Classroom Behavior Management, Tattletale "Elfs," and the Fine Art of Cat Herding

Posted by debraallenellis December 11, 2017



Elves on Shelves – never had one before, but, as an elementary school teacher, I have DEFINITELY heard my share of stories about those little buggers. Every school morning, between Thanksgiving and Winter Break, half the class or so comes barging in the door to tell me about their elf’s latest prank at home. I wish I had a dollar for every time a breathless child (or 12), rushing across the room, has urgently bombarded me with, “Guess what my elf did today?” This year, a few of those kids wrote persuasive letters to me, asking for a classroom elf. So, I did the only logical thing a person could be expected to do in response to children who were actually writing something willingly, without being forcibly coerced—I went straight to Amazon.  

Hey, Mizz Ellis! Guess what my elf did this morning?


A few years ago, when I was teaching in a much larger, more suburban, and more diverse school district, an EotS wouldn’t have been appropriate, as I had many students who didn’t celebrate Christmas. I wouldn’t have dreamed of inviting one of these little pranksters into my classroom at that time. But, the rural district I’m in now seems to have allowed many elvish invaders into a number of classrooms. So, I’m giving it a try and, I suppose, I’ll have to reanalyze the data every year, based on the believe-o-meter of each class. When students are 7-8 years old, these can be VERY dangerous waters and I usually avoid them like the plague. I would be crushed if a child learned the devastating truth in my classroom.


Miss Ewwis, you ain’t gonna beweive what my ewf did!


Twinkle Reese Snowball is the name we voted for our new elf. She hasn’t YET gotten into too much trouble or made too many messes. But, if she does, you can be sure that the kids are cleaning ‘em up. THEY wished for her, so I think that’s fair. I ain’t doin’ it.   

Choclat poop chips ALL over the place!


I’m quickly realizing that Twinkle is a fabulous classroom behavior management tool for this time of year (remember—many kids lost their ever-lovin’ minds sometime around Halloween). Learning doesn’t stop simply because it’s an exciting time of the year, so teachers have to get super creative if we expect to get anything accomplished. My battle stratagem for this holiday season is to use Twinkle in conjunction with some special good behavior coupons I printed. What makes those coupons more special than the regular behavior coupons I use the other 160ish days of the school year? Colored paper. Doesn’t even matter which color—only that it’s not white. Yes, folks, it is THAT easy to get kids excited about a 2”x1.5” piece of paper.  


Wait’ll you hear what my elf did! You ain't gonna believe it!


As an undergrad education student, I was required to take a variety of courses that included classroom behavior management strategies. Yet NOT ONE professor EVER suggested buying a danged elf, who could tattle to Santa on my behalf and help keep behavior under control during a month when kids are bouncing around like little holiday jumping beans. Surely, with the popularity of these creatures in recent years, there must now be a course such as EotS-300 for elementary education students. Maybe school districts could even offer some PD to current teachers to help answer our questions too. For example, what do I do when a nonbelieving kid who is visiting from another class goes crazy and TOUCHES our elf—right on her head?!All the other students were HORRIFIED and I froze. Didn’t know WHAT to do, so I scrambled, did the best I could, and helped her cower in fear within the branches of our Christmas tree for a day. I know I probably could have done something more effective, but I have no idea where one would purchase magic dust, so, PLEASE, a little guidance on significant issues such as these would be welcome.  

My mom says our elf must be lazy. She didn’t EVEN MOVE last night.


Sheesh, though, for the most part, it’s pretty darned easy to partner with Twinkle to get the kids to behave. Thanks to their families and former teachers, I don’t even have to be a meany and hurl empty threats about the elf running straight to Santa with any naughty intel. THEY ALREADY KNOW.   Just  spying that little elf for the first time when they walked into the classroom a couple of weeks ago was enough to activate any prior brainwashing. Those kids are preprogrammed. Without question, “Elfs” on “Shelfs” should be included in modern day behavior modification research. 


Hey, Miss Ellis, you know those elfs ain’t real—right? My mom 

told me to keep that to myself, but, I believed in ‘em 

when I was a little kid too.


“Elfs” are great, but now, you may be thinking . . . what about behavior management during the other 9 months of the school year?




