Why Ambiguity Is The Enemy Of Effective Classroom Management

Smart Classroom Management: Why Ambiguity Is The Enemy Of Effective Classroom ManagementWhile coaching teachers this time of year, I find myself repeating the same phrase again and again:

You’re going to lay everything out for your students ahead of time.”

What I mean by this is that the teacher is going to remove all uncertainty over what does and doesn’t constitute breaking rules.

They’re going to detail precisely how they, the teacher, will respond whenever a rule is broken.

As well as what is expected of the misbehaving student.

The idea is that there are no surprises. There are no secrets or misunderstandings. There are no doubts, confusions, gray areas, or fuzzy meanings.

Enforcing consequences, then, becomes a well-choreographed dance, where both parties know their role, their steps, and their lines by heart.

It’s an approach that is fair to students and easy for the teacher.

It also saves time, eliminates disrespect, and causes students to take responsibility for their misbehavior.

Most teachers who struggle with classroom management, however, don’t go far enough. They don’t model enough. They don’t explain enough or with as much explicitness as students need.

They don’t lay it all out ahead of time.

The resulting ambiguity causes resentment, disillusionment, and ultimately more misbehavior.

For example, in The Smart Classroom Management Plan for High School Teachers, we recommend eye contact as one of two ways to give an official warning.

We do this because, among other reasons, high school students respond best to a more subtle approach.

But subtle doesn’t mean unclear. It doesn’t mean weak or wishy-washy. It doesn’t mean walking on eggshells or being inconsistent.

Therefore, if you don’t define for your students precisely what an official warning looks like, then a student who breaks a rule may be hurt and confused by your response.

They may wonder why you’re staring at them or think that you’re giving them a “look”—which we very much don’t recommend.

It’s no less important for elementary teachers who we advise to say the words “You have a warning.”

Your students must experience what it’s like to receive a consequence. They must know beyond a doubt what will happen—the precise script—every time they break a rule.

This is deeply comforting knowledge that removes anxiety, tension, and classroom excitability and frees them to focus on learning and enjoying school.

While coaching teachers, it’s the one thing I return to again and again. It’s the one piece of advice I give the most regarding both the high school and elementary plans.

The way you enforce a consequence can (and should) be gentle. It can be subtle and pleasant and even kindly.

It can be fast and easy.

You don’t have to raise your voice. You don’t have to be aggressive or confrontational. You don’t have to glare, lecture, show your displeasure, or convince students that what they did was wrong.

But you do have to define where your boundary lines are.

You have to specify what behavior or behaviors break which rules. You have to teach through modeling, role-play, and practice what you’ll do in response and what it means.

You have to guide your students through every step of the way, like a Viennese waltz.

You have to lay it all out ahead of time.

So you can enjoy a well-behaved class for the rest of the year.

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19 Responses to Why Ambiguity Is The Enemy Of Effective Classroom Management

  1. Dan Hanzlik September 3, 2016 at 8:37 am #

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for all of your help the last couple years. Your website and coaching have helped me become a better and happier teacher. Do you draw distinctions between classroom mgmt. plans in middle school (particularly 7th and 8th grade) like you do for high school and elementary school? I want to get The Healthy Teacher Habits and your Classroom Management Plan for High School Teachers to see what’s written there.

    • Michael Linsin September 3, 2016 at 9:42 am #

      Hi Dan,

      Yes, you can read the distinction among the FAQ on the high school plan page—as well as within the plan itself.


  2. Candice September 3, 2016 at 8:50 am #

    If someone could model for me what this looks like, I would really appreciate it. I struggle with this.

    • Rose September 3, 2016 at 10:31 am #

      With my lowest tiers, having them act out the behaviors correctly and talking about what respecting the rules looks like (and doesn’t look like) down to the details has really worked. But it takes class time and its tempting to skip it! See my post below.

  3. Sboschert September 3, 2016 at 9:48 am #

    You make it sound so easy, and it DOES make perfect sense. What you don’t say though, is what kinds of consequences are appropriate for each infraction. I have very little recourse to impose consequences and would love to hear what might be appropriate!

    • Michael Linsin September 3, 2016 at 11:18 am #

      Hi Sboschert,

      We have nearly 400 articles on this website, many covering this topic. When you get a chance, please visit the archive.


  4. Linda September 3, 2016 at 10:14 am #

    How does this work with 3-4 year olds and over protective parents and a Headstart program where teachers have to be VERY acommendating?

    • Michael Linsin September 3, 2016 at 11:19 am #

      Hi Linda,

      Although you may have to make modifications to your classroom management plan, it shouldn’t look any different.


