Managing student behaviour: whose advice should you trust?

With so much behaviour advice on offer, it can be difficult to know which classroom management strategies are best for you.

In the noble art of ‘teach-fu’ the ability to control, motivate and direct classes is essential for any grasshopper to master. That’s easier said than done when you are surrounded by people just brimming with helpful advice. Colleagues in the staffroom may have your best interests at heart, but with so many possible behaviour management ‘solutions’ it can be hard to tell what will work for your classes. So riddle me this, batfans: who do you trust?

You might hope that you could turn to the guv’nors of Ofsted who, as the elect inspectors of our humble classes, would have a few things to say on the matter. But shocking reports in TES recently confirmed what many already suspected; Ofsted inspectors aren’t always the omnipotent arbiters of pedagogic wisdom we might hope. In fact, under a recent FOI request by TES, Ofsted themselves admitted that they didn’t know how many of their inspectors had recent experience of working in successful schools. So, the next time an inspector writes down the number four as your class re-enacts the sack of Rome in a lesson on conjugating verbs, it makes sense to ask him what he would have done differently.

Seek classroom management advice from classrooms like your own

Let us turn away from those rotters and look instead to your own school. In the first instance, this is always the best place to turn for help. Every school is different. Every catchment area is different. Every class is different. (I could go on, but you get the idea.) I run the behaviour forum for TES online. Mostly the advice is very good indeed, but sometimes it makes me weep to read one adult tell another adult to ‘hand out lollipops’ to kids falling into drugs, or to take a kid who has assaulted a teacher back into the room. Usually, these people are transferring their own jollier experiences onto the situation at hand. If you have taught in nothing but sylvan temples of calm, it can be hard to imagine a situation where a kid walks into your lesson and tells you to go f*ck yourself.

The best people to help you with behaviour are often to be found right next to you. They know the demographic, they know the kids and they know the structure of the school. Best of all, they know what works for them in the same circumstances.

Observe student behaviour with those who are still learning

The best way to improve your behaviour management is by observing. Remember that teaching is a verb. Go watch other teachers teach, but don’t go straight to the old hand whose classes all behave beautifully. Observing that teacher will be like looking at the outside of a McLaren supercar and trying to work out how it goes so fast. To really understand, you need the hood up and the engine out.

The best people to observe for behaviour management are often newer teachers who have turned a corner with their classes and now enjoy a good relationship with them. You want to see a teacher struggle a little bit, so that you can observe what they do and how the kids respond to it. The routines of a veteran will have been surgically implanted years before and all you will see are kids responding well, working hard, and behaving.

Good behaviour management is the result of clear structures and consequences, imbedded by repetition over time. There is no mystery or magic; beware anyone who tries to sell you a pill that says otherwise.

“Who made you the expert on pupil behaviour?”

If anyone tries to tell you how to run your classes, the single most important question you must ask yourself is: ‘What experience have they got?’ Have they had to deal with tough classes? Do they share a similar load to you, or have they done so in appreciably close history? Do they even teach? It seems moronic to have to ask these questions, but the world of education is based on inverted talent pyramids where the best are sometimes led by the worst. You should take any advice with a sack of salt unless you can be reasonably sure that it comes from a place of suitable experience.

People often ask me, ‘Who made you the expert?’ to which I answer, ‘no one but experience’. By all means read as many books on neuroscience as you want and as many papers on infant psychology, but remember that the only true forge of a teacher is the classroom. What works in there is what works. I don’t claim expertise; I claim experience.

What to do:

1.Watch others. People who are a few curves ahead of you are the best guides to the path you’re on, though veterans are great for observing YOU.

2. Really think about what they do. Write down what worked and what didn’t. Reflect on structures and routines, body language, tone, content of lessons, seating plans. Have a chat with the teacher afterwards – about the lesson, not just the weather.

3. Try it yourself. Start with a few things you think you could do easily enough, then slide in more as the weeks progress. Some routines take a while to have an effect, so stick with them for a while.

4. Think about what’s working for you, and not for anyone else. Get others to observe you on an informal basis only. Ask for both barrels. Listen to it; don’t just ignore or mop it up. Listen, critically filter and discuss.

You will find that some things about behaviour management are universal: being a professional, being a subject expert, actively trying to be in charge, clear boundaries and consequences, repetition, relationships.

What I do to coach new teachers:

1. Observe the teacher for a full lesson. Take notes on nothing but behaviour and related issues.

2. Meet with the teacher ASAP for a feedback discussion. This has to be a discussion, not a one-way thing. The teacher must have the right to challenge or probe what I think, but tips and advice also need to be a big part of the meeting.

3. Perform a follow up observation a few weeks later, followed by another discussion, to see if anything has changed. At this stage I often film the lesson so that the teacher can see for themselves what goes on in their room. This is a powerful tool, although you sometimes need a strong will to sit through seeing yourself stutter and goof. I recommend it to everyone.

4. Take the class myself to see if I can do any better. This is a trick I picked up from Bill Rogers, the Australian behaviour guru-wallah. There’s no point pontificating if you can’t show that you can do it for yourself. So, I take the class and have the coached teacher observe me. This is also powerful and sobering for me.

5. Repeat as necessary.


Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him.


Command Respect

  • An older article I wrote for the TES when I still used the word respect :) How to be the role model in the room, and get the behaviour you want.

Are they Experienced?

  • Brilliant article by Stephen Bexley in the TES, investigating the people who scrutinise and assess us.

From the TES Behaviour Forum- needy children who take up all of your time

  • My (and others’) thoughts on making sure everyone gets your attention

I am the Law- do we even need rules in the room?

  • My discussion on why it’s important that you rule the roost, however imperceptibly.

Seating Plan- Tom Bennett

  • If you don’t have one, get this into your life, and feel the breeze on your knees. Isn’t that lovely?

Behaviour poster- Simon Haughton

  • A poster explaining the sequence of events that will happen if a child chooses to misbehave. Cute, and gets the message across

Teachers TV video on rewards and incentives

  • Because it’s not all about shouting at them

Working effectively with colleagues- Gererd Dixie

  • How to make sure that the teaching assistant works with you to your purpose.

Teaching Routines- Sue Cowley

  • The guv’nor’s video guide to establishing routine in the primary environment


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