Well, you MAY find this hard to believe, but there are some children who do not come to school automatically ready to learn, regardless of the time of the year. No kidding. Their natural behavior isn’t always conducive to a constructive classroom environment. Therefore, some of them actually need a teensy bit of structure and guidance to get to that sweet spot, where they’re ready to become engaged in their own education and be considerate of others’ learning as well. Kids just don’t seem to be born knowing how to behave. Go figure.


You’re NOT listenin’ to me—I SAID—I WANT MY MOMMY!


Initially, that kid—you know—the one who’s crawling under his desk or hiding in his cubby, whining for his mommy—probably isn’t going to have the same positive learning outcome as his peers. Effective teachers begin the year with a plan in place to make sure THAT kid gets the support he needs to demonstrate sufficient growth to move on to the next grade, academically, socially, and emotionally. Of course, the goal is to have ALL students following classroom expectations, simply because it’s the right thing to do, and we usually get there—eventually. But, as we all know, it takes some kids a little longer to arrive at that point, so teachers need to equip themselves with an arsenal of behavior strategies.


You can’t make me!


New teachers take a course or ten in Classroom Management, where we learn about structuring our classrooms and implementing procedures that will manage the behavior and work habits of the majority of the classroom, so that all can learn. We need to think proactively in setting up our classroom routines and make changes when a procedure isn’t as effective or efficient as it could be—OR  ELSE. Adjustments may be necessary annually, monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, or minute-by-minute, depending upon the personality of each class. We simply must stay on top of classroom management if students are going to learn anything, and if we’re going to achieve those amazing test scores everyone is always having a conniption over. 


YOU are NOT the boss of ME!


Most kids behave appropriately with a little guidance and respond well to familiar routines and procedures. Simple, positive reinforcement strategies are all that are needed to keep most kids on track. A little extra effort with kids who need more support can be super effective too. I think it’s OK to reward those kids for their successes, in simple ways, to help teach them appropriate behavior. Then, my philosophy is that we should gradually scale back on the extra reward system, until the regular reward system and some simple praise work. If all goes well, eventually, those kids simply do what is asked of them the first time they are asked, because they know the expectation and respect it. Even then, it never hurts to give students compliments or pats on the back for appropriate behavior. Everyone deserves to know that his or her efforts are appreciated—adults and children alike. 



I’ve been fortunate enough to teach in two schools that are in some stage of implementing positive behavior strategies, rather than punitive. Personally, I think children respond to us and respect us more when we treat them similarly. Nobody wants to dwell on his or her failures all the time. Beating down a kid with negative consequences and punishments teaches him or her nothing. Actually, it’s usually the same kids you’ll see being punished, in the same way, over and over again in a classroom that engages in such practices. That kid who can’t focus in class, never finishes her work, and is punished by being forced to do it on the playground at recess or other fun times every single day has not learned what she needs to know about managing her time wisely. How could she if this is her fate EVERY DAY? Perhaps that child would actually get an opportunity to play and burn off some of her extra energy if she had some coaching on time management, rather than daily punishment. Kids aren’t born knowing how to behave and survive in this world. We need to teach them these skills. With no mentoring or motivation to change, those kids may not grow as they should, behaviorally or emotionally. They may never gain the sense of confidence we all need to help us feel successful. Therefore, they aren’t likely to achieve academic goals, and their self-esteem will suffer even more. It is a vicious cycle, indeed, 

I’m tellin’ the principal on you!


Consequently, kids who repeatedly face punishment for poor work habits or behavior choices, in which they have received no support to change, tend to either withdraw, so that no one notices their failures, or they intentionally misbehave, to gain negative attention in a different way, thinking they’ll distract their peers from noticing their failures. Like anyone else, kids need to be able to hold onto some shred of dignity and they’ll attempt to do that in any way they can manage, whether it seems reasonable to others or not. Rather than forcing kids into wasting time on all that unconstructive behavior through our punitive means, we need to celebrate their positive accomplishments, regardless of how insignificant they may seem in comparison to other, higher-performing, students (“Janie, I like the way you stayed in your seat and tried to finish your math assignment. You worked really hard for five whole minutes. Good for you! Now, let’s keep up the good work!”). That’s how I think we can help equip kids with more confidence and perseverance. Knowing that they have the ability to work or behave in a more productive way will encourage them to set higher goals and attempt other challenges with a positive outlook, including academics. 


But, I ALREADY tode you that I DON'T want to.


