Mr Smith stands at the front of the classroom, explaining the activity that his students are to complete. But Jade and Kayla are not looking at him, they are having a conversation instead. Then Ahmad yells out from the other side of the room: "Give that back!"
Jayden is holding a ruler aloft, out of Ahmad's reach.
"Is that Ahmad's?" Mr Smith asks.
"I just want to borrow it!" Jayden exclaims.
"It's mine, give it back! I need it!" Ahmad counters.
Now nobody remembers Mr Smith's instructions.
Low-level disruption of this sort can send a lesson way off track. Although schools usually have clear procedures for dealing with extreme behaviour, less severe transgressions are harder to define and are often managed inconsistently. A recent Ofsted report argues that students lose the equivalent of up to 38 days of teaching per year in English schools as a result of this problem. Clearly we need to find a solution.
Thankfully, teachers can deploy a number of tactics if they find themselves in a situation such as Mr Smith's. And schools can also do their part to help.
1 Mind your (body) language
Walking towards students who are misbehaving can send a subtle cue for them to fall in line. If they are still distracted by the time the teacher gets there, the off-task behaviour can be addressed quietly without involving the whole class. This makes it easier for students to back down and avoids the possibility of disruption escalating into full-blown defiance.
Some ways of talking to students are more effective than others. Losing your temper is clearly not helpful because it signals a loss of control. Instead, teachers should try to project a sense of calm authority, even if it's an act.
Language can help. By saying something along the lines of "If you choose to continue talking while I am, you are choosing to stay behind at break", the teacher is framing the situation in such a way that the pupil retains a sense of control.
2 Don't be the class clown
Some argue that greater efforts to make lessons engaging make students more keen to be involved. I'm doubtful. Sometimes learning has to involve a bit of grind - it can't always be enjoyable. Common sense dictates that children will sometimes become distracted from the process. But how are they supposed to tell if an activity is interesting if they don't give it a chance? Stick to your guns. Trying to be a non-stop entertainer or to avoid difficult work is a slippery slope to disaster.
3 Get your seating straight
Many problems can be avoided simply by arranging the students effectively. If you know that Ahmad and Jayden don't work well together, seat them apart.
I always create a seating plan for my students no matter how old they are, and I stick with it throughout the year. If the class has roughly equal numbers of boys and girls, I alternate the genders in order to disrupt conversations that aren't related to work. I am always surprised by teachers who feel they don't have the authority to choose where their students sit.
4 Put the right structures in place
Research suggests that we need to have clear structures in place to manage low-level misbehaviour.
In his book Visible Learning, professor of education John Hattie finds that "classroom management" is one of the most powerful factors in boosting pupil performance. Good classroom management has roughly twice the effect of other classroom approaches such as cooperative learning, he says.
Unfortunately, Hattie is vague about exactly what this involves. But experience suggests that it requires consistent rules, rewards and consequences, and a teacher who is alert and responsive - what Hattie calls "with-it-ness".
Education researcher Robert Marzano suggests that negotiating the rules with students can also be effective and says that disciplinary interventions should include negative consequences for poor behaviour as well as positive consequences for compliance.
5 `Game' your behaviour management
A group of American researchers recently analysed 22 studies of an approach called "The good behaviour game". This involves identifying target behaviours and creating rules related to them. Classes are then divided into at least two equal teams to compete; rule violators are identified and their infractions are stated publicly, with teams debited points for infractions and rewarded for meeting expectations. Daily and weekly prizes are presented to the teams with the most points.
Such an approach might not be to everyone's taste (I do not care for the public nature of the consequences or the element of competition). Nevertheless, researchers found moderate to large effects in its favour.
6 Don't fear negative consequences
The good behaviour game does demonstrate the principle found in adult life - and particularly employment - that some behaviours attract negative consequences.
Australian researcher Rachel Sharman says that we have become too squeamish about consequences and that this is harmful for our students' future prospects.
She claims: "When educators are prevented from providing genuine feedback and applying realistic consequences, we deny students the opportunity to recognise and play to their strengths, while reflecting upon their weaknesses to change any counterproductive attitudes and behaviours."
7 Make use of whole-school systems
Consistent rules, rewards and consequences are best applied through a whole-school behaviour policy - one that is clear and does not require large amounts of teachers' time.
Situations where teachers' decisions are overridden or where they are expected to chase students, telephone home, arrange meetings and follow up on missed detentions without any support are likely to fail because they already also have to plan lessons, mark books and perform all the other aspects of their roles.
If you are in a school without a clear behaviour policy, life can be difficult - I had such an experience early in my career. My advice is to try to replicate an effective whole-school policy in your own classroom. Develop a set of rules and communicate these effectively, perhaps by constructing them together with the students.
I favour graduated consequences that start with a warning and end with a meeting after school or a detention, and removal from the classroom in extreme cases.
8 Track low-level behaviour
Students may have learned that low-level disruption will never be dealt with because any single instance will not be treated as serious enough to warrant a consequence. It is therefore important that such behaviour is treated cumulatively. You will need to be able to keep track; a tricky class can tally up a number of warnings quite quickly.
I suggest annotating a class list - it is less public than writing students' names on the board and so less likely to lead to unnecessary conflict. You need to be prepared to follow through with what you say you will do, both in terms of rewards and any negative consequences you have put in place. This is the hard part, but without such a commitment your approach will be ineffective.
Greg Ashman is a teacher at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria, Australia
Use this handy guide to understand the basics of battling low-level disruption.
Teachers' TV gets behaviour expert Sue Cowley's advice on managing noise levels.
TES columnist and behaviour guru Tom Bennett offers a short guide to seating plans.
- Flower, A, McKenna, J W, Bunuan, R L et al (2014) "Effects of the Good Behavior Game on Challenging Behaviors in School Settings", Review of Educational Research, 844: 546-71
- Hattie, J (2008) Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement (Routledge)
- Marzano, R J, Marzano, J S and Pickering, D (2003) Classroom Management That Works: research-based strategies for every teacher (ASCD)
- "Below the radar: low-level disruption in the country's classrooms" (2014), Ofsted
- Sharman, R (2014) "A `no-consequences' education produces unemployable graduates", The Conversation