10 strategies for making life at school easier for high-energy kids (and their teachers!)

No teacher wants a child to be unhappy in her class. Every good teacher intends to do best by her students. But as my husband says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Some may consider that teaching kids to sit still and to work quietly is a priority, and it is, but not at the cost of the simple joy of learning. Yes, kids need to learn right from wrong and how to be socially aware. They need manners, respect, patience. They need to learn how to differentiate right time and place for certain behaviors.

Many teachers demand quiet calm of their students “or else,” punishing them for their louder behaviors. But for little kids learning how to become respectful adults, demeaning and shaming them for being themselves is not the way!  All kids want to be “good.” All kids want to learn. So how can teachers positively support active kids not naturally prone to sitting still?

The secret kids will learn from and work hard for anyone they like. What kinds of teachers do kids like? Teachers who like them back! And kids can tell if you fake it! Attitude is everything! Appreciating, respecting, and enjoying students is the best way to get them to try new and challenging things, to persevere when they want to quit or scream, and to reign in their impulses. Dislike them, and they will do their best, too…in exactly the opposite direction! This is when otherwise good kids act up, misbehave, or seek negative attention. And it’s all in the hands of the teacher.

Now, let’s be realistic. While exceptionally rewarding, teaching is an extreme challenge. It is emotionally, mentally, and spiritually draining. On top of lesson planning to individual student needs, delivering curriculum well, soothing parental concerns, and meeting high administrative demands, teachers must juggle thirty-plus budding personalities and the unique baggage that they each bring to school. Every day has its unknowns that must be dealt with at a moment’s notice, ideally with grace and good judgement. There are good days and bad days and trust me, even the best teacher has bad days. Let’s face it. This job is exhausting!

Sometimes we just don’t have the energy for our high-energy kids. Some kids just seem to make life in the classroom “easier.” Calm, quiet, self-motivated, independent workers? Yup, easy. Active, high-energy, needy, or overtly social kids? Not so easy! But absolutely no less important, and certainly no less interesting or inspired! In fact, they may often be more so!

So how does a teacher work with high-energy students in a way that respects, utilizes, and maximizes their best qualities while still allowing the demands of the classroom – and the teacher – to be met?

Here are ten strategies teachers can use to support even their most hyperactive kids – and themselves – in their classroom.

1. Communicate the “game of school

  • Elementary school isn’t all about grades (gasp!). In fact, it is less about grades than almost anything else! This fact is often overlooked to the detriment of our students. School is about learning the basics of reading, writing, and math, but also of how to be a functioning, productive citizen. By telling kids this truth, we empower them to work to succeed even if they struggle in areas like homework completion and test scores.
  • There is a “game” of school and those who know the “rules” do better than others, even if they aren’t smarter. Just like checkers, the game isn’t hard, but no one can win without knowing the objective. Teach kids how to play the game!
  • High-energy kids can learn – and WIN – the game if given a chance to learn the rules. Teach them the strategies and they will excel! Make them your best “players!”

2. Teach kids the “Rules” — the “Soft Skills”

  • Success at the “game” of school requires intellect, of course, but even more, it requires a knowledge of the Hidden Curriculum or all of the unspoken “soft” skills necessary for doing well at school.
  • Soft skills include qualities like integrity, communication, courtesy, responsibility, professionalism, flexibility, patience, perseverance, problem-solving, common sense, organization, and teamwork, etc.
  • Soft skills are not innate. They need to be taught to kids. While some kids may naturally be more apt, all can learn them. We should not punish kids for not innately having them. We are their teachers. It is our job to prepare them.
  • Be honest with kids about how their behaviors are perceived by others. If kids understand WHY behaving in particular ways is important and how others respond — both positively and negatively — to behaviors, kids may work harder at self-regulating. While executive function, or the ability to self-regulate in order to plan, focus, remember directions, and multi-task, is not fully developed until way into our 20s, we empower our kids when we are honest about what is expected and why.
  • Teaching soft skills builds self-esteem! We all know what it feels like to stand out. Give kids tools and strategies to improve their “people skills” so that they can make better choices toward success.

3. TEACH “Time and Place”

  • Kids need to know that there are times in life when, even as adults, we need to be quiet even when we want to be loud or serious when we want to be silly. There is a time and a place for each of these behaviors. Kids need to know what times demand which behaviors and that everyone has to work hard at self-control, even grown-ups!
  • Communicate the message that we are at school to learn but that we all learn differently. While you may need to move around a lot, others may need it quiet. Respect others’ learning needs and they will respect yours.
  • Coach’s Comments: “What you did isn’t necessarily wrong, it just wasn’t “right” right now. When might it be a better time to…?” or “What might have been a better choice at that moment? In that situation?”

