If You See Behaviour Management As a Battle Ground, You May Win The Battle But You’ve Already Lost The War

Behaviour Management: Is There A Way To Practically Apply The Principles of Respect and Relationship?

In writing my last blog post, I realised that respect and relationship as foundations for behaviour management might sound like some sort of impractical pixie dust solution for helping lessons to fly.

I really don’t think that they are. They’re fundamentally practical.

Here I try to look at how they can be pragmatically and helpfully applied in any classroom environment. I hope I succeed…

Actually Care About Students FIRST & Know Them Well

People do best in situations where they feel cared for, appreciated and loved.

That’s a fact.

And classrooms are no different. How can we expect a student to work hard if they don’t feel safe and don’t know that we have their best interests at heart? How can we expect them to work hard for us if we don’t even take the time to learn their names? I genuinely don’t think we can. If it were me in that situation, I’d feel vulnerable, on guard and my defences would be up. More than that, I’d expect the worst.

We owe our students more than that.

I’m not saying that it’s easy to like every student or to learn every name! What I am saying is that it is worth finding the energy to try, try and find something likeable about each of them and hold on to it.

Hold on to it and tell them you like them. Even when you’re telling them off, make it clear that you like them.

Always Focus On Your Class as a Team

Behaviour and behaviour management are team tasks and making a class feel responsible for one another is a guaranteed way to see results.

This means that we need to talk about our classes as teams, discuss corporate responsibility and call out more passive behaviours, such as ignoring bullying or mean attitudes. Conversations in my classroom often run along the lines of…

Were you just being respectful or disrespectful?

Disrespectful.” (Cue looking down in shame or various attempts to wiggle out of the situation.)

Did that present you well or badly to me and the rest of the class?

Badly.

Did you want to disrespect us and give a bad impression to us?

You see what I’m getting at. It takes time to run through it but I genuinely think that it’s worthwhile, one of my classes even got to the point where they’d beg to run through the conversation with their friends instead of me telling them off. That’s how well they knew the patter and how much they bought into our class expectations. Plus, it was funny!

Apologise and Expect Apologies

The next step in this conversation, for me, is to ask students to apologise.

So what should you say to us for disrespecting us?

Sorry.

If they’ve spoken ill of someone else in the class, if they’ve slowed down learning, if they’ve distracted others, I ask for a direct apology, an apology that mentions what they’ve done.

Sorry for distracting you all.

I’m sorry for saying that, Harleen.

Perhaps more importantly, I apologise too. Genuinely and I mean it. I think it’s important that we’re unafraid to apologise to individuals and to whole classes if we get something wrong. If we are grouchy, if we misunderstand a situation and so deal with it badly, if we tell them off for not doing work and it’s just at the back of their book, say sorry.

Be A Good Example: Work Hard, Admit Mistakes and Be Someone They Can Admire

In this way, we model to them how to be adults who are kind, easy to work with, just decent people.

When we apologise, work hard, admit mistakes and treat other people with the respect and compassion they deserve, we become adults (and teachers) that student can admire. This envisions students – they are able to see the adults they should be. The adults they could be.

In some sense, the most important aspect of this, for me, is that students no longer feel like Adulthood holds them to an impossible standard of perfection. If adults make mistakes, make apologies and everything is ok, they need not be afraid. It’s an attainable, achievable future reality.

Be Consistent

This is definitely the golden watchword in behaviour management.

Being predictable in life can feel dull and boring, however predictability in the classroom is essential. Students need to know how you’re going to react so that they feel safe. Not only that but being predictable yields results. If students know that skipping their homework always results in a break time detention or a behaviour point (if your school uses a system like that), they’re far more likely to do their homework. Instead of most students missing homework, it cuts our workload as we only have to chase the small number of hardcore students who aren’t bothered about detentions or the behaviour system in general.