We become teachers to educate children and prepare them to survive in the world, not to frustrate them, humiliate them, make them feel unsuccessful, and reinforce negative behaviors. Chances are that some of those kids are already getting enough of that someplace else in their, perhaps, unstable world. We should be teaching them to cope and aim higher. It’s our job. I’ve been taught that it takes FOUR POSITIVE INTERACTIONS with a child to even BEGIN to counter the effects of ONE NEGATIVE INTERACTION. Shame on us if we aren't taking some of these opportunities to teach and mentor, rather than punish. So often, when dealing with difficult behavior, teachers say that we have no control over what happens with challenging kids in their homes and that’s absolutely true, but it doesn’t let us off the hook from trying our best to help these kids for the 8ish hours per day they are in our care. What we do during those hours matters a lot and could be exactly the type of guidance some kids need to achieve better behavior, increased social skills, and greater success in life. With some kids, we may even need to go a step further and create a behavior contract of some sort to help them focus. Yes, it’s another thing to add to our enormous to-do lists, but we gotta do what we gotta do.




Probably, every teacher has studied Dr. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It illustrates the basic needs humans must have fulfilled, to some degree, before academic success can be attained. How can a kid fully focus on his or her classwork effectively if he or she is lacking in the area of esteem? Age-appropriate physiological, emotional, and social growth create a foundation that will support academic success.


I TRY to be as positive as I can be by rewarding students’ good behavior and work habits. Definitely, I have regretful moments and missed opportunities, but, most of the time, I try to stick to a reward system. Rewards can be as simple as notes, pats on the back, a thumbs-up, behavior coupons that can be traded for classroom privileges, inexpensive treats, etc. Specific verbal praise is a huge motivator, but it must be SPECIFIC. If you say, “Good job!” to a kid, he or she may not realize what you’re addressing. They need to hear comments such as, “Good job keeping your hands to yourself as you walk down the hall,” “I like the way you read quietly and remained focused the whole time,” “What a good friend you are, helping your classmate clean up those spilled crayons,” “Wow! You really managed your time well this morning--finishing your breakfast and your morning work before 7:35.” Many kids need teachers to be THAT specific, as often as is possible. Otherwise, a student may have no idea what we're complimenting, so the reinforcement moment is lost. 


Kids don’t need anything fancy. They just need to know that someone has noticed their efforts and has verified that they are on the right track. They don’t know that for certain unless they get some form of confirmation from someone they trust. Sometimes, I think adults assume too much with kids—we assume that they know more than they actually do about simple things. For example, second graders need to be taught, over and over again, the correct way to use notebook paper. “Holes and red lines on the left with the big empty space on top” is not something kids innately understand. They aren’t born realizing that they have the ability to blow their own snotty noses AND throw the tissue directly into a trashcan, rather than leave it lying on a neighbor’s desk or on the floor. Some of them have no awareness of others’ needs for personal space. Many kids master concepts such as these at home, but there are some who do not. When necessary, we should be aware of their gaps in understanding of appropriate behavior and work habits, so we can guide them in the right direction. 


Plus, kids don’t always know how to be kind to others. We need to be good examples in that regard and using positive reinforcement as consistently as possible is an easy way to model kindness. If the teacher a kid spends 175 days with is a good model of kindness, don’t you think that will make a big impact? Modeling isn’t enough, though. We must also explicitly teach many kids HOW to treat others with kindness and respect. Yes, another thing to add to the to-do list, but it’s what we signed up for.



No day is perfect and every child has different needs, but I DO try to adhere to an atmosphere of positive reinforcement as much as possible, and every day is a new beginning. I pwomise. Most days, that philosophy works pretty well for me—most days. 

Miss Ellis, how come you ain’t been smilin’ too much today?


Sorry to all my teacher neighbors at school for blowing my recess whistle IN THE CLASSROOM a few times yesterday. I hope it didn't bother you. Regular classroom management maneuvers fell short and drastic action was necessary. Thankfully, all survived and were accounted for. By "all," of course, I mean "me."   

But, HE told me to.


Kids earn coupons in my class for responsible behavior and they can use them to purchase simple, but fun rewards. One of their absolute favorites is to trade/swap desks with someone else for the day, so they can sit with their friends. One day this week, a little boy was slowly trudging across the room, toting a messy bundle of his things to another area. He looked up as he passed me with a disgusted sneer and mumbled, "Somebody swiped my desk again."