4. GIVE a Time and a Place

  • Honor the different learning styles of your students and provide time and place for each. Allow students to shine in their own way at different times of the day.
  • Provide choices in learning, such as project-based lessons or Genius Hour.
  • Give kids the day’s schedule! Let kids know at the beginning of the day what is coming and which activities will require quiet focus and which will be more active so they can prepare themselves for longer stretches of focus if needed.
  • Create a classroom that the kids own. Giving kids management responsibilities can get messy and chaotic at times, but with strong coaching and leadership, it is a working chaos where all kids buy in.
  • Offer class jobs that cater to all types of kids and honor their leadership when they push to do their “job.” Explicitly teach kids how to do their job properly. For example, we have a class pet, Fred the Leopard Gecko. Our class “zoologist” is in charge of maintaining fresh water and cleaning the cage. There is a lot to learn by helping a child know that, “No, Fred does not need fresh water in the middle of the math lesson.” Learning to wait 10-minutes until it is independent work time gives that hands-on, antsy kiddo something to look forward to!

5. Make the “game” of school easier to play!

  • When making lesson decisions, work to get student buy-in. Ask yourself:
    – “Would I want to do this assignment?”
    – “Who might struggle with this? What can I do to tweak it to             make it more reasonable for them?”
    – “Have I made this lesson relevant to my students?”
    – “Do they understand why we are doing this and how it will help them in their future?”
    – “Do they have any control over the products they are creating?  Could they?”
  • Level with them. Explain what is expected and when. If a child knows that there will be some time later to play and be noisy and social, they will try harder to be quiet when they need to.  If you need to, broker a deal with them.  They will feel respected that you understand their needs.
  • Give lots of opportunities for both quiet and boisterous activities and balance lessons and the day’s schedule between high and low energy activities.
  • Provide “Brain Breaks” such as with free websites like GoNoodle, or even just a jog to the fence and back or a “special delivery” to a nearby classroom can do the trick to get active kids to relax.
  • Be realistic and honest with yourself. Some things are just too much to ask at certain times of the day. Be flexible with your schedule and your lessons. Mold them as you need to. If you are happy, so are the kids!

6. Have a sense of humor

  • Don’t be too serious. These are kids for crying out loud! Remember what it was like to be a little kid and then act accordingly. Have fun with your students! Life is too short not to!
  • Be OK with less than total control. Think: “This is not my classroom, it is our classroom.” Share it with your students and you will all be happier.
  • Understand that even though kids aren’t perfect, they are working harder than we think they are!  Give them some credit!
  • Teacher ATTITUDE is everything!!! All the strategies in the world won’t help you if your demeanor says you are annoyed with a child. Show tolerance to teach tolerance. Kids follow your example. Kindness always matters. Negativity is a slippery slope and it is hard to get back to positive once your other students start mimicking your annoyance.

7. Love your high-energy kids’ high energy!

  • Don’t we all wish we had more energy? Especially as our coffee wears off mid-morning or we have to pep up to attend an after school IEP meeting! Energy is a well-valued commodity.
  • Respect and appreciate the energy your kids can share with you!
  • Energy is a strength! How can your students’ energy be harnessed and used?

8. Don’t take anything personally

  • When kids are not following your lead or understanding your plan, take a deep breath and question what is missing. It isn’t about you, personally, but about the circumstances. Keep your personal judgments at bay and just move forward.
  • If you are not getting through to a student, ask how you can communicate what your expectations are in a way that will get buy-in from that student? Even if he can’t control his energy, if you two are on the same page, at least you can both get along and work positively towards a common goal.

9. Discipline with Dignity

  • The root of the word discipline is discipulus, Latin for “pupil.” Use discipline as a means to teach, not to punish.
  • Kids want to impress. They want to please. They want to shine! But they also don’t want to stand out negatively. We crush them little by little every time we call them out in front of their peers. They don’t want to be “bad.” Don’t create “bad” kids out of good ones!
  • In order to flourish, kids need to share their ideas and creations and to be heard in their own special way, at least some of the time. They need to be in a classroom that has room for them, too. Make room for them!
  • Give lots of guidance about when and where behaviors are appropriate.
  • Address actions and choices, not personalities. Kids aren’t bad, choices are bad. Remember that!
  • Discipline in private. Conference with kids confidentially about what they could have done. Remember, they are our pupils in behavior as well as academics.  They do not need to be punished as much as they need to be coached.
  • Coach’s Comments: “You aren’t ‘bad.’ You just made a choice that wasn’t appropriate for this situation. What actions or choices might have been better received?” “What can we do next time?” “How can I help you next time we are in this situation?
  • Imagine that each child is your own child. How would you want them to be treated in this moment? Maintaining a positive classroom where all children are respected is paramount to success, both mine, and my students.

