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Why Most Behaviour Management Advice Doesn’t Work

September 9, 2014

This is the fourth and final post in my series of posts on discipline systems, originally inspired by this blogpost from @headguruteacher. The other 3 are:

  1. What Makes A School Discipline System Work?
  2. Seven Signs of a “Good Enough” Discipline System
  3. The Behaviour Delusion (or “Why do Kids Kick Off?”)

I’ve put it in different ways, but most of what I’ve talked about has been the extent to which discipline systems and school culture, not teacher skill, determine behaviour. I’ve worked at a lot of different schools, and learnt that my effectiveness at behaviour management seems to vary massively between the schools. As I argued in the third post above, student expectations, usually acquired from their peers, have more impact than anything the teacher chooses to do. This is why I am outraged about many of those snake oil salesman who offer individual teachers a “magic bullet” solution to behaviour, usually built around platitudes about winning kids over. In particular, ignore anyone who claims to be able to solve behaviour problems by:

  • Adopting a particular attitude;
  • Using a particular style of teaching;
  • Being nice to students;
  • Rejecting punishment/sanctions/discipline;
  • Negotiating with students;
  • Staying calm (I’m not saying this is bad, but it is really unhelpful as advice);
  • Avoiding confrontation;
  • Solving children’s “underlying problems”.

But here I want to be sceptical even about the well-intentioned and more practical advice often given to teachers. If expectations at a school are low than behaviour will become challenging in response to any attempt to improve behaviour. That includes really well-thought out and cleverly planned methods and systems. No classroom strategy will work if kids truly don’t want it to work. Where teacher strategies work it is either because the kids wanted to behave and the teacher made it easy for them to do so, or where teachers have persisted with their strategies, even where they didn’t seem to be working, until the kids lost the will to fight. For this reason I have seen the following strategies have both positive and negative effects (in some cases I’ve seen the same approach both work brilliantly and fail utterly):

  • Warning systems;
  • Telling classes to stand up until they are quiet;
  • Reward systems;
  • Shouting;
  • Calling parents;
  • Lining kids up outside the classroom door;
  • Waiting until students are in the room and quiet before starting the lesson;
  • Counting down to get quiet;
  • Confronting behaviour publicly;
  • Confronting behaviour privately;
  • Praise;
  • Dressing really smartly;
  • Monitoring the amount of work closely and punishing insufficient work harshly;
  • Threats (or promises) to report back to form tutors/SMT;
  • Sitting down at the front of the room for the entire lesson;
  • Taking marking into the classroom and marking during the lesson (I admit I have only seen this work as a behaviour management strategy for cover lessons, but in the first school I worked at taking work with you to cover lessons indicated you were not supply staff and were also confident the kids wouldn’t misbehave);
  • Following the school behaviour policy;
  • Asking students to work in silence.

Sometimes, the strategies succeeded because the kids wanted to behave, and they helped kids comply without losing face. Sometimes they failed because every strategy would fail and any sign that the class was behaving well and working was such a break with expectations that it would upset the kids and they’d act to stop it. In other cases, success or failure was specific to the school, year group, or even class because of what they are used to. A particular rule or sanction that seems fair to one class, because they are used to it, will seem outrageous to another. Some parents will support, some won’t. Some year heads or managers are so feared or loved (frequently both together) that mentioning their name gives a teacher power, while the names of others will result in a derisive chortle. Some classes are happy to stand in the corridor, or behind their chairs indefinitely and, when teachers wait for their compliance, they will wait for the teacher to give up waiting. The triggers for bad behaviour and the cues for good behaviour vary between schools and between classes. The strategies listed above are worth having in reserve, but until you know your school and your classes you won’t know what will work and whether it failed for a specific reason, or because they would have kicked off regardless.

Is there any universally useful behaviour advice? It is very little, but I’ll give what I can to avoid this being a counsel of despair:

  1. Observe other teachers with your students. It is useful to have seen them behave and for them to know you have seen them behave. Or even just for them to see you know a teacher they behave for.
  2. Use a seating plan and have several copies to hand. It is always best to know which student you are dealing with.
  3. Write down anything serious or any detention set immediately including the exact wording of any insults or swearing even if it seems unforgettable. Stress will make you forgetful and undermine your follow up.
  4. Be consistent. Enforce rules even when you regret instituting them, and only change them when you have an excuse to change them, not because they were disobeyed. Be prepared to stick with strategies even when they don’t work; good behaviour management strategies can still be resisted at first. Follow through on punishments.
  5. Don’t put up with the obviously unacceptable, no matter who tells you it is normal. It would be better to drop out of teaching completely and feel a failure for it, than become a human punching bag for a few years and then drop out of teaching because it made you ill.

