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Behaviour management: 'It’s all about confidence'

Some teachers make managing behaviour look easy – but their confidence is hard-won, says Jarlath O’Brien

Behaviour management

Some teachers make managing behaviour look easy – but their confidence is hard-won, says Jarlath O’Brien

The first time I ever taught a whole lesson on my own during my PGCE, I spent three hours planning it.

Despite all that planning, just 40 minutes into the one-hour lesson, I had completely run out of material. With no real experience to fall back on, all I could do was mouth the word “help” pathetically to the class teacher, who was marking at the back of the room.

He promptly stood up, rubbed his hands together, retrieved a lesson from his extensive mental encyclopaedia and cracked on from where I had dried up, without pausing for breath. I was in awe of him.

This teacher had confidence in spades – the kind born of successful experience and built up over time. This confidence is a major part of what makes us skilled and self-assured practitioners, and nowhere is this type of confidence more important than when dealing with behaviour.

But while the end product can look effortless – we all know the teacher who can silence a hall full of Year 10s with the merest twitch of their eyebrow – it’s important to remember that this power is hard-won: built on mistakes, perseverance and learning from others


Quick read: Behaviour management: '8 lessons I have learned'

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What we really need to get better at in terms of managing behaviour is self-efficacy: something that Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura defines as “people's beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives”.

He notes that people with higher levels of self-efficacy persevere and regard problems as obstacles that can be overcome, whereas people with lower levels of self-efficacy are more likely to quit or to regard failures as resulting from personal deficits.

Behaviour

Bandura also distinguishes four main ways in which self-efficacy can be improved. Here’s how we might be able to take those and apply them to developing teachers’ confidence with behaviour.

1. Mastery experiences

It seems obvious that being successful at something builds confidence in our ability to do it. Failure, on the other hand, can undermine self-efficacy if it is experienced too regularly before confidence is firmly established.

However, easy successes can lead to overconfidence or an expectation of quick results, meaning that we become more easily discouraged by failure. And when it comes to behaviour management, there will certainly be times when you will feel like you have failed.

For self-efficacy to stick, we need to persevere when things don’t go well or when we encounter inevitable problems along the way – and to do this, we must have support and encouragement from more experienced colleagues.

2. Social models

Learning from others (what Bandura refers to as "social models") is very powerful, but is not always easy in teaching.

Teachers spend a lot of time in their own classrooms, which means that opportunities to see colleagues in action are limited. We are unlikely to be able to watch whole sequences of lessons with particular classes, for example.

Furthermore, when observing a colleague, we will know little, if anything, about that teacher’s past successes or failures with a specific child or class or any prior learning the teacher may have brought from other experiences – yet these factors have an important role to play in how that teacher manages behaviour.

We can’t see inside a colleague’s head, so we need to find other ways to understand the thought processes that led to seemingly split-second decisions, such as why they moved one child and not another or why they seemed to ignore some behaviour in favour of dealing with something else overtly.

Discussion with the teacher prior to and after the lesson may help us to elicit some of this information.

3. Social persuasion

Leaders have several roles to play in building the confidence of members of their teams.

To start with, it’s important that they provide guaranteed presence and support. Then, they can also use information to reassure colleagues that behaviour is improving, even when things still feel tough, as this can help to sustain effort.

Finally, leaders can affect the ability of colleagues to give their best through the way in which they structure the school day, or how they deploy support staff. For example, it might be convenient for a timetabler to schedule triple science followed directly by triple PSHE on a Tuesday for Year 10, but leaders must think about how this timetable might affect behaviour – and the knock-on effect that can have on teacher confidence.

Similarly, if you have TAs pinballing from lesson to lesson across the school every hour with barely a moment to have a wee, let alone to read the lesson plan or discuss with the teacher what the lesson is about, that won’t help to build self-efficacy either.

4. Psychological responses

Bandura asserts that people “interpret their stress reactions and tension as signs of vulnerability to poor performance” and that “[m]ood also affects people's judgments of their personal efficacy”.

This can be magnified when considering behaviour as it is a highly emotive subject and it can be tough to feel good about something that is inherently ‘bad’, such as when one child bullies another.

Supporting colleagues through this emotional rollercoaster can be a big help, as this fatigue or stress can lead to cognitive distortion, something I have written about previously.

Colleagues with a high degree of self-efficacy are less likely to engage in this form of negative thinking – so it pays to get everyone to think more positively.   

Jarlath O'Brien works in special education in London and is the author of Better Behaviour – a guide for teachers, published by SAGE


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