Like for most classroom management preventing the behavior you don’t want to see and encouraging the behavior you do want goes a lot farther than dealing with problems as they arise. This is better known as preventative classroom management, and it is so important to stick to when teaching outdoors. So we are going to focus mostly on preventing bad behavior and encouraging good behavior in this article then dealing with how to discipline as issues arise.
Set the Tone & Your Rules
Review class rules and how they apply to being outdoors. So in the classroom you may have rules about the students respecting each other and the teacher. Now add on respecting the environment so that when you are outdoors students are not harming animals or plants and you are set with the basics. It is these kinds of adjustments to rules that you might need to make so that your outdoor class has the same manageable tone as your classroom.
You also may need to add on additional rules to achieve the right tone like “you must stay within earshot and sight of the teacher at all times.” The students can help with this as well. You can make time before you go outside the first time to discuss what the rules and expectations are going to be so far and if they think there are any other things that should be added on.
Try to have at the most 5 rules anything more and kids will forget. Honestly 3 rules is usually perfect. At the places I have worked it has usually been some variation of the following three; respect your teacher, fellow students, & nature; listen to and follow the teachers directions; and Be safe, learn lots, & have fun!
When going outside if you know your students are going to struggle with something in particular in an area go over it ahead of time. It could be something like not climbing trees, jumping from rock to rock etc.
If something catches you by surprise while you are out there and it is not behavior you want especially if it is dangerous stop your students right away. Do not let it go otherwise when you do try to correct it later when it gets more out of control it will confuse your students more. If there is time sit them down for a discussion and lead them to the realization that what they were doing does not meet the class expectations. If there is not enough time (which honestly is no surprise) just tell them straight up but there is a chance they won’t remember it as well and you will have to remind them later on.
It doesn’t have to be a big production either it honestly is better if it is not. Just something as simple as reminding them hey spiders are a living thing and part of the ecosystem we are in their home be a respectful guest and not squash them. Or another example is those logs are pretty high off the ground what could happen if you tried jumping from one to the next? “We could fall off and get hurt, so we are not being safe and breaking one of our class rules.”
The big thing is making sure the punishment fits the “crime” students are very aware if things are unfair or if other students in the class are not being held to the same standard. So keep this as consistent as possible and stick to your guns. For example if kids are doing something dangerous and you have talked to them already about it stick to the consequences you or the class decided on when you were setting the rules. Especially make sure to not let them off easy in the beginning otherwise your class is more likely to turn into a free for all and it will be harder to make them listen.
I personally have always liked the three strike rule. This is how it works.
#1 Warning – no consequences remind them of the expectations and to correct their behavior
#2 Warning – depending on severity sit out for a few minutes up to the rest of activity
#3 Warning – sit out the rest of activity and or get brought back inside
It is simple and does allow for some adjustments as needed depending on what the students were doing.
For example if a student was doing something really unsafe for the second time that we had already talked like misusing a bow & arrows or going too deep into a river. For their second strike I would sit them out for the rest of the activity. This is because the consequences if they don’t correct their behavior could be really bad or even potentially tragic.
However if say a student is just being uncooperative or disruptive you can have them sit out for as long as they need to take a break. Ask them to explain what they were doing wrong to you when they are ready to rejoin the group once they have had enough time to chill and think.
Once again this “take a break method” works better when your group is staying in one area and not on a hike. This makes picking a single location easier for the first few times your go out with your class as they get used to having class outdoors.
With this 3 strikes method it should hopefully de-escalate the situation enough that you should not get to the third strike often. I have been teaching outdoor education for three years and I have only gotten to the third strike 3 times and twice it was with the same student. If you have a different system that works well in your classroom that you could also use outdoors as well I would try doing that first. This is because when you keep discipline consistent for your students it is easier for them to remember and then adjust it as needed as you learn.
Pick Your Battles
I know some of you may not be the biggest fans of this one so be clear I am not asking you to compromise your main rules or safety those are times to stick to it. However there are lots of other behaviors that can be distracting and disruptive. Students kicking leaves? Playing with sticks? Stacking rocks or the dreaded rock skipping? It is no fun if you are constantly yelling at your students over seemingly minor things (in their opinion) even if it is driving you crazy or could become potentially unsafe.
So pick and choose what things are more tolerable than others but always keep safety in mind. A great trick is finding ways to incorporate these things into the class like you only get a stick for exploring activities and if you misuse it then you don’t get an exploring stick. Another example is save the rock skipping for next week we will incorporate skipping rocks into our physics class or math class. Just make sure you stick to your end of the bargain as long as they do otherwise what they will learn from the experience is not to trust your promises.
Attention Grabbers & Gathering Your Students
Attention grabbers are phrases or activities that get your student attention back on you and hopefully their voices turned off. It can be things like “1-2-3 Eyes on me” and then students respond “1-2 eyes on you”. Gathering student tricks are to bring students back together as a group, get their attention on you, and their voices turned off as well hopefully. These always work better the more fun your make them. A common problem of taking students outdoors is they get really into what they are doing and don’t want to switch activities or go back inside. Which in its own way can make you feel kind of good as a teacher. So you may have to trick them a little with making these attention grabbers and gathering student techniques like fun little games so students behave how you want. What is great about this also is if there is one they find really fun you can make it a privilege to do only when they as a class are doing a good job.
For example if you need to get students in a circle have them do magnetic elbows instead of making them hold hands and have a countdown to get to the circle. This works better with older aged students where holding hands can be seen as uncool.
Another example is the viral video of the teacher going kacaw kacaw they were using another gathering method common in outdoor education because kids love making animal noises
If you are looking for MORE techniques to get your students’ attention and gather them together then check out my two Youtube videos below to get more ideas to try out with your class!
Watch Them All! Classroom Pet Playlist
Looking for more resources to help you and your kids get outdoors? Check out the links below!
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