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7 Strategies for Classroom Management in Physical Education

Most elementary students have physical education one time per week for 30 minutes. You will have those students 36 weeks during the year. That equates to 18 hours of PE throughout the year. When you factor in fire drills, classroom homework completion, science fairs, unannounced picture days, appointments, family vacations, and sick days, that number dwindles quickly. Protect your instructional time with effective classroom management.

Below are 7 ways to enhance your classroom management to get the most out of your time with students:

1. Start with an Instant Activity

Students generally come with the expectation of participating in an activity. Spending ten minutes talking about what they will do in class does not benefit your students.

Give students instant activities to perform once they show up at the door. If you observe tired students, that is a fantastic time to stop, give them additional instructions, and increase/decrease the activity level. Stretching (after the warm-up) is also a great time for instruction.

2. Establish a Classroom Organization Structure

  • Organize squads; 5-6 students per squad. 
  • Designate a squad leader (change often to ensure equal leading opportunities)
  • Practice entering and exiting the activity area properly. 
  • Emphasize spatial awareness and establish personal space.
  • Establish rules for handling equipment, whether dispersing or collecting.

Other Teaching Formations and Tips:

  • Lines: The students line up, facing the teacher, in vertical or horizontal lines standing at least an arms-length apart to avoid being in their neighbor’s personal space. 
  • Scatter: The students stand anywhere within the floor’s perimeter, making sure they are not in anyone else’s personal space. Everyone is facing the teacher. 
  • Semi-circle: The students sit or stand in a semi-circle in front of the instructor. No students are behind the teacher, where they would be unseen. If you are outside, the teacher should face the sun, not the students.
  • Groups: The students sit or stand in small groups to receive instructions. Everyone should be facing the teacher. 
  • Circle: The students stand or sit in a circle. A circle is not as advantageous because the teacher is not able to face everyone. 

3. Use Starting and Stopping Signals:

ClassActivity MiddleSchool PE 321

Establishing a start a stop signal is important. Practice these signals until they know them well. Take as much time as necessary. 

  • Raised hand:  When the teacher raises their hand, all students raise their hands. All activities are paused. 
  • Whistle: Use to stop an activity; freeze, hands-on knees at look at me. 
  • Voice command: To start an activity say, “When I say go.” 
  • Music: When the music begins, the students start; when the music stops, all movement stops.

4. Ensure Class Rules are Clear, Concise, and VISIBLE

G 49258 Rules 1
Teach-nique Rules of the Gym Banners

Have students help create rules and expectations. Tie-in leads to buy-in. Chances are they’ll create the same things that you’d like to see. Take a partial or an entire class period to revise if needed. Here are a few class rules to help you get started:

  1. Keep hands, feet, mouth, and objects to yourself.
  2. Everyone gets to participate.
  3. When you hear the whistle freeze, hands on knees, and find me.
  4. Follow all instructions the first time.
  5. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

5. Be Consistent with Discipline

Explain discipline and procedures to the entire class and be consistent. Most of the time we shouldn’t punish an entire class. Those on-task should be allowed to play and participate. Give warnings individually and discreetly. 

My warning system:

  • 1st improper action is a warning.
  • 2nd improper action results in a timeout to a pre-determined area. The student determines how long their timeout should be and is allowed back into the activity when they can come back and participate within the boundaries of the rules and procedures. We cannot tell when a student is ready; only they can. It is essential to teach them what this looks and feels like.
  • A 3rd warning will result in removal from the day’s activity. You could send them to a designated area where they can write an apology letter, calm down, or think about what they could have done differently. 

6. Refocus the Entire Class with a Power Minute:

The Power Minutes should be used if the entire class needs to refocus. All students sit quietly on the floor. Insist on no talking whatsoever. Time them for one minute with no movement, no talking, sounds, or giggles, etc. Start the power minute over if this occurs. Tell them that they each have control over their actions, and they need time to refocus on those abilities. This power minute may last more than one minute if they want to test your boundaries.

7. Praise Students and Recognize Good Behavior

Teacher kid Elem 154

Praise students more often than not. Love your students. Be a friendly adult, not an adult friend.

Recognize good behavior by offering rewards, praise, emails, phone calls, class activity parties, student choice days.

Equipment to Help Manage Your Class:

Do you any other classroom management recommendations to add to the list? I encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below!

11 Responses

  1. Hi Tim, as you state kids have very little gym time. I like your article but disagree with your squads idea. I stopped those 20 years ago. You want as many of the kids moving as much of the time as possible. The instant activity is what you should go right to. I use a white board and have a vigorous warm up written on it. Kids come in the gym, take a look, and get going right away. The fast kid doesn’t have to wait for the slow kid. Everyone is engaged and we get the most out of our 30 minutes.

