What to Do About Badly-Behaved Children in an EFL Classroom

Thai student sleeping – copyright Love Krittaya, Public Domain

Every EFL/ESL teacher, no matter which country they teach in, comes across badly-behaved children eventually. Some are easy to handle, some are not but all should be dealt with quickly before the bad behavior spreads to other kids in the class.

In my years of EFL teaching in Thailand, I discovered with most kids in my classes who were badly-behaved, it was often because they didn’t understand and felt stupid. But, rather than admitting they were confused and asking for help, they thought acting out in class was much more ‘cool’.

Dealing with badly-behaved children isn’t all that difficult. Follow these few tips and you’ll notice a difference quickly in how your problem students behave.

Don’t Reward Bad Behavior With More Attention – For most badly-behaved children in an EFL classroom, they’re actually looking for attention. Sometimes starved for attention at home, they’ll get it at school if they can, even if that means getting it by behaving badly.

Overall, most kids would rather have positive attention but if negative attention comes their way, that’s alright too. That’s why, when a student in your class is constantly behaving badly, the worst thing you can do is keep giving them attention because of their bad behavior. That’s what they’re looking for.

In my classes, I speak to them, make them apologize quickly and move on. The worse my students behave, the less attention they get from me. Over a course of a few days or weeks, when they see the kids who are behaving well getting the most attention, a large percentage stop the bad behavior and ‘move over to the light side’ themselves. I then reward their good behavior with more attention. Works almost every time.

Constantly Move Around Your Classroom – The biggest mistake I see beginning EFL/ESL teachers make is to stand or worse, sit, at the front of the class for an entire period. Usually, kids who have problems understanding sit at the back of the class. When the teacher is at the front and isn’t aware of what every child is doing, the kids at the back will often be reading comic books, playing on their gaming devices, even text messaging friends on their phones.

That’s why, when I’m teaching any EFL class, I walk around the classroom and check on what each student is doing. That not only keeps them paying attention but, if they have problems with an exercise, they’re much more likely to ask you if you’re standing near them, rather than 20 feet away at the whiteboard.

Thai student – copyright Kudumomo, Creative Commons

Call Out The Bad Behavior And Not The Child – I’ve seen some EFL/ESL teachers berating kids so much, by the time they’ve finished the kid feels like a piece of dirt at the bottom of the teacher’s shoe. That doesn’t help anyone – child or teacher.

Make sure when you comment on bad behavior you only talk about the behavior itself and not the child. If you keep going on about what a ‘bad person’ the student is, after a while they’ll begin to believe it and act out even more.

I always focus on the behavior and tell them why that particular behavior isn’t acceptable. I then always mention something like “You’re a really smart girl. You know better than to behave like this”, letting her know I think she can do better. Surprisingly, most of my kids do.

Get To Know Each Child – When I start teaching a new class, I spend time over a few weeks getting to know the kids. I find out what their hobbies are, what they like to do, about their families and friends, and what they do on the weekends. That way, my students start to realize I’m treating them and getting to know them as people and not as empty heads I’m trying to drum English into.

Once you get to know your kids, they’ll open up more, they’ll like you and respect you more, and often behave better for you because of it. It’s more difficult to behave badly for a teacher you like and who you want to like you, than it is for one who’s barely got the time to learn your name.

Focus Your Classes On Their Interests – If I’m teaching children EFL or ESL, I always focus my classes on their interests. That means, if I’m going to teach a class about prepositions or the simple past tense, rather than teach a boring grammar class, I teach it in a way that grabs the childrens’ attention as it’s connected to their interests.

For instance, most of my Thai students love comic books and read them all the time. For one class on simple past tense, I photocopied several pages of a Thai comic book and used ‘White-out’ to eliminate all the Thai vocabulary leaving empty white cartoon bubbles. I then split my class into pairs and had each pair create a story by writing conversation using simple past tense into the bubbles in the comic book. Not only did they love doing it, I let them color it afterward so they had colorful comic books they had written themselves in English.

I’ve used lesson plans based on computer games, the latest music from Linkin Park, Rihanna or Nelly. I’ve created lessons based on movies they like or sports they play – anything to capture their attention. Plus, remember I told you most bad behavior comes from kids not understanding? They make much more of an effort to understand if the class actually looks like it’s fun.

Getting badly-behaved children in an EFL/ESL class to behave better isn’t all that difficult. Give them positive attention, praise the good things they do and get to know them a bit better. Pair all that with creating fun classes and always being aware of what each kid is doing and you should have few problems.