The Leading Magazine for Primary Educators
Go back to behaviour basics with these three pieces of advice
Main Subject: open
Following all the behavioural advice you can find but still having problems? Let Robin Launder lend a hand...
Meet Sammy. “Help! I do everything that so-called behaviour experts tell me to do. I’ve read the books and the articles, but still the kids misbehave. I have clear classroom rules and routines but still they play up. What’s going on? What am I doing wrong? What am I missing? Help!”
Sammy’s predicament is surprisingly common. You do everything that the experts tell you to do, but still there’s behavioural problems. What’s the solution? Well, here’s three possibilities from three experienced teachers.
Teacher A: Day In, Day Out
The trick with behaviour management is consistency. Rules and routines are vital, but they only work if you consistently enforce them. So, Sammy, ask yourself this: are you truly consistent? Do you stick to your rules and routines, insist that they should be followed, day in, day out? Or do you sometimes let things slip, turn the occasional blind eye, employ selective deafness because, well, it’s been a long day, you’re tired, they’re tired and, anyway, it’ll soon be Friday? If you do, you shouldn’t. Don’t let the students enter your classroom noisily. Don’t let them chat during in-silence work. Don’t let them sit with their friends when you’ve devised a perfectly good seating plan. In other words, don’t waver. Consistency is key.
And what about consequences? Do you impose them without fail, or are your threats idle and your promises empty? You see, what you say and what you do must be one and the same. If they are, then what you say will carry the weight of what you do – but if they aren’t, then you’re lost. Your credibility will be gone. Oh, and remember that the consequence should always be fair and proportional, never severe. In fact, the power of a consequence comes not from its severity, but from its certainty.
Consistency is definitely key. Teacher A is right to focus on rules and routines. But you also have to be consistent in other ways too, not least consistently kind and warm. If you are those things, then your students will be even happier to follow your rules and routines.
Teacher B: Mix It Up
If you want well-behaved students, then keep them interested and motivated. It’s as simple as that. The average human attention span is about ten to 15 minutes – for primary-aged children it’s closer to ten, and that’s assuming full engagement to start with. What that means is this: whether we like it or not, every nine minutes and 59 seconds, our students will begin to zone out. Now, for most students, that’s not a problem. They’ll simply force themselves to zone back in. But some will struggle. And it’s within this group – the group that struggles – that you are more likely to get misbehaviour.
So, what’s the solution? Well, actually, it’s really simple. All you have to do is vary your teaching approach. Not the topic, that can stay the same, just your approach. In other words, mix it up a little. There’s lots of ways to do that: in-silence activities, paired work, group work, class discussions, research tasks, ICT use, provocative questions, personal anecdotes, YouTube clips, role plays, teacher demonstrations, hot seating, thought experiments, stories, questionnaires, quizzes – you get the idea. You don’t have to do all of these things every lesson, of course, but mixing up your approach will keep your students interested and engaged.
Mixing it up also has another behavioural benefit: it means that students get a range of entry points into the lesson to engage or re-engage. In other words, if you don’t get them with one hook, you get them with the next. And if they’re hooked into the learning, they don’t need the distraction of misbehaviour.
This is excellent advice. However, one word of warning: be careful that transitions from one activity to the next are done swiftly, smoothly and seamlessly. Sluggish or disorganised transitions create spaces for misbehaviour.
Teacher C: Pitch It Right
Perfect behaviour comes from pitch-perfect lessons. Consider these three learning zones: the comfortable; the stretch; the panic. Only one of these zones is conducive to both learning and behaviour.
Lots of teachers pitch their teaching in the ‘comfortable’ zone. The problem with this is that the students can already do what you’re asking them to do. It might seem that students like this zone – after all, effort is not needed and there’s no risk of failure – but actually, they don’t. They know that they aren’t learning anything, that they’re just filling time. And because they know it, they (rightly!) don’t value the work you’re giving them and, consequently, won’t do it. This means there’s a good chance they’ll muck around. If you want good quality learning and behaviour, make the comfortable zone a no-go zone.
The other zone to be avoided is the panic zone. In this zone, the work is too hard. Because of this, children won’t attempt it, which means they’re not working. So, again, chances are you’ll get misbehaviour.
The zone you’re after is the stretch zone. It’s the Goldilocks of not-too-easy and not-too-hard. In this zone, students experience that wonderful sense of mastery that comes from struggle and effort. It’s a great feeling, one that they will want to experience again and again. The chances of misbehaviour immediately and significantly reduces and your standing as teacher immediately and significantly increases.
More great advice. Of course, if students stay in the stretch zone, over time it may become the new comfortable zone, then the panic zone, once outside students’ reach, becomes the new stretch. That’s the learning process in action.
So there you have it: three pieces of advice. All have merit and all might be something missing in Sammy’s classroom. The trick for Sammy is to honestly and openly access her own teaching approach. If any of those elements are missing, make the change and – to echo Teacher A – stick to it.
Robin Launder is the director of Behaviour Buddy, a company that specialises in evidence-based CPD, including behaviour management CPD. He is also vice president of PRUsAP, a national organisation that represents PRUs and APs.