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What To Do When Students Misbehave For a Substitute: 9 Tips to Set Substitute Teacher Expectations

Inside: What To Do Now Plus 9 Tips To Set Substitute Teacher Expectations For Students

What to do when students misbehave… It’s a question I’m sure almost every teacher has wondered about.

Unfortunately, sometimes our whole class, or more often a handful of students, are not on their best behavior for a substitute teacher. 

One of the main reasons you may avoid taking your sick days (even when you’re sick) is making those dreaded sub plans and dealing with the unruly behavior that inevitably occurs after a sub is in your classroom. Even the best of classes can turn into total mayhem as soon as a substitute walks into the room!

Teacher reading bad sub note- What To Do When Students Misbehave For A Substitute

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I asked our Facebook group, Wife Teacher Mommies Unite, for their advice on what to do when students misbehave for a substitute teacher. Here’s what they had to say:

Write an apology letter

  • “If they are old enough, have them write an apology letter.” -Jennifer G.
  • “Yes, write an apology that is more than just ‘I am sorry’.” -Cynthia A.
  • The offenders write apology letters and I scan and email them to the sub. The apology includes four parts:  I’m sorry for… This was wrong because… Next time I will… Will you please forgive me? -Kim B.

Praise positive behaviors & individual punishments for negative behaviors

  • “First-grade teacher here, I praise the ones who were listed as good helpers and reward them in some way. I only acknowledge the issues if they were really bad. If it’s stuff I deal with every day, I ignore it.” -Madeline L.
  • “I don’t have substitutes very often but when I do, I let it go! I speak to the students I need to and praise the ones who completed work and were kind.” -Mallory W.
  • “I reward the kids who were good and take away privileges from the kids who weren’t behaving.” -Karyn W.
  • “Names of students left to get a discipline step. I teach 7th grade- the best class gets cookies, the good ones with frosting! Works great!” -Connie D.

Ideas for when the whole class misbehaves

  • I also remove whole class privileges/rewards for the week (team points, etc.). This last time there was an issue, I started a teacher vs. students competition. We needed to clean up our behaviors and meet expectations more clearly. If they do something perfectly (walk down the hallway silently, for example), they get a point. If not, I get a point. At the end of the week, if they have more points, they win candy (and bragging rights that they won). If I’m more clear about expectations, they’re better about meeting those expectations for the sub as well. Additionally, I have a couple of tough nuggets, and those two get farmed out to another teacher on my team when I’m gone.” -Kim B.
  • “We ALL go to recess and no one plays. Sub is instructed to be honest in her notes. It’s worked for me.” -Julie T.

Have a class discussion about taking responsibility for our own actions

  • “It depends on the severity of the misbehavior. I’ve had them write apology letters before. We talked first about the importance of owning up to mistakes. It worked pretty well.” -Cathy D.
  • “We formed classroom expectations for behavior when a sub is present in the room (any adult who isn’t me). The students really were just anxious, frustrated, out of routine, and felt lost. They needed to be heard. And, they were also pushing boundaries. So, sitting down as a group and allowing students to have a voice in our classroom was a game-changer. We did this for establishing norms at the beginning of the year, but I hadn’t thought to do it for when a sub was present. Students felt out of the loop, felt a lack of control, and missed the consistency from our “normal” classroom. By establishing expectations, they felt heard and knew what was expected of them and everyone took part in their creation – it wasn’t just me telling them how to behave. Therefore, moving into next year, my hope is to be more proactive than reactive based upon my experience from this year!” -Audrey M.
  • “I find that letting my students know that I am disappointed is important. I also have subs review class rules with the students as part of the morning routine. If they misbehave I review rules and then ask them to tell me where we need to improve and ways to do this. I want them to take responsibility for their actions and to learn that we can make improvements and do better.” Angela H.

That is so much good advice from fellow teachers! I hope that helps give you some ideas about what to do when students misbehave for a substitute. 

One of the things I really like is the teachers mentioned preparing their students before a sub ever comes into the classroom. When expectations are set beforehand the day seems to go smoother!

Check out these nine tips to help set substitute teacher expectations for students (again directly from my readers) to help ease your transition back to class for you and your kids. 

Substitute teacher with students- 9 Tips to Help Set Substitute Teacher Expectations for Students

Discuss Expectations

If you can plan ahead, discuss your sub-behavior expectations with your students. Discussing your expectations of students for a substitute teacher is crucial. Let your students know from the beginning that the expectations are always about respect for themselves and others, including guest teachers. 

One way to introduce these expectations is to use social stories. Special education teacher and reader Liz C. tells a story to her students about a substitute and reviews it before she plans to have a sub. This helped her students when she took an unexpected leave due to an injury. 

Tell your students that your expectations for them are the same expectations you have for them when a sub is in the classroom.

When students live up to those expectations, use some positive behavior reinforcement and reward them for their exceptional behavior. 

