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As the weather heats up and the strange and unprecedented school year winds down, many teachers and tutors struggle with unruly and uninterested students. Proper classroom management is essential for ensuring that the whole class can get the most out of their learning experience. There are many ways to redirect unruly and distracted students and create a positive classroom for everyone.

Classroom Management Online

Redirect and Refocus

Using simple wording and gestures to remind students of expected behaviors for the class can quickly help get things back on track and is an essential part of a good classroom management plan. You should introduce these gestures to the students at the beginning of the class. Then the students will quickly understand when the gestures are used later in the lesson. For example, having standard gestures are helpful when students are loud, and it is difficult for others to hear. A nonverbal signal can quickly get their attention. This is especially essential when teaching very young children or children with limited English proficiency. While they might forget or not notice your words, they are far more likely to notice and understand gestures and nonverbal instructions. Some good nonverbal signals can include a hand to your ear to signify to listen or an index finger to your lips to signify to be quiet. Using hand signals can be an easy way to redirect students and get a class back on track.

If one student seems to be losing interest and focus, you can make an effort to engage them in the lesson more directly. Asking the student a question can help refocus them on the topic, and knowing their thoughts on the subject can help you ensure the lesson will remain interesting to the student. Even asking a student a non-related lesson question like what color you should use to write on the screen can help reengage a student without embarrassing them about the fact they hadn’t been paying attention. This strategy is also an excellent trick for redirecting children’s behavior without directly criticizing them for losing focus.

Show Genuine Interest in Your Students

Keeping a journal of each student’s interests and background can help you in future classes, especially regarding discipline-related matters. Consider starting each class by asking questions related to what you’ve already learned about your students from previous weeks. Doing so shows your students that you truly care about their lives and can create an atmosphere of mutual respect. You can also use their interests to draw them back into class when their attention wanders. For example, if a student is looking off screen during the vocabulary section, you can draw them back into the lesson by asking them to create a new sentence with the vocabulary word that incorporates one of their interests. By surprising them with the fact that you remembered the hobby or activity they spoke about in a previous lesson, you may be able to regain their attention in a kind and gentle way. Teacher Dalissa, an online ESL teacher with ALO7, has used this tactic for many years with success, especially with her most challenging students. She says, “One year, I had a student who was very interested in basketball, but not in learning English. So, to engage him I used to draw a basketball hoop on one side of the screen and a basketball on the other. Each time the student answered a question, I moved the basketball closer to the hoop until it finally reached the hoop by the end of class. This strategy worked throughout the course; however, it took me a few rough weeks to figure out what inspired this specific student.”

Avoid Shaming Students

Always remember that the goal is to refocus students, not to embarrass them, especially when teaching Chinese ESL students due to the concept of ‘saving face.’ This fact is essential to remember when creating any behavior management plan. When you call on a student who doesn’t appear to be paying attention, you should try to help them to reengage with the material. The goal isn’t to shame the students. Humor can be a great tool but should be used carefully, especially with students you don’t know well yet.1 Something that could sound like a lighthearted attempt at refocusing to one student could easily be viewed as mocking and humiliating by a different student. 

Being specific on both what students are doing well and where they can improve can help give students concrete advice on what to focus on. Instead of simply noting that their pronunciation needs improvement, you can note the specific sounds or sound combinations they should practice. Be specific when reminding students of appropriate behavior as well. Just telling a student to focus isn’t as helpful as telling a student to put down their toy or stop running around. Feedback should also focus on the student, not how their work makes the teacher feel.

Have Realistic Expectations

If all students in the class seem to be struggling to stay on task, it may be helpful to take a few minutes to play a game or, basically, a brain break. A simple guessing game or word scramble may help students be more engaged and ready to work on the material. Sometimes a movement activity like asking the students to stand up if they like ice cream is necessary to get their energy out and help them refocus for the remainder of the class. Being realistic about students’ attention spans can help to prevent frustration by both students and teachers. Also, be aware that stress and trauma can impact attention spans and try to be empathetic to students’ struggles during particularly difficult times.2 

Bringing empathy and genuine enthusiasm for the material to your teaching is one of the best ways to keep and hold the attention of students. Teaching should be a collaborative process between students and their instructors and listening to what is and isn’t resonating with students can help you to better reach and teach students regardless of the challenges. 

During these trying times, students still need to be able to learn and study.  By helping students to stay focused and compassionately redirecting unruly and distracted students, teachers can be an essential resource and source of support for struggling students. By creating a supportive but structured classroom environment, whether online or in-person, teachers can help students not just learn but also thrive.

Citations for Online Classroom Management Tips For Handling Challenging Students
1 Watson, A. (2018, March 07). 8 ways to redirect off-task behavior without stopping your lesson. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from
2 Miller, C. (2020, June 22). How Trauma Affects Kids in School. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from

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