Teach By Design
Distance Learning
Social Skills
Oct 13, 2020

Suspension Prevention: Classroom Management in Distance Learning

Find out how one teacher uses classroom management to prevent problem behaviors from getting out of hand.

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I see the effort it’s taken to get to this point in the year. I know it hasn’t been easy. Maybe some of you are starting to second guess whether the routines you’ve put in place are sustainable long-term. Maybe everything is going better than you thought it would. Wherever you are in this process of making the 2020-21 school year work for you and your students, congratulations! You’ve made it to October.

Schools have been at distance learning for long enough to start noticing new trends. Recently, reports have come out about students being suspended from their live, online classes.

  • A 4th grade student in Louisiana was suspended for six days when he moved his BB gun to a safe place in his room that just so happened to also be visible to his classmates online.
  • A 12-year-old student had a toy gun next to him on the couch during his class. His teacher reported the toy gun – which was bright green with an orange tip and labeled with the words “Zombie Killer” along the side – and the student received a 5-day suspension, a visit from the police department, and an office discipline referral saying he brought a “facsimile of a firearm to school”…even though he was in his home.
  • In May, a Michigan school district sent a 15-year-old student to a juvenile detention center after she failed to complete her online assignments.

These are just three stories. A Google search reveals many more students removed from their online learning for low-level behaviors or misunderstandings. Why is this happening so early in the school year? It could have something to do with exhaustion.

Jennifer Lloyd is an English teacher in Missouri. She noticed on days she feels particularly stressed, it affects her students. “If I come into class from a rough meeting or a stressful morning and I bring those feelings into the classroom environment, the kids notice…Sometimes they will give that negative energy right back to me, and we all end up having a bad day.” Jennifer shared her experience with her sister Colleen, a researcher at Missouri University, who did what any good researcher would do: She turned her sister’s life into a journal article. Colleen found the more exhausted a teacher is, the more likely they are to refer students and the more likely those referrals will end in an in-school suspension.[1]  

Don’t we all feel a little more exhausted than usual this year? Take the high expectations associated with distance learning, couple them with the stress of navigating new technology, and multiply everything by the perpetual minor behaviors disrupting class, and you have a perfect storm for exclusionary discipline.

Research tells us a lot about the negative impact suspensions have on students’ academic trajectories. Research also tells us suspensions are an issue of equity. The New York Times analyzed the most recent data from the Department of Education and found “Black girls are over five times more likely than white girls to be suspended at least once from school, seven times more likely to receive multiple out-of-school suspensions than white girls and three times more likely to receive referrals to law enforcement.” The Office of Civil Rights found Black male students account for 8% of the total enrollment in the United States and 25% of the suspensions.

When we talk about reducing the use of exclusionary discipline, we’re absolutely talking about increasing equitable access to education for all students. At a time in our country when so many of us feel isolated, vulnerable, traumatized, and fearful, suspensions and expulsions shouldn’t be our go-to move. If suspending or expelling students was off the table – simply not an option – what would you do?

I wasn’t sure either.

I picked up my Zoom phone and called Dr. Brandi Simonsen and asked her.

When it comes to student behavior, Brandi knows her stuff. She also knows teachers. Specifically, her research focuses on all the ways effective classroom management helps students succeed, prevents misbehaviors from escalating, and ultimately helps teachers engage students in their lessons. She knows how difficult this moment is for everyone and how unnatural it feels to teach to a grid full of faces over the internet. When everything feels so different, she tries to remind herself about what stays the same. “Recently, I’ve been reminding myself a lot about what an administrator recently said to me: It’s not the ‘what’ that changed; it’s the ‘how’.”

The ‘what’ she’s referring to are those effective classroom management practices you already did before distance learning:

  • Establishing an effectively designed physical classroom
  • Teaching predictable classroom routines
  • 3-5 positive classroom expectations posted clearly in the room
  • Providing prompts and active supervision
  • Providing varied opportunities to respond
  • Acknowledging students for expected behavior

I know what you’re thinking: “Sure. It’s easy to put these ideas into a bulleted list and call it a day. What does any of this look like in practice…especially now?”

“We aren’t going to reach them the same this year like we would in typical years. We need to build relationships, take the time to get to know our kids. The academics will come.”
Madison Corlett.jpg

Brandi introduced me to Madison Corlett, a teacher in Mansfield School District in Connecticut. For the first month of the school year, Madison taught the district’s 3rd and 4th graders who were enrolled in 100 percent distance learning. The class size was much larger than typical.

Madison is so talented at managing her online space. She has four different screens, a dozen or more apps, sticky notes posted all around her desk, and an adorable cat who wanders through her room during our call. Like so many of you, she’s a teacher who has been presented with a big task and she wants to give her students the education they deserve in spite of the challenges. Madison has come up with some great ways to stay true to her classroom management style by making it work with her new remote environment. Here’s how she moves the research to practice during distance learning.

Build Relationships First

The first rule of classroom management is to set up your physical space for engaged learning. Well, distance learning is a little different. Instead of focusing on a safe physical space, focus on creating a safe online space and building relationships as a class.

Madison taught middle school students for three years prior to this. Now, she’s got all these elementary schoolers who have never seen her face let alone know her name. “They don’t trust me yet. They don’t know me.” When I asked Madison what she would tell another teacher this year, what one piece of advice she would give, it was this: Build relationships first. “We aren’t going to reach them the same this year like we would in typical years. We need to build relationships, take the time to get to know our kids. The academics will come.”

Madison asks students to complete a daily survey telling her how they’re doing before they join their synchronous session. It’s a quick way for her to get a sense of everyone’s emotional state. She also had students record video introductions during the first week of class. She continually looks for ways to help students break out of their shells, participate in discussion, and get to know each other as people.