“I leave special passes that the kids can earn for being on their best behavior all day for the sub. [They are also for] for the students that go above and beyond to help the sub or their classmates while I am gone,” said reader Erin S. When she returns, her students can turn in the passes for a special prize. (You can even find cheap items to use for prizes in bulk packs on Amazon! This is a lot cheaper than the dollar store.)

Follow your Routine

Make sure your students know your rules and procedures enough to be able to explain them to a sub. 

“At the beginning of the day, I always [have] the sub should ask the students about certain rules and procedures and have the kids model them,” said reader Erin C. “That way, the sub can say, ‘Earlier you guys told me that we walk in the hallway with our mouths closed and hands behind our backs.’ This gives the students ownership over their behavior.” Ownership will encourage your students to behave for a substitute teacher.

In addition to your students knowing your classroom rules and procedures, leave detailed notes in your sub binder so that your substitute knows them, too.

Give Students an Active Role

Before you anticipate having a sub, ask your students to help the sub understand the expectations, rules, and procedures by giving your students class jobs. When you return, you can get back to the fun stuff and not have to deal with behaviors. 

“I give each a job to oversee. The job could be showing the sub where my books/plans are to making sure the closet doors are all shut properly,” said reader KerryAnne W. “It certainly helps make the children feel they are an integral part of the running of the class.”

Give Rewards for Good Behavior

Celebrate positive behaviors with activities your students enjoy! 

Reader Hannah D. rewards her class with a special art project since her students really enjoy art. 

Other types of reward systems for substitute teachers include brag tags or punch cards. Students earn punches or beads for positive sub behaviors that they can exchange for other prizes and rewards. Try these systems to reward your students for good behavior year-round! (And to encourage them to behave for a substitute teacher!)

You can grab the substitute punch cards below for FREE in my shop!

Leave A Reward System For Substitute Teacher

Another way to reward positive behaviors is to leave a reward system for your substitute. I like to leave my sub a “word of the day” activity. I pick a word (typically a long one) that has something to do with the season or we are currently learning and I type up large letters and print them. 

Then, I write a list of positive behaviors I want to see in my students. When they do those good behaviors, they can earn a letter. If they spell the whole word by the end of the school day, the class gets a reward when I get back.

Have The Sub Choose a Secret Student

Let your students know that the sub is going to be looking for a secret student to pay particular attention to. “If the student has behaved all day, they win lunch in the classroom with me. [They can also choose to] sit at my desk all day,” said reader Amy B. 

This reward can be adapted for students depending on their interests or goals. Switch it up every time you have a sub! It is important to reward students who typically behave well and those who are working on improving their behaviors. This will encourage students to behave for a substitute teacher because they never know if they are the secret student!

Teach Students Social and Emotional Skills

Teaching your students about rules and procedures, how to work with others in groups and pairs, and how to handle unexpected changes can lead to positive sub behavior according to reader Kati R. She teaches these social emotional skills early and revisits them throughout the year to help behaviors with or without subs. Kati states:

“Some of the social emotional skills that I teach my students throughout the year include:

  • Procedures like what to do if my pencil breaks or I forgot a pencil, what to do if I can’t find my notebook for a particular subject
  • How to decide “who goes first” in a game or partner assignment
  • Ways to handle a change in the daily schedule (which can occur when a substitute comes)
  • How to communicate any issues to me about things that were not resolved through the course of the day with peers/substitute
  • I also leave good student pairings for the day to avoid any unhappy pairings”

Teaching students social and emotional skills can be a game changer. They will be able to handle these situations themselves when there is a substitute teacher.

Teach Students Empathy for the Substitute

Substitute teachers are coming into a situation where they may not know the students or the subject matter. Reader Lisa N. does this with her students before she has a sub.

“(I) make them understand how difficult it is to be a substitute,” Lisa said. “Until they look at sub-plans they don’t know what they’re teaching. I tell them to please make it easier for the sub by being an amazing class.” If students understand the difficulties of being a sub, they are more likely to behave for a substitute teacher.

Help Students Recognize Their Own Behavior

Ask students to reflect on their own behavior. “In order to help my kiddos behave for my sub, I leave an anchor chart that says “What did you do to make Mrs. Selima proud today?” reader Courtney P. said. “As the last activity of the day, I ask the sub to hand out a sticky note to each child to respond to the question. I love reading their responses the next day!”

Remind Students That They CAN Do It

Leaving a note for your students with your expectations for behavior in a positive way can instill a sense of pride and responsibility in your kids.

“When I know I’m going to be gone, I always leave a letter for my students on the board that they’ll see when they arrive,” said reader Angie L. “The letter encourages them to do their best and act the same as they would if I were there.”

Having a substitute teacher can be a planning nightmare for you and a challenge when you get back to the classroom. Often behaviors arise with your students that may not normally come up if you were in the classroom. Utilizing these nine tips to help set substitute teacher expectations for students will help your students understand the need for positive behaviors and take pride in themselves and others.

To learn even more about having a successful sub day, check out my guide to emergency sub plans.

Set your substitute expectations for students, I promise you won’t regret it and you won’t have to wonder what to do when students misbehave for a substitute again!

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