1. Clarify rules and expectation daily
Possibly the most important but easily overlooked strategy – constantly affirming boundaries is a game changer. How can we expect our pupils to behave within the boundaries, if they don’t know what the boundaries are? With short term memory, short attention span and selective hearing working against them, young people need reminding of boundaries far more than we can sometimes realise. What we perceive as disobedience, is often just absentmindedness. Communicating what the boundaries are needs to be proactive rather than reactive. Therefore the best time to do it is the moment pupils enter the classroom, before any boundaries have been crossed and the pupil-teacher relationship is undamaged. Proactive strategies include having a discussion about why the pupils think each boundary is important, making posters, signing a class contract and self-assessment tasks. It also drastically improves behaviour if these boundaries are reviewed before potentially disruptive tasks or when disruption is building.
2. Assertive vs. persecution
Faking assertiveness can be exhausting and can often lead to persecuting which takes the fun out of teaching and learning. The best strategies need to be effective whilst allowing you to be yourself and keeping anxiety and stress levels low (including your own!)
Being assertive doesn’t need to be aggressive, dominating or threatening. It’s about being in control. Starting the lesson with a strong plan is assertive. Clarifying expectations and setting goals, learning objectives, and specific behaviour objectives. Rather than sitting behind a desk, walking around the class and standing close to pupils who are misbehaving is assertive. Other methods include establishing eye contact before speaking to a pupil and maintain it during and after speaking until getting the desired response. When challenging behaviour, avoid addressing the whole class because they dominate you in numbers. Instead call out an individual pupils name and challenge one pupil directly. The rest of the class is more than likely to correct their behaviour as well. Ask questions rather than telling pupils off for example “Tom why are you still talking?”. Using a visual aid like a wall chat or the free ‘Trackit Lights software’ can be also enforce boundaries without the need to tell pupils off or get emotional.
3. Rapport vs respect
It’s difficult to balance assertiveness with developing good rapport. Being too dominant can be confrontational and damage relationships but being too subservient can result in lack of leadership and control of the class. One strategy for reducing confrontation and protecting relationships is to simply share your observation and follow it up with empathy. For example ‘Tom, you look frustrated with that question, is that right? Difficult questions can be frustrating’, or ‘Tom you look very fidgety, are you struggling to focus? It can be difficult to work on one thing for a long time’. You don’t need to rescue the pupil or solve their problem, often just recognition is enough. If necessary, ask them what the problem is and ask them if they have any suggestions to solve the problem.
Simply meeting and greeting pupils at the door can be so important for rapport. Make them feel important and interesting. Ask about their hobbies and interests. Ask for their opinion, academically and socially. Give pupils specific responsibilities. Use praise but only praise things they have control over. For example instead of praising a pupil for being clever or for the quality of their work, praise their effort and how much they have learnt whilst working on a task.
We all know young people thrive on routine. It’s not only good for the kids though. From a teacher’s perspective, it reduces the amount of coercing we need to do because once the pupils have accepted a routine and settled into it, compliance becomes unconscious – it’s just the way things are done. It’s up to each school and teacher to decide what routine to follow. Do pupils stand behind their desks when they enter or do they sit down? Do they have a task to do when they first sit down, for example reading, or do they sit quietly with their arms crossed? At the end of the class are they released one by one based on who is sitting nicely, or do they line up? It doesn’t matter so much what the routine is, as long as there is one.
5. ‘Nip it in the bud’
When proactive strategies haven’t worked, the earlier you can react the more effective intervention is. This requires first awareness, then the strategies to deal with it. Be aware of the class dynamics. Understand the triggers and the hot spots and strategically scan the class and make eye contact with relevant pupils just before or after disruptive behaviour.
Addressing low level behaviour can be one of the most demanding and draining jobs for a teacher. Low level strategies include:
- Proximity: Standing close to hot spot or misbehaving pupils.
- Silent and still with eye contact until desired response
- None verbal reminders: Finger to lips, frown, hands on hips showing displeasure, hands faced down meaning calm down, stand up straight and fold arms meaning sit nicely, shake your head meaning stop.
- Humour: eg. confiscate a note and then pretend to read it to the whole class but make up something silly. On a hot day try and fan tired looking pupils with your book whilst walking around. Respond to silly remarks by looking to the sky and pretending to talk to God asking ‘why me?’. If a pupil is looking frustrated pretend to look wary of them and back away etc.
6. Mind set
Facing challenging behaviour has many effects on your body and mind. For example physiologically, it can put you into a fight or flight response. Psychologically, you can either slip into a victim mind set which is vulnerable and defensive, or slip into persecutor which is resentful and critical, both can be counterproductive. Emotionally, you can feel stressed, anxious, angry, upset, frustrated, incompetent… because humans have valid needs for ease, peace, harmony, connection, acceptance, fun, community, support, affirmation, competence etc. When working with a challenging class, most of these needs can be unmet resulting in heightened emotions.
To combat this it’s important to remember that bad behaviour isn’t personnel. One useful concept is that all behaviour is an unmet need. When your pupils are behaving badly, instead of feeling attacked, try to identify what the pupil is feeling and what their need is. For example they might be feeling bored and need stimulation, they might feel frustrated and need competence in regards to a task they can’t do or they might feel insecure and need attention or recognition from their peers. Developing emotional intelligence can protect you from blaming yourself. For example it’s often not your fault if a pupil is bored. It’s not autonomous for most young people to sit at desk for 6 hours a day and learn about subjects they aren’t interested in. So instead of being offended that a pupil is bored in a lesson you spent a long time working on, considering the pupils needs can equip you with empathy instead anger. It’s not your job to fix all the problems in the class, that is impossible, but recognising the problem and offering empathy is often enough.