Behaviour - Class Act - Classroom control

30th January 2009 at 00:00
Good teaching isn't just about imparting knowledge, it's about behaviour management. But how do you establish and maintain it? This series of features looks at aiding aspects of behaviour, further links inside

The surprising thing about teaching is that a lot of what you do doesn't actually involve teaching your subject; it's about controlling the classroom. Behaviour management is a subtle art and takes practice, but it's not rocket science. It can be learnt like anything else, and only needs patience, persistence and the ability to believe in yourself.

We are all, in one way or another, animals. We might be complex, emotional, intelligent creatures with free will and complicated hopes and fears, but we are also basically mammals; smooth skinned primates that, in evolutionary terms, have recently descended from the trees. Although human interactions are hugely complex, they can be deconstructed into basic animal desires and functions that explain the strange way we behave.

You need to realise that your Year 9s are driven by instincts and wants that have as much in common with alsatians as angels. But the good news is - so are you. Getting someone to do what you want is simpler than you think, as long as you remember some uncomplicated principles.

We crave authority and control almost as much as we resent it. Imagine that children are small animals learning how to be grown-ups - and never forget this simple premise, because it is the basis of understanding the techniques that follow.

Children will push you exactly as far as you let them. They are desperate to know where the boundaries are, and what they can and cannot do. Why? Because although they are inquisitive, curious and voracious learners, they are terrified by too much instability. Pupils want to know who's in charge, they want to know what the rules are. How else will they know how to break them?

Where do you come into this? By understanding that no matter how much the most inattentive, unpleasant child might howl at the injustice of your classroom rules and values, be sure that they and their peers would much rather you are in charge than no one.

One of the most common characteristics that pupils look for in a good teacher is discipline. It's what the parents want and it's what you should want. You need to be the one in charge because when you are, pupils will feel safe. In a safe environment, relationships can develop and pupils can explore issues knowing that they are free to learn, free from the chaos of a class with no rules.

If pupils are looking for an authority figure, you need to ensure that it's you. Are you prepared to be a leader in the classroom? The answer has to be yes if you want to pursue a career in teaching.

Pupils need you to be the boss, so be the boss. If you have a problem with the idea of controlling a room full of young people, then you need to re- think your motivation for teaching because the profession isn't like that.

You need to think like an authority and have a voice in your head that says: "I am in charge." Why? Because no matter how quiet inside your head the voice is, if you can hear it, then so will the children.

Pupils can smell indecision and, if they do, they'll start rushing up to your boundaries, testing every yard of the fences you have built. They will look everywhere to see where they can manipulate you, or change your agenda to suit theirs.

Children respect strength. This is the unfortunate truth that can make you feel uncomfortable with exerting control, but it's true nonetheless.

They will at first be motivated much more by the fear of chastisement than the promise of a reward. I say at first, because rewards are essential to developing relationships, raising self-esteem and building complex learning behaviours. But, depressingly, tests with animals and humans seem to imply that we fear the rod more than we crave a pat on the head.

Dog handlers know that every pack has its alpha male, the one that others defer to; sleigh drivers have to work out which of their dogs is the leader and place them at the front of the pack accordingly, otherwise they do nothing but snap at each other.

You need to be the alpha dog and the sleigh driver combined, otherwise pupils will never take you seriously.

How to be the boss

- Teaching children also means teaching them to behave.

- Respect their rights - but remember their right to an education means a safe, controlled classroom with boundaries.

- Be prepared to be the boss - otherwise they will be only too happy to take the role.

- They don't need a friend - they need a grown-up. So be one.


Talking to pupils rather than punishing them is the way to get them to behave, trainee teachers at Swansea Metropolitan University are discovering. They are learning restorative dialogue - used to resolve conflicts in post-apartheid South Africa - to deal with troublesome pupils.

Sue Lyle, principal lecturer at Swansea School of Education, believes that the method can be used successfully in the classroom. "We look at who has been harmed by poor behaviour. Someone's rights have been damaged - teachers or other children. Together we discuss who has been wronged and how we can reconcile that rather than punish."

Sue says it is important for children, as well as teachers, to reflect on what constitutes appropriate behaviour and how to create a good atmosphere in the classroom.

Trainee teachers also use role-play to mimic tricky behavioural situations before approaching a real class.

Isabella Kaminski.

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