Small steps lead to big changes

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
From positive phone calls home to volunteering for trips, marginal gains are there for the taking, says Paul Dix

Merely following school policy on behaviour is one thing. But the most effective teachers know they must use a well thought-out system of rewards if they are to win the marginal gains that give them the edge with even the trickiest children. So what strategies are these teachers using day in and day out to manage and modify the behaviour of their students?

Digital rewards appear to be exciting, modern and, best of all, quick. But there are gains to be made from using a more personal approach. Without it, we are sacrificing the most important element of recognition - the moment that you look at the child and deliver praise. Effective praise needs to have a more human touch. Moments of sincere verbal praise are the building blocks of trust, pride and self-esteem. Delivered privately and with feeling they gradually frame the child as the learner you need them to be. Alternatively, add an additional line at the end of your marking that reinforces the behaviour or attitudes you want to see.

Other marginal gains in positive reinforcement include the quiet comment at the door while you meet and greet, the positive note slipped into the exercise book and the silly stickers that even your dead hard Year 11s secretly covet.

Children love teachers making positive phone calls home. Make five each week. Start by rewarding the most committed and dedicated students. Talk to the rest about how they can earn the same treatment. This is a great opportunity to make an agreement with some of the more restless members of the class while demonstrating to everyone that your rewards are for those who go over and above minimum standards.

Collaborating with other members of staff to give praise is a great way of multiplying reinforcement. With children who have a bad reputation it also helps to counterbalance negative assumptions among the teaching team. Putting up "Wanted" posters for outstanding work gets every member of the department involved: each week a different student is identified and staff are told to "praise on sight".

Share what works with others who are searching for marginal gains. Post simple but effective behaviour strategies where teachers will actually read them - in toilets, as a placemat on staffroom tables or as mouse mats in staff workrooms.

Long detentions are useless. Most children are not very busy after school. Having lunch with tricky students instead is an effective intervention that bites into time that they value. It also gives you a chance to build some understanding of the motivations behind the child's behaviour and their past experiences with school. Other students see that you are serious about following up on poor behaviour. As they pass by they laugh at the misfortune of their friends while realising your commitment to the class. In time, they will shift you to the "Don't mess with her, she's serious" list of teachers.

Negative comments on report cards can be inflammatory. If you have children who behave badly resist the urge to write "Didn't do anything again, useless!" on their reports. Fill in the boxes to show that targets have not been met and communicate your concerns to the pastoral team or deputy head privately. It is also worth handing reports back to students when they are already outside the classroom. This avoids the door-slamming rage response.

Building relationships with parents is a slow-burning strategy. It starts with sending clear information home about how you will monitor, manage and modify behaviour. It grows with positive notes, phone calls and feedback. Yet most relationships need some unforced social contact to cement them. Meeting parents in social settings may seem unattractive after a heavy day of teaching but the gains to be made from attending the school quiz night go far beyond the case of dodgy German wine offered to the winner. Similarly, accompany school trips: these are not just great fun but you are also bound to re-evaluate your views of the children.

Marginal gains in behaviour are there for the taking. You will recoup the time you are investing, and more, when your classes are calmer and your difficult students more respectful. Teachers who are great at managing behaviour were not born with special skills. It is just that they have learned that outstanding behaviour management is not simply a question of following the policy.

Paul Dix is lead trainer at Pivotal Education and author of The Essential Guide to Taking Care of Behaviour.

Demonstrate that your rewards are for those who go over and above minimum standards.

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