29 Nov 2012
Updated30 Nov2012

Bad Behavior in an ESL Kids classroomWe’ve all been there.  We’ve planned a great lesson with lots of fun and stimulating activities, the kids in the class are great, you’ve got wonderful materials … but it is all spoilt by one or two kids who seemingly have no interest in your lesson or learning English.

Or it could be small things where you just can’t seem to get control of the class in the way you would like to: constantly having to repeat instructions, always asking certain students to be quite or stop poking their friend with their pencil or just trying to motivate slow, unresponsive kids.

There are many types of misbehavior and just as many ways to deal with them.  In this post we’ll look at the signs of negative behavior in your ESL kids class and then discuss ways that these can be managed.  At the end of the article is a comment box – if you have any of your own ideas or comments on this article we would love to hear from you!


Signs of Bad Behavior

This list is by all means not complete, but shows some of the more common signs of bad behavior.  It is roughly ordered in severity from borderline bad behavior (or perhaps not even bad behavior at all) to completely unacceptable behavior.

  • Not standing or sitting straight
  • Laughing at inappropriate times
  • Wearing inappropriate clothes or jewelry
  • Showing rebellious, sullen or bored expressions
  • Staring out of the window
  • Doodling when the teacher is speaking or during activities
  • Not using polite language when asking for things
  • Practical jokes
  • Making inappropriate noises with classroom objects (rocking chairs, etc.)
  • Speaking in their own language when they should be using English
  • Deliberately going slow
  • Not doing homework
  • Making rude noises
  • Not listening
  • Cheating in games
  • Not following instructions
  • Speaking when should be quiet
  • Refusing to do what the teacher asks
  • Doing the opposite of what the teacher asks
  • Cheating in tests
  • Saying bad or hurtful things
  • Saying bad words, e.g. cussing, swearing
  • Vandalism
  • Fighting
  • Making violent threats to students or teacher


Dealing With Bad Behavior

Dealing quickly with bad behavior is important: students need to know that what they have done is unacceptable and there will be a consequence for their actions.  Bad behavior can be dealt with by a punishment or certain steps can put put in place to avoid bad behavior.


Punishments for Bad Behavior

The following punishments are listed in order of strictness.  Choosing the right punishment to fit bad behavior is important – kids are very good at assessing this and may retaliate if they feel hard done by.  Moreover, if your punishment is too weak they may continue to misbehave.

  • Look at the students disapprovingly
  • Use the “hands up” instruction – on saying this all Ss must raise their hands and be silent. Hands can only come down again once control is gained
  • Count down from 5, then punish if not working
  • Take points off their team
  • Call out the name of the misbehaving student
  • Move the misbehaving student away from their friends
  • Sit everyone elsewhere (e.g. boys next to girls)
  • Disqualify their team from the game
  • Point to the door (indicting that they will leave the room if they continue to misbehave)
  • Write down the student’s name on the board or a special book
  • Leave the student out of the next activity
  • Make the student do some written work while the others play a game
  • Make the student tidy up the room
  • Make the student stand when everyone is sitting
  • Make the student stand in the corner
  • Stop the game and move onto written work
  • Talk to the student after class
  • Put black marks on a special wall chart
  • Put a black mark or message in the student’s notebook
  • Send the student out of the class for 5 minutes
  • Tell the school’s head teacher / manager / director
  • Tell the student’s parents


Rewards to Avoid Bad Behavior

In an ideal world we would be able to implement actions to encourage students to be good so you wouldn’t need to deal with bad behavior. Although in practice this may not always work, it can help to reduce misbehavior.  Here are some ideas:

  • Give teams not misbehaving extra points
  • Keep the same teams for several lessons (e.g. one month) and give a prize to the winning team
  • Start a fun game with the first students to finish written work and only when others finish their work they can join in.  The game ends when the last student finishes his/her work (and therefore misses the game)
  • Put stickers on good written work
  • Put stickers on a wall chart for good work / behavior
  • Praise good work / behavior
  • Smile directly at good students
  • Point out the best student or team
  • Give a round of applause
  • Use positive gestures (thumbs up, victory signs, etc.)
  • Assign class captains (sometimes assigning a misbehaving student as a captain is effective)
  • Give badges for “The best at …” (spelling, pronunciation, giving answers, etc.)
  • As a reward when the class is good play a favorite game
  • Give out candies or small toys (if candies are allowed!)
  • Write positive comments in the student’s book of after a piece of written work


Managing Good Behavior

Finally, here are some tips to manage good behavior in class (in no particular order) – this will help encourage continued good behavior.

