More Time on Task, Fewer Headaches: How to Make it Happen in Your Classroom

Proactive strategies to ensure students are engaged and getting their needs met without disrupting the classroom

By Dana Goodier

Have you ever wondered how you can achieve more time on task in your classroom? More time to get everything you had planned for the year done and not more wasted time dealing with inappropriate behaviors? More student engagement during your lessons about famous artists and new techniques you are teaching? Well, if you’re one of those teachers who find that too much time in class is spent on dealing with low-level (and sometimes higher-level) problem behaviors, this article is meant to help you!

You probably are aware from your experience in the classroom that students can fall into three types. They are the Always, the Sometimes, and the Never students. Your “always” kids are “always” on task. They are a joy to have in class; they seem to “always” do the right thing. Your “sometimes” students might sometimes pay attention, sometimes do their work, are sometimes on time, and listen to you sometimes! Finally, your “never” students are the type you aren’t prepared for when you enter teaching. These kids are never on time, never listen, and are never prepared. They are also never sick! What can we do as educators to ensure that our “sometimes” and “never” students are engaged and getting their needs met, without disrupting the classroom?

There are three classroom management styles most teachers employ: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative. Dahlgren, Malas, Faulk & Lattimer (2008), put it this way:

Classroom management style essentially relates to how a teacher manages student behavior in his or her classroom and encompasses a wide range of approaches, from the authoritarian “dictator” to the permissive “hands-off” teacher. But a middle-of-the-road approach for most classroom situations combines the positive elements of both extremes (p. 103).

Another thing that is important to remember that in building relationships with students, we should use both contingent and non-contingent interactions. Contingent interactions involve talking to students about school-related things, such as how well you think they did on their mosaic project. Non-contingent interactions happen when you’re talking to them as human beings, such as complimenting them on how well they playing in the game or acted in the school play last night. These two types of interactions need to be 50/50 with your students so they know you are interested in them and respect them as human beings, not just as members of your class.

The key is to use proactive, not reactive strategies. “Kids don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” said Madeline Hunter. Relationships being built are the cornerstone of building a positive classroom environment! (Dahlgren, et al., 2008). Proactive strategies can include changing up the seating arrangement often and without warning, maintaining close proximity to students while they are working, and considering ecological classroom settings such as lighting, sound, and smell.

Recently I bought an essential-oil diffuser for my classroom. Most students enjoy the different scents I put in it, but if it bothers them, they are free to turn it off as they please. I also tend to play some type of soothing music while kids work. I find it helps students concentrate and it also is a simple gauge for me to tell if the noise level in the room is getting too high — if I can’t hear the music in the farthest corner from where it’s playing, then students’ working voices are too loud.

We have all heard how positive reinforcement can increase the likelihood that a desired behavior will happen in the future. We’ve seen this in canine training classes and with preschoolers. How often do we use it with our K-12 students? Many of us use some form of PBIS (positive behavior intervention and support) but the rewards that come with using “PRIDE” tickets and other common forms of rewards only motivate some students. In exploring what works for your particular group of students, you can come up with incremental rewards that may be based on a points system, tickets, or other ways of tracking positive behaviors.

Using the model of “teaching to expectations” (as described in Dahlgren & Lattimer, 2012), teachers are able to come up with a way to model positive behaviors. Many teachers believe that students know what appropriate behaviors are. However, even at the secondary level, it is imperative for teachers to start out the school year modeling the behaviors he or she expects to see in class. This can be accomplished by role play or student input and must be followed up when an infraction occurs.

We too often see that after the “honeymoon period,” teachers get lax on their behavioral expectations. When students see that as an opportunity to act out, the teacher will start having difficulty maintaining authority in the classroom. Three crucial steps to the process are:

  1. identify areas of need
  2. devote adequate time to “teaching-to” the rules and routines
  3. develop a lesson plan for your classroom expectations, rules and routines (Dahlgren et al., 2008).

There comes a time, even with the best-laid routines, where a student will want to “test how far they can bend the rules.” Often, this can come in the form of a low-level misbehavior such as tapping a pencil or crumpling a water bottle. When consequences are needed, push the negative behavior aside with a short message to the student and deal with it during a more appropriate moment (such as during lunch or a passing period) instead of taking away from the teaching momentum in the moment.

The key to maintaining teacher self-control is to avoid having power struggles. If students are questioning your authority or credibility by statements such as “this is stupid” or “Mr. Jones did it a different way,” then acknowledge their statement and move on. Use a simple de-fuser such as “maybe so” or “probably,” and continue with your teaching without skipping a beat. You can easily come up with de-fusers that will work for you.

As we plan ahead for a new school year, best practices are to implement clear expectations and a set of intervention steps from day one.



Dahlgren, R., & Hyatt, J. (2007). Time to teach: encouragement, empowerment and excellence in every classroom. Hayden Lake, ID: Center for Teacher Effectiveness (CTE).

Dahlgren, R., & Lattimer, M. (2012). Teach-tos: 100 behavior lesson plans and essential advice to encourage high expectations and winning classroom behavior! Hayden Lake, ID: Center for Teacher Effectiveness.

Dahlgren, R., Malas, B., Faulk, J. & Lattimer, M. (2008). Time to teach! The source for classroom management! Hayden Lake, ID: Center for Teacher Effectiveness.



About the author: Dana Goodier is a veteran teacher, aspiring administrator, and speaker on classroom management and student engagement. She is currently pursuing an EdD in Educational Leadership at Capella University. You may find out more by visiting her website or by following her on Twitter @danagoodier