10. Give Yourself a Break!

  • I am far from perfect. I am being tested heartily this year by some high-energy students. Writing this post has really challenged me as a teacher to face my own progress towards providing a welcoming, safe, nurturing classroom for my high-energy kids. I struggle, too, even with all of the tools I know how to use. The truth is, I get tired and the demands on me are high. But I also know that appreciating these high-energy kids it is worth it.
  • Every day is a fresh start. I may not have had a perfect day today, but I have tomorrow and how I use it really matters.
  • Kids forgive. They will give you second chances. Give them chances, too.
  • Keep trying, keep smiling, and keep the big picture in mind.

As I write this, it is May and we are in the middle of the high-stakes testing season. Even with the best of intentions, my patience runs thin. I am being forced to keep my kids quiet for longer periods of time than I know they can handle. I need to remind myself that my kids are doing their best, for me, because I love and support them. Their high energy is not bad energy unless I make it “bad.” My attitude is everything.

Classrooms need to be safe places for all kids, hyper or calm, loud or quiet. Children need an honest balance in their lives and in their classrooms. The outgoing, energetic kids bring so much to an educational setting. Their explosive zest for life takes learning experiences to exciting new places from which all children can benefit. The most important thing a teacher can do is to honor the unique needs and personalities of his students and to teach in a way that respects and nurtures each child’s spirit without damaging it. Self-esteem is fragile. We must teach appropriate behaviors and boundaries in meaningful ways so that all kids are always showing their best self to the world in a welcomed and encouraged way.

Working with high-energy kids is worth it! Instead of fighting their energy, embrace it and you will be rewarded with a positive, energetic, cooperative, learning environment where all students are respected and will flourish.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series.

For your reading pleasure:
“Soft Skills: Preparing Kids for Life after School”
“Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the Difference?”
“The Great ‘Medicate’ Debate”
“Alternatives to Medication” – The ADHD Debate

Genius Hour – The hour that changed my classroom!

Genius Hour Collage

I have never been one for stereotypes.  In fact, I have prided myself in breaking as many as I could in my life.  So when I spent the summer preparing for a classroom full of hyperactive, athletic-minded, school-averse boys, I knew that I was also preparing for similarly minded girls.  I mean let’s face it, good teaching is good teaching, and I was prepared to do ANYTHING to make my class an ideal learning environment for all of my active, curious, hands-on kids.  

Enter Genius Hour.  I had read about Genius Hour for several years and LOVED the idea, but was frankly terrified of the risk it posed to my heavily structured, highly disciplined teaching style.  But coming off of maternity leave after a summer of soul-searching, I was prepared to take the leap.  What could I lose?

Modeled after Google’s 20 Percent Projects where employees spent roughly one day a week working on the passion projects that brought us Gmail, Google Talk, and Google Sky, Genius Hour offers students time at school to explore their passion, whatever it may be within reason.   In the words of my student, Ashley, “Genius Hour is one hour a week to work on your passion, something you have always wanted to learn but do not have time to do at home.”  

Students highlight and research their passions and develop products or skills that they then present to the class, discussing the mistakes they made along the way, how these mistakes shaped their product, and what they would do differently next time.  The projects cater to the interests of each individual.   For example, Ashley wanted to learn a new language. She shared, “I have always wanted to learn French but never have the time or focus at home.  Since I am already at school and focused, I can turn this focus to my passion for this one hour, and then back to reality.  I live for Genius Hour!”  

Genius Hour transformed my classroom and my entire approach to classroom learning.  It also opened the doors for me to be recognized as a Teacher of the Year Semi-Finalist for Orange County in 2016!  It is incredible what letting go of the reigns and putting the learning decisions into the hands of your students can do! 

In just two years of implementing Genius Hour in my class, I have seen projects in film making, animation, photography, fine arts, needlepoint, coding, novel and screenwriting, modeling, music mixing and composition, architectural and fashion design, video game creation, app design, and robotics!  We have also had small businesses started and several non-profit organizations created!  One in particular, Just for You, is hosted on GoFundMe.com raising money to create care packages for cancer patients to help them feel cared for and loved.  The sky really is the limit when you give the power to learn to the learner.  

