How To Manage Whole-Class Behavior While Working With A Small Group

It’s frustrating.

You start your class working on an independent project, a writing assignment, or a rotation of centers, then begin quietly calling selected students for small-group instruction.

Smart Classroom Management: How To Manage Whole-Class Behavior While Working In A Small Group And for the first few minutes it goes well.

But just as you settle in and begin quality guided work with your small group, there is a disruption.

And then another . . . and another.

Perhaps you hear giggling and silliness.

Maybe you notice daydreaming and off-task behavior.

Maybe you feel the presence of two or three students standing behind you, waiting to ask a question or tattle on a classmate.

Whatever the case, if your students are unable to work without interrupting you or needing you at their beck and call, then you’ll never be able to meet with small groups—at least not in a way that makes it worthwhile.

You’ll have to stop and bark out warnings, reminders, and exhortations. You’ll have to get up and pinball around the room. You’ll have to check in, check on, and toggle your attention like an air-traffic controller, all the while thinking that perhaps the whole exercise is a waste of time.

When confronted with a classroom management issue like this, many teachers look for a particular technique to match the particular situation. (e.g., What do I do when students throw spit wads while my back is turned?)

But effective classroom management doesn’t work this way. It isn’t a first-aide kit of quick fixes you apply to existing problems. You can’t say to yourself, “The students are throwing spit wads eh? Okay then, no problem, I’ll just give them the old dopplehanger technique?”

No, to fix it, you have to go back to the root cause of the problem.

In this case, the students outside the small group are misbehaving because they’re unprepared to work independently, and thus don’t do it well. This is the root cause that must be addressed. Your class must first prove that they can work on their own—under your observing eye—for at least the length of time you wish to meet with small groups.

Only then can you start calling students to your back table.

To get to this point, your lessons prior to releasing your students to independent work must be vibrant, precise, and presented with clarity. Your students must know step-by-step what their independent responsibilities are and be able to refer to them on an easel, screen, or whiteboard. You have to check for understanding and guide them through a detailed practice of whatever it is you want them to do.

And once they do start their independent work, you must wean them off the expectation that you’re available to guide, remind, or reteach individually what was taught to the entire class minutes before.

You have to show them through directed teaching and modeling that once the lesson has been taught, the responsibility for learning shifts in total from you to them.

Because that’s what independent work is.

This understanding and realization, however, is incredibly empowering to students, and you’ll notice dramatic improvement in listening, learning, focus, and concentration. But creating a fiercely independent class doesn’t happen overnight.

Many students have such deeply ingrained learned helplessness that it can take three or four weeks before your class is ready for you to begin working with small groups. Once they prove their independence, though, you can begin pulling students without worry, stress, or interruption.

It’s okay and a good idea to periodically peek up from your small group to make sure all is well. After all, good teaching requires you to verify anything and everything you ask of your students. But other than these momentary visual checks, you can focus entirely on your responsibilities.

And your students can focus on theirs.

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21 Responses to How To Manage Whole-Class Behavior While Working With A Small Group

  1. Lorraine January 6, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Hi Michael,
    If addressed a real concern for most teachers today. I would add that first and foremost, you have to provide students with independent activities that they are interested. If you allow students some choice, they are much more likely to work independently without going off-task. But before they can work independently, you have to build their stamina. I find most kids don’t know how to sustain focus on a quiet task. I spend September and October getting to know my students and “building their stamina”. We start with 5 min. And gradually build our way up to 20-30 min. I don’t try to teach small groups until they’ve developed the stamina to work independently.
    My biggest problem now, though, is the technology. Many of the independent tasks my students are working on require the use of technology, and I find most of the disruptions are “my computer is frozen”, or “I saved my work but it isn’t there”. As much as possible we are moving toward BYOD to try to avoid these issues.

  2. Jessica January 7, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    Hi Michael,
    I was just browsing your website because I’m realizing that I’m losing control of a couple of my classes. I though it was just pre-vacation behavior, but they haven’t gotten any better since we came back! I like a lot of your advice and think I can use it, but I teach high school. Do you have classroom management plans that work with high school? It’s a bit different because I’m only with each group for 45 minutes a day. And consequences are difficult to come by at my school. The main classroom management tool for most teachers seems to just be the teacher’s persona. Some teachers never struggle with management and others do. The ones who don’t, as far as I can tell, don’t give lots of consequences. Students just know they can’t behave a certain way with them. I’m not sure why and I need to know!

    • Michael Linsin January 8, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      Hi Jessica,

      Indeed, the older the students are the more important your persona and temperament is to classroom management. (We have many articles on this topic. Most can be found in the Rapport & Influence category of the archive.) Whether or not you decide to use consequences for your high school classes, it’s still critically important that you have standards of behavior and teach them to your students. They must know what is expected of them before they can behave the way you want. Be clear, tell them what you expect, and them hold them to it.


  3. Nora March 19, 2013 at 7:56 am #

    Hi, really great blog! I’m wondering how to deal with individual students who really struggle to work independently even for short periods (g.2) – kids who, perhaps because they’re fundamentally anxious about big groups, seem to want an adult anchor or adult attention in the classroom all the time and will use all manner of disruptive, often annoying attention-seeking behaviors to get it. My school uses behavior report cards which seem to a) not work, particularly in this case, and b) further erode the confidence of this kind of student . Some of the other methods we’ve used, like placing the desk next to an adult (teacher or teacher aide) or sometimes placing the desk outside the room, seem to run counter to the ultimate goal of having them work comfortably and confidently in a classroom setting. Any advice greatly appreciated!

