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Discipline is all a way of thinking

Understanding the motivation behind bad behaviour is the key to coping with disruptive pupils, reports Douglas Blane

Geoff Moss's seminars are never hard to track down in a school: just follow the laughter that's loud enough to shake the building and scare birds out of the trees. But behind the hilarious anecdotes and antics lies a serious man with a serious purpose - helping teachers handle difficult and disruptive pupils.

"Imagine you're a maths teacher," Mr Moss invites the assembled staff at Oban High. "You're giving a lesson that goes like this: first you write problems on the board, then you tell the class to get on with them.

You don't explain how or why.

"Once they've started, you ignore those kids who are doing fine and pick on the ones who are getting wrong answers. 'You, boy! That isn't good enough.

One more mistake and you'll be in trouble.'

"Is that teaching?" he asks his audience,and the teachers shake their heads. "No, of course not. We would never do it with maths. But we do it all the time with behaviour."

This is the central message of the first level seminars delivered to teachers around the country by Geoff Moss and his colleagues at Behaviour Management. Children need to be taught good behaviour at school, in the same way as they are taught quadratic equations and French verbs.

Assertive discipline is the key to this approach to classroom management.

It has proved its value at Oban High, says headteacher Linda Kirkwood, in the two years since teachers began applying it throughout the school.

"Overall levels of classroom management are greatly improved. Members of staff who sometimes struggled are now acceptable teachers and referrals to senior management have fallen dramatically," she says.

However, it can be very challenging for a teacher to cope with a group of difficult children all together, she says. "That is why the focus of today's seminar is succeeding with difficult students.

"We do have some at Oban High but I have no child in this school who is not working well with somebody. So it can be done."

The more ambitious goal of working well with everybody is also achievable, insists Mr Moss, although not quickly, nor easily. "But remember, these kids already make enormous demands on teachers' time," he says.

The secret is to get a person's thinking, behaviour and emotions all heading in the same direction. Traditional discipline systems emphasise the first two, neglecting the key role of the last. "You have to get into the feeling rather than the thinking when you're dealing with difficult kids," says Mr Moss. "Start by analysing what motivates them."

Research shows that four types of motivation in children create most problems for their teachers: they are a need for attention, an avoidance of challenge, a craving for control or a desire for revenge. If a teacher responds in the same way to children motivated by each of these then successful discipline is impossible. In behaviour management, as in other subjects, differentiation is vital.

"Bad behaviour will persist if it gains a child the attention he wants," says Mr Moss.

Succeeding with Difficult Students by Lee and Marlene Canter, Lee Canter amp; Associates, 1993A national conference on assertive discipline will be held in Scotland in the spring. For information, contact


Teachers should give pupils

* clear explanations of what they have to do to be successful;

* corrective feedback when they get it wrong;

* supportive feedback when they get it right. "Catch them being good," says Geoff Moss.

The key messages to convey to difficult students are

* we will succeed;

* you are accountable for what you do;

* I am not going away. "The experience of many of these kids is that adults don't stick around for them," says Mr Moss.

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