                                           BUT, he . . . then I . . . and her . . .  


A student spent some good behavior coupons to set up a show-and-tell performance for the class AND to invite a lunch buddy from another class. I said, "Great! Do you want me to set both up for tomorrow?" The student replied, "Whoa, Mrs. Ellis! Don't you think that's a little too much excitement for one day? Maybe we should spread it out over two."  

That wuddn’t me.


I overheard a student get upset with another teacher in the room, over what I expected would be a fun writing activity. After he calmed down, I called him out on his behavior:


Me: “There’s no reason for you to get so upset about this. I know you’re tired, because of all the testing we’ve done this week. So, if you really feel strongly about not writing the poem, as we asked, you need to talk to us about it. Maybe we would have let you draw a picture of the animal instead.”

Student: “Well, I just cain’t do that poetry writin’ today.”

Me: “OK, but crying isn’t going to help solve the issue and neither is yelling.”

Student: “But, I was ONLY just startin’ to cry and I wasn’t REALLY yellin’.”

Me: “To me, it sounded like the tone of voice you were using with your teacher wasn’t very nice. What do you think? Do you owe her an apology?”

Student: “Well . . . maybe I do. I did have just a little—sorta—in the middle of a tune of voice.”


Later, he said, “Sorry, but rhymin’ words just ain’t my thang, so I’m not good at writin’ poems.”   

                                               I am tellin' my momma on you!

Had a lovely lunch with a student today, who saved up her good behavior coupons to eat with me. How sweet!

SHE said YOU said we could.

In my class, we're having a bit of an off-and-on dispute among some boys. One of the boys told his mom that it seems like there are two teams; some of the boys are on the red team and some of the boys are on the blue team. But one of the boys is purple and not taking sides. 

Yeah, but it was only da first time I ever done it.


We have a visitor in class today, for show & tell, but he had trouble focusing and was banished to the teacher's desk. Still not paying attention.  




Dat udder kid . . . over dere . . . HE did it too.

Proof that a second grade work ethic is nothing to sneeze at:
Student: Wow, the days are really going fast this week!
Me: Yes, they are. It's because we've been so busy and you've worked so hard.
Student: I know! This is the best week of my life!  

What I gotta do again ta get those coopons?

If you gettin’ ready to tell me to stop whinin’, it ain’t gonna help, ‘cause I ain’t ready to quit whinin’ yet. 

That’s it. I'm tired of this and I’m goin’ back to first grade.

This is so true. Teaching our children to think about others is what will make them successful in life.  



But, I TODE her she could get in front of me. That’s NOT cutting.
  (Hmm . . . righhhttttt . . . maybe you should ask the other 22 kids lined up behind you guys.

You know how you cringe when you hear your children repeat the sassy things you say? Happens to me at school all the time and, horrified, I always promise myself that I'll never make those statements again. LOL! If only I had a dollar. . . . Anyway, today, I was working with a small group on one side of the room, while another small group was working independently on the other side of the class. In the distance, I hear, "Hey guys, it's time to cut the chitchat and get back to work." LOL! That one worked out nicely.

Shhhhh! We already 3 minutes late for recess!


Me: “Why did you do that?”

Student (appalled): “Cuz _____ TOLD me to.”

I wish there had been one school day in the last 14 years when this situation didn’t occur. Ditto the next:

Student (accusingly): “Miss Ellis! Somebody stole my _______!”

Me: “Why in the world would someone want to steal your ________ when we have plenty of extras? Did you look in your pencil box?”

Student (sheepishly): “Oh.” 

Pondering the moments wasted on conversations such as these makes me crazy.


Stop talkin’ or she ain’t never gonna let us go outside!


This morning, during arrival time, only a handful of kids are in the classroom, quietly beginning their morning work. A teacher is in the hall, calling out to some students in the distance. One kid mumbles, "Boy, that teacher sure is loud." Another responds with, "Yeah, that's what teachers are made for."


Stop shushing me!


We were walking down the hall, past a line of younger kids. As we passed, I overheard a teacher walk up to speak to their line leader: “Well hello there. Nice to see you out today. The last time I saw you, you were under a table.”   K-1 teachers really do deserve some extra combat pay.




Add comment