Unruly pupils are the stuff of nightmares for many teachers. Gerald Haigh discovers some simple strategies for keeping the classroom calm
keeping order in the classroom is a lifelong concern for all teachers.
Students in college wonder if they'll be able to do it, classroom teachers search constantly for effective techniques and senior staff strive to achieve a well-ordered school.
Ask any long-retired teacher about the dreams that come after too much suppertime cheese and as often as not you will find that the common nightmare is of being back in school with a class that is running amok.
Everyone thinks, too, that behaviour is on the slide. Bolton educational psychologist Simon Cusworth, who lectures extensively on classroom management, says: "There isn't research evidence to say things are worse, but I've worked in five local authorities and it's difficult to find a parent or a teacher who won't say that behaviour isn't getting harder to deal with, in school or on the street."
Part of the problem, in his view, lies in the drive for inclusion, which brings into the mainstream classroom larger numbers of children with emotional and behavioural problems.
"Children who misbehave don't just challenge the teachers," says Cusworth.
"A teacher will eventually get a different class. But if you're a youngster struggling to gain your Level Fours, you have the disruptive member with you all the way through primary school."
He has hard words to say about the context in which teachers are working to achieve government targets.
"Industrialist Lord Weinstock once said that the way to stress employees is to put them through a period of rapid change while not acknowledging their existing expertise. That's exactly what's happened in education," says Cusworth.
That said, he believes it is important to help teachers to do the job day by day. He teaches regularly and rests his advice on his own experience.
His approach is to set out the basic rules clearly and reasonably, and not to move on until everyone shows that they understand and agree.
For example, in a primary classroom he will first ask everyone to stand up, giving personal attention to any recalcitrant individuals. "If necessary I'll give a bit of help with a hand under the elbow," he says.
It sounds stern, but the tone of his voice and the language he uses carry the message of reason and respect underpinned by confidence, and the children who want to get on - the vast majority - are quickly, and vocally, in agreement with him.
"I'll tell them that we can do this all day, and explain that the reason is that if I'm not in charge of the classroom then the naughtiest child in the class is in charge, and we can't have that can we? Am I right or am I right?" The key, he believes, lies in clarity and consistency of expectations.
"It's the same in secondary," he says, "but there you set out what is the school policy on behaviour."
All too often, he feels, the Government and local authorities fail to help teachers by giving clear guidelines - about the use of "reasonable force", for example, specifically permitted by education law.
"I'm a determined teacher," he says. "I know I'm allowed to use reasonable force. But many teachers are doubtful about what to do, and they're vulnerable to the accusation that a child was injured by another pupil because the teacher failed to step in and use reasonable force. You need some guidelines and training for key staff."
One of the problems in secondary, he says, is that there can be lack of consistency because some teachers are naturally better at class discipline than others. "You get some with charisma who don't need to follow the school behaviour policy," he says. "But what they do unknowingly is undermine the next teacher."
Every secondary teacher, he insists, no matter how naturally able to handle pupils, should consistently use the school's agreed policy of reward, punishment and upward referral.
Underpinning his approach is a belief that there is nothing wrong with exercising external control - children expect their teachers to teach and keep order. At the same time, children are not puppets. It's implicit in what Simon Cusworth says that children also have to take responsibility for their actions. By giving the choice ("We can do this all day") he sets out the consequences and then puts the ball in the pupils' court.
This aspect of classroom behaviour is emphasised in the work of Jean Gemmell, general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers.
Again, her advice is informed by considerable experience.
"When I managed schools the constant message to students was that you are responsible for what you do - you can't hide behind other people and if you misbehave it's because you choose to."
She sold the same message to parents. "They'd want to say it's because he's got diabetes, or mixes with the wrong crowd. We'd say no it isn't - it's a matter of choice. It takes a long time and I'm not unrealistic about how uphill it is." In the end, though, she says, it's an approach that promotes self-esteem.
"It's a hard message, but if you take it on board it inspires confidence.
Many felt they had no control - they were tossed around by society - and we were giving control back to them."
It is noticeable that in recent years schools have tried to take a whole-team approach to behaviour problems - a change from the days when the individual teacher was left alone and could either keep order or not.
Exemplifying this is Framework for Intervention, a very professional project from Birmingham that is intended to be a whole-school improvement tool. It has been working within Birmingham authority for some time, and is now becoming more widely available.
Chris Wright, deputy project manager, says: "We start off with whole-school training, and from that individual teachers have the chance to address specific concerns - but you do need the initial training for everybody."
The aim, she says, is to empower teachers and "to help them see that they are in control in their classrooms".
Both Simon Cusworth and Jean Gemmell are holding seminars on behaviour management for key stages 1-4 at the Education Show. Jean Gemmell appears at 1.15pm on Thursday March 13 in Seminar Theatre C, and Simon Cusworth is due at 10.30am on Saturday March 15 in Seminar Theatre D. Framework for Intervention Stand SN89