Twenty ways to pre-empt disruption in the classroom

“Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to quarrel at a straw when honour’s at the stake.” – Hamlet

If you are an expert on behaviour management, you may feel a lot of this is egg-sucking. Otherwise, I hope it might be useful. The rule of thumb is, use the most low-key intervention necessary to get the result you want. The list becomes more intensive as you go – roughly – but the main point is that all of these strategies can be integrated into the flow of regular classroom teaching – and in doing so, minimise interruptions to learning.

Anticipation

Anticipation means planning to solve problems. Revise your seating plan, obviously. Reflect intentionally: for example, journalling is a helpful way to slow down your thinking; or talk to a colleague whom you trust. Analyse what happened last time in order to solve specific problems. Prepare the referral forms, check on available rooms, discuss with colleagues, adapt resources, make changes to lesson timings, ensure clarity of instructions – whatever is necessary. It doesn’t really take long once you’ve decided what to do, especially if you focus on the two or three things that will make the most difference. Anticipation is the antidote to passivity.

Time of day

Make sure you acknowledge individuals as they arrive. Establish rapport with eye contact, by using their names, even a nod. A few seconds invested in this way will put most students on side. Don’t gush, of course – just be courteous, warm – and slightly formal.

Observation

This is probably the single most fundamental skill set for good behaviour management. If you don’t notice issues, you can’t respond to them. Noticing the small things and acting before they become bigger is the heart of good behaviour management. See the Hamlet quote above.

Pace

Setting a brisk pace in the lesson keeps students engaged, gets more done in less time and creates a sense of achievement. Set clear time limits for each task and no longer than necessary. Break each section of the lesson into timed parts, so a structured 20-minute task may have three timed sections. A busy, productive lesson is much more interesting. Sometimes I have heard students say, “Wow, that went really fast!” and I smile. Inside, of course.

Circulate

Do you feel trapped in a corner of the room, or stuck at the front? The classroom is your space – you have permitted them to enter it, but it’s yours. Show you own it by moving all over the room. Proximity helps students feel more accountable. Sometimes I will sit at the back of the room, at a desk, while directing their attention to the board or to their written work. At first, it can be wonderfully unsettling for them, but is often quite relaxing for me.

Feedback

We all know teachers should provide feedback on learning, but the same applies to  behaviour. “You have now called out three times, ” or “That language is never acceptable towards anyone in my classroom. Please apologise and don’t let it happen again,” are both examples of telling students exactly what was wrong. Likewise, “You’ve made a focused start to the lesson,” or “You are focusing on exactly the right task here,” affirm and clarify expectations.

Pause

Never talk while students are talking. Pause and wait. If a lot of students try to talk, count the time and put a mark on the board for every minute of extra time they have generated. I weight the equation: tens seconds wasted = one minute of their time. I then collect that time at a point convenient to me, for example when I teach them before a break or at the end of the school day. After three such restorative time sessions, 90% of students will catch on, and you can then pick off the stragglers one by one. A slogan every teacher should repeat to themselves is: “There is no such thing as low-level disruption. There is only disruption.”

Name

Using a student’s name neutrally is a good way to catch their attention without slowing down the lesson. You can drop it into a sentence in passing, e.g. “And so the Romans left, Evelyn, because of the pressure on Rome from from the Gothic migrations.” Or, you might combine a pause with saying their name, and holding eye contact. For emphasis, I might add a raised eyebrow. Once compliance is achieved, carry on with a neutral, “Thank you.” If it happens again, though, move up the scale.

Question

We can use questions to refocus attention as well as to check on learning or to promote thinking.  If they take too long to answer, or have no idea what is going on,  your point is made. Sometimes I will ask if another student in the class can clarify for them what they have missed. This not only emphasises a teaching point but shows the student that others have been paying attention.

Move into their space

Moving into their space is a way of asserting your presence and demanding their attention without having to say anything. You might be talking to the whole class, but you are still right next to Johnny. For many students, this will be all the reminder that they need. Be wary, though: for the tense, angry young man on the verge of exclusion, close proximity may well be interpreted as provocation rather than redirection.

Voice

Your voice is essential to your craft, so look after it too. If necessary, take lessons in voice projection so that your voice carries further and has greater expression. Practice pace, pitch and pause. An assertive voice is enormously helpful in managing students’ perceptions of how in control you are. Be wary of being conditioned into raising your voice by students. It is exhausting and eventually you will not be able to shout loud enough, because they will continually require more and more volume before complying. Rather, focus on eye contact and dropping your voice. My ideal is to raise my voice only once per term with each class. It has much more impact that way. Remember that if you damage your vocal cords – and some teachers do – your career may be in doubt.

Redirect

Redirecting students to the task is a simple, positive way of promoting focus and de-escalating challenges. “Deborah, please focus on completing your paragraph.”As soon as Deborah complies: “Thanks,” and move away. There has been no need for argument, because I talked about the work, not about Deborah. This is much more pleasant and constructive than focusing on what Deborah shouldn’t be doing. Redirection is the most common way I will deal with off-task behaviour during working phases of the lesson.