This also means that, should we know for some reason that we’re going to react differently, it makes sense to tell students. Not all classes can handle this maturely but lots will. A quick conversation could make your life so much easier:

Morning everyone. I just wanted to let you know that I’m feeling a bit _________ today and so, in that I always like to treat you kindly and with respect, I want to let you know that I’m likely to be a bit short tempered today or I might not react as a normally do. I’d appreciate your help in making sure that today’s lesson goes well.

Another aspect of this is that we should always do what we say we’ll do. If we say that students must do the homework by Wednesday, they must. If we say students will get a behaviour point for talking during a test, they must. If we say students will get a reward for working well as a group, they must.

Try it. I think you’ll find that it pays off.

Be Observant

The best advice I’ve ever, ever been given in teaching was that, if any student looked like they were really, really paying attention, they are looking at their phone under the table.

It’s true.

Keeping an eye out around the classroom can solve problems before they start. If we spot a student feeling ill or feeling upset before the lesson starts, asking whether they’re ok and giving them a quick smile can often keep the molehill a molehill. Likewise, if we spot that a student’s written nothing ten minutes into the lesson, it’s easier for them to catch up than 45 minutes into a lesson.

Knowing our students (and spotting changes in their behaviour) can allow us to cut them slack when they need it, which has a real payoff in their behaviour at other times because they see us as more human and know that we have their backs.

The more we can see in the classroom, the more we can nip in the bud before it causes actual trouble.

Be Yourself and Let Students Know That’s Ok

Every year, first lesson back, I give my students an introduction to me. That might sound funny or egocentric but I can assure you that it isn’t!

I have a strong personality and I know that I might not be everybody’s cup of tea, however I am predictable and I know myself. I tell students what to expect of me, I tell them that I will like them and that I will be behind them every step of the way, I tell them that I have high expectations and I expect them to meet them, and I tell them that everything is forgivable to me (everyone makes mistakes) except lying. I tell them to tell me the truth always so that I can make good decisions. Likewise, I tell them the truth.

This means that they know who and what they’re getting from the start.

With that done, I can then be free to be myself. I can say to a student who’s just lied to me: “What am I going to say about you fibbing to me?” They know the answer.

I can relax in a classroom where I can be myself. My students can too.

Check That Your Students Are Alright

If caring for students is number one on the behaviour management essentials list, asking how they are (and really listening to the answer) has to be close behind it.

Remembering their answers and following up on them as they’re coming into the room (even as you’re writing on the board or scooping up pens from last lesson) means that they feel personally noticed by you. It gives students a relationship with you and humanises you.

More than that, it’s just what a decent human being should do! I’d never go through a day without checking that my friends are ok. In fact, we often greet people with “You alright?” Wouldn’t it be strange to miss that out of classroom life?

Deal With The Attitudes From Which Poor Behaviour Stems

Sometimes we have fires to fight, massive, massive forest fires laying waste to vast swathes of our day. When this is the case, just do what you can do.

When we have the time or we’re in a situation where attitudes can be addressed, it’s equally essential in that it provides the necessary rain and lushness in an environment to prevent many of these fires from taking place.

If a student rolls their eyes or sucks their teeth at us, we should feel free to call them out on it and to explain to them why it’s inappropriate behaviour.

When students “Whatever…” us, we should speak it through with them and show them the attitudes we want to foster and see in them.

When our expectations are high enough that their attitudes matter, we will see change.

Don’t Accept Low Level Disrespect: Call It Out

In the same vein, our expectations must be high enough that low level disruption is unacceptable. Never be afraid to stop the lesson and call it out too.

A prime example is students who talk over us. Don’t let students talk over you! In my second teaching placement, the member of leadership in charge of NQTs and ITTs ‘helpfully’ told me that my expectations were too high, that I could “never get a class to be silent” and that it was “the same in every school“. I was so discouraged but now, many years into my teaching career, I just feel sad for him. When necessary, I’ve had hundreds of students work in silence in every school I’ve been in. His career must have been so difficult, or he must have achieved so little as his expectations were so low.