  2. Thanks for your response! We always use instant activities. I’m curious where your students go when they’re stretching, and you’re giving them the brief instructions for the next activity. Are they scattered throughout the gym? How do you manage those students that don’t work well together?

    All of my 90 schools in this district utilize squads. Having them evenly spaced in rows and columns helps with discipline issues (I can move Tim far away from Sparky, etc.), it helps with activity management (blue and red squads on this side of the gym and yellow and green squads on the other side), some schools have 130 students per class, so it helps with attendance (quickly finding those who are absent because there’s a missing space and/or who hasn’t dressed for P.E., etc.), and it helps them find a space when we end with some closure to recap what we’ve learned, check for understanding, and giving them points to ponder for next week. It’s also helpful to line-up at the door. Red squad looks ready, please walk quickly, quietly, and put a bubble in your mouth as you line-up at the door. Keep in mind students don’t have to be in squad formation to know that the red squad can get a drink or the green squad needs to place their basketball on the cart, etc. Those are a few reasons why we utilize squads. Rest assured, our students are constantly moving in class based upon the accelerometer data I’ve collected. Having squads in place gives us more structure than a scatter formation or telling kids to spread out like peanut butter. If no squads works for you that’s great!

  3. Interesting read!

    Quick question, though: when in squads, it’s possible for persons to get used to their squad, leading to the potential formation of ‘cliques’ within the class. Would it then be adviseable to mix up the squads from time to time? And if not, what strategies do you use to ensure that the squads do not alienate the learners from themselves?

    1. Great questions! I would rotate my squads from front to back so we had new leaders within our squads every week. I would also completely change my squads once I knew their names. In addition, if you had two students sitting next to each other prone to mischief, it’s easy to move one student to a far corner or beside someone who has better control of their actions. Absolutely though, change squads as often as you deem necessary.

  4. I practice a ton of these already….I have always used the time out to re group. the kids usually do great using self regulation and rejoining the activitieswhen ready. what are your thoughts when a student will not go to the time out area and things escalate fast. they can become physically aggressive towards others . please share some ideas. thank you

    1. I would consult your school’s administrative team. If a student escalates, it’s appropriate to remove the student or the class. We can’t touch the kids. If the student is swearing or out of control, I give them a five-second count to walk with me to the door. The rationale behind that tactic is the other students don’t need to hear their profane language or whatever is going on with the student. Usually, they are willing to walk with me to the door where we can converse away from the class. If the student refuses to leave, I ask the entire class to line up at the door quickly, and I escort the class away from the student. Once their audience is removed, they usually stop swearing or pushing other students and begin to wonder where everyone went because they enjoyed the attention. From that point, we follow the school discipline procedures. That’s a conversation to be held with your admin to see what they would like you to do if a student went from no strikes to “out.”

    1. When I used a power minute, it was generally applied to the entire class. I had them sit on the floor, and we’d take a minute to refocus on the task at hand. We left the equipment and potential distractions aside, and they listened to me talk about classroom expectations. I had an unruly class when I was a district mentor that took the remainder of the class to refocus. That was 30 minutes of sitting quietly without interruptions, giggles, coughs, etc. They wanted the power I refused to give them because they hadn’t earned it. They thought they won at the end of class until I said I’d be back for their next class. They were perfect the next time around. You could take a power minute to read your class rules. I suggest five rules or less, but that’s a personal preference. Take time to ensure your students know what the rules are for and why your rules may bend but don’t break.

  5. I look forward to using a whistle and other arm signals to manage my k to 8 gym classes. I am 72, retired military, and can use all the suggestions I can get. I am a retired Teacher of the Handicapped, but my kids are not classified and are from an inner city environment.

  6. Thank you for your suggestions. I am a first time Phys Ed teacher from grades 1-5. What are your suggestions for those students who have difficulty focussing during instruction? They are literally rolling around on the gym floor if I’m instructing in a circle formation or constantly talking while sitting in their squads. Also my grade 4/5 class are starting to ignore my whistle and voice command. I find that class is becoming chaotic. I have tried getting them to stop and sit but when they’re back up and moving it starts all over again. Any suggestions?

    1. These are questions that PE teachers have faced for decades. Some suggestions for your questions are listed in the responses above. I suggest shortening instructional time as much as possible. The students expect to move, so let’s get them moving. I would tell my students to give me 30 seconds, and we’ll start the activity. Once we started, I would stop the activity, provide some updates or instructions, and let them resume the activity. I have never seen any PE class practice their procedures too much. This means if the students aren’t responding to your start/stop whistle and voice commands, I would practice the procedure until you get the results you seek.

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