Thank

As often as you can, acknowledge effort, goodwill, courtesy, helpfulness, compliance, with thanks or quiet praise. Quiet praise is often more effective than public praise. It may mean more on a personal level, and for some students public praise can be embarrassing. (Others, of course, revel in it to an unhealthy degree, so be judicious). A rule of thumb that’s worked for me – but sets a very high bar – is to comment on three things students did right for every one negative thing I give attention to. The comment can just be a “thanks” or a “well done”, but the strategy creates an incredibly positive atmosphere. You may find it helpful to try to make a tally of what the current ratio is; sometimes, a colleague can help with collecting this data. Remember, for the purpose of this strategy, it’s not what you said or did, but the behaviour you gave attention to that counts.

State the sanction

“Simon – if you get out of your seat without permission, I will . . . .” Delivered calmly, firmly and as neutrally as possible, students will in most cases believe you. Then it’s up to them – they are making an enlightened choice.  Any stated sanction must be followed through without fail, so make sure you can deliver. Without credibility, a teacher is nothing.

Move the student within the room

Try to set aside a space where you can make them work on their own within the room. Acting promptly, before persistent minor problems escalate, helps students to work out when they crossed the line. But if they still won’t co-operate, be prepared to send them elsewhere.

Set alternate work

Make it relevant, more like practice than new learning (so you don’t have to explain it), and adjust the task so that it’s easy to see how much they’ve done. This makes them more accountable for their work output.

Defuse

Sometimes a quick quip or humour can defuse a tense moment. If you can, try it, but it does requires good judgment to get it right. I once had an inspector in the room and Craig loudly pointed out that there was a letter P missing from whatever was on the Powerpoint. “Where’s the P sir?” he jibed. Mild tone of surprise: “Perhaps you’ve been taking it, Craig.” Laughs all around, situation defused.

Similarly, not buying into theatre and keeping things low-key when a student is threatening to escalate is helpful. For example, when a student said I was picking on him, I simply reminded him that I was asking him to carry out the same instruction I had given everyone else. After getting the same response four times, he gave up.

Give choices

Giving choices gives students a sense of control and helps them self-maanage. “Hi, Sunita. You’re not getting very much done at the moment. I can send you to Mr Wellington’s room to work or you can work over there by the window. Which would you prefer?” Do make sure the choices are viable and let them have the one they choose, all in a calm, firm manner.

Smile

Eventually. It really is worth waiting to do so though – some students, at least amongst those I have taught, tend to interpret smiling as a desire for their approval, It can take a lot of time and energy to correct this false expectation. Smiles, like praise, should at least in the early stages of the relationship, be contingent on doing the right thing. That probably sounds harsh to some, but it is kinder in the long run. The old adage “Don’t smile before Christmas” was born not of cynicism but the school of hard knocks. It is not about who I am, who they are, or even our relationship. It is about explicitly communicating expectations.

Explicitly teach expectations and routines

As teachers, we should be able to teach all kinds of learning: physical, cognitive, emotional, social, behavioural. I sometimes hear comments from frustrated teachers such as “They can’t line up properly,” or “They don’t know how to enter a room,” when almost certainly the students can and do achieve both of these things elsewhere. Using the same tools that we use for academic learning, such as analysing what is to be taught, planning, preparing, honing explanations, giving only one or two concise instructions at a time, feedback, error correction and clear success criteria, I believe it is possible to teach our students all the appropriate behaviours that they need to succeed at school.

Please add more suggestions on pre-empting disruptive behaviour by replying below. Thank you –  if it works for you, it will almost certainly help others!

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5 Responses to Twenty ways to pre-empt disruption in the classroom

  1. Sam Wilson says:

    As an NQT struggling with a fair few of my classes, I thought this was really good, especially the bit about using the most low-key technique possible. You also make almost no mention of detentions, which I thought was interesting.

    • Good point! Detentions are time-consuming and time is what teachers lack. Besides which, unless consequences are immediate and the student finds them aversive, they have little impact. So although I don’t rule out detentions, I have seen so many students repeatedly doing detentions every day that I have to conclude that they are not very effective. The most efficient ways to improve behaviour tend to be at the ‘antecedent’ end, not the ‘consequences’ end. Hence, ‘pre-empt’. There will undoubtedly be times when as teachers we have to impose consequences – but we have to reduce the number of occasions (and students) so that what we do has greater impact. (On the previous blog post, ‘Survival’, I’ve made a comment on “it’s all about percentages”). All the best with your efforts – every skill you develop now will pay off later. The second year is nearly always much better!

      • In my (limited) experience, the best system is where sanctions (eg detentions) are part of a school-wide rigorous and relentless system that pupils can’t avoid, but where staff effort and training goes into minimising need for them. Eg: if a child is disorganised, put measures in place to help them organise themselves to reduce likelihood of a detention for no equipment; make sure teachers are competent at defusing situations and helping pupils make the right choice, but do support the teacher if a bad choice is made by a pupil.

  2. Pingback: “You will always have students who will fail.” | thinkingreadingwritings

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