Strip out all the "magic" systems, reward catalogues, data-tracking software and general frippery that accompanies behaviour management in many schools and you are left with what really matters: real conversations with angry children at the point of crisis.
These are the moments that lie at the heart of good behaviour and relationship management. They are the difference between calm and chaos, confrontation and compliance, inclusion and exclusion. When children dig their heels in, it is not just your behaviour management skills that are being tested. Your values, your emotional resilience and your humanity are under the microscope.
The longer each negotiation around behaviour takes for the few, the less time you can give to the many. Children who behave badly in class will inevitably need more of your time outside lessons. Do not give it to them in class as well.
Limit your formal one-to-one interventions for poor behaviour in class to 30 seconds each time. Get in, deliver the message, "anchor" the child's behaviour with an example of their previous good behaviour and get out. Your dignity will be intact - and so will the child's. It is a win-win.
The 30-second intervention demands careful, often scripted, language. The idea is simple; the performance takes practice. It is not designed to force the child to beg for forgiveness and turn their life around before break time. Instead, it is a carefully planned, utterly predictable way to send a clear message to the child: "You own your behaviour. Your poor behaviour does not deserve my time. You are better than the behaviour you are showing today (and I can prove it)."
The confrontation, complaint or protest will occur the moment you deliver a sanction. Counter this defensive response by immediately reminding the child of a previous example of their personal discipline. "Do you remember last week when you gave me that excellent homework? That's the person I need to see today." Then use "Thank you for listening" as an excuse to move away.
Do not be tempted to loom over the child, waiting for them to decide what to do. Do not turn back. Even if you have performed the 30-second intervention perfectly, the child will need time to make a choice and get back to their work. And other children will need time to turn their attention away.
As you turn, the child will be busy baiting a hook to fish you back: a loud mutter, the classic "finger" or the utterly disrespectful teeth kissing coupled with quietly insulting murmurs. Do not be tempted to take the bait. If you rush back in to confront secondary behaviours, you pass control over to the pupil. You have lost. A full-blown confrontation is the ultimate reward for the child who likes to provoke. All your hard work is soon undone as the emotion accelerates to sweary door-slamming, report-writing segregation-cell nastiness.
Of course, your first job should be to write down, discreetly, what just happened so that you can speak to the child when everyone is calm. You may prefer to wait until the cold light of the morning to do this. In my experience, it is easier to get a bleary-faced teenager to show regret and apologise. Fully awake and fuelled with sugar or caffeine, they can be trickier beasts. In time, the certainty of your "follow up" will soon ripple through the rest of the class "He'll get you - he won't do anything now, but he'll get you."
A pointed finger, looming presence or sarcastic tone will undermine the technique. Everything about your physical and tonal approach must say, "I haven't come here for an argument." Take away every drop of the anger that some children crave. Strip out the negative reinforcement and leave the child feeling that they can have control over their own behaviour.
With a 30-second intervention, you no longer need to improvise. The script is set, the pace predetermined and the arc of the intervention fine-tuned. Its brevity affords no time for the gradual crescendo of the improvised castigation. Neither is it driven by big sticks and heavy punishment. It leaves the child thinking about their actions and knowing that someone important believes that they are better than this. At this pivotal point of behaviour management, you can address misconduct while leaving your relationship with the child intact.
Performing the 30-second intervention well requires truly skilful behaviour and emotion management. It takes a great deal of self-control to stop your emotion creeping out. Reminding children of their good behaviour in the middle of dealing with their poor behaviour takes practice. Matching humility and certainty takes some emotional resilience on your part. Yet when everyone sees that poor behaviour is no longer rewarded, that interventions are quick, efficient and predictable, the classroom becomes a safer and less explosive place to learn.
Paul Dix is touring the UK with his one-man behaviour show, keynote speeches and seminars. To book, visit www.pivotaleducation.com.