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How orders create chaos

Kevin Berry says it's essential to be specific when giving instructions to children

Your lessons are good and interesting, but how do you begin and end them? Are you making your instructions clear enough? Listen to yourself. Teachers who have been at the chalkface for 20 or more years still make the mistake of assuming that children understand vague or downright silly instructions. They blame children for the chaos that they themselves have created.

"Where shall we put the boxes?" asked a group of children.

"Oh, in the playground! Where do you think?" snapped a former colleague.

So, despite the two inches of snow out there, the children struggled out and put the boxes on the playground . . . in a neat row. My former colleague covered her embarrassment by calling it a schoolboy howler, but most schoolboy howlers are inspired by teachers who do not explain themselves properly.

Children of any age need clear and precise instructions. Anything cloudy or muddled will produce chaos. It happens as surely as pencils break at the beginning of a spelling test. You must aim for calm and order.

Consider the oft-used command, "Tidy up!" Yes, you might know what you mean but do the children? Better to tell them what to put away and in what order. Repeat what you have said and prepare for the most dangerous, chaotic part of the school day - children milling about, some having finished and some still tidying things away.

Children should be sitting at a desk when they have finished, reading something or getting on with a paper and pencil activity - making lists of words with five letters, writing their tables backwards and so on.

Tidying up needs careful language. We really mean cleaning and putting away in the appropriate place. If the rule is to put your own things away first and then see to your class task, then children will cope. Children, in pairs or trios, should have a class task - to check on the state of the sink, the paint cupboard, the book shelves, or sweeping. Change the responsibility each week.

When children have to leave a room don't leave them to it. Ask the children wearing specs to go first, or children wearing something red, then another group. If you are lining up for assembly send children to the door in small groups and don't keep them waiting in line for a long time. Sudden mass movement leads inevitably to pushing and shoving and falling over.

If you are moving into the hall for PE there will be chaos unless you prepare. The instruction "Go into the hall and get ready for PE" will start a mini-riot, even with the best behaved children. Who can resist dashing into a great empty space if the teacher has said nothing?

"Tiptoe into the hall, find a space and start with some of the stretching we tried yesterday" will ensure that they and you will remain calm. Three things to think about will be just enough. It is, again, a careful use of language.

"Right - out into the playground" . . . "Get your books out" . . . "Line up for swimming" are all instructions with a built-in chaos factor. They do not tell children how in sufficient detail and there is no indication of what to do next. They need something more and it needs to be repeated, but just the once.

I have seen some quite brilliant school assemblies dissolve into disorder and confusion because the headteacher, or whoever was taking assembly, hadn't given sufficient thought as to how the children should leave.

"Right! Thanks for listening. Now, quickly back to your classrooms," said one head, and he dashed out of the hall with no thought for the consequences.

Immediately 200 children made for the two exits. None was hurt but it was fully five minutes before teachers could restore calm and order, many more minutes before the children could settle to their tasks.

Sports day, concerts, visits from theatre companies and even Christmas parties can lose their appeal if children don't know what is expected of them. Children don't enjoy chaos, but who can blame them if it happens? Chaos in a school is born of uncertainty.

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