How do I manage thee? Let me count the ways

Why the behaviour management approach you use needs to work for you; and sometimes, for you alone.

Whether you are a new teacher or an old hand, you will be familiar with the idea that the field of behaviour management is full of disagreement. Like elbows and, indeed, the distal orifices of alimentary canals, everyone seems to be born with an opinion on the best way to run a room. Even if they have never done so themselves (see: newspapers, politicians, everyone else). Sometimes especially then. Who do you believe, and who do you trust?

I’m happy to come to you with open hands on this one, because I am one of the behaviour wallahs, who feel perfectly happy- entitled even- to tell you what to do in order to manage behaviour in your classrooms. Sometimes I even get emails asking me ‘WOT GIVVS U THE WRITE TO TELL ANYWUN HOW 2 DO IT??????? WHO MADE U GOD?????!!!!’ Once you decipher the moronisms, it’s a valid question. These are, after all, my opinions, my experiences. So why is there so much dispute about the best way to manage behaviour?

I’ll come to that later, in a transparent strategy to hold your attention; if you’re smart you’ll jump ahead to the paragraph starting, ‘You see, I had an epiphany…’ When I started teaching I was told that well-designed lessons would be enough to get classes behaving. The implicit- or explicit- suggestion was of course that if they didn’t behave, then my lessons must be poorly planned. Back to the drawing board, ad infinitum. Others told me that shouting was the only language, indeed, the only volume they understood. After nearly a decade managing nightclubs in Soho, I could sympathise. But that didn’t work either.

Then I met people who assured me that, on my skip along the Yellow Brick Road, believing the best of children was the way to unpack the rainbows of their hearts, and that if I believed in the power of their dreams then we could wish ourselves happy and…you get the idea. That didn’t work either. Kids just tore me up for toilet paper, and flushed. The next attempt involved me ‘catching them being good’. Unfortunately, with some children, I couldn’t manage this feat, even with a butterfly net and a laser sight. I was told to wait for silence; cobwebs grew on my IWB before that worked. I was told to inspire them, but I had no idea how to do that every day. I was told that lessons had to be fun, but I ran out of Disney films and thinking caps. And Maltesers. I was, in short, rubbish. Were you ever rubbish? You know how I felt. *fist bumps*

But I tried, and I tried and I tried to get better. I tried every strategy I had ever heard of; sometimes a dozen in a lesson. I read all the standard texts, passed to me like the Communist Manifesto in a Clyde shipyard, by shaman who had travelled my path. I attended so many INSETS I began to suspect that 50% of the people working in education were behaviour consultants who lived in middle-priced Travel Inns with their families. I observed other teachers.

I got worse before I got better; I spent a good 18 months feeling like a pinball on the business end of a set of paddles before my boat started to turn. I noticed that they behaved when I told them stories; relevant ones, mind, not just ‘a funny thing happened’. They listened. So I built lessons round them at times, and it worked. What also worked was having a lesson planned, having all my resources ready before the lesson, being there before them, phoning home, being positive but stern at parents’ evening…..and so on.

The point is, I found what worked through experience, and by reflecting on the experiences of others. Today I feel comfortable sharing those experiences with others, because I believe that teachers need to stand and stick together, like Velcro-clad guests at one of Max Mosley’s parties. We need to help each other, because our paths are worn by others with worthier sandals.

You see, I had an epiphany, which I am happy to share with you, because I think this is important - vitally important- to not only running a class and getting good behaviour, but to the overall experience of being a teacher, And it’s this: some things work for some people, with some classes, and some things don’t. If this doesn’t seem terribly profound, its implications are. Some teachers are good at certain strategies, and some aren’t. Some classes need handling in a certain way, and some prefer other ways. Some children need different handling to others to achieve the same results. If you start at a lovely school where all the children are mature, value education and want you to help them, your approach need to be very different from the NQT dropped in a sink-estate and told, ‘Do what you can. Good luck.’ Itneeds to be, it has to be.

Yet, if you listen to many of the people who seek to advise people on behaviour, you would think that there is only one way to pluck a turkey. LET ME TELL YOU I HAVE PLUCKED TURKEYS IN MANY WAYS. And the reason why this is important is because if you struggle on with the wrong strategy, it may never work. And you will never improve, and you will eventually leave teaching, feeling like you were a failure, when in fact you were not.


We need to distinguish two different types of approach to behaviour management, and here I thank the excellent blogger Oldandrewuk for directing me to the also excellent work of Daniel Willingham. Check out both for details on this topic.

1. Generally universal behaviour techniques. Humans are roughly the same; we have much in common. We must do, otherwise we could not be classed as humans. Our psychology and reactions and behaviour follow broad brushstrokes of similarity. Example: most people are deterred by sanctions, and encouraged by rewards. Which is why I feel comfortable telling teachers that this is a good basic structure to work into your classroom management. I can happily recommend that approach to teachers from Baghdad to Bearsden, via the Erskine Bridge, because we share DNA. Few are the humans that are not impacted in some way by this technique. There are many others.

2. Specific strategies to amend and direct behaviour that depend on context. As I mentioned, a tough, rowdy class might need more structure than an amenable one. A kid whose parents have just split up needs different gloves than one who enjoys stability. It depends on who they are, who you are, and the relationship between you. This is, of course, a far harder part of the teaching profession to get right. It takes time to develop the sensitivity, experience and judgement to discern what needs to happen in each individual case. It comes with patience and hard work, and a keen eye. Work to achieve it.

Hopefully this should clear up why so many people seem to say so many different things about behaviour. They might be completely earnest in their desire to help you, but simply universalising their own experiences too generally. Listen to them, read them, and then decide for yourself what you want to do. Ask yourself, ‘Will this work for me, with them, at that time?’ Learn to make the judgement. It also excuses you from having to try every one’s suggestions, on the grounds that some of them will be non-starters. One of my non-negotiables is, for example, the belief, borne from experience, that classes like a consistent behaviour management approach, and changing the rules too often makes them rebellious. So I usually recommend that you persist with strategies for quite a while, and give them time to bed in.

That’s my experience. What’s your experience? Learn what works for you. And don’t worry if you aren’t exactly like the other teachers. Only worry when it isn’t working.

Read more from Tom here on his blog or follow him

Dealing with lateness to lessons

  • My way of dealing with those who have no sense of temporal awareness.

Dealing with the new class

  • Tips from the behaviour forum

How to succeed with the noisy class

  • Rob Plevin’s approach to chatty classes

Bayley on behaviour

  • John Bayley’s Teacher TV program on his approach

The habits of teachers who manage behaviour well

  • Pivotal Education’s take on behaviour management

Making yourself heard

  • Sue Cowley AKA The Guv gives advice on managing noisy classes

Work avoidance strategies

  • Phil Beadle gives it to you straight, no ice, no mixer. No glass, in fact, just the bottle. Always worth reading; an excellent behaviour writer.