Winning words;Class management

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Andy Vass suggests tactics for getting a better response in the classroom What causes teachers the most stress? Is it excessive workload? Incessant change? What about the pressure of being the universal scapegoat? "None of these," I hear you cry. The thing that wears us down most and poses the greatest threat to our sanity is managing the frequent, persistent and hugely frustrating low-level bad behaviour of Nathan and Nadine as we try to establish a climate in which teaching can take place.

Most teachers will try a range of tactics. Not everything works all the time with every child, so the more choices we have, the better. What follows are some ideas and strategies that add to those choices, which have been "field tested" and actually work.

clear communication Only about 6 per cent of our communication involves words. The remaining 94 per cent is in how and where we stand, our facial expression, tonality and inflection. For example, inflection upwards indicates a question, whereas inflection downwards suggests a command.

It is vital therefore that we work on congruence between our verbal and non-verbal repertoire as our physiology is the first message people receive. For those times when we would love to be confident and somehow don't quite make it, I have a powerful strategy - it's called "pretend". Try it now - take a deep breath, uncross arms and legs, sit or stand up straight with a relaxed posture, beam widely with sparkly eyes and try to feelI nervous. If you act "as if" you are in a particular state your thinking and emotions will quickly mirror that physiology.

positive directions When re-focusing a child on a task, describing what you want them to do, rather than what you want them to stop doing, is far more effective.

"Sean, (pause for attention) face this way and listen. Thanks."

"Jenny, (pause) the rule is hands up to ask questions. Remember that, thanks."

First, it provides children with a useful alternative way of behaving instead of merely stopping what they are doing. Second, at the non-conscious level at which we respond to language, the much overused word "don't" isn't processed.

"Don't think of anything red right now!" In order not to think of red, you have to think about what red is and then it's too late. Imagine how many times you used to use the word "don't"... call out... run in the corridor... forget your homework... be late... talk to me like that, and so on As you change your language from "don't" to "do", I invite you to pay attention to the tremendous modelling effect on class climate you are having.

Keeping the focus

You know those times when your partner moans that you didn't buy the milk, as you said you would. How do you respond? How easily do you accept you made a mistake and apologise unreservedly? Or do you catch yourself saying things like... "OK, I forgot. But what about when you promised to put petrol in the car last week and didn't so I nearly ran out?" In class you may ask a student, in a reasonable tone and pleasant manner, to: "Look this way without talking. Thanks," only for them to respond with a whine, a stroppy expression and an exaggerated sense of injustice: "I was only talking about the work" or: "They were talking too" or: "Last year Mrs Jones let us discuss things when we wanted." Often this will be accompanied by an attempt to elicit support from others on the worktable.

Pay attention to what you normally experience when your reasonable request is met with undisguised resistance. Frustration? Irritation? Anger? All of these?

Having something to say that keeps us calm, allows us to stay focused on the behaviour we want to address in the first place and deflects any sense of confrontation, would be quite a script. What I find most powerful under these circumstances is a simple: "maybeIand".

"I was only talking about the work (indignant sigh)."

"Maybe you were and you need to look this way without talking. Thanks."

"But they were talking too, why don't you tell them?" "Maybe they were and you need to face this way without talking. Thanks."

Using this powerful script helps prevent us from entering that linguistic cul-de-sac of challenge and potential confrontation.

In using this strategy the word "and" is important. To the student the first part (maybe...) sounds like a semi-agreement with what they are saying and has the effect of diluting and deflecting their challenge. Linking the redirection to this with "and" sustains the agreement. Using "but" suggests conflict.

"I agree with everything you've said but..." leaves you waiting for the conflict. "And" is certainly a rapid, non-intrusive way of redirecting to desired behaviour.

Building hope

The emotional climate of our classrooms is at the core of effective learning. The 1989 Elton Report on Behaviour talked about those students who have decided they cannot ever be winners and have stopped taking part. A fundamental part of our role as educators is creating and sustaining the belief that "things can get better and I can do something about it".

Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, cites research that suggests that hope is a key indicator of academic success. Students who have developed what has been referred to as "learned hopelessness" are among the most vulnerable.

There are many, often subtle, ways in which we can make a powerful contribution to developing "winners" in our classrooms. Every time we provide evidence, however small, that runs counter to the negative perceptions of the student, it has a potent therapeutic effect.


This is not the same as praise (which should be frequent and enthusiastic). Encouragement involves giving specific and verifiable feedback. The following examples outline the differences:

"I've done my graph, is this OK?" "Excellent! Well done, that deserves a merit stamp," is a conventional form of praise.

Encouragement in the same scenario would sound like this: "I've done my graph, is this OK?" "Let's see, you've got a title, labelled the axes and coloured the bars - you certainly understand these graphs - you can feel proud of yourself," is simply describing a verifiable observation and then inviting the student to be proud. When you give someone a reason to feel good and invite them to do so you are creating a very powerful source of internal motivation - a key source of hope.

Taking the blame

"How do you do this again?" "Thanks for asking. I maybe didn't explain it well enough".

Chunking it down

This is a familiar concept, especially in connection with the numeracy hour, and it is important to recognise that doing so has a far deeper impact than simply explaining things differently.

"I can't do this."

"OK, which bits can't you do yet?" "All of it."

"What about adding these two numbers. Can you do this?" "Yes, I'm not daft."

"Then we put them into these boxes. OK here?" "Er, sort of."

"How about when we make them into a number sentence?" "Yeah, that's what I don't get."

"Ahh, so it's just this bit I need to explain better."

Minding our language

The experiences of some students will have created internal beliefs about their level of learning capability and the sort of person this makes them. In our language we should avoid colluding with their negative images.

"What have you done now? (deep sigh)".

"When are you ever going to follow instructions first time?"

"Don't be silly."

"Why are you always the last to settle?" However incidental these phrases seem, teachers must be aware of their potential impact. Equally, "reframing" or altering the context of the negative language of students can be a subtle yet powerful way of providing examples, which run counter to negative beliefs.

"I keep getting it wrong!"

"Which bits are going well?"

"I get to here and get stuck."

"I see. You get this far and haven't solved this bit yet. I can help you here."

"I never get it right!" "Well, asking for help is a big step to getting it right."

Catch them being good

Imagine this. You're in front of the class and you've just asked them to settle down. Who are the ones you talk to first? Is it the ones slowest to respond? Catching kids getting it wrong is too easy. I look to catch them at being good. Commenting and acknowledging people for getting it right, even if that's what is expected of them, is a sure-fire way of getting them to repeat that behaviour. If no one ever comments on how lovely your displays are or thanks you for swapping duties or for running a stall at the fete, it doesn't take much to feel disgruntled or taken for granted does it? To do this really well you have to make a conscious decision to look for positive things however small. Remember even when it's not quite as bad as usual it's a good thing!

What about us?

It's really important that we adopt realistic and sensible beliefs about what teachers do. When we allow ideas about controlling students with words like "make" and "must" to influence our thinking, the reality of teaching will often conflict with it, and stress will ensue. There are no magic wands to wave, no quick-fix ideas or guaranteed packages for very damaged students, and no one has all the answers. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Having an unsatisfactory outcome in a classroom doesn't alter the tremendous human qualities and wide range of skills with which we enrich the world. It's just a mistake - something which didn't work that time or hasn't worked yet.

Andy Vass combines work in school with training and consultancy. For details of his workshops call Monroe Training, 01732 364929.

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