Are you a lion tamer or a horse whisperer?

There are subtle, assertive ways to manage students' behaviour successfully that do not involve aggression and confrontation

Paul Dix

News article image

If you are not an advocate of the aggressive, sanction-based method of behaviour management, then some schools can be a very lonely place to work.

I met a teacher recently whose department head wanted her to manage behaviour as he did: confrontationally. Her method, which was proving very successful, was more subtle and nuanced than her colleague's explosion of anger at unpredictable intervals. That her method was working was not enough for her manager, and she ended up moving schools so that she could manage behaviour in a way that worked for her.

Unfortunately, there are many similar department heads out there who have bought into the lie that children are dangerous subversives. Not satisfied with being persistently hostile to the children in their own classes, they want the entire department to replicate their practice. They even produce books that tell everyone exactly how to teach each lesson, and new rules start to appear that are more stringent than is necessary.

Under the leaders who demand this iron-hand approach, more measured, assertive practice is being crushed. Even teachers who have excellent behaviour in their classes are being asked to give more detentions. And those who do not punish regularly, or who fail to adopt a more dictatorial stance, are told that they "lack confidence" in the classroom. This terminology begins to appear on observation forms, is whispered in middle- management meetings and is written into continuing professional development plans.

Confidence should not be confused with assertiveness. You can be wonderfully assertive with your students without being a confident character, and you can manage behaviour without resorting to ugly aggression or stupefying sanctions. In short, it is just as valid to be a horse whisperer as it is to be a lion tamer.

Being a horse whisperer is about adopting a sure-footed, assertive approach that is a daily drip-feed of consistency. Here, you use simple sentence stems that convey assertiveness: "I need you to. "; "You will be. "; "In two minutes I am going to come back and see. "; "I know that you. ".

It is also not about a teacher's physical presence. Physical assertiveness is not dependent on something as obvious as size but on the nuances of movement, pace, personal space and appropriate distance. It is body language that is tailored to the needs of the individual child. The best teachers working with the toughest classes are often no match for their students physically. They have had to find more subtle ways to influence behaviour.

As well as sentence stems and tailored body language, you can also use assertive structures: closed choices; deal-making; encouraging students to take responsibility for reacting appropriately by saying things such as "We need to have an adult conversation to resolve this"; and lastly showing belief, even in the face of overwhelming odds - a statement such as "I can feel that this is going to be an excellent sessionlesson" can make all the difference.

You also have a choice as to when you engage with bad behaviour - you do not have to meet it head-on. Rather than confronting it, you may choose to record it and address it at a more appropriate time, ignore it or walk away and consider your response. Assertiveness is knowing that you can control your own behaviour and make considered, appropriate choices in responding to students.

All the above tactics are just as assertive as the aggressive method of standing your ground, saying "no" and repeating your demand (the "broken record" technique) - if not more so. Yet they are being lost from the repertoire of behaviour management strategies in favour of the didactic, nice-nasty dichotomy insisted on by many "lion tamer" department heads.

There are certainly strong arguments for the role of lion tamers, but there is just as valid a set of arguments for those more quietly assertive horse whisperers. Calm, assertive certainty may not belong to the "shock and awe" tactics that excite dictatorial middle leaders, yet it will allow you to teach the children a personal discipline that does not rely on the lion tamer's whip. And teachers should have the freedom to embrace that strategy for as long as they can prove it works.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at UK training company Pivotal Education and author of The Essential Guide to Taking Care of Behaviour

What else

Have your say in a TESConnect forum discussion about "quiet" teachers.

Read about the importance of body language in the classroom.

In short

  • Although department heads may demand an aggressive approach to behaviour management, more subtle techniques can be just as effective.
  • You can use simple assertive sentence stems to show control, such as "I need you to. " and "You will be. ".
  • You do not have to be physically big to use body language well - the nuances of movement, pace, personal space and appropriate distance can be very powerful when tailored to a child's needs.
  • Assertive structures can also be adopted: closed choices, deal-making, positivity and treating students as adults.
  • Choosing when to tackle bad behaviour is also important. You do not always have to meet it head-on at the moment it occurs.
    • Photo credit: Getty

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Paul Dix

Latest stories


Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 23/9

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives
Tes Reporter 23 Sep 2020