I have learned to say “Yes” to all forms of ideas, trusting my students’ visions, and guiding them to plan, problem solve, and THINK through their processes.  Since this hour is a privilege, productivity throughout the week is higher than ever before.  Students who never turned in homework now frantically complete it so they can participate.  

My students have repeatedly impressed me with the scope, depth, and risk of their projects, proving how capable they are when it is their ideas motivating them.  I give them the gift of time to develop their passions, bringing innovation, entrepreneurialism, personalization, and FUN to school in an experimentally constructive, artistic, and challenging way.  I know this is exceptional teaching because it is what I want for my son, my new definition of greatness.  

This attitude of “Yes” has also helped me at home with my now 22-month-old son, Beau, as he explores his baby-passions and artistic flares.  Choo-choos and painting...at the same time?  I say, “Yes!”  They can go hand in hand, and we all learn more for it!  


“Boys Adrift” – What Boys Need to Succeed at Home and at School

One book that significantly impacted me the summer before I went back to work after my son was born was Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men.

My summer note-taking on "Boys Adrift"

According to author Leonard Sax, these five factors most affecting boys are video games, teaching methods, prescription drugs, endocrine disrupters, and the devaluation of masculinity.  While not all of these applied directly to my immediate situation as a mother of a newborn or as my role as an elementary classroom teacher, it was an incredibly enlightening read, providing several valuable hints as to how to approach my upcoming school year.  

Here are my key takeaways I used to reframe my classroom and to harness, direct, and positively utilize the boy energy in my class: there is a difference between knowing about something and knowing how to do something, competition compels action - create competition everywhere, and teach patience.  

There is a difference between knowing about something and knowing how to do something

Boys want to do, to create, to play.  They love to be outside where they can smell, taste, hear, and experience their world.  Whether it be because of increased fear of “stranger danger” or other factors, we are keeping boys inside or only involved in organized sports and activities.  

The indirect experience of video games, Smartphones, and the Internet (YouTubing how to fish vs. actually going out to fish) has replaced direct experience as a means of understanding the world, resulting in an increase in hyperactivity and attentional issues in many children, but in boys especially.  

“Hey, Teacher-Mom...”
  • Let me go outside!  I need to run and explore, sense and feel!  
  • Can I hold it?  I need hands-on opportunities whenever possible.  
  • Give me technology as an information source, but not as a replacement for direct experience.  I need to learn how to do things, not just to learn about things.
  • Help me find ways to enjoy being distracted (aka deep-in-thought), relaxed (aka daydreaming), and hard at play(aka exploring my physical and social environment) in ways that are not prescribed by adults or technology but that require my own design and imagination.  
  • Give me projects that I can touch.  Let me choose what and how I want to learn, at least some of the time.  I will do your type of work if I know you will also let me do mine.  

Competition Compels Action - Create Healthy Competition Everywhere

Boys thrive on competition, but only when there are certain criteria.  If they can see that the game is rigged or that they will not win, they will not participate.  Why should they?  To be beneficial, competition must be meaningful, challenging, and risky.

“Hey, Teacher-Mom...”
    • There must be winners and losers.  No sense in trying hard if I am going to get an equal reward either way.  
    • The outcome must be in doubt until the end.  I will keep trying if my chances of success are still uncertain.  
    • True winning should depend on how hard I play or try.   The reward is sweeter that way and I will try harder next time if I fail this time.  
    • Tell me what I need to do to improve.  I am not content as I am but as I should be.  I need constructive, honest feedback.  I may have talent, but I am not done excelling yet.  Acknowledge my talents, but don’t stop there. Show me where I can still improve and I will try.

      Teach Patience  

      Success in the real world requires patience.  Video games do not. Hunting, fishing, building models, all of these near-dying skills, once were the training grounds of patience.  We need to embed opportunities to practice patience into a boy’s home and school life so this virtue does not slip away.

“Hey, Teacher-Mom...”
    • Fill my bedroom and classroom with building and art supplies from an early age.  This way, I learn how to appreciate and enjoy them from the start.    
    • Let me create often.  In class, provide legos or other building toys as a reward for completed work or for free time.  Let me take these tools outside so I can make noise and take a break from the sitting still rigidity of the classroom.

This book, Boys Adrift, gave me a glimpse into the mindset of a boy.  I read it for my son, Beau, so I could provide for him a childhood that embraces his boyhood.  But more immediately, I read it for my students.  Thanks to this book, I had the courage to take a big step the year I returned from maternity leave.  

My first big step was bringing Genius Hour into my classroom.  This one thing changed school, not just for the boys, but for everyone.  This is the MOST POWERFUL HOUR in school.

Next up, my journey with Genius Hour...