  • Be consistent: this is the most important tip.  Students need to know what the boundaries are and these boundaries should never change.
  • Make sure students (and parents) know what you consider to be good and bad behavior
  • Start from a blank state once a student has been punished
  • Do yourself what you expect your students to do
  • Teach a lesson topic on good behavior
  • Have clear gestures and phrases for things you want your students to do (and make sure they understand them)
  • Play games where good behavior is encouraged
  • Manage energy levels
  • Make sure your lesson is fun
  • Bond with your students (e.g. find common interests, give nicknames, remember birthdays, etc.)
  • Plan classroom management into your lesson plan
  • Think about why some students are misbehaving and experiment with ways to change their bad behavior

Of further interest:

Check out our Classroom Management Tips page in our Teaching Tips section.

9 thoughts on “Dealing with Bad Behavior in an ESL Kids classroom”

  1. Great post – very useful to see so many specific actionable things that teachers can do to get students to behave. I think that encouraging positive behavior is the first barrier that teachers of young learners need to overcome before learning can start happening.

    In training I like to get trainees to remember the The three “R”s to promote positive behavior.
    1. Set rules. There’s no point in giving positive and negative comments about your students’ behavior if they don’t know how they’re meant to behave. Spend the first 5 minutes of every lesson eliciting what your kids can and can’t do in the classroom. If they don’t have enough English, get them to act out classroom rules or explain in their first language.
    2. Reinforce positive behavior. Catch them doing something right. When nine of your students are jumping up and down shouting out answers, praise the quiet kid in the corner with his hand up. If one student forgets their homework, praise the nine that remembered it.
    3. Ratio. Make sure that every one of your students gets six times more positive reinforcement for their behavior than criticism. Praise students for raising their hands, coming on time, helping others, participating, putting their stuff away quickly at the end of the lesson, etc.

    1. I love this idea of reinforcing positive/conducive behaviour. This is quite helpful. I tend to perceive teachers/ bodies of authority to dismiss unhelpful behaviour & take conducive behaviour for granted. Thank you

  2. It’s important to reflect on why the student is behaving a certain way – is it a cultural thing? Are they tired? Maybe they just don’t understand, and rather than look dumb they misbehave. There are so many things that are different for our ESL students. It’s hard work trying to fit into another culture.

  3. I have 2 1st grade Arabic boys that refuse to do work in their regular teacher’s classroom. They are twins and are very behind academically.Today one of them (the dominant twin) wrote a very nasty word at the bottom of his work and has started walking around holding his crotch! The teacher has asked me (ESL teacher)for help. Any suggestions?

  4. In my opinion, every teacher should think about him or herself ,so they can change their behavior or their method,
    speaking and behaving in a calm way is more effective in the class,so the students can count on the teacher.

    all the punishments were good and effective thanks.

  5. Hi ICAL TEFL, thanks for your comment!

    Yes, a valid point. However, in many cases, ESL teachers only limited time with their students, for example, I only meet my 5 year olds for 45 minutes once a week, so it can be difficult to spend time discovering what is causing bad behavior. In many cases, taking quick corrective action works and there are no other issues. However, if bad behavior persists then the ideal action is to look more deeply, if possible, into what could be causing this.

  6. I think the main thing missing here is discovering WHY the kids behave badly. Are they bored? Do they not understand the lesson? Problems at home? Is the lesson too easy?

    It’s all fine punishing bad behavior and rewarding good, but once you work out why you can then start to rectify it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *