How to use teaching proximity to control ESL classrooms

Chris Parker
A guide that explains the concept of teaching proximity, as well as how to use it to more effectively manage misbehaving students. The impact of desk arrangements and classroom layout on teaching proximity is also covered

When teaching younger ESL students, some may occasionally have behavioral issues that can disrupt your lessons, leading to distractions in the classroom that can affect other students. Classroom management techniques are therefore important, and one of the most useful yet underutilized ones is the use of teaching proximity to maintain control of a classroom. If you’re not already familiar with this technique or using it in your everyday lessons, here’s why you should be.

What is teaching proximity?

If you’ve been teaching for some time, then you’ve likely encountered a scenario where students in the back of the class are misbehaving or otherwise not paying attention during lessons. This is often because of the large amount of distance between you and these students. As you approach them by walking toward the back of the room, their behavior will normally change, at which point you’ll have their attention once again.

This scenario demonstrates the effect that teaching proximity has on students’ behavior. As you get nearer to students, they usually become more well-behaved, and as you move further away from them, they often see this as an opportunity to misbehave. Understanding this concept and using it to your advantage can help to keep your lessons on track without any disruptions or students falling behind because they’re distracted.

What are the three zones of proximity?

The concept of teaching proximity as a technique to control students’ behavior isn’t a new one, as experienced teachers have been using it for quite some time now, though it wasn’t until 2007 when psychologist Fred Jones identified and described the three zones of proximity in the book Tools for Teaching.

The concept of the three zones is simple: students closest to you are located in what’s called the “red zone,” those just outside of this zone are in the “yellow zone,” and those much further away from you in the back of the class are in the “green zone.” Which zone a student is located in will change as you move around the room, as the zones are based on your location and your distance from students.


Red Zone
Think of the red zone as a circular area that surrounds you while you’re teaching and one that extends approximately 8 feet outwards from your location. Students anywhere within 8 feet of you are considered to be in the red zone.

Students within this zone are often better behaved or more focused on tasks than those outside of this zone, though, of course, this isn’t the case with every student. The red color represents STOP, where students within this radius will normally stop misbehaving because you’re within close proximity to them.

Yellow Zone
The area just beyond the red zone, about 8 to 14 feet away from you, is the yellow zone. Students in this area are typically well-behaved, though some may feel more comfortable misbehaving than they would if they were in the red zone.

In the yellow zone, you may find more students not paying attention to what you’re saying or not focusing on activities, and turning your back on students in this zone can easily lead to disruptive behavior. The yellow color represents CAUTION, as students in this zone may be prone to acting up but they’ll be more cautious and observant of your movements when in this zone.

Green Zone
The area in the classroom that’s furthest away from you is the green zone. This is anywhere that’s 15 feet or further away, and it’s the area where a power exchange takes place. Instead of a teacher having control over their students in this zone, it’s the students who are controlling the situation, as they often figure out how to use this area to misbehave without consequences.

Those seated in this area gradually learn how long it takes for the teacher to walk from the front of the classroom to this area. They often become comfortable with misbehaving while in this zone because they know that they have plenty of time to conceal this behavior once the teacher starts to walk to the back of the classroom to investigate where a disturbance is coming from. The green color represents GO, meaning students see this area as a green light to misbehave.

How to use proximity to control a class

The following tips can help you manage disruptive students using proximity.

Apply the three rules of movement

In addition to the three zones of proximity, Jones also suggested that body movement should be used in three ways to take control of the zones. These three “rules of movement” can be broken down as follows:

1. Change proximity zones
To keep all students engaged in your lessons and to minimize classroom disruptions, you should constantly be moving around the room, which changes the proximity zones for students.  Those sitting in the green zones should not remain in these zones long enough to become comfortable with misbehaving. It would be ideal if you could have every student seated in the red zone, but this obviously isn’t possible with large classes, so you should always be moving around the classroom and between rows whenever possible. 

2. Change the fields of view
When students are looking at you while you’re in front of the class, this can become boring for them and lead to distractions and poor behavior. Visual-spatial attention is the attention your students selectively give something that’s within their field of view.

If you’re staying put while lecturing and not moving at all, students may then choose to focus their attention on something else that’s more interesting, such as their classmate sitting next to them or random people they see walking past a window outside.

Instead of staying within the same field of view, move around as much as possible to give your students some variance in what they’re seeing and to keep their visual-spatial attention on you. 

3. Use movement as camouflage
If you notice students misbehaving, other students may not notice this, but if you walk over and say something out loud to the misbehaving students, it could become a distraction for other students. This is why you should use movement as camouflage to carry out corrective actions.

When you move near a student who is talking, playing with a toy, or not paying attention to you, they will likely stop these behaviors once they notice you nearby. More importantly, other students may not even notice that you’re doing this, so you’re replacing your voice with movements to correct actions in a quieter, more subtle way.

Rearrange the classroom layout

The arrangement of the desks and chairs in a classroom plays a significant role in classroom management, as a poor classroom layout can obstruct students’ fields of view or lead to misbehavior. It’s more difficult to move about the room or change proximity zones for students when there’s not a clear path to do so.

Your goal should be to create an interior loop, which is an unobstructed, looping path around the desks that allows you to constantly walk around while shifting students’ proximity zones with every few steps. To create an interior loop, you should choose a classroom layout that permits this by leaving plenty of room between rows or desks for you to freely move about.

Examples of desk arrangements
  • Traditional – desks are in straight rows and face the front of the class with plenty of space for the teacher to walk between each row.
  • Roundtable – desks are used to form a circular arrangement where students are facing each other, allowing the teacher to walk in a straight circle behind students’ backs.
  • Horseshoe – desks are placed side by side in a U-shaped arrangement that allows the teacher to quickly approach each desk from the front of the classroom.
  • Groups – desks are used to form groups of four with two pairs of side-by-side desks in each group, which leaves large areas of space between the groups for the teacher to circle the room.
  • Stadium – desks are put into rows that are angled so that they’re all facing a focal point in the front of the classroom, and similar to the traditional arrangement, this leaves space for walking between the rows.

Parting advice: don’t overdo it

Now that you’re familiar with the concept of teaching proximity and know how to use it effectively, you should be mindful when using it and take care to not stand too close to your students. Constantly hovering over students or spending too much time near them can make some feel uncomfortable, which can make it difficult for them to concentrate. If you apply the techniques and rules mentioned in this article, such as walking around the room, then this shouldn’t be an issue.

Written by Chris Parker for
Chris has been studying linguistics academically for several years and has taught ESL in both primary and secondary schools.

One comment

  • Youssouf says:

    Thanks a lot for your interesting help, as teachers we that kind of technics.

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