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Calming Chaos

Support professionals share their strategies for maintaining student order in the classroom and on the bus.


By Collin Berglund

 It’s an educator’s worst fear—rowdy children throwing pens at cars through the school bus window, running in circles around a classroom while teachers try to teach addition, sprinting through hallways in a rush to everywhere but their next class.

Fortunately, these scenarios are the exception, not the rule, thanks to effective discipline strategies. From bus seats to classrooms, education support professionals (ESPs) are key players in this effort, maintaining a safe and orderly environment for students. What’s their secret? Read on for their student management tips.

Set clear expectations

James Ojeda, a veteran bus driver in Georgia, emphasizes the importance of maintaining a clear standard of rules so the students know how they are supposed to act.

“I set the rules on day one and emphasize them daily for at least two weeks to drill into their minds what is acceptable and not acceptable on my bus,” he says.

What’s more, Ojeda sets an example for his students by following his own rules. “I am at work every day unless called off to another assignment. I don't eat, drink, or chew gum on the bus. I dress professionally, arrive on time to the best of my control and speak nicely and respectfully to all.”

Marie Glass, a paraeducator in Rhode Island, says clear expectations are essential to almost every relationship in a school.

“The students need to know what is expected of them in school,” Glass says. “Staff need to know what is expected of them and need to be committed to the success of those students. Kids are the smartest people; they know if we are not invested in a particular program.”

Be consistent

Members of any teaching team must also be consistent, according to Marie Knutson, a kindergarten paraeducator in Amery, Wisconsin, who has routinely worked with teachers.

“If I report something to a teacher, the teacher needs to respect I did it,” Knutson says. If one member of the team disagrees with the way another is handling a situation, Knutson says they should discuss it after the fact, away from students.

It also helps to have the support of your colleagues, including your boss. Ojeda builds relationships with school administrators to ensure they will have his back when he encounters a problem. 

“I make sure they understand how I do things on my bus and that I have their support in case there is a need for me to ask for their assistance with a student,” he says. 

Communicate with parents, peers, and students

Communication is the key to nearly every relationship. Some educators try to keep students engaged by including them in the structuring of the environment.

“We involve the children in coming up with classroom rules,” says kindergarten paraeducator Jean Fay. “This empowers them—and the rules have more meaning when the children have helped write them.”

When discipline is necessary, it’s important to ensure students know what they did wrong. Marie Knutson uses a timeout bench for misbehaving students, but says it’s essential they know why they went to timeout.

Mike Hoffmann, a paraprofessional in Delaware, suggests teachers and paras sit down every marking period and evaluate the plan going forward for each student.

“Because of the students we work with, it can work one week and not the next,” Hoffmann says. “Certain students react differently to different people.”

Communication can be the biggest obstacle for a para-teacher team to overcome, so meeting often is essential, Hoffmann adds.

Knutson believes that teachers and paraeducators need student-free meeting time to discuss appropriate responses to certain situations.  Having two viewpoints on a situation often helps maintain perspective.

It’s also helpful to get parents on your side, right from the beginning. “Once I receive the roster of the children on my bus, I call parents and set up a home visit either before school begins or sometime during the first three weeks of school,” Ojeda says. “This way I get to meet the parents and children before any problems arise and we get to know and understand each other.”

But sometimes all you need is a little non-verbal communication.

“With the younger kids, sometimes looking back at them with those eyes in the mirror can get them to straighten up,” says Wayne, Pennsylvania bus driver, Chuck Thompson. 

Keep students’ respect

Ojeda and Glass agree that ESPs should not try to be their students’ friends. In order to maintain order, students must respect you.

“I am friendly to them but not their friends,” Ojeda says. “I am the adult and one in control of that bus and my students learn and understand that early and quickly.”

Glass says that sometimes new paraeducators put in so much effort to be liked by students, discipline falls by the wayside. “If you follow the school guidelines, are happy to be there, and are consistent with kids, they will love you,” she says.

Recognize individuality

Every student is unique. Depending on the child involved, ESPs should evaluate the situation to determine the best approach.

Paraprofessional Monica Mixon suggests working with students to define goal behaviors and then having them sign a contract. “Sometimes students feel grown-up when they’ve signed and given their word,” Mixon says.

For some students, humor can be an effective strategy to defuse tense situations, say Fay.

Hoffman says that writing students up, calling home, and separating difficult students from their group are also effective solutions.
Creating an ordered and disciplined environment can be a tough sell to students for ESPs and teachers alike. Learning how your peers deal with situations can often help you create a positive environment in school or on the bus. How do you create such an environment? Share your wisdom and seek help from your peers on our Ask the Expert classroom management discussion board.