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Friday, 21 March 2014

If only I knew then what I know now: behaviour management for friendly teachers

I’ve been musing recently on behaviour management.  After five and a half years in the classroom, I’ve gone from being a nervous and na├»ve 21 year old, with a very limited set of behaviour management strategies, to a much more confident practitioner who’s (usually!) able to create a sustain a positive and welcoming atmosphere in the classroom. I’m not for a minute suggesting that I always get it right or that I don’t have any issues.... the phrase “pride comes before a fall” springs to mind here... but I never get that feeling of dread that I used to have when facing “that” class or “that” student.

So I suppose this post is really addressed to my younger self. To the person who sometimes questioned whether she would ever be able to succeed in teaching. To the person who sometimes assumed that behaviour management would always be a battle because she wasn’t “scary” enough. And also to the person who disliked the idea of the “us vs. them” culture, which can build up between teachers and students. I’m not trying to tell anyone else what to do – you need to find what works for you - but if you’re new to the profession, it might help to hear what works for someone else.

Having reflected on it all this evening, I’ve decided that it boils down to three key things

1)      Lesson planning

2)      Building relationships

3)      Body language and tone of voice

I suppose I could add a fourth element: rewards and sanctions. I know rewards are important to recognise student achievement and reinforce positive attitudes and I know that sanctions are sometimes vital to help students understand that there are consequences to their actions. But neither rewards nor sanctions will act as a magic wand. They just reinforce other things you are doing. On their own, they are hollow tools. Too many rewards will make you seem like a push-over, too many sanctions will make you seem vindictive.

So back to the things that do matter. Well, it’s no accident that lesson planning is at the top of the list. Students need to be engaged by interesting work that is pitched at the right level and undertaken at the right pace. In maths, I always find that they respond best to really clear explanations and precise instructions. If they understand the topic, they’re much more likely to engage. If you confuse them, they lose trust in you and they lose faith in their own ability. Similarly, pace is vital because if you go too fast they will get lost, but if you go too slowly they’ll feel bored and patronised. It’s not easy! But if you are struggling with a class, focussing on lesson planning is often a good place to start. Can you shorten your explanations? Can you scaffold the work? Can you give them small successes so they know they are making progress? Can you make the tasks more engaging?

Second on the list is building relationships. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Above all, you need to give students the message that you are on their side and that everything you do – even giving them sanctions – is designed to help them be the best they can be. I try to make this clear as often as possible. So when setting detentions, I make it very clear that this is to help the student catch up and make progress on work they should have completed. The message doesn’t always get through, but it’s hard to argue with! Even better – try to show students that you actually like them. Catch them being good, focus on the positive things they do, and enjoy their quirks. Kids can really make you laugh if you let them. In fact, if you play to their strengths, the characters in your class can often become a real asset. 

Body language and tone of voice. This is partly about reminding yourself that you are the adult, the paid professional, and they are a child in compulsory education, where there isn’t a great deal of choice or freedom. If they are wound up, you need to make an extra effort to stay calm. If they are shouting, you need to speak either quietly or at normal volume (although be careful with speaking too quietly because this can really infuriate some students). Never mirror their negative body language or tone of voice; it will just exacerbate the situation.  The best thing you can do is calm them and reassure them so that you help them to make the right choices in their behaviour. And do bear in mind that the right choice can sometimes be time out of the lesson for stressed out students. 

When dealing with a whole class, if you want their attention, make sure that you stand still facing the group and don’t move about. I find it useful to stand at the front in the middle and look around the room saying things like “girls at the back, time to focus now” or name a specific student saying things like “Emily, thank you”. If you ask them to “put pens down and listen” whilst at the same time picking up a worksheet from your desk, or writing something on the board, you are subconsciously giving the message that it isn’t really time to stop talking – you’re still faffing about, so they can carry on too. When you are ready to start talking to the class, make sure that everyone is listening and calmly insist on silence. If anyone starts to talk I say things like “we need everyone to listen now” or “this is an explanation part of the lesson – everyone needs to be able to focus on the instructions”.

In general, if I was able to say anything to my 21 year old self, I would say that you shouldn’t expect students to get their behaviour right every time, so when they do get it wrong, you don’t need to panic, you just need to support them to help them deal with situations more positively in the future. Misbehaviour isn’t a direct challenge to your authority – it comes from a variety of different root causes. It’s sometimes to do with the nature of the work in the lesson, maybe due to lack of confidence or confusion about that particular topic; and sometimes it’s to do with personal issues that you might not be able to detect. If you have got students with personal issues, they don’t need your sympathy. Far from it. They really need you to have high expectations of them. But you also need to be willing to listen to them: to the spoken and unspoken messages they are giving. Really effective behaviour managers are teachers who can decode those unspoken messages and know how to deal with them. The best way to do it, is to make sure your students know you're on their side.