In this post I aim to impart as much knowledge and advice about behaviour management as humanly possibly. But as a slight disclaimer before I begin: behaviour management is a complex subject, and there is no one size fits all approach, or one pearl of wisdom that will solve all of your behaviour management problems. Instead, I hope to encourage reflection and adaptation to whatever challenges you face. As I wrote this post, I became aware that I was rambling and over-writing, but I made the decision not to edit as I think that this reflects the journey of developing your own approach to behaviour management.
I did part of my teacher training in a special school for children with EBD (emotional and behaviour difficulties), and I was shocked by how little training I got from university to prepare me for this. I personally feel that behaviour management is the most important part of teaching. If behaviour is poor, learning is virtually non existent. So new teachers are expected to learn fast. And I would guess that failure to do so is one of the main reasons that so many new teachers leave the profession in their first few years. I know all to well the feeling of sinking when teaching them seems like the impossible task, and you question why you keep going back for more.
Keep going back for more. When you crack a class like this, you will experience your most fulfilling, rewarding days of teaching. But how do you teach the class that seemingly doesn’t want to learn?
The carrot, the stick or neither?
Children, like adults, are all motivated differently. For some children the genuine pride of accomplishing something is enough. These intrinsically motivated pupils will respond to good teaching and being challenged. When they learn, they feel successful and in turn want to learn more. So here lies the first and most important point – behaviour responds directly to your teaching. If you are well planned, well organised and teach lessons with relevant, engaging content, behaviour will instantly be better than if you were poorly prepared, teaching lessons without an obvious purpose.
Some children, however, seemingly lack this intrinsic motivation, and prioritise impressing their peers above impressing themselves. Ultimately, the goal must be to find a way to inspire this self-motivated attitude in all of your pupils, but in reality, particularly with some classes is almost impossible. So we need to consider other extrinsic motivations: the carrot or the stick?
I have a three-tiered reward system to encourage positive behaviours for learning.
I reward children on an individual level, team level and at class level. Individual children that display positive behaviours for learning receive instant positive feedback. Praise them, and describe why you like what they are doing, for example, ‘I love the way that you put your pen down and looked at me to show you were listening.’ At the end of the week, I have a class meeting, and pick my two star learners who receive a prize. I also give prizes for my teaching assistant’s star learner (this empowers your TA, but also puts the idea of your TA checking for positive behaviours when your back is turned in the front of their minds); but, the most important individual prize goes to the class star learner. We have an anonymous voting system, and the children take this incredibly seriously, not choosing their friends, but genuinely choosing somebody who has displayed positive learning behaviours each week.
For teams, I give table points to the the groups that work best together, are ready to listen at the right time, are getting on with their learning at the right times, are good at tidying up etc. Again, the team with the most points at the end of the week gets a prize, but also receive other perks, like being the first group to go out at playtime or go home first at the end of the day.
On a whole class level, I reward the whole class when they collectively do something impressive. This could be focused on volume in the classroom, presentation of learning, transitions, lining up etc. If they perform as a whole class, they get a bingo ball, and we mark off a number on our bingo chart. Each column of numbers has a class prize, such as ‘movie and popcorn’ or ‘extra break time’.
By ‘the stick’ I am referring to a consequence system for when children do not meet the expectations for learning behaviours. My personal point of view is that detentions, and missed social times are in effective unless they have a purpose. My take on disruptive behaviour is simple: if I have to stop teaching to address a child’s behaviour 3 times in a session, then that child needs to go elsewhere as they are having a detrimental impact on the learning of other children. I never shout at them, or show any anger towards them, but make sure they know that they are stopping other children learning so need to be away from the class. There must be a discussion with the child before they return to class. Make sure they know that you still like them, but in that lesson they got it wrong. Explain that all of the work they missed will need to be caught up in their own time; in other words the child will miss their social time with a purpose. It makes sense to the child why they are missing their social time! If a pupil is ejected 3 times in a half term, I always involve parents and keep SLT informed. That way, they can support you in taking any further action that may need to be taken.
The best piece of advice I have to support behaviour management is to develop strong relationships. Get to know the children, and tell them that you like them. Tell them what it is about them that you like. Always repair a damaged relationship by reinforcing the fact that you like them, but they made a mistake. Children will always behave better for someone who they think likes and values them. So make it clear! You can also use these relationships to turn a negative into a positive. I have de-escalated many situations by laughing at some disruptive behaviour and saying, ‘It’s a good job I like you so much because you know as well as I do that you shouldn’t have done that!’ this humanises yourself, whilst still making it clear that they have got something wrong.
A teacher that shouts and raises their voice all the time just becomes the teacher with the loud voice. It becomes water a ducks back, and you can almost feel their collective eyes rolling every time you shout. It has no impact. When I say that I never shout, what I mean is that I never get angry with an individual (outwardly!) – it will just encourage a fight or flight response and make things worse. I would say that raising your voice to a whole class very rarely can sometimes be the short sharp shock that they require. But the vast majority of time, keep your voice calm yet assertive.
