Softly softly

23rd February 2007 at 00:00

Susanna Pinkus explains how to tame the trickiest of little monkeys

Tie-sucking, calling out, crawling under desks, refusing to work. We all have to deal with challenging behaviour from time to time. Here are three tried-and-tested steps to help you turn your trickiest group around in five days. By the end of the week, they will be eating out of your hand. Before the lesson

* Talk through seating plans with colleagues. Get a colleague to teach part of a session so you can observe class dynamics. As an observer you spot things you never see when you are teaching.

* Be realistic. If there is a child with needs that cannot immediately be met in the group situation, negotiate one-on-one teaching time to boost their skills, enabling them to access lessons happily.

* Pre-empt distractions. Is it necessary for children to bring fluffy pencil cases, lip gloss and water bottles to class? Tell them just to bring themselves and hand out covetable pencils when you finish your introduction. (This will only work if it is seen as a treat.)

* Prepare your whiteboard each day with a positive message, which greets the children, sets out your expectations for learning and behaviour, and details the rewards on offer. Consider putting reward charts on children's desks and letting them select personal targets.

* Create a "soft start" for particularly unsettled groups. Get them seated quickly and have a task ready for them on their desks. Eradicate spare time to minimise opportunities for distraction. Keep to this routine every day.

* Set the tone at the door to your classroom. Greet pupils individually in a very positive way: "Lovely to see you, Gordon. Please remove your hat so I can see your lovely face." Don't forget to smile.

During the lesson

* Remember that humour can carry you a long way. Adopting a harsh approach to discipline may work as a one-off, but is unlikely to help in the medium or long term.

* Ask a child volunteer to write down the names of children who are exhibiting good learning behaviour. The names are recorded in a special book; in my school, these are called "treasuries of praise".

* Adopt a routine for sessions - this promotes feelings of safety and security.

* Be conscious of your body language and tone. Avoid mirroring children's negative facial expressions and gestures.

* For pupils who refuse to work, acknowledge their feelings: "I can see you are feeling a bit worried. Let's do the first question together." Tell them you are going to provide immediate praise: "As soon as we have done it, I am going to." A well-timed written comment on the page, a handshake, a class cheer or a colourful sticker can work wonders. One of my colleagues, who has excellent classroom management skills, always says, "Big it up!"

* Break tasks down into small achievable steps.

* By the middle of the session, children can set their own targets - but make sure they are realistic. For example, in a writing lesson, get them to place a dot where they think they can get up to on a page.

* Instil a sense of pace into sessions by introducing a timed element with an egg-timer ("Ready, Steady, Go!"). This will maximise children's focus and minimise time for inappropriate behaviour.

After the lesson

* At the end of each session, encourage children to say "Thank you" or "Well done" to peers who have helped them or exhibited good learning behaviour. You can guide pupils to nominate according to the behaviour objectives you set at the beginning of the sessions. I usually make it a rule that they are not allowed to choose their best friend.

* Follow up successes by sharing them with the child's other key staff.

* Send a letter home to parents, celebrating successes.

* Make time to talk to each child individually. Identify specific aspects of their learning or behaviour that are pleasing.

* Think ahead. Keep the routine the same but vary elements to keep it fresh Dr Susanna Pinkus is an advanced skills teacher at Roxbourne Middle School in Harrow and affiliated to the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Finding rewards that work

The Sticker Factory ( has some fantastic badges, with space for children to put stickers for good work or behaviour.

Personalised stickers and reward charts from are very popular.

Pound shops and discount stores have a plethora of exciting items that can be wrapped up cheaply for lucky dip prizes.

Allow a child to make a telephone call home to their parents to share their success; this can be the most prized reward of all.

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