20th November 2009 at 00:00
I teach a Year 9 class and sometimes pupils just get out of their chairs and walk around, picking up stuff from other people's desks. How can I get them to stay put?

This is not as uncommon as you think. Chris Wheeler was a newly qualified teacher of 22. His class was a group of 16-year-olds with a reputation for causing chaos. The first few lessons were not how he had hoped his teaching career would begin.

The pupils were too busy talking to each other to listen to their teacher: getting them to stay in their seats was a struggle and the threat of something even worse kicking off hung in the air. Exasperated, Mr Wheeler tried a new tack.

"I remember grabbing a book and saying, 'Let's look at stop-and-search procedures.' This group were constantly getting stopped by the police, so this was my way in," says Mr Wheeler, who teaches RE and PSHE at Ashton-on-Mersey School in Cheshire.

It was then that he realised the importance of engaging his class from the beginning of a lesson. Sanctions and reminding the class of the consequences of their actions will get you so far, but he believes it is grabbing their attention right away that is the key.

"It can be the best lesson in the world but unless you get their initial respect and they listen to you, they will never realise it," he says. "It is the engagement factor that is important. They will get up and wander around if they are bored."

If the class enters the room in "radioactive" mode, there are other tricks you can try, says David Miller, English teacher at St Ninian's High in Kirkintilloch, near Glasgow. The secret is to try to harness their energy.

If they want to talk, get them to write and record their own micro-story, perhaps using Audacity, a digital audio program; or set up a carousel activity where they go around the class competing to record what they know about a subject.

"If the pupils are so desperate to move about, I would be tempted to let them," he says. "The trick is to turn the energy into something positive without decommissioning the reactor altogether."

Mr Miller, secondary teacher of the year in last year's Teaching Awards, admits to being a fan of Spotify, the digital music service. This opens up another possibility. "A well-chosen piece of music can have a remarkably calming effect," he says. "Hopefully, with a bit of variety nuclear fission can be avoided, or at least delayed."

If this behaviour is already entrenched, a new seating plan is an option, suggests Mark Lewis, deputy head at Marshland High in West Walton, Cambridgeshire. This signals a new start to the class, while you can make it more palatable by emphasising it is to support their learning.

"You need to re-establish your expectations in a way that maintains their trust and respect," he says. Once they are in their new seats, you can make it clear why the rules on behaviour are in place.

If pupils are still wandering around, it is time to resort to school disciplinary procedures, praising those who follow your instructions and dealing firmly, but quietly, with those who do not. "Do not try to publicly reprimand them as you could lose face in front of the whole class," he says. Tough cases could require you to ask their parents to come in.

But be prepared for the class to take a little time to settle. New behaviours are not learnt overnight and the pupils need to know you are determined, says Paul Dix, managing director of behaviour specialists Pivotal Education.

"Expect the new routine to be tested, for things to get worse before they get better, for some pupils to see new boundaries and lean against them," he says. But if you are persistent, you should start to see progress as new routines replace their old habits.

At the same time, you can build in opportunities for pupils to have a break from sitting down, he says. "Structure this so the most wriggly pupils don't feel pinned to their chairs and pupils will see your new boundaries are fair and reasonable," he says.

- Next week pupils who lie

What to do

- Make sure you get pupils' attention from the start; otherwise no one will be listening, however scintillating the lesson.

- Use a new seating plan to re-establish the class rules.

- Channel pupils' energy into something constructive and give them occasional breaks from sitting down.

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