We all know that when a substitute teacher walks into the room, students can sense that something is different. They might think that this substitute teacher is new and doesn't have the “school rules” figured out. The teacher likely doesn't know students' names. He may not be familiar with how to pace a lesson for students with special needs. She may have just rolled out of bed when the phone rang 15-minutes before she arrived. These can all be big factors in why students misbehave for the substitute teacher. Today I want to share some of my own experiences, and what you can do to make things run smoother next time you have a sub.
Teachers deserve sick days, too.
It was my first year of teaching, and I caught the real-life flu for the first time that I can ever remember in my life.
After missing five days, I was finally able to drag myself out of bed and back into my classroom. While I had wanted to get back sooner, I spent the better part of a week laying on the floor thinking the end was near. Of course, returning to my classroom was constantly on my mind.
As I drifted in and out of restless sleep, I couldn't help but worry.
Would my students misbehave for the substitute? What would I be coming back to? Was there enough in my emergency sub plans to keep them busy?
Each morning when I was unable to pull my aching, feverish body out of bed, my dread over what I would be returning to grew.
Of course, as a first-year teacher, I had made many mistakes when it came to sub plans.
Yes, my sub binder had the basics. However, there were so many things I DIDN'T have that I can completely understand why my room ran through three subs that week…yes, three.
One left mid-day on the first day.
The second lasted two days, and the third was a bulldog.
Of course, it didn't help that I had a class with 12 students with significant behavior and social-emotional needs…but I definitely learned from my mistakes.
The lesson I learned from my first brush with the flu changed how I prepared sub plans completely, and I wanted to share what I learned with you so keep reading to find out why your students misbehave for the substitute and how you can prevent it.
5 Reasons Students Misbehave for the Substitute (& how to fix them)
There are many reasons students misbehave when you are gone. However, there are five big reasons I've discovered can easily be prevented with just a little adjustment to your planning process. Let's dig into each one a bit, and as you read, see if you notice any that might be a trigger for your own class this year.
Reason #1: The day's normal routine is thrown off.
One reason students misbehave for a substitute is the pacing of the day. This can be because there weren't enough activities left or there were too many and none were labeled as a top priority.
Substitutes are put in a position to have to rapidly get a feel for the class and their needs with very little background info. They rely on your plans to lay out clear pacing and priority. When this doesn't happen, it can create chaos amongst students who are bored or overwhelmed.
Solution #1: Explicitly provide pacing details & leave activities for early finishers.
As you prepare activities, think about how long you would expect them to take the group. Write this into your plans so the sub knows about how long to expect each activity to last.
Obviously, this is a bit more challenging early in the year since you are still getting to know them, but once you've hit your stride, you will likely have a clear idea how long each activity will take. Giving these details to the sub in your plans can be really helpful in making the day run more smoothly.
In addition, you should leave specific directions for what early finishers can and can't do. This prevents confusion or students convincing your substitute that you always let them do something that is most definitely NOT what you typically allow.
Early finisher work doesn't need to be boring seat work. Find simple games or partner activities. Logic puzzles or interesting reading or writing prompts are also a fun way to keep early finishers engaged in learning rather than stirring up trouble.
You should also leave directions for what students who don't finish should do with their work. This super simple step can save you so much trouble (and so many copies) later. So unfinished work…
Does it go in their desk?
Is it to be collected?
Is there a special spot to put it?
By leaving these details for your sub, you can prevent assignments from disappearing into the abyss of a dirty desk or magically wandering onto the floor never to be seen again.
Reason #2: There isn't enough variety in the activities left for the sub (AKA too much seat work).
Similarly, student behavior also suffers when sub plans include too much seat work. While it may feel like you are doing your sub a favor by preventing all those personality conflicts from coming into play with group work or partner work, relying on seat work as the primary task during your absence can leave students antsy and disengaged.
When this happens, they'll look for their own ways to make things a little more exciting…cue the flying paperclips and chatting.
