Why Picking Your Battles Is A Poor Strategy

It’s a common refrain.

With a student like Erik, you have to pick your battles.”

In my class this year, I’ve got to pick my battles.”

The best advice I could offer would be to . . . pick your battles.”

The idea behind this popular strategy is that if you get involved in every misbehavior, then you’ll find yourself in an argument, a confrontation, or a battle of which you have little time for.

The thinking is that it isn’t worth the stress and trouble, that it may even cause behavior to get worse. Better to ignore the little things and respond only to serious or more disruptive infractions.

It’s often cited as a good strategy to use with certain students, particular classrooms, or even as a general rule of thumb with all students.

But here’s the thing, the straight scoop: Picking your battles will prevent you from ever turning around difficult students or creating the well-behaved classroom you really want.

Here’s why.

It causes resentment.

Choosing to respond to misbehavior sometimes and not others breeds resentment—because it’s unfair and students know it. From their perspective it looks like you’re playing favorites. Why does he get away with talking during lessons and I don’t? It’s a question every student will ponder and grumble over.

You’ll lose trust.

Whenever you fail to follow your classroom management plan as promised, your integrity takes a hit. Trust is key to developing likability, respect, and an easy rapport with your students. Without it, you won’t have the influence you need to effectively manage your classroom.

It’s confrontational.

When teachers speak of picking their battles, they’re referring to having a confrontation. In other words, they intend to lecture, scold, question, or otherwise persuade students into compliance. It’s often ugly, always personal, and catastrophic to the critical student-teacher relationship.

It encourages arguing.

Because it’s personal, few students will take your third degree without a response. It’s a battle, after all, and they’re going to fight back. This might include lying, talking back, offering excuses and denials, and a silent promise to misbehave again the first chance they get.

Note: Many difficult students have become so battle weary and sensitive that they’ll argue at even the slightest, gentlest correction.

It causes disrespect.

Teachers often “pick their battles” with students who are prone to disrespect. But inconsistency and confrontation are like adding fuel to the fire. Together, they all but cause disrespect by poking, prodding, and frustrating your most challenging students into angry and contemptuous behavior.

You’ll be tested.

As soon as your students see evidence of inconsistency, they’ll begin testing you at every turn. It is among the most predictable of student behaviors. Unfixed boundary lines lose their effectiveness, and with it, you lose your ability to fairly and without drama hold your students accountable.

It’s unnerving to students.

How does one go about picking battles? Is it based on the severity of the misbehavior, who is doing the misbehaving, the teacher’s mood at the time? The truth is, leaving classroom management so haphazardly defined causes tension and anxiety and creates a climate students don’t want to be part of.

Never A Need To Battle

With confrontation and inconsistency equal parts of the toxic brew, picking your battles is like shooting yourself in the foot and pulling the rug out from under yourself at the same time. It’s a circus gaffe that has somehow become common, even sage, advice.

To build and maintain your trust, rapport, and likability, to be respected and looked up to, to manage your classroom effectively and gracefully, you must never “pick your battles.” Or engage in battles whatsoever.

For there is no need, not with a well-taught classroom management plan to do the heavy lifting for you. Let it be your statement of accountability. Let it define and defend your boundary lines of behavior.

Let it free you from the arguments and confrontations, the wasted time and the stress of picking your battles. Let it safeguard your influence, protect your relationships, and restore peace and fairness to your classroom.

In other words, let it do its job.

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9 Responses to Why Picking Your Battles Is A Poor Strategy

  1. Roderick Woodard June 8, 2013 at 11:48 am #


    Thank you for discussing this topic. I have been told to “pick my battles” for years, but what I’ve found out is that students want a structured, well managed, and discipline classroom environment where they are free to be themselves, be positive, and encourages students to be better indivdiuals and creative thinkers. I’m wanting to become an elementary school teacher and I already have my classroom management plan in place with rules, procedures, and consequences. I will never “pick my battles” with my students. I’ll admit, I’ve made this mistake before. I want to be effective as a teacher! Once again, thank you!

    • Michael Linsin June 8, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      You’re welcome. Thanks for sharing, Roderick!


  2. Kevin Kirton June 8, 2013 at 4:51 pm #

    Reading your weekly posts (it’s Sunday morning here in Australia when they appear) really inspires me for the school week ahead. After reading (and applying) your posts regularly for over two years, I’m now in my third year of teaching. And without any doubt my classroom is now a less stressful, more fun, and more productive learning space. There’s still plenty of room for me to improve, of course, but I enjoy looking for and making improvements. Huge thanks and gratitude.

    • Michael Linsin June 8, 2013 at 7:19 pm #

      Awesome, Kevin! You’re welcome, and thanks for sharing your success.


  3. Doug Campbell June 9, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    Love your posts, Michael, but I will have to disagree with you on this one. It may just be a difference in the way we interpret the phrase “pick your battles.”

    I don’t think the term battle in this case automatically means making a big deal out of something. Picking your battles just means that you sometimes choose to not address a certain misbehavior.

    I am a big believer in the “pick your battles” approach when it comes to discipline. Sometimes avoiding consequences for minor misbehaviors can be for the best, sometimes not.

    I do agree with your point that teachers should not be battling in the first place, at least in the dramatic sense. To a student, though, getting any kind of consequence can be seen as a battle. So teachers should not shy away from giving consequences in an attempt simply to avoid “battles.”

    This is a tricky topic, because consistency is important when it comes to classroom management. I think it is sometimes prudent for a teacher to let something go that may be technically breaking a rule.

    I am big on giving consequences without emotion. When the time does come to give a consequence, the unemotional approach will almost always help the teacher avoid turning the situation into a major battle with a student.

    Doug (withoutanger.com)

  4. Sarah June 10, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    I completely understand what you are saying, but my problem is the first day of school. I work with behavior disorder kids, and when I try to tell them where to sit the first day, some have refused. I don’t have a behavior management plan in place. And what would the consequences be? What kinds of consequences do you recommend? Detension? Principal? Dean? Time out? I’m not sure about either of these two issues

    • Michael Linsin June 10, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

      Hi Sarah,

      I recommend spending some time in the archive. Start in the Classroom Management Plan and Rules & Consequences categories and then go from there.


  5. Lauren September 25, 2014 at 5:08 pm #


    I’ve been reading your articles and find them very informative. Do you have any section for student teachers? I’m currently a student teacher in a classroom where…there are many of the problems your articles address. I had my first experience teaching my mentor teacher’s class yesterday – and it was horrible. I made many of the mistakes addressed in the articles, but quite frankly – my mentor teacher makes the same mistakes! This is the second year they’ve had her, so I’m really stuck as to how and if I can turn things around.MOST of the behavior is due to bad management, boredom – but sometimes the students are outright disrespectful – without me having said anything to them at all. One instance could even be considered sexual harassment. How do I address these issues as a student teacher? I am a guest in her classroom.

    • Michael Linsin September 25, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

      Hi Lauren,

      It’s a tough position to be in, without a doubt. My best advice is to bring your concerns to your college adviser and seek an alternative placement. Clearly, your mentor teacher should not be a mentor. To take on that responsibility without having solid skills of your own . . . my gosh. I think it’s an awful thing to do. In the meantime, we are always here to help you manage your classroom. Email me your address and I’ll get a copy of The Classroom Management Secret out to you right away. It will give you a complete understanding of effective classroom management and help you become the teacher you want to be.