Why Playing Favorites Is Bad For Classroom Management

A lucky few students—those cute, smart, and well-behaved ones—are accustomed to big smiles and open body language from their teacher. For others, though, it’s a half-hearted greeting and barely a glance.

Some students are afforded the privilege of helping out in the classroom before school or during recess, but others are rarely invited.

Some call-outs are answered without a second thought. Yes, Lily, of course you can sharpen your pencil. While others get an entire different reaction. Anthony, how many times do I have to tell you? We raise our hand in this classroom!

Some students are encouraged to go on and on about the time the family beagle had puppies. Wow, what a great story! Others are cut off at the knees. We don’t have time for stories, Jocelyn. I asked if there were any questions.

Favoritism is an insidious snake that wriggles unnoticed under your classroom door, poisoning morale from the inside out. Left unchecked, it will slither into every area of classroom management.

If asked, few teachers would admit, even to themselves, that they play favorites. Although plain as day for students to see, favoritism is often hidden from the teacher beneath a veil of justifications. I don’t play favorites. I just let those with good behavior know I appreciate them.

Make no mistake. Many, many teachers play favorites.

Maybe you do too.

No teacher wants to confront the possibility that he or she favors some students over others. It’s never easy to take a hard look at yourself and be honest with your heart’s intent.

But self-examination is crucial, because favoritism is not only bad for classroom management, it’s worse for your students.

Here’s why:

It creates a class system.

When you play favorites, you give rise to a class system—where certain students are socially grouped and labeled as special or entitled or somehow better than others. This causes hurt, confusion, and fist-shaking unfairness. It discourages teamwork and creates friction and jealousy among students. At its worst, it brings about bullying behavior.

It causes resentment.

Students are often underestimated. They may be short, gangly, or self-absorbed, but they’re real people with real feelings, and they’re more observant than given credit for. If you play favorites—affording special privileges or attention for some and not others—every student will know it. And they’ll simmer with resentment because of it.

It weakens self-confidence.

To see certain students given a level of attention you know is never reserved for you can be a blow to your self-confidence—particularly if you have a shy personality. Yes, kids are resilient, and we’ve all experienced hard lessons that make us better people. But favoritism can be especially hurtful, making students less trusting, less inclined to participate, and less willing to take healthy social chances.

It further alienates difficult students.

Some teachers have a quid pro quo relationship with their students. In other words, if you’re well behaved and likeable, you get my favorable attention. If you’re a behavior problem, however, or if you get on my nerves, you get eye rolls, sarcasm, and indifference. This is a highly manipulative and surprisingly common form of classroom management that reinforces outcast, rebel-like, and unruly behavior.

It creates an unhappy classroom.

It’s obvious to students when a teacher plays favorites. In most circumstances the only one unaware of it is the teacher herself. The resulting resentments, dislike, and distrust create an unhappy classroom—which is the death knell of classroom management. For if your students are unhappy, if they don’t like being in your classroom, you’re going to struggle with near-constant misbehavior.

It undermines your influence.

Playing favorites will undermine your efforts to increase your likeability, build rapport with students, and acquire behavior-changing leverage. To create a dream classroom, to create the teaching experience you really want, you must continually work toward a trusting and influential relationship with your students. Playing favorites makes this an impossibility.

A Notable Difference

It’s inevitable that you will connect with some students better or quicker than others. And there is nothing wrong with appreciating or admiring particular students—some will be more approachable, more willing to help, or more trustworthy with special projects.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll give them more time and attention than others or reward them based on their likeability, personality, or appearance. Doing so is flat-out favoritism—clear to anyone paying attention—and it’s wrong.

How To Avoid Playing Favorites

Avoiding even the perception of playing favorites isn’t complicated.

Follow your classroom management plan, regardless of who breaks your rules. Don’t yell, scold, berate, or take misbehavior personally. Be the same consistently pleasant teacher day in and day out.

Make every student a target of your heartfelt smile and kindness. Choose to see the best in each of them, despite how difficult at times that may be.

And when deciding who should go first or who should help out in your classroom…

Pull names out of a hat.

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17 Responses to Why Playing Favorites Is Bad For Classroom Management

  1. Andrea October 30, 2011 at 1:52 am #

    Okay, I completely agree about playing favorites and I am going to make a point to watch out for those behaviors when I am teaching. My question is what to do when I am working hard to follow my management plan and it has become clear that several notes home and a face to face parent, student, and teacher conference has had no effect. I am starting to feel defeated. Please help!

  2. Christine October 30, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    Oooh, great post on a touchy subject. Thanks for the reminders on why favoritism is so negative. I have a tip, sometimes I imagine the parents are watching.

    • Michael Linsin October 30, 2011 at 9:38 am #

      Great tip, Christine! Thanks for sharing.


  3. John Yarbrough February 14, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    Thanks for a great article on a subject that still gets smoke to billow out of my ears to this day. My negative experience with favoritism was in college, and I was serious about my success in these classes. Favoritism is unprofessional, and I have learned to resent that style of leadership. Since that bad taste in my mouth, I have taught several classes at a technical college. As tempting as it is to play favorites, I know better and practice better. Let’s be honest, it’s not right to do to others what you don’t want done to you. That includes discrimination!

    • Michael Linsin February 15, 2012 at 7:37 am #

      Great points, John! Thanks!


  4. Jody February 27, 2012 at 10:23 am #

    My sons teacher does play the favorite game and it is so frustrating. How do I bring this up as a parent without it sounding childish? It has definitely affected him and lowered his self esteem as the article mentions. The more I read the more I realized I need to mention this. Thanks.

    • Michael Linsin February 27, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

      Hi Jody,

      If it’s a concern of yours, you have every right to bring it up. The key, though, is to site specific examples. The teacher may only be dimly aware of it–if at all. Be clear and composed and you should see a change in the teacher’s behavior. You may very well be doing him or her, as well as the students, a big favor.


