Strategies for Getting Students Back on Track

Strategies for Getting Students Back on Track

Helping students get back on track when they are engaged in off-task or rule-breaking behavior is an important goal when responding to misbehavior. We want students to quickly get back to positively participating in the lesson or activity. Our ultimate goal is for students to recognize when they are off-task, and then employ strategies to get themselves following the rules again so they can do their best learning.

When students are not following the rules, we are also learning something about skills they may be lacking. Carving out some time to teach our students strategies for getting back on track can go a long way in meeting the goal of students doing this independently.

Refocusing If Attention Wanders (Grades K – 6)

A common off-task classroom behavior for elementary students is when a student’s attention drifts away from the lesson or activity. This can leave a student feeling lost or even embarrassed when they realize they’ve missed something important. This could lead to distracting other students or giving up and disengaging from the activity. 

In The Language of Learning, author Margaret Berry Wilson shares some ideas for teaching students how to refocus if their attention wanders. Knowing how to do this quickly is essential to ensuring that students’ learning stays on track. 

Set the purpose for learning how to refocus attention by saying something like, “You’re all working hard to improve your listening skills. I’ve seen you sustaining your attention for longer and longer periods of time. But everyone occasionally gets distracted. Effective listeners know how to refocus their attention back on the speaker. We’re going to learn some strategies to help us refocus and respectfully find out what we may have missed.” 

Use a demonstration lesson to share some concrete ways to refocus. Choose a few students ahead of time to help you and practice with them in advance. Pretend to be teaching a lesson, talking to the small group of students. The student demonstrators can each choose a strategy to show, such as sitting up straighter or asking the speaker to repeat her last point. Debrief with the entire class after the demonstration. Prompt the demonstrators to share what they thought as they used various techniques to refocus on the speaker. For example, you could ask, “When you sat up straighter, can you tell us what you thought when you did that? How did that help you?” Ask audience members to share other ideas they have for refocusing attention. 

Ideally, we would provide students some time to practice this new skill. However, it is a tricky skill to practice, because you don’t want to encourage your students to become distracted! Instead, use reminding language at the start of a lesson or activity to prompt students about these skills. Share with students a few strategies to try if they lose focus while engaging in academic conversations or while listening to you during a mini-lesson. An anchor chart with some early warning signs of losing focus can help provide ongoing support. 

Also, consider posting some examples of language students can use to respectfully ask a speaker to repeat information they may have missed:

  • “Sorry, I missed your last point. Could you say that again?”
  • “I spaced for a minute. Could you go back to the part when you said ______?”
  • “I heard ______ but I missed what you said after that. Can you repeat that part?”
Disagreeing Respectfully (Grades 6 – 8)

An off-task behavior that could lead to rule-breaking behavior if left unchecked can happen when a student disagrees with a classmate or with you. When a disagreement cannot be expressed honestly and respectfully, it can leave a student feeling frustrated, angry, or defeated. Those feelings might result in unkind words, small acts of aggression, or shutting down and refusing to participate.

Many students have internalized adults’ well-meaning message that being kind and polite means they should not show disagreement. It’s important that students understand the benefits of respectful disagreement. The Language of Learning offers many ideas for teaching students how to respectfully disagree and respond to disagreements. 

One idea is to introduce the skill of disagreeing respectfully by acknowledging that disagreements will happen and that they are a natural part of learning together and building a positive academic community. Try saying something like, “To keep our learning community positive and respectful, it’s important to express disagreement in honest and credible ways that preserve relationships. This involves respectfully providing reasons and evidence for a disagreement and courteously challenging someone else’s reasons and evidence.”

Follow up with a short discussion using an open-ended question like, “In this class, we use meaningful conversations to help us learn. But sometimes we might disagree with our classmates. Why might it be helpful for us to tell each other when we disagree?” If students have studied historical figures who have expressed disagreement, such as Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi, point to their work as examples of the importance of voicing disagreement. Be direct when you conclude this discussion. “In our class, it’s OK to disagree. But we need to express our disagreements respectfully.”

Use Interactive Modeling to teach students how to give reasons and evidence for disagreeing. Choose a student ahead of time to help you with the interactive modeling demonstration. Ask the student to be ready to explain a math problem and the solution aloud to the class, pretending that their method is the only way to find the correct answer. 

1. Describe what you will model and why. 

“I’ll show you how to disagree in a way that is both respectful and informative. Watch how I disagree with Jayden about a math problem.”

2. Model the behavior while students notice. Demonstrate a respectful disagreement. Have the student volunteer explain their solution to a math problem and tell why it’s the only solution. Then show how to use your voice and body language to disagree respectfully. Also be sure to model giving a sound reason for your disagreement.

“Jayden, I respectfully disagree that your solution is the only one. I think there is another way to join the four triangles and make a new shape. May I show you?”

Ask students what they noticed.

“How did I show Jayden that I disagreed while still making sure I stayed kind and respectful?”

Encourage students to share about your courteous tone of voice, friendly facial expression and body language, and the words you used. Follow up with a question.

“How did my disagreement help everyone’s learning?”

3. Give students the opportunity to collaborate and practice. Using a similar math problem, pair students up and have them practice expressing disagreement and the reasons behind it in the same way you modeled.

4. Reinforce their practice with immediate feedback. 

“I hear many of you respectfully telling your partner why you don’t agree with them.”

An anchor chart can be helpful, especially for students who are struggling with this skill. You can either create these charts yourself and teach the content to students, or engage students in helping you generate the content. 

Explicitly teaching students how to get back on track is an essential skill for optimal learning. Students who can listen carefully and respectfully disagree will be more successful both in and outside of school, and be more likely to grow into thoughtful, caring citizens. Consider times when your students get off-track. Are there opportunities for skill-building, where you can teach students some strategies to help them self-correct? It’s important that we get students quickly back to learning. Teaching students how to do this on their own will become an important tool for life-long learning. 


Written by Kristen Vincent, Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher
Tags: Conversation Skills, Empathy