Difficult behaviour - Beyond telling off

This article was originally published in the November 2010 print edition of Teacher.

Are you dealing with difficult behaviours in your classroom? Anthony Hockey looks at some preventive measures to help you address behaviours before they get difficult.

It’s often said that when we come across students, usually boys, with particularly difficult behaviours we need to enforce very strict discipline. Sure, this may be one of the measures we need to introduce, but in doing that we need to maintain a holistic approach with a focus on preventive measures that enable us to address our students’ behaviours before they get difficult.

One of our problems, as teachers, is that usually we can only deal with what presents at the school gate. As much as we’d like all our students to arrive settled and ready for learning, many factors contribute to the difficult behaviours we might struggle to deal within our classrooms. Students may have had to deal with absent, neglectful, abusive or alcohol- or drug-affected parents while also dealing with their own fears, hunger, lack of material possessions, mental illness or other issues before they even enter school.

We teachers can find this particularly difficult to deal with, since our own experiences as school students have, for the most part, been positive. Most of us who work in schools generally liked our own schooling, even if we reminisce about some form or other of youthful rebellion. The reality is that most of us were well-behaved students from a middle class background who found learning interesting enough that we pursued it for a lifelong career.

Are there things we can do to make our classes more manageable and avoid the need to introduce punitive behavioural contracts? When we look to successful teachers, we usually see colleagues who simply look in control. They don’t seem to get fazed by student behaviour and their students want to work for them. If we ask them how they manage the students, quite often they simply can’t put it into words, usually because they use a combination of approaches that they’ve synthesised and internalised throughout their career. Often, because the successful practices they use have become embedded, they’re no longer especially conscious of them. To an outsider looking in, they just are in control.

Cool, calm and consistent

If we were to start anywhere to identify successful teachers’ strategies, we could do worse than looking at their coolness, calmness and consistency. There’s nothing really surprising in saying this. Of course, every one of us has bad days, when we bring our own baggage to school; we all have fears, anxieties and personal insecurities; and we’re not always as well prepared as we should be. What distinguishes successful teachers, though, is that they’ve learned strategies so they can walk into their classroom in control. Control begets coolness, calmness and consistency, and equally coolness, calmness and consistency begets control.

The question, though, is what is this control for?

Some teachers fail because they concentrate too much on their students’ behaviour and not enough on their students’ learning. Their mantra as they walk in the door is, ‘Today, I’m going to control them, keep them quiet,’ instead of, ‘Today, I’m going to teach...’ The battle is already lost before it has begun. We teachers need to show enthusiasm and passion for what our students are learning. Sure it may be an act, but enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. When we show our enthusiasm for fractions or an analysis of totalitarian dictatorship or whatever, we’re showing our students that learning about these things has value, and giving them more opportunity to become interested. We don’t have to become fractious or a dictator. We rather have to have enough control over what we want to teach that our students value it, too.

Classroom procedures

Some classroom procedures can also help us to manage the behaviour of our students. Class rules are an essential part of managing a successful classroom. Rules must be simple, short and, most importantly, upheld. Starting each day by going through the rules can remind students of high expectations and procedures. When a rule is broken,

it needs to be referred to. Consistent approaches and consequences need to be followed as a result. Importantly, this needs to be done privately and away from other students. Boys in particular want to save face, so calling or, worse, yelling across the room can lead to a worsening of a student’s behaviour and your relationship with them.

Praise for good behaviour is also something that can be done privately, but it’s important that the praise is genuine: a difficult student can see through false praise, and so can other students – which is another reason not to praise in front of the class.

Reward is also important, but try to avoid the assembly award in week nine of fourth term; it’s usually a long line of boys in mismatched school uniform, with colour in their hair and some concealed digital item hidden in their pocket. Their good behaviour should be noticed before then.

Routine is very important. Students who struggle to meet your expectations of good behaviour in the classroom work better if they know what they have to do, where they have to sit, where you will stand, what particular signals mean – and if that stays the same, routinely, in every class. One approach is always to speak from the same spot in the classroom, and this doesn’t have to be the ‘front’ – try it, you’ll be amazed by its success.

Where your students sit is also vitally important. Science tells us that females typically have better hearing then males, yet many of us place the boys at the back of the room. Have a schedule for changing where students sit; students like to move places and enjoy the room design changing. In coeducational classes, most students enjoy seating arrangements where boys sit with girls throughout the room. This builds relationships between the sexes. Girls, generally speaking, can also model how to learn and their extra maturity, again generally speaking, can be a calming influence on boys.

As students get older, many teachers also see the need to present themselves differently. Try telling a junior primary school teacher not to smile, or a senior teacher to lighten up. Many of us try too hard to be tough, where a smile and some humour can build a relationship.

Whole-school approaches

A whole-school approach to healthy eating is important. It’s worth limiting the availability of junk food in the school, perhaps allowing it only on Fridays. It’s also worth getting the students to do some exercise in the morning before they start their learning.

Talking with students about their sleeping and breakfast habits can be important steps to improving behaviour. Some schools find that mid-morning brain snacks and water bottles on tables, and having lunch and the longer play break in the morning, aids student concentration.

Curriculum choices are also important. Choosing topics that allow for some hands-on learning can take a lot of the stress out of managing student behaviour. A social justice topic on, say, ‘Let’s make poverty history’ can be made much more interesting by designing solar powered pizza box ovens or hand-powered water pumps for use in developing countries, rather than reading about poverty.

I haven’t covered every strategy here, and I’ve hardly mentioned relationships at all, but the relationship you build with each student really is the cornerstone to good behaviour management. Many of the strategies mentioned are simply a way to start building those relationships. Many of them take years to practise and perfect. I know there are students who, despite all our efforts, still present very difficult behaviours to manage, but we can’t use this as an excuse to give up. Sometimes we need to take a step back and begin again.

Any teacher can teach the easy students, but great teachers continue to strive to help that difficult student turn the corner, settle down and have a positive future. That doesn’t always happen, but when it does, don’t we just love being a teacher?

This article was originally published in the November 2010 print edition of Teacher. The author biography remains unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.