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‘Three Top Tips from Tom’ will be updated weekly with the best advice and tips on behaviour and classroom management.

Tom Bennett is the TES adviser on behaviour and a teacher at Raines Foundation, an inner city state school in Tower Hamlets. He regularly supports teachers on TES through our behaviour forum and monthly newsletters on behaviour.

Say what you mean, mean what you say: the importance of being earnest

The way we speak to students is enormously important. You only have to see the difference in reactions students have to different members of staff to see how true this is- and it’s not all about status and relationships. In the seventies it became tremendously fashionable to talk about body language, and while it’s a much misunderstood area, there are many things that we need to remember as educators when we talk to people, especially in moments of stress, crisis or tension between two parties- like in a situation of behaviour control, for example. Here are three things to remember when addressing a pupil:

  1. Tone and register. The temptation, when addressing a student misbehaving, is to ramp up the gears to Def-Con 5, bringing the big guns out immediately; at the other extreme is the temptation to try to be jolly and jokey, anticipating a great big hug as everyone makes up afterwards. Neither of these are ideal. Say what you want to happen EXACTLY as you want it to happen. Be simple, direct and clear. Now is not the time to attempt sarcasm or wit, unless the situation is only mildly disruptive, in which case it can serve as a salve, or a distraction, dissolving the vestigial tension. Anything else needs the direct approach. Keep your voice even and low, and try not to scream, unless you absolutely need the volume to cut through background noise and the scenario is a dangerous one. Don’t wheedle, don’t bark. Say what you mean, loudly and clearly.
  2. Repetition is your friend. . If you issue a direction to a pupil, and they want to make something of it, the worst thing to do is to get sidetracked by their questions: if your instruction is reasonable- and of course it is, right?- then you don’t need to explain yourself, or start a debate. Just say what you want, and if you have to, say it again. And then again, showing that you are totally focussed on what needs to happen, rather than what they want to happen. Bat diversions back to the main topic. ‘No, Sam, you need to take your hat off…..hat, Sam……that hat still needs to come off…..we can talk about it later, but right now the hat needs to come off.’ You get the idea. Think Mr Drew in Educating Essex.
  3. Eye contact Never be afraid to look right into their peepers as you talk to them. Once you have delivered your message, wait a heart beat, and then look away, indicating that you look where you want, when you want. It’s a powerful subliminal signal of assertiveness without indicating submissiveness or aggressiveness. And never get into a staring match with them. What are you, 12?

Say what you mean. Say as little as possible, if that.

Good luck


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