Poor student behaviour would have to be one of the biggest obstacles to successful teaching. There are almost infinite permutations of students being able to disrupt the learning environment, and if it becomes an on-going issue, it can take years off your life: it’s thoroughly exhausting, damages your self-esteem, and makes the job incredibly unenjoyable.
Some teachers have it luckier than others – their SLT have a clearly articulated policy in place that they utilise to deal with disruptive students, a policy that consistently and without failure informs students that repeated infractions will only result in negative outcomes. Regardless of the class, the exact same rules apply, and will be enforced every time. This characterises schools who have, or are close to, ‘zero excuses’ policy. The lure is seductive – consistent good behaviour in lessons. However, schools such as those run by HannahWilson also promote consistent behaviour, and are just as alluring.
One would imagine these policies would have a restorative aspect inbuilt, effectively training students to adapt behaviours that are getting them into trouble. (I wonder how many schools actively teach recalcitrants how to react more appropriately in specific situations?) But the key is that students, as they move from class to class, know that disruption will have the same consequence, regardless of their protests or histrionics.
For those teachers who don’t feel that their school’s behaviour policy is a support, and there’s lots as this Teacher Tapp result shows, their experience is akin to something the egregious Axel Rose shrilly exhorted: welcome to the jungle!
In these school environments Darwin’s theory literally becomes the polity: survival of the fittest, king of the jungle, dog eat dog etc. In these classrooms, you WILL BE EATEN unless you take charge.
So can you survive in such a school?
In order to take charge, you have to show students who’s the boss, the expert, the facilitator of their success. But without any shadow of a doubt, the absolute key to survival is your own understanding of why you want specific behaviours in your classroom. You have to reconcile with yourself why good behaviour is required, what it will do for the students’ learning, and consequently their futures. If you don’t have this 100% understood in your mind, you will always have problems maintaining good behaviour in your lessons, because without this epistemological underpinning, you won’t be able to maintain the first rule of behaviour management: consistency.
Humans thrive on boundaries, and students especially. If students know where you stand, and that if they cross the line you’ve established there will ALWAYS be consequences, then you increase exponentially the chance of keeping control in your classroom. Cognitive science informs a great deal of pedagogy, and I think applies to behaviour also. The cognitive load of students can be constantly at capacity in lessons, and unpredictable admonitions or capricious insistence on adherence to the rules can tip cognitive load over the edge, and cause huge disruption to the thinking processes of students. If students aren’t thinking about the learning, they are likely to disrupt the learning. Disproportionate and variable consequences also leads to students feeling indignant, with the strong sense of injustice and unfairness in behavioural consequences likely to dominate their thoughts, regardless of any learning you insist on happening.
It is especially important for ‘usual suspects’ to see consistency across the room. The rules MUST apply to everyone, and even when a student never in trouble infracts, they must be held to account. Interestingly, this serves as a powerful lesson to frequent violators, seeing the same rules being applied to all, and that there isn’t some conspiracy against them. Sending a top student out of the room for disrupting after being warned can act like an antidote for those who are usually on the receiving end of consequences. You will likely hear their vocalisation of such an unusual occurrence: ‘Wow, can’t believe …….got kicked out!’ A certain amount of pride in staying in the room may ensue.
Knowing the boundaries takes pressure off behaviour management, because students don’t have to think whether certain behaviours will or won’t be allowed. The result will be less indignation, less cognitive overload, better behaviour.
2. Seating arrangements
Having your room set up where students face each other is going to cause problems, for their concentration, and for their behaviour. Many teachers may fear the idea of students being in rows as potentially being labelled as some sort of draconian Gradgrind regressive teaching practice, but again, if we consider the science behind maximising concentration, having students facing each other immediately makes it harder for them to listen to you, because their minds are having to compete with two stimuli: their peers, and you. If their peer moves, makes a face, is doodling something, basically anything at all, the concentration on the lesson content is compromised. Compromised information makes it harder for activities to be carried out when required, which leads to poor disruptive behaviour; after all, they won’t know how to do the task, because they weren’t listening to the content delivery. Having students in rows eliminates almost all of their distractions as students’ focus is solely on you at the front.
Carefully seating certain students next to others is also powerful in helping reduce unwanted disruption. Some students are naturally more inclined to talk, so allowing friends to sit next to each other can lead to problems, especially low-level disruptions. Again, your philosophical intent will be challenged here as it appears as though you are actively reducing the joys of learning in your lesson, but these types of disruptions can be thoroughly exhausting to manage, and so in the end you’re not doing yourself any favours by allowing it to continue. If it is happening and getting in the way of learning, then positioning students strategically is essential. You may decide to allow movement of seats for certain activities where collaboration is required or possible, but the default would always be for what maximises concentration, not what students prefer.
