Why yelling is not a suitable behaviour management strategy

Don’t Scream If You Wanna Go Faster

There is no need, ever, for a teacher to shout themselves hoarse in order to achieve quiet. If you find yourself going down that road then you are lost. We (by which I mean humans, even little ones) are spectacularly good at attending to things we consider to be important and filtering out things we do not. I used to live next to an emergency ward. After six months, even a siren couldn’t stir my slumber. It was a question of what mattered to me and what I considered to be noteworthy.

The same applies in the classroom. Unless the kids are all screaming themselves, then they can damn well hear you as you call for quiet. If they are ignoring you, or you find that you have to chant like a metronomic banshee to batter them into silence, then this is a clear sign that they aren’t acknowledging your authority in the classroom. That’s what needs to change in order for the situation to improve. You could install an Airbus jet engine in your class and some of them would still natter over it (albeit while rolling around the room in an amusing, turbulent corkscrew).

Calculating behaviour outcomes

Most children are capable of performing a simple, subconscious calculation: is it worth behaving or misbehaving? To answer this, they consider how much fun they will get out of the behaviour, and then subtract the amount of displeasure they will incur. Put this way, it is easy to see why many children won’t settle down because you shout at them. If the only consequence they receive for talking at inappropriate times is a quick blast on the teacher foghorn, then this isn’t really a sufficient deterrent. Many of them will receive much worse at home.

The simple answer lies in linking the behaviour with a sanction that they find undesirable, until the calculus of profit and loss becomes obvious to them. At this point you need to ramp up the severity and lower the trigger point for punitive measures.

Follow a clear behaviour strategy

1. Reiterate to the class what you expect of them, so that things are clear. Sounds obvious, but many children will need to be reminded. If you have allowed them to get away with poor behaviour for some time, it is reasonable for you to tell them when the goalposts are being moved back to where they should be.

2. Make it clear what will happen if students fail to settle quickly before a specific designated point. In other words, what unpleasant event will succeed their misbehaviour? I leave it to your fiendish inventiveness to devise some Stygian outcome. Detentions suit me just fine.

3. The next time you require a quickly settled class, indicate it with the agreed signal. This can be anything, really. I know of some teachers who use props such as timers on the board, enormous egg-timers, a whistle, a desk bell, a napkin waved in the air a la Michael Winner, a finger on the lips, or simply an assertive command (my weapon of choice). Consistency is important here. Train students to respond to a given signal using repetition. Of course, the signal could be more abstract. If you’re into independent learning, then you could set the children some kind of task-related signal for silence, such as saying, ‘By the end of this activity, I want you to return to your desk and answer the questions silently.’ This will hopefully see the noise of group work softly segue into the silence of the occupied class. Honestly though, most classes will still need an obvious marker.

4. Those who fail to note the signal will have their names noted down by you. While some like to do this on the board, to generate a public indicator of disapprobation, I find that this can tie the teacher in knots if the culprits are more than just a few. Verbal cues are very useful to accompany the written record: ‘George is still talking..so is Charlotte….well done Tia, well done Mark,’ etc.

5. Following up on this is the most important part. You must tell those who failed to attend that they have a sanction of some kind. For Heaven’s sake, make sure it is a sanction with some gravity. A ten second version of ‘the chat’ is no good to anyone. It has to be something they want to avoid incurring in future. For a year seven, anything up to half an hour is suitably tiresome. Don’t have them doing something fun. There should be no phones and no chatting. Make it a drudge. Do not encourage the sentiment that detentions aren’t really that bad. The whole point is you don’t want them to come back to this place.

6. Be ruthless about this simple system, because its efficacy lies in its certainty. The minute it looks uncertain, or fragile, or dependent on your mood that day, students will realise that your boundaries are flexible and permeable. As a result, they will never learn to behave as they should in order to learn.

Stop yelling to control behaviour

A few other points relevant to this:

  • Waiting for silence is a perfectly durable strategy, but don’t let the children use it as a goad against you. If they realise that you won’t start until silence is reached, then some will see this as excellent sport indeed and keep on chatting, enjoying the feeling of controlling you. In this case, you might have to send a body or two out of the room in order to attain the monastic calm you seek. Those students can certainly enjoy a little time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure after school for their cheek.
  • Stop yelling. It damages your poor nodules, and it actually makes you look weak. Again, some children enjoy the tacit power it gives them over the teacher. For some of them, getting you to blow a gasket is entertainment second only to watching Simon Cowell give some witless red-faced moron a dream-crushing reality check.

Good luck

Read more from Tom here on his blog, or follow him. His latest new book Teacher, is out now, published by Bloomsbury.


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