Behaviour - Low Level Disruption

Low Level Disruption. Can you kick it? Yes, you can.

A stream cuts a score down a mountain until it becomes a ravine, and then a valley. It doesn’t do this because it’s powerful. It succeeds by persistence and patience, using the same weapon with which a weed splits a paving slab: time. A student can do the same to your lesson, and eventually your sanity, if they are allowed to drip, drip, drip away at you. Low level disruption is what teachers face most of all, and most often. You can forget the staffroom stories of deodorant-can flamethrowers and chairs thrown through windows (actually don’t forget about them; anything is possible), because the reality of the job is mostly a playful brook (not a torrent) of niggly, annoying behaviours that will wear you down in a thousand cuts.

Low level disruption appears, in isolation, like nothing at all. It’s hardly worth even mentioning to your non-teaching pals when you emerge from your educational cocoon at the weekend and pretend to have a normal life. But when you combine the cumulative effects of all those tiny, persistent little goblins chattering away around you, it adds up to an ocean of misery, a long night of the soul that stretches out forever. Low level disruption is like kryptonite for the well planned lesson.

What qualifies as low-level disruption? I can offer two answers: a definition, and examples. Examples are easier to start with: chair-rocking, pen-tapping, chatting over others, chatting over you, passing notes, passing wind, entering late, chewing gum, texting, drawing in their book, poking their partners…in fact maybe it isn’t so easy to exhaustively categorise it. Let’s define it instead: anything that slows down the flow of your lesson without actually blowing it out of the water. I usually define it as ‘anything that annoys me’, although that might not be very useful to you, not being me and all. It’s the little stuff, the wriggly, niggly behaviour that pupils do instead of learning when they don’t have the moxie to tell you to stick your lesson where even OfSTED won’t go.

And that’s why it’s so corrosive; because of all the things you’ll have to handle as a teacher, this stuff will be constantly with you, looking over your shoulder like Long John Silver’s parrot, pooping gaily on you and laughing, as you take the register. It’s a fact of teaching, like barnacles on a boat. Because it seems so minor, it feels like it should be easy to handle: and so it is- individually. Any teacher that can manage to inhale and exhale can deal with a lone pupil clicking the lid of his biro a couple of times. But a whole class doing it, intermittently, while others make sinister humming noises at the same time as the whole back row are placing bets on when your stack will blow, for how long, and how high….that’s a different level.

If you’re a member of the human race you will have a limit on your patience. You will also probably have a limited number of things that you can focus on and deal with before you feel like you are surrounded by a room of break-dancing oompah loompahs. It’s amazing how it only takes a few annoyances to drive you insane. So there are two dangers in low-level disruption:

  1. It happens a lot
  2. It’s hard to put out a dozen fires at once

Pupils know all this stuff already. They know that they can put the mercury of your blood pressure through the rafters like a fairground try-your-strength . Most pupils don’t have the guts to stand up to you directly- believe it or not, they are only kids, and despite the reputation some have for torching orphanages and selling their grannies on E-Bay, most are still pretty intimidated by grown-ups. So instead of standing up to in you lesson and pirouetting through the class, most will amuse themselves with the time-honoured past-time of teacher baiting. Unlike bear baiting, this is still legal. Understand that the motives for this kind of behaviour are broadly, in three categories:

  1. To watch you change colour
  2. To distract you and themselves from a fascinating lesson on Jewish food law
  3. Because they’ve switched off so much they are trying to occupy themselves. Poor loves. What on earth is therefore them to do in a classroom? Oh yes…

Most teachers (especially new ones) are very switched on to bad behaviour- it leaps out at them, begging to be squashed. So when several things happen at once, or something happens repetitively, it gets extremely stressful, extremely quickly. The most important thing to try to do is to not let it disturb you, or get under your skin. Yeah, I know- easy right? But most of this disruption is aimed at entertaining themselves, pure and simple. If they see you having an aneurysm, there’s nothing more guaranteed to get them to repeat the behaviour. If they see that you aren’t bothered by their low level japes, then they will soon get bored and look for something else to do. With luck, it’ll be your lesson.

How do you keep your temper? It involves a change in your attitude. You have to not care so much about it. You have to realise that it’s not personal (they don’t know you) and that you’re doing a job, not raising your children. And you absolutely have to know, deep down in your giblets that any misbehaviour will be punished- if not in the classroom, then hereafter (and I don’t mean in Heaven.). The simple knowledge of this- and I mean you have to know it- will give you the satisfaction to keep your cool when even Fonzie would be spitting feathers.

Low level behaviour is also a way of keeping themselves occupied in other ways- quite simply they’re often just bored- attention wandering all over the archipelago of your educational voyage. This book looks specifically at behaviour, so I won’t dwell on the necessity of keeping lesson pace brisk and interesting- mainly because all the bells and whistles on a lesson won’t get them motivated if the teacher can’t deal with the behaviour. If George Bush were a teacher (rather than a clownish nightmare) he would have said ‘It’s the Behaviour, stupid.’ So how do you deal with the actual behaviour itself?