When I have classes who constantly talk over me (or other students who are speaking as part of a lesson), I’ll stop them and explain my expectations again. Having done that, if I have to stop again, I’ll let them know that we will work in silence for the rest of the lesson if they continue.

They continue?

We have a silent lesson.

I’ve never had to do this more than twice with any class over the course of a year…

Don’t Argue (But Give Students A Time & Place They Can Speak To You In Case You Get Things Wrong)

Students will usually try and argue their case – they might do it honestly or they might fib about it but they will often try to draw a member of staff into an argument.

We can be wrong (and, if you’re like me, often are!) but the time for these discussions is after the lesson without an audience. Using closed questions with two opposite answers make discussions about behaviour easier:

Did you work as hard as you should?

Well, I was just asking Dilan to…

Sorry, I asked you whether you worked as well as you should have done. Yes or no?

I just wanted to let him know that…

Yes or no?

No.

Did that respect me as your teacher or disrespect me when you didn’t work well enough?

Again, you get it.

If they continue to try to argue, tell them that you’re going back into the classroom and will come back when you think they can answer the question. Don’t be drawn into an argument: when we do that it undermines our responsibility and authority as staff members and it brings emotions into a situation which involves expectations.

Don’t Make It Personal

In doing this, we avoid making a situation emotional, volatile and grudgeworthy.

If we can focus on our expectations and how they haven’t been met calmly, we can stand with our hands on our heart and say:

I like you but, when you disrespect me by not working hard enough, I have to do something about it because it’s my job. I don’t like it but your choice means this is what I have to do. I don’t like having to tell you off.

Suddenly, we’re in a team environment where you’re both on their side, it’s their behaviour that’s the opposition. Your mutual enemy. The one getting them into trouble. Behaviour management is not a battle with teachers on one side and students on the other…

Don’t Raise Your Voice Unless It’s An Issue Of Safety or Urgency

The first school I was in was a rough school. A very rough school. Put it this way, we had no parents’ evenings after a parent brought in a weapon…

I swiftly learned from the teachers around me (before I was even allowed to do any teaching of my own) that, in raising my voice, a ‘you versus me’ mentality was created.

As teachers, we work with the students and alongside them, never against them. In raising our voices out of anger or in a way that is directed at only one student, we create a divide between us.

Perhaps most importantly, when we do that we don’t model how adults should treat one another. If my boss shouted at me, I’d put in a complaint against them. In shouting, we wrongly model to them that might is right.

And it isn’t.

This isn’t to say that we should never shout. Raising our voices in a countdown or in a dangerous situation for safety’s sake is only sensible!

Make Sure That You Are Well Rested and Looking After Yourself

One of the biggest favours I can do myself (and my classes) is to make sure that I get to bed on time and that I’ve had something to eat or drink regularly.

Tiredness and low blood sugar lead us to be more emotional and more grouchy. I don’t know about you but it can be hard to give teaching your all anyway so, if I’m not looking after myself, that makes the job even harder.

Sometimes it’s important that we take time out to make sure that we’re happy (whatever that looks like for us). If we’re not happy, rested teachers, there’s no way that we can have happy students.

Additionally, we’re not modelling to students the fact that people come first. Ourselves included. How can we tell students to make sure that they take time out during exam revision if we haven’t been taking time out to keep ourselves well? Emotional and physical health matter and we can model that for everyone’s mutual benefit!

Praise Them for What is Praiseworthy

We’ll all have seen students glow when we’ve praised them. Isn’t it one of the best things about teaching?

On results day, when we see that student who’s worked themselves to the bone for a grade four (or a C in old money), we can’t help but effusively congratulate them.

I’m so proud of you! You’ve done so well! You really deserve this! All that hard work’s paid off…

On a smaller scale, I’m sure that we’ve seen that small, sly smile of a student when we’ve praised them quietly for a job well done. This week, a student in my form jumped around the classroom because he’d made it into the bulletin (a great photo of him beaming in a large, fluorescent vest) just for taking part in a competitive event.