There are many different ways that teachers generate rules, or even what they call them. I have seen ‘learning contracts’ signed by the children, I have heard of teachers with a list of 20+ different rules. In my classroom we have 2 expectations at all times. What ever you call them, however many you have and however you come up with them, the most important thing is how they are used. They need to become your mantra. Repeat them all the time. Praise children for meeting them. Remind children when they are not meeting them and give them a chance to correct themselves. Follow through on consequences, and never ever budge on what you are saying are your rules. Mine are simple: listen carefully without interrupting the person who is speaking, and stay on task at all times. If a class listens carefully and stays on task, then behaviour is good! I therefore see no need for any more complex rules. You may have other systems, such as hands up to answer, or stop and listen on a given signal. But these are systems that the children will learn!
All behaviour is communication
When a baby wants/needs something, they cry. The job of the parent is to try to work out what the baby wants/needs – feeding? A nappy change? A nap? A cuddle? Some Calpol? It would be so much easier if a 3 month baby could tell their parents what they wanted. But they can’t speak so they find another way of communicating – crying! This method of communication evolves, and although the children in your class may well possess the words to communicate, they often don’t have the emotional intelligence, confidence or awareness to communicate their thoughts and feelings. So they misbehave. It may feel like a personal attack when a child in your class constantly disrupts, or is rude to you. But, just like the new patent, you need to try and understand what they are communicating to you. Are they bored? Are they tired? Are they hungry?Are they craving attention from you? Are they seeking validation from their peers due to low self-esteem? All behaviour – good or bad – is a means of communication. If you can unpick why they are behaving in this way, you can prevent the behaviour. Give regular positive attention, have snacks on hand, tap into their interests and just keep trying different things until you break the pattern of behaviour. And when you do break the pattern of the behaviour, reflect on what worked and repeat.
Children are like animals and act on instinct. They can almost sniff out weakness, and make a play to become the alpha male/matriarch of the classroom. This is why new teachers and supply teachers often have a difficult time with behaviour. No matter how you feel inside, present yourself in a calm, confident, assertive manner. Consider how you project your voice, body language and pace. And do not get into confrontations. You do not want the children to feel threatened by you. The alpha male in a troop of gorillas lets the others squabble whilst he rises above it. He remains calm and confident and as a result is rarely challenged. As a teacher, you need to channel this alpha gorilla calm, self-assured aura. It will generate respect, and in turn lead to better behaviour.
Creating a positive classroom
It is important to create a positive, nurturing atmosphere in order for the best learning to take place. Children who feel both safe and happy will always outperform those who do not. You must therefore not fall into the trap of repeatedly telling children what they are doing wrong. They get bored of this negative feedback and stop listening. They will also copy your behaviour, so if you spend a lot of time being negative, they will become negative with each other. Make sure you always give 2 positive statements for every one negative. If a child needs to stop talking, praise two other children who are listening well. Often, this is enough to make the chatty child listen too. Also consider your use of non-verbal communications. Use eye contact and facial expressions to allow them to infer what you are wanting to happen. Move around the classroom, and your presence will often be enough to get a distracted child back on task. I sometimes just put my hand on a child’s shoulder if they need to change their behaviour, and do not stop teaching. These non-verbals are incredibly effective ways of redirecting behaviour quickly and in the least disruptive way possible.
When talking about de-escalating, I’m referring to a serious incident: a fight, verbal abuse, damaging property etc. This will hopefully be a very rare occurrence, but it is important that you know how to respond if something like this happens. The most important thing in the first instance is to consider the safety of all children. If there is a chance somebody could get hurt, act quickly, and move the child to somewhere safe away from the other children. If you are not restraint trained, sometimes the other children may need to be evacuated in order to keep them safe. It is also necessary to consider the child’s dignity, as it could worsen the situation if they are seen by their peers whilst in crisis. Find somewhere private and isolated for them to begin to calm down. Let them go, and let them vent. I say nothing for the first few minutes. When you spot an opportunity, often their breathing will slow down – they may even sit down and cover their face, speak softly and calmly and say very little. I always say something like, ‘I want to help you, so I’m ready to listen when you’re ready to talk.’ Then wait. The child will often open up and begin to talk about what happened. If they are not ready, offer another means of communication: writing or drawing. There will be times when the child just isn’t going to open up to you because they may still see you as a threat if you were the one who removed them. If this is the case, you need a change of face. Swap roles with another adult, and this is often enough to de-escalate the situation. When the child is calm, and enough time has passed, it is time to begin to put things right.
The Big Picture
A handful of disruptive children displaying negative behaviours can be enough to taint any lesson. It is easy to focus on the few children giving you a head ache than it is to focus on the rest of the class who are actually doing a great job. Always remember the big picture – even in your worst lessons, when it all seems to go wrong, take time to think, talk about and celebrate what has gone well. There will be positives and it won’t be as bad as you think! Training yourself to think like this will feed into your general positivity in the classroom which will in turn have a positive impact on behaviour.
As I wrote this post, I became aware that this was less structured, and more of a rambling disorganised discussion about the many things that I have learnt about managing behaviour and promoting positive learning behaviours. I thought about going back and editing, but I think this actually reflects the complex nature of behaviour in the classroom. No children are the same, and no two days in teaching are the same. But I hope this post has given you an insight into what it takes to promote positive behaviours in the classroom and has given you a range of tools, strategies and techniques to develop your own approach to behaviour management!
As always – please share with anyone else you know who you think might find this useful!