“Right, tell me how you would deal with this situation then.”
Anyone who talks about behaviour as much as I do gets asked this question regularly. Sometimes it’s out of a genuine desire to hear the answer, but sometimes it’s a challenge.
You can tell the difference because in one situation the questioner is poised with a pen, ready to listen, while in the other they come with arms crossed and one eyebrow raised.
My questioner continued: “Lately, when I turn my back, someone in class starts clicking their tongue. Others join in and it seems the challenge is for them all to do it. I can’t find out who starts it. How do I make it stop?”
Before you read on, I want you to put this article down and decide what you’d do in this situation (and imagine that you’ve got 65 teachers all staring at you, expecting you to rattle off the solution). Sorted it yet?
My first response was to ask a question that was not well received.
“What would happen if you did nothing?” I asked.
“I’m not doing that. They’ll know they’re getting away with it.”
“OK. My suggestion is that you do nothing. This is no criticism of you, but I suspect that this has persisted because you may be inadvertently fuelling it by your responses, which they are feeding off.” I went on to say that this was clearly a game of cat and mouse, and that the risk to any individual child of being caught was relatively low, and the pay-off, in terms of kudos with friends and the teacher’s reaction, was high, so on balance it was well worth it from their point of view.
I restated my opinion that the teacher doing nothing, ensuring that they didn’t give even the slightest flicker of recognition, would mean that it would stop almost straight away.
“If you can’t stomach that, then try one of the following. Restate your expectations of the class about mutual respect, courtesy, disruption and lost learning time. Or, if you don’t like that, say that it doesn’t matter who starts it, but when you catch someone doing it explain what will happen as a result.
“I honestly believe that this will be less effective, because your chance of catching anyone in the act is small. Whatever you do, please don’t consider a whole-class punishment.”
The teacher’s frustration highlighted how our own emotions can influence our responses to poor behaviour. We can be consumed with a desire to catch someone when there is a swifter, more effective solution. As Bill Rogers says: “It’s tempting to want to confront, even embarrass, students in order to ‘win’ – but win what?”
Jarlath O’Brien is director for schools at The Eden Academy and his book Better Behaviour – A Guide for Teachers will be published by SAGE in 2018