Behaviour - Subtle changes can make a difference

By looking at your own practice you can identify flashpoints and re- engineer situations to prevent misbehaviour occurring

Steve Harris

"There's no such thing as a child misbehaving, only a teacher not doing their job well."

This quote - recited by a principal of mine 15 years ago - may already have some of you screaming with rage. And yet, if you give the comment some time to breathe and consider carefully what it implies, you may find some truth in it. For although children are, of course, badly behaved of their own volition and should be held responsible for that, as a teacher there are things you can do to limit the opportunity, or inclination, for that child to misbehave.

This goes beyond imposing reactive sanctions of threatening punishment; it is about what you could do differently to create the environments and relationships that would reduce negative behaviour altogether. Below are five examples of how to do this.

Change the routine

While I was working with lunchtime supervisors recently, one animatedly told me how "naughty" the children were because they always used their cutlery to sword fight in the queue. The solution, as you may have guessed, was to move the cutlery so that the children picked it up just in time to attack the food instead of being "armed" while they were standing in line.

This seems obvious to us because we are looking at the problem with fresh eyes and are prepared to re-engineer the situation. The same thinking should apply to all practice. Take a look at when misbehaviour happens most. Is it while students are lining up, swapping places, being given handouts or waiting to be registered, or is it during lengthy introductions or when lessons are interrupted by other staff? Look at how much of this can be re-engineered to minimise the opportunities for misbehaviour.

Avoid causing stress

Go easy on the exam references. Teachers are under a lot of pressure to get results and we sometimes amplify this pressure for students. All the talk of targets and progress in every lesson can make learning feel like a high-stakes activity, and for some students that can lead to avoidance (mis)behaviour.

I once taught a disruptive student who had been told for years that he was bright but underachieving. Together we figured out that he was terrified of giving "his all" in case he didn't measure up to the expectations of others. It felt safer to mess around and underachieve. Avoid situations that encourage children to compare their achievements with those of others rather than striving for a personal best.

Focus on developing learning characteristics

Alongside lesson objectives, involve students in creating a full list of positive learning behaviours that will be needed to achieve the task. A piece of writing may require concentration, creativity, independence and determination. On the other hand, a science experiment may require collaboration, listening, sharing, delegating and talking. Use feedback and praise to reinforce these positive characteristics.

Keep staffroom politics out of the classroom

Children's perceptions of the value and authority of some staff members can be influenced by subtle signals about the esteem in which colleagues hold one another. A teacher I know was undermined by a senior colleague who would insist on her using his surname at all times, but who would regularly interrupt her lessons using her first name and a superior tone. Do not allow your staffing hierarchy to be evident to the students from the manner in which staff relate to one another.

Build good relationships with parents

Simple things such as class newsletters help connect parents to the life of your classroom, casting you in a more positive light that in turn rubs off on the students. Make a point of contacting the parents of more challenging children (by phone or postcard) to mention some of the great things they have been doing in school. This creates a virtuous spiral of mutual respect between student, parent and teacher. Don't mention behaviour at all. This will move parents away from the assumption that a call from school means only one thing.

Avoid good old-fashioned boredom

People engage most with a task when there is a sense of immediacy and an element of problem-solving. Sometimes this is called "just in time" learning, as opposed to "just in case" it is in the test. Students could learn Roman numerals for the sake of it (just in case) or they could take the role of a judge resolving a dispute between two traders that led to one kidnapping the other's daughter. To do so they will need to understand Roman numerals (just in time).

Some of these points are obvious but we have so many strategies for reacting to behaviour that subtle changes such as these can be overlooked. Too often, managing behaviour is seen as something we have to "deal with" when, actually, it is something that we can prevent occurring in the first place.

Steve Harris is a consultant on emotional well-being and motivation for learning.

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