can do better.”

What you achieve:

-When you open up, it builds trust between you and your
student.  He or she is again more likely
to respect you and your authority if that trust is there.

-It brings attention to natural consequences that are a
result of the student’s behavior.

10. Say Something Positive

Find a way to convey a positive message to your student.  Help him or her to understand that you don’t see them as “bad” or “naughty.” Highlight something good he or she did earlier or how you know what he or she can accomplish.  Build your student up.  You can even motivate him or her if you are using a token system in your classroom.  Encourage your student to work harder towards a reward of some kind.

What you achieve:

-Making a child feel positive helps build intrinsic
motivation.  He or she will want to do
better and will work harder as a result.

-You avoid making a child feel your opinion of him or her is
less than favorable, or worse, that he or she is a “bad kid.”

Classroom culture is the first step toward creating an environment that promotes success through student-centered learning.  Once you foster a sense of responsibility in your students’ behavior, you can develop that into an overall sense of responsibility for their educational success. Stay tuned for our next post on project-based learning.

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Have an awesome week!
Pam and Brittany


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