  5. kaytee October 19, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

    It maybe difficult to “confront” , in my opinion. I have been having a rough time in this particular class where my instructor plays it. She took dislike of me, which is clear now. I completely underestimated this instructor as she verbally encouraged our inputs. A huge mistake. I spoke too much for the sake of contributing to the class. She interrupts me, over-talks me, gets overly emotional over other’s comments. After a particular presentation, she gave me a complete silent treatment, while the person she favors gave the presentation, she praised how much she loved it, this girl has “presence” yadayadayada. What can I do now? Just keep my mouth shut from now on. if I confronted, it probably infuriates her even more. Preferential treatment does happen. Many times. It sucks but we just have to deal with it. That’s life.
    My instructor loves to command all attentions to her, & loves to hear herself talk. So naturally she does not like one looking like stealing “her show” even though it’s done unintentionally. Yes some teachers love the students when they contribute, even tad too much. So – one person may hate you while another person may love you.

  6. Lilith February 26, 2016 at 9:20 am #

    OK, I know this is a very old post, but I must say it. Playing favorites is the worst. I even think that a teacher that does that, is not a good teacher, and with this I don’t wanna hurt any teacher’s feelings. Today I just went to the bathroom to cry because of that “passion-killer”. My german teacher helps only his favorite girls. When I ask something, he just makes a disdain gesture with his hand and tells me “no questions”, he doesn’t answer to me or in some very special cases, he answers with two words. But if one of his princesses asks whatever, even something very easy, he answers like he was talking with a fragile little angel and with the greatest smile! I think he must just treat us ALL the same! In the first days I was so happy and excited. I’ve always LOVED the german classes, I woke up everyday happy, thinking “at last is Monday!”, now I just HATE IT. And is not “my paranoia”, a lot of friends think the same, even those girls think the same and they also don’t understand his behaviour. They also feel bad, because they know this isn’t fair! When we try to “ask” him, he just says that he does everything perfect and every failure is our fault, because he’s doing the same for six years. Wow. Just WOW.

  7. Ceci March 5, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

    I have been accused of playing favoritism for years. But I always considered it part of the subject I teach: Middle School Vocal Music/Choir. There are certainly students who excel that I give extra coaching to; they have an amazing gift. It’s those who have a beautiful voice for the choir, but not as a soloist. This is where the jealousy comes in. They never get the solos. They aren’t picked because there is someone else that have the more superior vocals. It’s the students who hate their peers, as well as me, because they never get the solo. Believe me, I have worked with the jealous student, I have given them the same tools as I give the entire class but their vocal sound is not solo quality. I hate the way it is, but this is the nature of the subject matter I teach. Any suggestions on how to be honest without coming across as being biased about a student’s talent?

  8. Emma April 26, 2016 at 4:52 am #

    One of my teachers pick favorites. Me and the kid next to me had the same amount of work done and she let her go to lab but I had to stay at my desk which was completely unfair. I had late work because of her so it could have even lowered my grade. I have always had problems with that teacher since 7th grade started.

  9. Paul July 13, 2016 at 2:06 am #

    Ok, I’ll come out and say it, because this really interests me:

    I am a teacher. And I have favourites.

    Who in life doesn’t? In what other walk of life would you be expected to treat the person who holds the door, who listens to you, who does everything you ask, equally with the person who scowls at you, who refuses to help, who interrupts, who belittles others?

    Of course I am going to be more patient and more tolerant of the child who over many months has consistently greeted me with a smile and has made my life significantly easier.

    I do understand that consistency is key in maintaining morale and respect, but shouldn’t children learn that to get a little, you have to give a little? Shouldn’t they learn that manners and attentiveness and hard work will take you much further in life than a simple burning sense of entitlement, just for being there?

    If Jimmy feels I am more lenient with Tommy than with him, shouldn’t Jimmy ask himself why that might be, and how he could act to achieve that for himself? As long as I, as the adult, recognise when Tommy tries harder, and make sure to reward that, I think it’s essential to know that everybody in the world has favourites.

    • Jennifer Schindler December 15, 2016 at 9:50 am #

      You are exactly the reason children “hate” school. You are a grown man Paul and expecting children who mature at different speeds to work harder to earn a spot on your favorite list is laughable. Notoriously “difficult students” are far more intelligent and more successful in life, so maybe not being one of the teachers favorites works in favor of the less desired child in the long run. But man you suck.

  10. Sandra August 11, 2016 at 9:23 am #

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you very much for this website! I would appreciate your advice on undoing an impression of favoritism.

    I teach in college. I collect student notebooks for grading at the end of each week after a weekly quiz. The pile is heavy, and one of my students have been helping me with carrying them to my office for the past few weeks.

    Last time, he finished his quiz early and asked me for the office key to drop the notebooks in my office, which was just 3 rooms away. I gave him the key, and continued to supervise the remaining students. He dropped the notebooks and returned promptly to give back the key. But I noticed from the remaining few students expressions that they did not like this incident. One of them asked me when leaving, if he had given me his notebook, as he did not see it on my table any more. I feel that I made a mistake.

    The student who helped me is not a favorite in class in any way. He does not get any special privileges, he talks less than others too. Just once he stood up and helped me with moving a heavy board in class without my asking. I am afraid I created an impression of favoritism with this incident trusting the boy with the other students’ notebooks. How could I undo this?

    Is there a need to make a statement in front of the class regarding this? Would this damage or be beneficial?

    • Michael Linsin August 11, 2016 at 10:38 am #

      Hi Sandra,

      I’d just chalk it up to a lesson learned and move on. I wouldn’t bring it up or discuss it with your class.