Solution #2: Include a variety of independent, partner, small group, and whole group activities into your sub plans.
Sitting and getting is just plain BORING! Let's get real for a minute…I know you've probably been there. The all-day PD sessions that involve sitting in a cramped desk somewhere listening to a speaker drone on all day long.
Even the most interesting topic in the world winds up boring by the time you've sat through several hours. You check your cell phone. See what's up on Facebook…maybe even start dreaming about where you'll eat for lunch.
I know sitting in a day-long PD leaves me antsy and chatty, so I can't act surprised when the same happens to students.
Blend partner activities, small group activities, and independent work into your sub plans. Give students the opportunity to move from their seats to the carpet…or around the room to work. Add brain breaks to your plans after a stretch of sitting. All these things will help keep students engaged and ready to learn. They also make the day more interesting and interactive for your sub.
Of course, you'll want to consider how you plan to partner students for activities because nothing can create chaos and hurt feelings faster than “pick your own partner”. There are days I am not ready for that drama so there is no reason for me to put a sub through it.
Don't get me wrong, some years your class might be able to handle the “pick your own partner” method, but some years you will need clearly identify who will be working together…or who WON'T be.
This can prevent both small and major issues from occurring and can ensure that students get the most from their learning.
Reason #3: Your sub plans are one-size-fits-all.
In the mad rush to create last-minute sub plans, it can be challenging to differentiate to the degree that is possible when we are teaching the lessons. This means that sub plans often contain work that is too hard or too challenging for students, depending on their current levels.
When work is too challenging and no accommodations are provided, many students shut down and decide to give up and do their own thing leading to misbehavior. Alternatively, when work is too easy, students fly through it and must find other ways to occupy their time.
Solution #3: Clearly lay out the academic support your students need.
Be sure your sub plans contain clear details about supports and accommodations your students need – this includes both behavior and academics.
It can be difficult for a sub to juggle differentiation to the same level you do on a daily basis. However, there are ways to help keep your struggling students from falling through the cracks.
For example, if you know an activity will be challenging for certain students, you may consider having them do the activity with a pre-determined partner and writing it into your plans.
You can also write in reminders about who might need some extra check-ins during an activity or who might need to use some alternative materials. Giving your sub these details can help him or her better manage the needs of your class, leading to less stress for both your students and the sub.
Reason #4: Your classroom management system went out the door when you did.
Another reason behavior can be a struggle for a sub is because your classroom management plan was too confusing or not well laid out for a sub to grasp and implement effectively within the short time they have to prep.
While your management plan might work like a charm when you are in the classroom, a new adult offers a different dynamic and many subs don't have the background in classroom management to be able to adjust to your classroom expectations. This often results in boundary testing, especially for those students who are already prone to pushing the limits.
Reason #4: Simplify your plan & incentivize good behavior.
A new adult in the room can throw your smooth running classroom management system out of balance. It can be challenging for an “outsider” to see the nuances in how you manage your classroom. Therefore, it is important to simplify and explain your classroom management clearly.
Think about the most critical things for your sub to know.
All of these should be a part of your substitute materials. You might also include notes related to specific strategies that work with students who are more likely to be a behavior challenge. If you've got any students on a behavior report card, also provide explicit directions on when and how to fill this out.
If you're having a particularly challenging time with your class behaving for a sub, you might consider implementing a simple positive reinforcement system. This would allow students to earn a pre-determined reward for their behavior with the substitute. You can also make this a mystery reward, depending on your class and the flexibility you have.
Some teachers love to make this into a game. For example, students earn letters one at a time to make the words EXTRA RECESS. If they earn all the letters by the end of the day, you give them extra recess when you return.
I've also seen this done as a mystery picture covered with sticky notes. The sub removed one sticky note each time they see good behavior. If all the notes are gone at the end of the day, the kids earn a reward when you return.
You will also want to let the sub know that you will administer any significant consequences when you return. While your sub can handle minor things, like moving two chatty students away from one another, it is unfair to expect them to administer larger consequences. This is something that is better done by you when you return.
