Don't panic! Don't panic!

30th March 2001 at 01:00
To control difficult children you should always appear calm, even when you're not inside. Sue Cowley offers some tips on the road to instant obedience

A mobile phone rings in class, but the owner refuses to hand it over. Another student swears during your lesson. An argument flares over who owns a CD. All these are "minor" behaviour problems you are likely to face from the first day of your career.

The thought of encountering serious misbehaviour worries many new teachers, and us old hands too. But, in reality, it is these low-level incidents of misbehaviour that cause much of the stress in teaching. How do you deal with them?

Your first step must be to arm yourself for the battles ahead and, in this situation, knowledge is power. Before you meet your students, find out what the school rules are and what you should do when they're broken.

For instance, your school may run a "warnings" system. A student is given a verbal and then a written warning, followed by a detention if the poor behaviour continues.

Whatever the system at your new school, find out all about it before you start, rather than dealing with problems as they arise. You will then be one step ahead of your students. It's only human nature, after all, for them to "try it on" with a new teacher. And if you show any uncertainty about what is and isn't allowed, they will sense your weakness and exploit it to their advantage.

You might already have seen some of those "super teachers" in action. They are the ones who need only put one foot in the classroom for their students to fall silent. The ones the children obey instantly, never questioning their authority. This wonderful state of affairs is partly a result of experience and a teacher's reputation in the school. But it has a lot to do with your attitude.

Walk into the classroom unsure of what you want from your students and you become easy prey. Instead, take the initiative: know exactly what behaviour you expect from your class, and what will happen if they misbehave.

Be proactive, assertive. Don't ask your students to behave. Tell them what your expectations are, and let them know where they stand. Tell them, too, what the consequences will be if they fail to behave as you expect.

Make it clear, through your body language, your facial expressions, your tone of voice, that you must be obeyed. With this kind of attitude, your students will perceive you as being in charge, no matter how petrified you feel inside.

Let's look at an example to illustrate two possible approaches. Jimmy is chewing gum, and this is against the school rules. Teacher A asks quietly:

"Jimmy, are you chewing gum?" "No, Miss," says Jimmy.

Five minutes later, Johnny is trying to extract Jimmy's gum from his hair.

On the other hand, teacher B says, a sharp tone in her voice: "Jimmy. You're chewing gum. The school rules forbid it. Please throw it away. Now."

With this approach, Jimmy is likely to head straight for the bin.

Having an attitude is not, however, about being confrontational. In fact, you should avoid confrontation. It can escalate minor misbehaviour into the serious incident we all dread.

One of the best ways to avoid confrontation is to sanction your students quietly, preferably on an individual basis. Go across to the offender, crouch down and discuss the problem with them quietly and calmly.

That way you will avoid embarrassing the student in front of the cass, a common reason for serious confrontations. In addition, you will not be giving them the "oxygen of publicity". Without an audience, any attention-seeking behaviour will be quickly dissipated.

To lessen the possibility of confrontation, always treat your students politely. Remain calm at all times, no matter what the provocation. This is difficult when you are tired and stressed, but will work to your advantage. Calm helps to defuse difficult situations, because the student has nothing to "feed off". In addition, a quiet but assertive attitude will make you feel more confident and less stressed.

A time of particular difficulty can be when you are applying a sanction - for instance, giving a detention. To avoid tension building up, ensure that you depersonalise the sanction. Make it clear the student is forcing you to punish them by their poor behaviour, and that the sanction is not an attack by you on them.

A useful technique for dealing with minor incidents of misbehaviour, particularly with younger children, is distraction. For instance, if two children are quarrelling, don't weigh in with a reprimand. Instead, divert them from their argument by showing the class a wonderful new toy.

With young children, low-level misbehaviour is often a form of attention seeking. When this happens, avoid rising to the bait. Instead of reacting to a brief incident of poor behaviour, find a well-behaved child and praise them, loudly and excessively, for working so superbly.

Rewards like verbal praise play a useful role in preventing low level problems and encouraging good behaviour. Don't forget, though, to use rewards for the quiet students who always behave. They are easily overlooked.

There will, of course, be occasions when you are tempted to ignore "minor" behaviour problems. Perhaps there are so many incidents of misbehaviour in your classroom that you just don't know where to start. With experience, you will find that you can judge each situation on its merits. However, ignore these problems too often and you may find your class slipping from your grasp. "We can get away with A, B and C with Miss," they think. "Let's push it and try X, Y and Z."

On the other hand, learn when it is appropriate to bend the rules, and your students will gain more respect for you. They might even learn to see you as human.

If it's a bitter January day, the heating is on the blink, and your fingers are turning blue, it seems harsh to enforce a school rule about not wearing jackets in the classroom. Or you might be working with an extremely confrontational student and feel it counterproductive to demand that they obey every school rule.

Finally, a tip for when you're tearing your hair out and everything is going wrong. Take a step back, and react from your head, instead of your heart. Don't respond to poor behaviour emotionally, by blaming yourself and becoming stressed. Instead, view the situation intellectually.

Even the most experienced teacher finds some students and some classes hard to deal with. If your students are choosing to misbehave it is not your fault. Do your best, learn from your mistakes, and keep on trying. Eventually, I promise, you will get those buggers to behave.

Sue Cowley is an experienced teacher and head of department. She is the author of Starting Teaching: How to Succeed and Survive and Getting the Buggers to Behave, published by Continuum pound;9.99 See Friday magazine, p21

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today