Apart from pretending that you don’t actually want to burst the miscreants like balloons, the main things you need to do are name taking and ass kicking. That’s it. There is no way to get around it- this is what you have to do to be a teacher in an even remotely challenging school. A bin man has to lift rubbish; a priest will preach; a lawyer will…well, do whatever lawyers do that requires me to mortgage my soul every time I need one. You’re not a failure if you have to do this stuff. You’re a success. You’re a professional. You’re doing your job right. You’ll do it for as long as you teach. Never ask, “When will I be able to stop telling them off?” Because the answer is, “Maybe never, brothers and sisters.”

The procedures for handling the small stuff is easy in theory, and soul-destroying in practise. It is entirely a war of attrition, and the key thing is for you to win. You mustn’t flinch, or blink, or break eye contact. Do that and you’ll win. Don’t do it, and you’ll be fighting the same battle for as long as you teach. So what do you want to do?

Taken from ‘The Behaviour Guru’ by Tom Bennett, published by Continuum. Read more from Tom Bennett on the TES behaviour forum,or at his personal education blog.

Broadly speaking, the best advice for the new teacher to get the kids behaving is to be fair, to have rules, to be consistent, and to do what you say, every time. You need to be the cliff that they dash themselves against, until they give up through exhaustion and submit to your mighty will; and if your will doesn’t feel so mighty then don’t show it. The class really doesn’t care about your fraying nerves, the pressure you’re under, the stress and the hard work you out in. Honestly, they don’t. If you try to get sympathy from them they will start secretly filming you in the hope that you’ll do something they can put on YouTube. And if you start to rant at them about how much work you do for them only to be met with indifference, they will telepathically murmur ‘But you’re paid to do this,’ and they’ll be right.

That structure of control needs to be the framework within which you operate; the kids will see you mean business, and are prepared to go the distance. But that’s the longer strategy, and you will need to be able to handle specific behaviour as it arises, and arise it will. Even as you proceed along the path of resolute stubbornness, you may experience so many mini revolts and coup d’états you will suspect that your classroom is in fact Nigeria.

The simple solution is to treat long term, low key disruption as a cumulative event, and if several small events happen successively, then you simply redefine that as equivalent to a larger, more disruptive event. Or, in other words, if it gets up your nose, get them in trouble. Keep them in at the end and apply sanctions as you see fit. If they huff and puff, and complain that they didn’t really do anything and you’re so unfair, calmly remind them that anything anyone does in the room to impede learning will feel the naughty sword; and right now, that means them.

Sometimes pupils like that have issues with authority, and they’re working it out with someone whom they perceive to be a vulnerable, weaker extension of the school authority. Sometimes they need to be reminded who’s boss; sometimes they are expressing adolescent anxiety, and are trying to recompense low self-esteem by basking in the glow of peer approval.

On the other hand, who cares? They can bloody well behave in your classroom. You have a duty to teach the class, and if a child wants to chain herself to the desk and try to derail your engine of education, bulldoze over them. That’ll teach them.

Taken from ‘Not Quite a Teacher’ by Tom Bennett, also published by Continuum. Read more from Tom Bennett on the TES behaviour forum,or at his personal education blog.


Bayley on Behaviour

  • Establishing the ground rules: a thought provoking video from Teacher’s TV about how one successful teacher creates consistency in the class room, thereby avoiding a lot of low level niggles in the future.

Basic classroom rules

  • A simple set of rules from Tom Bennett that teachers should use in order to head off the most basic forms of low-level disruption.

Ten things you should never say to children

  • Sometimes, we trip ourselves up by saying the wrong thing; here’s Tom’s guide to what some of those things are.

Dealing with lateness to lesson

  • One of the most common, yet disruptive examples of ‘low-level misbehaviour’ there is.

Teachers TV- managing that class

  • Sue Cowley’s interesting take on using voice variation to aid classroom control.

Seating plan- advice and template

  • The quickest way to make sure that most low level misbehaviour doesn’t happen in the first place.

Department of education- advice on behaviour

  • Guidance documents (draft only) from the Department of Education about behavioural expectations and how to achieve them. As with any guidance from the ministry, take it as a springboard for your own ideas, as ideology and wishful thinking often replaces efficiency, practicality and utility in the classroom.

New powers to discipline

  • Teachers TV video on how the new coalition proposals affect your powers in the classroom and the school, from low-level to high level misbehaviour.

Low level danger

  • Tom Bennet’s article from Class Act, describing the ways successful teachers deal with the dreaded tappers, rockers and muggers that act like Kryptonite on your lessons.

The wrong sort of buzz

  • Another of Tom’s articles from the TES archives, where he describes simple strategies for LLD.

From the forums- Miss, what’s your first name?

  • Interesting discussion on ways that different teachers cope with the classic pupil diversionary tactic…. the personal question.

TES Behaviour resources collections

TES Behaviour resources