Managing student behaviour: what I wish I had known when I started teaching

As a very young teacher, my first head of department said to me that he didn’t care what I taught my classes in the first four weeks of the term, as long as I sorted out their behaviour.

In hindsight, I wish that he had given me a little more advice on exactly how to do that, and not just what to do. I remember more than one occasion with 9P - an infamous group throughout the school - where we spent most of a 40 minute period lining up in silence outside the classroom and then walking in - still in silence - to stand behind our chairs. To the young teacher I was then, It seemed vitally important that we got that right - almost more important than what I was meant to be teaching them. Nevertheless, over my teaching career, I built up a repertoire of useful tips and strategies for managing student behaviour - which I share below in the hopes that readers might find it useful.

1. Be friendly - but not their friend.
This is especially true for young teachers working in high schools. It is easy to be lulled into a mainframe where you start seeing some students as friends - but this will cause difficulties later. Remember that, regardless of the ages of the students, you are the responsible adult in the room, and, while you can smile, be friendly and personable, you are, at the end of the day, their teacher, and you have specific responsibilities to attend to. Be mindful of this, respect the boundaries between you and your students, and it will make the rest of your job easier - especially when it gets hard.

2. Make use of take-up time.
This is a great strategy for dealing with low-level disruption in the classroom. When you are seeking to speak to the class as a whole, get their attention - either by raising your voice or using a non-verbal signal - and then pause. The pause gives the students a moment to finish what they were saying, or to turn to look at you, and then quieten. This pause also means that you don’t immediately have to escalate a situation when a child isn’t paying attention - instead, by using take-up time, you give students the opportunity to finish, and then re-focus their attention on you. It seems like a minor thing - and it is - but it is effective.

3. Give them a choice.
When dealing with a student who is refusing to do something, it can be easy to be backed into a situation where it is either their way or your way. Children, being children, can be stubborn about something, so this can mean that quite low-level matters might become more serious than you might want. Instead of demanding that a student complies with your instruction, give them a choice of two courses of action. For example, if a student is playing with their mobile phone instead of working, you might suggest that they that either give you their phone or put it in their bag - by giving them a choice, you’re far more likely to get students to behave appropriately.

4. Tactical ignores
Sometimes, it can be more effective to tactically ignore certain kinds of behaviour. This won’t be suitable at all times, but it can be a useful strategy at certain times. For example, if you are having an excellent class discussion with 24 students in your classroom, and there is one student who is starting out the window, you might choose to tactically ignore the window-starter, knowing that you can re-connect with the student later, and continue with the discussion rather than interrupt the discussion to deal with the behaviour.

5. Don’t promise a sanction and then not follow up
One of the worst things a teacher can do, in terms of managing students behaviour - is promise a sanction - a detention, keeping someone in at lunch time, or something similar and then not follow it up. This sends a message that all behaviour is open to negotiation - and it will lead to significant challenges to your authority as a classroom teacher later. It is important, here, to recognise that you don’t want to escalate to serious consequences too quickly as that will leave you with no option but to follow through on some of these matters - but if you promise to put a student on detention, then you need to do it.

What other pieces of advice for managing student behaviour do you have? Share them in the comments below.

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