And remember, particularly if you’ve just started teaching, it all becomes easier with time.

10 comments

  1. Spot on Andrew.


  2. Andrew,

    It’s not often that I fundamentally disagree with you, but your contention that pupils’ misbehaviour is fundamentally driven by their peers is only true to the extent that we allow it to be. I’ll grant you that there has been a massive collapse in adult authority over the last generation, but it’s surprising how quickly and easily this can be reversed, given the right head. Pupils actually prefer order to chaos, if for no other reason than to protect them from bullies. When teachers are in control, the whole atmosphere of confrontation dies away, and it’s possible to deliver lessons that the kids appreciate and even enjoy.

    Schools with good discipline seldom have to use sanctions. Elaborate rules and procedures are unnecessary when the teachers’ word is law. Banning mobile phones (not just insisting that they be turned off) is essential. Marginalising (or even better, eliminating) group work also prevents the ‘mob’ mentality from taking hold. Teachers should never argue with pupils, or permit them to argue with each other: they must be able to eject pupils from the classroom instantly, and (as you have argued) there should be no downside for the teacher for administering sanctions, such as having to supervise a detention.

    Your advice will no doubt be useful to the great majority of teachers who are not so fortunate as to work in schools where the head and SLT haven’t lost the plot. Unfortunately, even the term ‘behaviour management’ gives the game away: when kids see that we haven’t got the cojones to talk about discipline, they know we’re toast.


    • Did you read the other posts? In the previous ones my point is exactly the same as yours, that what I describe above can be changed by schools supporting teachers.


      • I was only taking issue with the statement that pupils’ expectations are largely governed by their peers, and that this is more important than anything the teacher does. I know quite a few teachers who’ve managed to get pupils onside in schools that weren’t even ‘good enough’. You pretty much say the same thing in this post. Sorry if I seem a bit fractious on this issue, but the term ‘behaviour management’ irritates me beyond belief.


    • You have to start somewhere and if Andrew’s recommendations are taken on board a lot of the things that seem perhaps a bit over robust will not be necessary because order will be the norm. Once clear boundaries and order is established the good relationships can flourish.


  3. Reblogged this on Dragonfly Training.


  4. I think most behaviour management advice doesn’t work because we are so often confronted with bizarre and unexpected behaviours and comments, for which there is no ‘best fit’ response! Take this for example:

    http://lovelanguageloveliterature.com/2014/09/12/fail-friday-this-week-when-teachers-fail/


  5. Hi, great blog. Most behaviour strategies peddled at the school I work at (mixed ability high) start with the flawed assumption that everyone else in the room is behaving and its just one student messing about! They don’t seem to consider that the students interact with each other! We once had a training session on how to deal with ‘the class clown’ or the ‘attention seeker’. No advise was ever offered however for dealing with a chimps tea party!!

    Some lessons are like a well rehearsed pantomime with everyone knowing their role (as you so accurately described in ‘getting terrorred’). All pupils bouncing off each other with the sole aim of making sure they learn nothing and you teach nothing!

    The current policy is to remove students within the department, thus problems are passed sideways rather than up. This free’s up the leadership team to do what exactly I know not. Weaving away busily with their invisible thread like the tailors in the emperor’s new clothes no doubt. Either that or ‘moving forward’ which is the current buzz phrase amongst management who are ironically rapidly going backwards!

    Again removal within the department relies on the assumption that the child put in your room will not interact with any of your students. How wrong can you be!! Also isolation is no longer being done by SLT and form tutors have now been empowered to do it, again saving management a job. The important thing about isolation management seem to miss is that to be isolated means to be on your own. If you isolate students in groups any larger than one then its not isolation its a youth club!!!


  6. I agree that behaviour is a whole school approach. I hate when the head is in my class and does nothing when they are being noisy!!


  7. Reblogged this on BB2 Collaborative.



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