Dealing with a Naughty Child in Your ESL Classroom

People come to teach ESL to kids for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s a true calling.

But let’s be realistic. I know that a lot of you out there reading my blog are people who never really expected to find themselves teaching young children. You may have just thought that teaching was a good way to fund your travels (and it is). You may have switched from teaching adults to teaching kids because it’s more fun (it is). Maybe you even ended up in a school because you fell in love with someone from a different country and couldn’t find another type of work in that country.

In any case, the point is that a lot of teachers enter the ESL classroom without a lot of training and experience in working with children.

Sometimes, you get lucky. You end up with a class of studious junior high kids who are motivated to learn because they know it will help them in school.

Most of the time, though, you have a class full of young kids who’d rather be playing.

That’s hard.

To make things worse, you’ve probably found that your school is focused on profits, which means that they aren’t too keen on getting involved with behavior problems. A parent who feels that their child is being “unfairly picked on” is more likely to simply remove their child from the classroom. The school loses out on those hefty tuition payments.

So…this means that when you have a naughty kid in the classroom, you have to handle issues on your own.

Surprisingly (at least to those who don’t have a strong background in education), the key to having well-behaved kids in your ESL classroom is usually careful classroom management.

When you follow the basic tips below, your students are more likely to be engaged…at least as much as young kids are able to be.


Have a Plan…and a Backup Plan

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that kids are little monsters, they’ll definitely take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way. Perhaps you remember the joy you felt when you saw a substitute teacher and knew that it wouldn’t be business-as-usual?

Any time your back is turned to pick out a new set of flash cards or you’re fumbling around because you don’t quite know what to do, this gives the kids an opportunity to get off track. They might talk to their friends, poke the kid sitting next to them, or just start acting like the class clown to get laughs. Once this happens, you start to lose control of the class.

If you want to be successful in the ESL classroom, you need to go in with a plan. If your school doesn’t give you a lesson plan to work from, make your own up. It doesn’t have to be super-formal with a list of objectives and references as to how a particular game helps you achieve a particular outcome. Simply make a list of the things you want to do. Use my lesson plan if you’re not sure where to start.

You’ll also want to be sure that you have a backup plan up your sleeve. Sometimes, you’ll find that the kids just have more or less energy than you were expecting and you’ll have to make changes. Sometimes, the vocabulary you were planning is too easy or too difficult for the kids. A truly good teacher can switch gears without ever letting the kids know that something wasn’t part of the original plan. It’s important to have a few quick and easy games that you can pull out at a moment’s notice.

When you’re focused throughout your lesson, you’ll find that kids have less time to be naughty. They have to pay attention so that they don’t miss anything.

Get Up and Wiggle

A lot of the “naughtiness” comes when you try to force kids to sit down for formal learning. Most kids need to move around and wiggle, so if you expect the kid to “sit quietly and focus,” you’re basically setting her up for failure. You then get into a cycle where you’re constantly reprimanding the child, and she in turn starts acting out more because it’s getting your attention.

You don’t want this to happen.

Instead, plan your lessons to include plenty of opportunities to get up and move. Play more active games. Alternate periods of sitting with periods of dancing or standing. Even if it’s not part of your original plan, if you see the kids starting to get antsy, stop what you’re doing to play a quick game that gets them moving. Simon Says is good for this. You could also do a song and dance.

Active kids in the classroom tend to behave better.

Make Him Your Helper

Some kids act out because they want to get attention from the teacher. Some kids act out because they’re bored in the class and feel like they don’t have anything to do.

Both of these types of kids can benefit from being your “helper”. You might have him help put things away or hold the flashcards for you. If his English is good, you might have him lead one of the teams. The added responsibility can make kids shape up quickly.

Of course, sometimes when you do this, other kids start to get jealous about this “special” status that the other child is receiving. If this starts to happen, you may want to create a few different helper roles in the classroom and alternate between them.

Separate Troublemakers

Ever had a kid who’s a perfect angel when her buddy’s absent but a nightmare when they’re together? If so, you’ve got a troublemaker pair. Solving this problem can be fairly easy because you simply have to separate the two kids.

Assign seating if you’re in a classroom with desks. That makes it easy. Organizing alphabetically by last name sometimes makes it look as if their separation is random.

Most of the classrooms I worked in were less formal, though, and kids usually sat on the floor grouped around me. Friends naturally try to get their friends to sit next to them and it’s hard to control who sits next to who in a situation like that. However, as the teacher, you can always make one of them move when they’re distracting each other. Even young kids understand what they did wrong when you ask one to move.

Another way to separate troublemakers in a class where they generally choose their own seats is to plan the teams your way. One of my favorite techniques for doing this is asking the kids to count off by twos, creating a “1 team” and a “2 team”. Since your troublemakers are sitting together, they end up on different teams and it doesn’t look like you planned it.

Stickers and Rewards

Tread lightly with this one. A lot of teachers rely on using stickers and other rewards to get children to behave in the classroom. Schools have different policies on this. One school I worked for only allowed you to use their own branded stickers and stamps at the end of the class, while other schools don’t mind if you spend your own money on rewards.

Some teachers give a sticker to each student who was well-behaved at the end of the class. Sometimes, teachers even create a book or a sticker chart to give students a bigger reward once they hit a milestone.

This can work. That’s why teachers everywhere do it.

However, it’s also using an external reward for learning, which doesn’t necessarily create an optimal situation. Ideally, you want children to be happy about learning and behaving well simply because it’s the right thing to do. Rewarding them doesn’t always create this intrinsic desire.

It’s up to you and the school culture, but if you do decide to implement this strategy, be sure to be consistent with the way you reward your students.

When and How to Talk to Parents

If you’ve tried the above suggestions and nothing seems to be working, it might be time to talk to the parents. This is often made difficult because parents don’t always speak English and you might not speak their native language.

What can you do?

The first thing to do is to get some administrative support from your school. Let the principal or a head teacher know that you are having problems with one of the students. Try any ideas you get from them and see if they’ll let you talk with a parent.

In most cases, you’ll need a go-between. This could be one of the administrators or a native assistant teacher if you have one. This helps with the language problems.

The best way to go about the conversation is to approach the parent as a valuable resource. Simply saying, “Your child won’t behave” and leaving the conversation open after that can make the parent feel defensive. They’re more likely to pull their child out of the school in this situation. However, if you name the specific behavior and ask what works at home, you may get a different reaction. For instance, you might say, “I noticed your child has trouble sitting still. What does his teacher do about this?”

A lot of times, the parent is aware of behavior problems. They just don’t want to alert you to the problem ahead of time because you might be harder on the child if you go in knowing this. However, they’re likely to have a few suggestions. Sometimes, it’s better to use the same techniques and language that the child’s parents and other teachers use to maintain consistency.


Personally, the kids who are “naughty” are some of my favorites. I like kids that have a little bit of spunk. I know that it can be difficult to keep control of your class when you have kids who don’t care about following the rules, but you have a unique opportunity to adjust your mindset and inspire a special love of learning in these children. By taking control of your classroom, you’re more likely to experience success.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.