Behaviour - Class Act - Low-level danger

Finger tapping, repeated eye contact and gazing around the room may sound trivial, but this kind of disruption can ruin lessons

Tom Bennett

Ask teachers what they fear most about bad behaviour and they'll probably say fights, knives and chairs through windows. But ask them what the most common bad behaviour they experience is, and they'll talk about calling out, not bringing pencils, chatting at inappropriate times - or low-level disruption.

Low level sounds insignificant and harmless, like low key or low profile. Dream on. Low-level disruption is like kryptonite for the well-planned lesson. It's like a woodpecker boring a hole in your head with a toffee hammer while wearing a Pete Doherty mask. It's that annoying. And it's that insidious. By itself, it is disrespectful and distracting. Left unattended, it erodes the sharp edges of your lessons like a river rubs a path through a mountain, grain by grain. It's the thin end of the wedge.

Why so serious? Because low-level disruption is what pupils do instead of learning. It's a classic diversionary tactic where the sole function, by intelligent design or dumb malice, is to turn your lesson from a symphony to a cats' chorus.

Apart from the fact that it slows you down because of the time it takes to deal with it, it contributes to a disintegration of your classroom respect, therefore control and authority to lead and to teach. One day they're chatting over your PowerPoint, the next they're file sharing on their iPods during their Sats. And if they won't follow behaviour guidelines on the small stuff, can you expect them to follow the big rules? Here are some pointers:

Have clear guidelines

At the start of the year, explain precisely what you expect of your class - dispel any ambiguity about your vision.

Get tough in the first few weeks

This is why there are sanctions in the Army for unpolished shoes or messy kit. It's not that the Ministry of Defence thinks a well turned-out soldier will impress the enemy and make them pack it in, but the fact that if a soldier is obsessing about such detail, then they ought to have oiled their gun. So go in like the SAS for details, even if it seems like a pain.

Nip it in the bud

As soon as a pupil starts chatting, or rocking on their chair, stamp it out. These gestures, a precursor to full-blown low-level disruption, will include looking around, drumming their fingers, making repeated eye contact with others. Gently reinforce positive behaviour by drawing attention to their tasks, rather than by making a fuss.

Get them on task

One of the simplest techniques for restoring and reinforcing good behaviour is to focus on what they should be doing, rather than what they shouldn't. This is good advice for just about any influencing technique, as it shows you display dominance in the relationship. If you start shouting, then you're getting drawn into their behaviour. Instead, set the agenda by saying: "Let's see those first tasks done in the next 10 minutes." It's polite, it's task-orientated and it's on your terms.

Tacitly ignore it

Sometimes you should ignore disruption. But when? When tackling the disruption would lead to an escalation of disruption by itself, or risk massive disruption that would outweigh the benefits of squashing it.

Use humour

This is probably more dangerous, mostly because many teachers lack levity in their lives. One of my Year 10 boys (who was no stranger to the biscuit tin) once disrupted a lesson by loudly proclaiming that he'd been baptised recently. Before my disciplinary machine roared into life, one of his colleagues quipped: "Was it at SeaWorld?" Job done for me, he slithered back into his surly cave.

Distract them

This is similar to getting them back on task, but is useful when they are starting to get so far from the task they could barely see it with the Hubble Telescope. Suddenly bring up a new topic in an interested tone (for example: "Who saw Big Brother last night?") and when you get the inevitable deluge of attention, steer the conversation quickly back on to the topic at hand before then directing them back on to the task.

Sometimes disruptive behaviour is the pupil's way of telling you they are bored with the lesson. They have a responsibility to you, the class and their education, but you also have a duty to stir their enthusiasm.

Really distract them

Pull out a marker pen and suddenly say: "Everybody look at the pen." You will have everyone's attention for exactly three seconds. After that, you're on your own. This will work once, unless you are teaching an exceptionally slow-witted group.

What is low-level disruption?

- Begging for pens and equipment.

- Arriving late.

- Chatting constantly.

- Shouting the answers out.

- Pupils trying to be funny (as opposed to teachers trying to be funny, which is just toe-curlingly embarrassing).

- Tapping, rocking, rapping or typing.

- Anything involving make-up or telecommunication equipment.

- Any behaviour that impedes learning.


I have two clicker counters, one red and one green. Every time I see good behaviour going on - hands up, working hard or helping each other - I click my green counter. Every time I see bad behaviour - not listening or chewing - I click my red counter.

You don't have to admonish the bad behaviour verbally. Just hold the red counter in the air and click it and the guilty party will stop it.

If there are more greens than reds by the end of the lesson, pupils all get house points. If there are more reds than greens, then they have to stay behind for 10 minutes. This system promotes collective responsibility for learning and pupils of any age respond well to it - and more often than not greens win.

It can't be used for every lesson because children tire of its novelty but for those trouble-spot lessons, such as the last on a Friday after PE, it can work wonders.

Alice Smith teaches in a north London secondary.

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Tom Bennett

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