Praise matters and it builds relationship. The only way we can undermine it is if we offer it for something where it isn’t deserved.

Give praise readily and, if it’s difficult to find something academic to praise, praise personal qualities and skills. In fact, do that anyway! They’re more important and they last a lifetime.

Recognise That Learning Makes People Feel Vulnerable

I recently took up writing again as an adult and have asked a few of my friends to take a look over my tentative beginnings. What I realised was that I was terrified! As an adult, well into my years of adulting, I became a quivering mess at even the thought of someone else looking at something I’d written.

We ask our students to do this every day.

Lesson learned. I realised, in this way, that I need to be more sensitive and aware of the fact that I can hurt students’ feelings, especially if they’ve tried really hard and it hasn’t quite worked out.

I wonder how many times I’ve accidentally been too abrupt in giving feedback or setting targets?

Talk To Students About The Grown Up They’re Becoming and the Impact of Their Choices On This

The aim of an education is to lead children to be the best versions of themselves as adults, not simply to get exam results. We’re not robots and we’re not programmable.

What we are is people, guided by other people explicitly, implicitly and by example.

When we say to students, “Who do you want to be when you grow up? Do you want to be the kind, thoughtful colleague people turn to or not?” When we say to students that their repetitive choices become their character, discussing the character they want to have as adults, it’s easier for them to see why we expect positive attitudes and behaviours.

Most people are decent people and, more importantly, want to be.

Making these conversations deliberate and explicit, gives children a chance to make deliberate and explicit choices rather than to just react in the moment and see what happens, just see who they become.

Talk To Them Privately, Don’t Shame Them Publicly

In this same light, it seems best to have these conversations privately. In an empty classroom with an open door or with a glass window, out in the corridor away from the rest of the class or somewhere else appropriate.

Being a team and public apologies where behaviour has impacted on the whole class are fine but conversations about character or conversations where students might feel ashamed in front of their peers are likely to be counter-productive.

Treat Students Differently: Be The Teacher They Need, Not Necessarily The Teacher They Want

In knowing our students, we know that some of them need calming down regularly as they’re inclined to work too hard and pressurise themselves. On the other hand, we’ve all met students who need a good (metaphorical) kick in the butt because even they would confess that they’re downright lazy.

In other ways, some students like to be left to work alone with only a little guidance while others are desperate for us to (again metaphorically) hold their hand through the process of learning.

Some want to tell us all their woes whilst others would do anything to avoid a personal conversation with member of that alien race: teachers.

Treating students fairly but differently is essential in creating an atmosphere where students feel valued and, in so doing, we create an environment where students are able to be themselves but know that they will get what they need from their teacher.

Use Humour

When first starting teaching, I was told never ever to use sarcasm in a classroom. Another time, a member of staff was boasting about never smiling before Christmas with any class.

I politely disagree.

I agree that sarcasm or humour must never put down an individual but I think it’s important that we build relationship and that we’re able to be ourselves in the classroom. In jokes builds a team perspective.

What I, personally, like about using our senses of humour in class is that we all enjoy the lesson more.

Humour can be so much less confrontational in getting across our expectations. I often use the ‘I misheard you’ gag in lessons..

What’s that you said, Horace? You said that you want to come and see me at break time?

I didn’t say that! I was just telling Khrysta that…

I heard you distinctly! Did you hear that, Daniel?

Yep! I did…

I didn’t say that!!

Well, just be aware that, if you carry on talking over me, that’s definitely what I’ll hear.

I’m not saying that this is hilarious. Far from it. What I am saying is that, if it becomes a familiar joke, students won’t feel got at and they won’t feel told off. They will, however, know that they need to stop talking.

One thought on “If You See Behaviour Management As a Battle Ground, You May Win The Battle But You’ve Already Lost The War

  1. As a retired teacher, there is sooooo much here that I identify with, ideas that my generation of teacher believed, too 🙂

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