The five 'P's of positive behaviour

31st July 2017 at 13:32
One teaching assistant explains how using more positive language in the classroom has helped to improve pupil behaviour

When I was approached by my line manager about an upcoming course, I was sceptical. In my experience, courses are often packed with theoretical concepts but very little practical application. However, as the topic was behaviour management — a personal area of weakness — I decided to give it a go.

As a higher-level teaching assistant (HTLA), I am either responsible for small groups or assist in the management of full classes. This role is varied and can involve quite an impromptu approach to discipline. Rather than formal behaviour-management strategies, I needed quick and simple tricks that I could try in the classroom and, to my amazement, that is exactly what I got. Among more general advice about consulting behaviour policies and knowing your classes, I discovered that some subtle tweaks to my language could make all the difference.

Feeling enthused and optimistic, I decided to conduct an experiment. On my return to school, I would spend two weeks trialling these strategies to see if it really could be that simple. Eager to practise my newly acquired skills, I entered my first class determined to give everything a go, but soon realised my mistake. My small special educational needs and disability group was completely thrown by my sudden change in style; behaviour deteriorated rather than improved. I soon realised that if I was to have any success, I would need to tackle the techniques one at a time. Here are the techniques:

1. Praise

Support staff pride themselves on championing pupils’ strengths, so I truly thought this one would be easy. However, when presented with challenging behaviour, I was amazed at how quickly I lost sight of the positives and found the word "don’t" leaving my mouth all too often. By consciously focusing on praising positive behaviour, confrontation was removed and pupils were able to conform without losing face.

2. Partial agreement

This technique seemed to come far more naturally. I suppose the time constraints of life teach you to placate people’s needs while achieving your own aims. When faced with a plethora of excuses, the simple phrase, "I understand, but I need you to…" is empathetic and assertive in equal measure. By showing an interest rather than dismissing concerns, the risk of comments such as "you don’t care" is reduced and interactions become less antagonistic.

3. Positive language

While on lunch duty, I began to see the relevance of this strategy. I am forever repeating negative commands like "don’t run" . Inevitably, this often leads to argumentative exchanges in which pupils profess their innocence or regale me with their version of the school rules. Although it requires some practice, I have discovered that reinforcing the rules positively elicits a far more constructive response.

4. Providing choice

Now, this one was easy — or so I thought. I always give pupils a choice: behave or get a warning. However, I soon realised that this did not really offer a choice at all; punishment was the only alternative. By offering two positive outcomes, such as "put that on my desk or in your bag", pupils retained a level of control, allowing them to follow instructions on their own terms. 

5. Preventing pleading

This was by far the hardest change to make. I believe that respect needs to be earned and have always regarded politeness as a crucial aspect of this. Ending requests to pupils with "please" had become second nature and proved a difficult habit to break. The theory of this subtle adaptation is that "thank you" is more effective at closing down a conversation and therefore reduces opportunities for opposition. Although it has taken a lot of practice, I have definitely found that the latter commands greater authority.

​I think my little research project has taught me one thing: when it comes to behaviour management, you have to do what works for you.

Abigail Joachim is an English HLTA at Westbourne Academy, Ipswich

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