Teachers can do a lot to improve behaviour with a little insight and some simple strategies, says Lucinda Neall
RECENT Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association survey reported on increasing pupil indiscipline being experienced by its members (TESS, May 23). Much of this seems to be due to changes in society that are beyond the control of schools, but none the less teachers need strategies to improve classroom behaviour and buck the societal trend.
It might be difficult for secondary teachers to be aware of each pupil's background and circumstances which may be the underlying cause of their poor behaviour, but an understanding of pupils' responses in school can help teachers select strategies to reduce bad behaviour and avoid its escalation.
Like teachers, most pupils want a working environment that they experience as safe, stimulating and respectful. This is all the more important when pupils may not be experiencing these factors at home or in society at large. If school seems unsafe, they feel anxious; if it is not stimulating, they get bored; if they feel disrespected, they become resentful. Anxiety, boredom or resentment can provoke bad behaviour and indiscipline.
Pupils want and need boundaries to know how far they can go; the constant pushing against them may look as if they are disregarding boundaries, but it is more likely that pupils are checking that the boundaries are firmly in place. School rules need to be applied fairly and consistently; a frequently offending pupil can be outraged when they are caught doing something wrong - not because they didn't do it, but because they know others have done it too and got away with it. This can result in a pupil complaining of being "picked on".
There is also the need for pupils to feel safe, whether directly in being free from bullying or in more subtle ways - feeling it is safe to make a mistake, ask for help, contribute to the lesson without risking humiliation, or free from anxiety caused by not wanting to appear stupid, or even too clever, in front of one's mates which can lead to rudeness or fooling around to save face. A lot of bad behaviour, especially low-level "silly" behaviour, is a result of boredom or of the body's need to do something physical.
Interestingly, what pupils want from teachers is similar to what teachers want from pupils. Pupils want to be listened to. They do not want to be shouted at and want to be spoken to in a calm and respectful way. They want a relationship with their teachers that includes humour and perhaps a bit of banter, but not the confusing sting of sarcasm.
I recently asked a 17-year-old what teachers should know about boys in order to understand them better. His reply was: "Boys need to be given space." He explained that when a boy is asked to do something, he needs to be allowed a moment to decide for himself to do it. If not, he feels pressurised and may react badly. He also needs to be given space to change his mind, and to save face.
But pupils need to know their teachers will not put up with bad behaviour; they should get the consistent message from the school: "We accept and respect you, but do not accept bad behaviour." Incidents should be dealt with firmly but with a light touch so they don't detract from the lesson or become more serious. Strategies which might help include:
* Notice the positive. Sometimes it's worth pretending to be deaf and blind to mild incursions, and relentlessly acknowledge the positive. So instead of "you've only written one paragraph", try "it's good to see you've got started".
* Channel energy. If poor behaviour is due to misplaced energy, you may need to go into an exercise which will divert that energy - two minutes comparing answers with a neighbour, moving into practical work more quickly than planned or doing a quick "brain gym" exercise. I met a teacher who was driven mad by pupils tapping their pens on the desk, so he taught the whole class to twirl their pens silently instead.
* Respond playfully. Humour can do wonders to defuse a situation.
* Don't take things personally. Pupils sometimes say or do terrible things without thinking.
* Only ask questions when you need to know the answer. Questions can exacerbate a situation; it may be more effective to make a statement.
Lucinda Neall is the author of "Bringing the Best out in Boys". She is speaking in Glasgow on Wednesday at the NCH Scotland conference, "About Boys".