3. Breathing in and breathing out
Designing your lessons so students have opportunities to speak, to release sustained concentration, or to interact with peers about the content is important to manage behaviour. In most lessons, students are required to manage concentration on the delivery of content. Depending on your class, this length of time will vary. With top sets, it will often be significantly longer. Whether we like it or not, there is no avoiding this; some students haven’t yet had the training to sustain their concentration for as long as we would ideally like. This is made infinitely more difficult in a school without consistent learning expectations in every classroom. Understanding this, and knowing that it will be a ‘slowly but surely’ approach that will eventually increase their ability to hold their focus, will inform the design of your lessons. If you know where the limit will be reached for tricky classes, changing the activity at that point will eliminate behavioural issues arising from frustration, tiredness, or boredom.
For example, asking students to immediately begin writing in silence after having been actively listening to you teach for 20 minutes may miss an opportunity to let some breathing out happen, where students could discuss the topic at hand, or draw a representation of what was taught, thereby switching modes of thinking momentarily, and allowing their minds to refresh. The concept of dual coding could very much be more utilised in providing such spaces, which will likely result in students being able to maintain focus in the next task, and so on, and reducing the likelihood of getting into trouble for the natural need to release from sustained concentration.
4. Frequent assessment
Success breeds engagement. Carefully designing opportunities for students to succeed in your class will always lead to better behaviour. Difficult classes needn’t wait for faculty assessment dates, which usually only serve to re-inform these types of students that they are incompetent in the subject. Set assessments in the form of quizzes in every lesson, and then larger weekly assessments in the same format but with perhaps a larger writing component. Design the quizzes so success is likely, and repeat the questions many times to strengthen memories and facilitate retrieval at later dates. These take little time to develop, but are powerful in not only helping learning, but also behaviour.
The added bonus of weekly assessments is that it keeps a routine culture in the classroom, but importantly also serves to increase the time students work in silence, because every student knows that assessment means working in silence. You can class mark them also to avoid extra marking.
5. Know what you’re teaching
It may seem obvious, but people respect knowledge, and expertise. If you come across as someone credible in your classroom, most students will bow to this. So work hard at improving your knowledge of the subject and your general knowledge, know how your curriculum links, become expert in questioning, and provide quality feedback that allows students to access more frequent improvements.
BEING ASSERTIVE NOT ANGRY, AND CONSEQUENCES
Being calm but assertive in your demeanour, even in truly difficult circumstances, is the most effective way to handle situations. Sometimes this is almost impossible, but disassociating yourself from the behaviour of a student is the way to maintain your control. The behaviour of the student is often caused by immaturity. Stay above it at all times. Again, refocusing on why you insist on good behaviour in lessons will support your assertiveness, prevent the incident from taking over your whole life for days afterwards, and ultimately be respected by the vast majority of those in your care. On occasion, you won’t be able to reach a certain student, but almost always, this will not be isolated to your classroom, and the school will eventually have to take stock.
If the classroom rules are infringed upon, there has to be a consequence. Keeping students back at the end of the lesson will take up your time, but it is a small price to pay if it stops repeated offending. Asking students to leave the classroom is sometimes the only option you have to continue the lesson’s learning for others. If this happens, it can have a big impact on the next lesson, as the ejected student will have missed what could be key content for the next lesson, and thereby not know what to do, which could result in further disruption. At this point you could be stubborn and not provide the opportunity to catch up, but you would be potentially opening the door for further issues. As said, success breeds engagement, but conversely, failure breeds disengagement too. In the next lesson you may need to spend more time with the student, or if they have gone to a designated space, they could continue with the work there. If you have maintained calmness when the decision is made to eject, the chances of them being able to settle after a short time is increased, so the work may be able to be done.
It doesn’t happen in my class
…is one of the most damaging statements you could ever hear. If you know that certain students are going to be intransigent to the new established routines you are creating, you may need to consult with your head to pre-warn of the likely ejections from your room, so no one is able to incorrectly create the perception that you don’t know what you’re doing in terms of keeping control of your class. There are few worse feelings than when you know you haven’t got the backing of SLT when poor behaviour is wrecking your classes, but discussing your plans will go some way to reducing this outcome.
Good classroom behaviour is achievable. It takes experience to get it 100% right, but if you truly believe in why you insist on it, you can make quick gains by following the advice above.
I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more of this type of discussion, and others around English teaching and education in general.