Teach Them the Tech…

Teaching students the way you run your classroom sets everyone up for success. In typical years, you teach students how to come into class, how to ask for help, how to make up a missed assignment. This year, you should still teach these routines; you might also need to teach them how to use the technology.

Madison noticed several students were either turning in incomplete assignments or not turning in anything at all. At first, she followed up with everyone individually. She spent a lot of time hunting down homework. Then, she got an idea. There are tons of videos on YouTube for how to use Google Classroom to complete and turn in assignments, but what if she created her own video specific to her class? “It took me maybe three minutes to record this video in Loom. (Loom is a free, online tool to record your face, voice, and screen all at the same time.) My students could see my face, hear my voice, as I walked them through how to do their assignments in Google Classroom. It took me three minutes and saved me so much time chasing down work.”

…and Teach the Expectations

Teaching students your school-wide and classroom expectations ensures everyone knows the behaviors you expect to see in any context. Even though you may have to make some adjustments to your matrix, teaching students the expectations during distance learning is no different. Be sure you have all of the settings accounted for, including small breakout groups.

Most videoconferencing platforms have a way to break large groups into smaller groups. Madison uses Zoom to meet with her class during synchronous sessions. She takes full advantage of the platform’s breakout rooms. (She wants you all to know if you aren’t taking advantage of breakout rooms, you’re doing yourself a disservice!) She splits students into groups of two or three so they to give them a less intimidating space to talk about a topic, ask questions, or work on a project. Before she sends students to their breakout rooms, she always goes over the expectations.

  • Turn on your camera so other students can see you.
  • If you get stuck, ask your group for help.
  • If you solve the problem, get right back on task.
  • Work hard.
  • Be kind.

Quick Acknowledgements are Better Than None

Right now, there are so many things in the world causing stress and sadness, the little positive moments fill me up more than they regularly would. I’d guess your students feel the same way.

When you see students doing the right thing, let them know. You can say it out loud during class. You can send them a short note of encouragement in a private chat. In Madison’s class, she noticed whenever she pointed out how one student was sitting quietly looking at the camera it had the ripple effect of another six or seven students straightening up wanting to be publicly noticed the same way. Tell your students when you see them trying their best and notice when they need more support.

Collect Basic Data

Yes. We love data around here, but that’s because they point out patterns we’d otherwise miss. In typical school years, office discipline referrals (ODR) are your school’s primary way to know about the behaviors happening throughout your building every day. Continuing to enter ODRs this year is critical. There are lots of ways schools are doing it. Your school team cannot know what’s happening in your classroom if you don’t tell them.

Start small if you have to. You can collect quick observations on something as simple as a Post-It note.

Madison knew she needed to get familiar with which students were doing fine and which students needed something more from her. She stuck Post-Its to her desk and made tally marks next to student names when she noticed someone disengaged from class.

  • She noticed students who turned their cameras off during small group breakout sessions. (She doesn’t expect them to be on during the large group, but when students are in breakouts with only one or two other students, she’s asked them to turn their cameras on to build connections with each other.)
  • She noticed students who were more engaged with the toys around them than they were with her lesson.
  • She noticed which students consistently didn’t turn in their homework assignments, or the ones who turned them in incomplete.

Pretty soon, she had a list of students – about 30% of them – she needed to check in with to find out what was going on and how she could help.

Assume Best Intentions and Ask

When I spoke with Brandi and Madison, they both said something similar when it comes to addressing the behaviors they notice in class. Brandi says she always assumes best intentions. Madison said she tries to give her students the benefit of the doubt. We call it getting curious. Whatever you do, before you remove someone from class or deliver a disciplinary consequence, see if you can find out why your students are doing the things they do.

For the students she needed to check in with, Madison set up a group Zoom meeting – because individual meetings was too much to tackle. Everyone joined the meeting and one at a time and she each student into a breakout room. While she met with one student, everyone else could use the time to catch up on homework assignments. She learned a valuable piece of information from these meetings. “Each student had a reason for why they were disengaged…and none of it was behavioral. It was the technology.”

Some students didn’t know how to respond to the math assignments in the app. Some students had trouble with their home internet connections. Most of them didn’t know how to turn in their asynchronous assignments. They simply couldn’t figure out some aspect of the technology and “were too scared to ask in front of the whole group, so they gave up instead.” By assuming best intentions and taking the time to get curious about what was going on for her students, Madison was able to narrow her list of students needing additional support from 30% of her class down to just 10%.

Recruit Support for Students Who Need It

The support you provide for students in class will work for almost everyone. There will be some students who need more support than you can give. In PBIS, we call these supports Tier 3 supports and it’s likely your school or your district has a team of people ready to provide them. In Madison’s district, they have what’s called a Care Team – a group of people with access to skills and resources for supporting students with needs beyond what Madison can handle. She has a plan to check in with them about the students on her list to find out what they can do next. When you’ve addressed all you can and you know your students need more support, refer students to the teams of people who can get them the resources they need to be successful this year.

You know how to manage your physical classrooms. Managing your online classrooms isn’t so different. Good classroom management starts with creating a safe, predictable space where students can focus on learning. Teach students predictable routines for engaging with your lesson, including how to use the technology and what behaviors you expect to see in each context. Look for all the ways your students do the right things, and take note of the times they don’t. Assume everyone is trying their best and get curious about how you can help them be successful. For students who need more supports than you can provide, refer them to your school or district teams who are set up to get them connected with the right resources.

1. Eddy, C., Huang, F., Cohen, D., Baker, K., Edwards, K., Herman, K., & Reinke, W. (2020). Does Teacher Emotional Exhaustion and Efficacy Predict Student Discipline Sanctions?. School Psychology Review, 49(3), 239-255. doi: 10.1080/2372966x.2020.1733340.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.