    • Michael Linsin March 19, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

      Hi Nora,

      I’ve written about independence a lot in the past–both here on the website and in the book Dream Class. The advice therein is relevant for all students, even those you describe. I’m confident that if you stick with it, even the most dependent students will come to realize that once the lesson is over, they really don’t need your help.


  4. Nora March 22, 2013 at 6:07 am #

    Great! Will dig around archive more – and thanks for the quick reply. PS. On a technical note, it would be cool if the archive had a nice search or tag cloud feature …this coming from someone now hot on the trail for posts about independence :-). Lots of good WP plugins for that. Again, thanks!

  5. Roderick Woodard July 27, 2013 at 1:06 pm #


    I just wanted to say that I enjoy reading articles from you website. I an aspiring elementary school teacher, with the hopes of beginning my teaching career in 2014. I have my classroom management plan ready to go with procedures & routines in tact. I also developed a classroom syllabus which I came up with about 1 year ago. It’s like my first day of school script. I have a working groups procedure in my classroom management plan and I’m wanting to express when students are working in small reading groups and I would like to have other students who are not working in small reading groups with me during that time to work on assignments independently. When is a good time to introduce small reading groups with students? Also, do you have any suggestions when having students working indepedently.

    • Michael Linsin July 28, 2013 at 7:10 am #

      Hi Roderick,

      Once you’ve taught your classroom management plan, you’re then free to begin teaching how you expect your students to work in small groups–or anything else for that matter. It’s really up to you and how you prioritize your instruction.


  6. srilekha September 3, 2013 at 7:11 am #

    hi sir,
    iam teaching to graduation students. the class strength is 75. when i enter into the class room , only few students wishes me and stands and rest don’t even cares. when i start the class also, there will be chit chating and discussions among them. because of those few students remaining students are getting disturbed and they are un able to follow. even if i stop the class and observe each and every student also they don’t stop their discussion. as they are well grown up, being graduates, i dont know what to say, how to handle them. please suggest me some thing, by what they will change?

    • Michael Linsin September 3, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

      Hi Srilekha,

      It doesn’t matter whether your students are three-years old or thirty, you have to speak up and let them know what you expect. You can’t fault your students for not behaving how you wish if you don’t clearly let them know how you expect them to behave. Spend some time during your next class period showing your students what to do when you enter and how to behave during class. If any one or more students is unable to comply and thus are disrupting your ability to teach, then it should affect their grade or whether or not you allow them to continue with the class.


  7. Kaz Wright September 8, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    Really great site! Helpful to even a veteran like me!

    • Michael Linsin September 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

      Wonderful, Kaz! Good to hear.


  8. Serphina March 7, 2014 at 4:52 pm #

    In the class where I was student teaching, every time we would do centers, the students would get extremely chatty and silly. These students knew what they were supposed to do, and actually all are above grade level. I could not find any way to get them to stop talking while I was doing guided reading. How could I have gotten them to quiet down?

    • Michael Linsin March 7, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

      Hi Serphina,

      Please read through the attentiveness category of the archive where you’ll find articles on how to get your students’ quiet attention within just a few seconds.


  9. Gary April 23, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    Great site great ideas for teachers at any stage of their careers. As I try to bridge the gap between reading a good idea and implementing it.

  10. Bradley February 16, 2015 at 1:42 pm #

    Hi Michael.

    Another great article, thanks!

    I wish I’d come across this last year before I started trying to implement small groups in my grade 5 class last year.

    I often got frustrated that some of my kids didn’t have the temperament, discipline and focus in small groups. The problem was I hadn’t prepared them adequately.

    Actually its funny in a way, how you can’t make too many assumptions with teaching. I don’t mean to sound negative but its almost a case of if something could go wrong it probably will.

    When I signed up for teaching I think I was quite naive as to how much micromanagement is required of every process. I don’t like to micromanage but I’m forced to in a way.

    • Michael Linsin February 16, 2015 at 2:35 pm #

      Hi Bradley,

      Good, insightful comments. The key is to micromanage preparation, teaching what you want and expect from your students in a highly detailed way, and then ease into the background and let your students learn and grow and succeed.


  11. Maz Whittaker August 14, 2015 at 1:18 am #

    Hi Michael,
    I am really enjoying your columns and I’m reading Dream Class which fills me with hope.

    Do you have any thoughts or advice on how to manage and organise other adults in the classroom? I’m thinking of experienced teaching assistants rather than parent volunteers.

    Thank you

    • Michael Linsin August 14, 2015 at 7:19 am #

      Hi Maz,

      Glad you’re enjoying the articles! It’s important to train your assistants well so you don’t have to deal with them during the teaching day. If you’re wondering about small group instruction, then I think it’s best they handle a group just like a parent volunteer would. I’ll put your topic on the list of future articles.


  12. Michelle February 3, 2016 at 7:59 pm #

    Great blog post but how do you go about doing this in the middle of the year? My class this started out wonderfully until I got a new student that has caused a disruption (special needs student), now other students’ behavior is sliding. My kids are blurting out and blurting out at each other, not following directions or complying. Some have trouble at stations, one has destructive outbursts. They are extremely chatty. I hate the time lost from teaching and having fun together. Time out doesn’t seem to be effective anymore. I realize I’m at the center of the classroom management plan and feel like I stick to it but the consequences don’t seem to matter and then they fall apart the rest of the day. I have read your books and articles on here, but I’m at a loss at to what to do and where to even begin the process. Help me, please!

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