  5. Rose September 3, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    After the first ten days, some of my sixth graders have been struggling with how to enter the room and get to work on the bell ringer as well as talking/blurting during class. I have been giving talking warnings and consequences, but I have forgotten to practice and model how coming in to the room looks, and how sitting in class and participating without blurting looks. I think on Tuesday when we come back, I will model these routines myself, then I will choose some students who are struggling to model by having them re enter the room while we watch. Then we can point out explicitly what they did correctly, and then repeat until everyone gets it right. We can give out lots of positives. Am I on the right track?

    • Michael Linsin September 3, 2016 at 11:21 am #

      Hi Rose,

      Yes, when more than a few aren’t following your guidelines/routines etc., it’s a sign that you need to teach more explicitly.


  6. hala salah September 3, 2016 at 11:04 am #

    Michael Linsin,

    I’d like to thank you thousand times for your precious articles. You can’t imagine how beneficial they are to me and my staff. We feel that you are an Egyptian teacher just like us, facing the same problems and having the same feelings. We do learn a lot from your articles. We read them together and compare attitudes and solutions. What you present is realistic and your solutions are really applicable.Thank you again from Egypt.

    Hala Salah

    • Michael Linsin September 3, 2016 at 11:23 am #

      It’s my pleasure, Hala.


  7. Jonathan September 4, 2016 at 6:27 am #

    I teach English in China to freshman and sophomore students. I read a lot of articles on your site and one of your books last semester. They were very inspiring but I found it difficult to apply some of the concepts to my students since they are older than elementary age. So I was very pleased when your pdf article for high school teachers came out. (I hope you will consider a whole book on this sometime.)

    I have a few related question still. I’ll just ask one today. If I have a couple of students talking in the back of the class, how do I get their attention subtly since they aren’t looking at me? Also, sometimes it happens when I am telling the story for the lesson. In the past sometimes I’ve ignored it (a bad practice, I gather) or sometimes I’ve called out their names. To stop in middle of the story to get their attention really breaks the flow. Also at the beginning of the semester I haven’t learned their names yet.

    • Michael Linsin September 4, 2016 at 7:53 am #

      Hi Jonathan,

      Pause and wait until they notice your eye contact or approach. Both methods are explained in the guide. If you don’t want to break up the flow, then communicate with them after your story. If you don’t know their names, then ask.


  8. Noreen McCarthy September 5, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    My thanks and appreciation goes out to you Michael! This is a wonderful site and I greedily read each and every word.
    I tutor dyslexic students on a one-on-one basis only. I would love to have tips and suggestions on how to plan for and set myself up for success when working with one student. The one student I have is oppositional, defiant, and has been emotionally damaged from school experiences because no one knew he had to be taught differently in order to learn to read and spell.

    So what do you do when it’s only one student that is either nonresponsive, non cooperative, defiant, disrespectful, and or disengaged from our sessions? I see this student 2x per week, and sessions are 50 minutes long.


    • Michael Linsin September 6, 2016 at 7:34 am #

      Hi Noreen,

      It’s an excellent question that I have to give some deep thought to. Given the nature of working one on one with students, it’s also going to require its own article. I’ll put it on the list of future topics.


  9. Emily September 10, 2016 at 7:37 am #

    Great article. My new class (2nd grade) has several diagnosed ADD kiddos, class clowns, and dreamers. While my two ADD kids are still learning to remember the rules and consequence procedures, going for precision has helped immensely this past week.

  10. Sara October 7, 2016 at 1:55 am #

    Thank you very much for this, Michael! I have two questions:

    In your articles, you suggest retracting and modeling when things don’t go well. My high schoolers know that if I see their cell phone, it is a participation deduction like suggested in your High School plan. Yet, half of the class would keep the phones with screen up on their desks, and a quarter would take a quick glance occasionally. They also seem to think that group work time is more relaxed and even the best students are observed doing this during group time. Apparently, I have left an ambiguity about this in the first week. Would modeling and reteaching be appropriate for high school?

    2nd, I have reservations about your suggestion to warn the high schoolers with a glance. I appreciate and see much good in it. Yet… I can quite foresee my students interpreting this as a Permission for one check of the social media (on cell) per class. I can also picture myself giving these eye warnings throughout the class as the students enjoy their one time per class “right”. I firmly believe that your method is gentle and respectful, yet I have solid experience of warning rule interpreted as a right to one time by my students (elite private school). What to do? I do feel that warnings would be a gentle way to steer some of the distracted students in the right way, yet worry that they will misuse it. Is there a trick to it?

    • Michael Linsin October 7, 2016 at 6:49 am #

      Hi Sara,

      I think cell phone use belongs in a separate category, and I think this is your problem. If you look at the sample set of rules included with the plan, you’ll notice that cell phones are confiscated with no warning. They are remarkable disruptive–to the student and the class as a whole–and my advice is to be much stricter in this one area. (Lose phone and point for the period.) As for warnings, you can always give warnings verbally by asking the student(s) to stop–as described in the plan.