Give the sub a place to write down the specific details and a basic script that they can tell the student. Something like, “Unfortunately, I am going to have to let Mrs. Davies know about your decision to _____. She'll talk to you about your consequence when she gets back.”
Whenever possible, you will want to review expectations prior to having a sub. However, sick days happen and your sub sometimes just has to make the best of it. Having a clear, easy-to-follow system in place can help alleviate the stress you feel about leaving your class when you just can't be at school.
Reason #5: Your students want to test boundaries.
Finally, some students are just more likely to experience behavior challenges regardless of whether you are there or not. It is just a fact of life in the classroom. There will always be a few students who are still working to build their school readiness or social skills.
While your relationship with these students often prevents issues in your classroom on a daily basis, having a sub means there isn't any relationship there to hinder poor choices. Couple this with the fact that students with behavior challenges often struggle with change or transitions and you've got a recipe for trouble.
Reason #5: Set up an individualized reward system for specific students when you have a sub.
Every class has those students who struggle to behave in other settings – like art or the cafeteria. I bet you can think of your student like this right now, right? Making a plan to help keep those kiddos on track is one important way you can help a substitute keep things running smoothly.
It is important to note, the majority of your class shouldn't need this individualized system. A group reward system can be helpful if you feel like a large portion of your students are likely to struggle with the sub.
The students who would be included in this individual system are those that commonly find themselves getting into trouble. They might struggle with impulsive behaviors or struggle with making good choices. They are the students who you spend a good amount of time keeping on track daily. After the first few weeks of the school year, you likely know who these students are.
One great system for supporting these students is by implementing an individual positive reinforcement system. A simple punch card system is a great way to get started with this.
Introduce these to the students who need them prior to your first absence, and keep a set of punch cards in your substitute folder or binder. Record which students should receive them in your plans. You can also leave notes about what the students are working toward.
Here's an example of what a set of punch cards might look like:
The sub can hand them out in the morning to those students along with a reminder of what they are working for. For example, “Kate, Mrs. Davies left you this for while she is gone. She said if you get all the punches/smiley faces/whatever, you'll get extra iPad time when she gets back. That's awesome!! Let's work together today and help you earn that extra time.”
I've included these in my free sub binder templates to save you time. Just enter your email to get them delivered direct to your inbox.
Other common factors that lead to misbehavior with a substitute
There are a few other things you can do to help simplify things when you are having a sub.
By doing some advanced planning, you'll find that things run smoother when you are gone. You'll also have your choice of subs who want to come back to your room again and again. What are some of those other factors?
Too much text
It isn't just the content of your sub plans that can be a factor in student behavior. How you write them can play a role, too.
While it is important to give detailed information, try to avoid paragraphs of text that require intensive attention to read and implement. Instead, focus on bullet-pointed (or numbered) steps.
Color-coding is another way to help you sub quickly identify materials and directions needed to implement your plans.
If you've incorporated technology into your sub plans, be sure to leave any passwords or other information the sub might need. Nothing throws off a classroom faster than having a tech issue. You can also leave the name of a neighbor or tech-savvy student who can help troubleshoot if issues arise.
Not enough supplies
Running out of materials is another stressful thing for a sub. While your class might only have 25 students, be sure to leave 2-3 extra copies of materials, when possible.
Yes, they might go unused, but if an issue (like a spilled water bottle) arises, it will make things a lot less hectic for your students and substitute.
Need help preparing your sub binder?
Overwhelmed trying to put together your sub folder or binder for the year? Don't worry! I've got you covered.
Grab a free sub binder template with everything you need in a fillable format. Just type in your classroom information, add sub plans and you're ready to go!
Looking for more support to prepare for a sub? Check out these related articles:
- How to Prepare for a Sub (in 30 minutes or less)
- Set Yourself Up for Sub Success: Simplify having a sub
- Emergency Sub Plans: Print & Go to Save You Time
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