Words of Wisdom #2: Classroom Management with Physical Proximity

Using physical proximity as a classroom management technique ensures student on-task behavior (and prevents student misbehavior).



The power of a teacher’s physical proximity is amazing.  I severely underestimated this power my first year of teaching.  I confess that I pretty much sat behind my teacher’s desk or perched on a stool behind a podium. Fact is, especially in a first period of 40 eighth graders, I wanted something between me and them at all times.  It could be desk, a podium, a lion-tamer’s chair… ANYTHING for a barrier.  I did not understand the power of a teacher’s physical proximity.  Teacher physical proximity has been repeatedly demonstrated to have a positive effect on student engagement and desirable behavior (e.g., den Brock et al., 2005).    The following true story demonstrates the power of a teacher’s physical proximity – and even of just the possibility of it!



Seating Arrangement without Physical Proximity

If your seating arrangement does not allow physical proximity, students feel safer to misbehave.

A band director in one of my workshops once expressed utter frustration with a trumpet player.  This student continually cut up in rehearsal.

I asked, “Where does this comedic musician sit?

“Center back of the fourth tier,” he replied.

“Is there an open aisle allowing you physical proximity beside him in five

strides or fewer?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Everyone files in from the outside.”




Seating Arrangement with Physical Proximity

Create a seating arrangement that allows for quick and easy physical proximity. Such an arrangement helps ensure student on-task behavior.

My suggestion was that he rearrange chairs just a bit to open up a center aisle.  This would allow him to walk up and stand beside the offender.  He agreed to try the plan and report the results when our group gathered for a follow-up session in six weeks.

His report went like this:  “I opened up a center aisle like we discussed.  This allowed me physical proximity to him in just a few strides. The first time he started in, I just laid down the baton and calmly strode up the risers in three giant steps.  I stood directly beside him.  I never said a word, but gave him my best ‘teacher look’ for a full five seconds.  Then I strode back to the podium, picked up the baton, and continued rehearsal.   It was wonderful!  He behaved the rest of the class.  He behaved the rest of the week.  And the following weeks.  It seemed just knowing that my physical proximity was only five seconds away stopped the problem.”



There’s a style of management in the business field known as MBWA – Management by Walking Around.  And this works wonders in the classroom as well – especially for small group work.  (And a key, of course, is furniture arrangement.  Arranging class furniture with open aisles allows you physical proximity to each student in just a few steps.) For us, it looks like this:

  1. Stand tall and make a concerted effort to make momentary “pupil-to-pupil” eye contact (pun intended) with each student.
  2. Move to a group, lean in, and listen.  Perhaps ask a question or two, and stay no more than a minute or two.
  3. Again, stand tall and attempt pupil-to-pupil contact with all students.  (Believe me, the student who is thinking about misbehaving is looking to see if you are looking!), Then move randomly to another group.
  4. Repeat.  Note that carrying a clipboard with a list of the groups allows you to check off where you have been.  This helps you keep track so no group is overlooked.  Be aware that just as we are right-handed or left-handed, we are also left- or right-oriented in moving through the classroom. Self-monitoring helps ensure all students have equal access to your powerful physical presence.


We are born with two of the greatest proactive classroom management tools – our eyes and our feet.  Let’s use them!


For more thoughts on teacher proximity as a tool of effective classroom management, see http://www.teachhub.com/classroom-management-tips-using-proximity-control.



Until next week – may you experience success in all your academic endeavors!



den Brock, P., Levy, J., Breckelmans, M. & Wubbels, T.  (2005). The Effect of Teacher interpersonal Behavior on Student’ Subject specific Motivation.  Journal of Classroom Interaction, 40 (2), pp. 20-33.