The False Economy of Behaviour Management

The first time I walked into a classroom I was petrified. It was a mixed ability Year 7 class and it was like they could smell my fear. They were waiting to pounce, I was sure of that. I needed back up in a big way, but I knew it wasn’t going to come. This was my problem, so I donned my armour and prepared for battle…


I’d probably gone about it wholly the wrong way.

One of the main issues a trainee or new teacher has when walking into the classroom is the challenge of managing the behaviour of their students. Let’s face it – teenagers have a job to do. Their job is to do our heads in. If they’re not doing our heads in, they’re essentially failing at being teenagers. There’s no malice in it. It’s just what they do. Think back to when you we’re a teenager. I just did stuff at school. Often there was no logic or explanation. I did it because I could.

This, however, poses several problems for the new teacher because we have job to do too, and that’s hopefully to get these mini-adults to learn something. So how do we do that?

Firstly, and I hate to say this… sometimes us experienced teachers are not that helpful. I remember being mentored by a fantastic teacher. He was a legend in the school and his reputation as a teacher was phenomenal. But when he walked into a classroom, the kids just did whatever he wanted them to do. Their books were out. Their equipment was ready to use. They were sat up in quite anticipation of the lesson. So I’m sitting there with my note pad trying to write down the techniques he used to get the learning environment the way he wanted it… and I waited, and observed, and waited… and the fact is – he did nothing observable.

This brings me to the core of this article. As experienced teachers, we often set up a false economy for trainees when it comes to classroom management. Yes, there are techniques that we can teach you. Yes, there are many things that you can control. However, much of classroom management comes from relationship building, and that doesn’t happen overnight. You have to find a way to connect with your students. Then, they’ll want to work for you.

So what can you control? Well, before you take the riot-police approach focus on your planning. Here are some basics:

  • a well-planned, well-resourced lesson will be so full of activities that the pupils won’t have time to mess about.
  • “maximum output – minimum input”. Let the kids do the work. Make your lesson about doing.
  • Practice on your pace and transition between tasks. When they are coming to the end of one task, be handing out the next, so that each activity seamlessly flows into the next. This reduces the “down time” in a lesson.

Usually, lessons where I have experienced masses of disruptive behaviour has been when my planning hasn’t been great!

So, if the going gets a bit tough, how do we deal with that? There are a few simple tips to take on board:

  • establish routines as quickly as possible, whether that’s handing out books, writing down a date or title, or standing behind chairs. After only a few lessons, the kids will grow to know what to expect.
  • Be consistent. My wonderful mentor once said to me, “Teaching is easy. You tell a kid what you will do, and then you do it.” It really is that simple. Never give out empty threats and never back down unless you are genuinely in the wrong.
  • If the school has a robust assertive discipline system, use it. The kids don’t quite know your boundaries at the start, so you need help.
  • Rely on colleagues: you are not weak by asking for help. Sometimes, getting support sends a message out to the kids that there is a whole system behind your words that can kick in should they wish to test the water!

But this advice is all quite negative. We can start getting into the difficulties of teaching certain kids from certain backgrounds, but in all honesty, there are very few kids out there that don’t respond well to a bit of praise and respect. For the so-called “bad apples” in the school, this can often work wonders. Think about it… if you’re really respectful and praiseworthy of a badly behaved kids for doing something well, you might be the only person in their lives that has said something nice to them. It really does work.

  • Use lots of praise, but don’t over-do it. Praise is most effective if used honestly. Make a student work for it and it will mean more to them.
  • Try to connect with them. It might be football. It might be fashion. It might be Xbox games, but give them something. Teenagers never cease to amaze me. I did a lesson on the History of Black Music once to find a Year 9 pupil who had a wealth of knowledge about Jazz music because of his dad’s record collection. You just never know what you can tap into.
  • Focus on positive behaviour. Point out examples of positive behaviour in your classroom so they can learn it from each other.
  • Make an effort to like them! Many teenagers with behavioural issues come to see most adults as people who are out to get them. Well, change tack a little. Become the adult that’s out to help them.

Ultimately, these are things that you can develop over the course of your placements which will help you win the battle of wills that happens in the classroom. But in the end, a developed relationship over time is the best way of improving behaviour in your classroom. It was not until my 3rd year in a school that I felt that there was not a single class that I couldn’t handle. That was because the kids had gotten to know me… and vice versa. They knew when they could have a laugh and when they needed to work. They knew my boundaries and I knew how to get the best out of them as individuals, which led to an improved group.

So just keep going. It will get better. It just takes time. But go easy on yourself and remember that we set trainees up with a false economy that if you do (a) then your outcomes will be (b). Just be patient with yourself and remember that we all started off like that… it just takes time.

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