You wake up and feel a sense of dread. It takes a few seconds to realise the cause. It’s a Wednesday, the sun is shining and you slept well. But something is lurking at the periphery of your consciousness…THAT group. Period 7. Urgh…
It all started well enough. You treated them the same as every other class, practising high expectations and setting clear ground rules. For the first few weeks the students were quiet, respectful and diligent. But for whatever reason, lessons started to descend into a cycle of recriminations, raised voices and no progress. There was resentment on all sides. The constantly-sanctioned students lost any respect for teacher authority and were ruining the learning of others. The hardworking students lost trust in your ability to teach them. And you dreaded the thought of seeing the class. The entire classroom suffered as a result.
Where do you go from here?
The first answer, frequently cited, is to refer to the school’s behaviour policy and stick to it. You might also need to ‘call in the cavalry’ if there are particularly troublesome students who warrant a wider-school intervention. Talk to colleagues about how they have dragged a class back on side, and involve tutors early as they often know what makes a student tick. The EEF (2019) suggests that targeted interventions towards specific students are the most effective approach in such instances. But they also acknowledge the power of consistent classroom interventions, pursued over a sustained period of time. Some of these have been discussed in our previous post on behaviour management strategies (found here) and in our TeachMeets.
But what if you have tried all of this, and the relationship with the group already feels like it is spiralling out of control due to bad behaviour?
Chris Watkins (2000) suggests you ask the ‘10 Important Questions’ to determine how to tackle the behaviour. These include the fundamental questions of what behaviour, specifically, and what patterns of situations, triggers and subsequent outcomes, are causing concern? How has your view of the student behaviour developed; is it self-fulfilling and can it change? On the other hand, what positive skills does the student show, and what is happening when the behaviour does NOT occur? Finally, it is important to frame the student perspective; what view do they have of themselves and their behaviour? What does it mean to them?
Once you have the answers to these questions, you can begin to rebuild the relationship. As the teacher, this has to start with you. You cannot expect it to come from the student without encouraging some much needed self regulation. You need to act as the person who has the solution to this problem. That means, as Paul Dix says when he named his recent book; When the Adults Change, Everything Changes.
One way of doing this is to adapt the rewards and sanctions policy to your situation, with the aim of instilling a growth mindset. Your goal is to build up a sense of intrinsic motivation to behave well. When a student in the class behaves well, really focus on that specific behaviour (not on the person). Narrate the exact reasons for rewards openly. If you need to introduce your own added incentives (like termly, preferably edible, awards), do so. Many behaviour specialists also advocate a 5:1 ratio of rewards to sanctions, to ensure interactions in the class create a wave of positivity to push back the previously negative tide.
A golden rule for sanctions, when they do need to be used, is to defer them until a more private conversation can be had. Whilst open and precise praise can work wonders for incentivising positive behaviour, being ‘too open’ with sanctions can damage that fragile trust your students have in you. Give students a clear directed choice to get on with their work in a productive manner and allow both parties to reflect on any poor behaviour (including non-confrontational, low-level things, such as lateness) instead of wading in with a heavy-handed sanction. Giving both yourself and the student a chance to save face, and explaining the sanction more privately, strengthens the relationship but also upholds your no-excuses policy.
The other way to encourage good behaviour is to model it yourself. You could make a checklist of what this positive approach looks like to you. A calm demeanour, a quiet tone, a measured speaking speed, good humour (though make sure it’s never at the expense of a student), getting down to the students’ level and keeping eye contact, showing you are bothered about students holistically, letting things go and starting afresh each lesson… You could even give students the responsibility of creating a list for the class. It would make a great task for a detention.
Most of all, don’t despair. The relationship with a tough group is always salvageable. And in almost all cases, it isn’t as bad as you think (around 75% of teachers say the biggest problem with behaviour is “talking out of turn”, rather than anything too sinister). Classrooms are not full of evildoers. Students just need our help to get it right sometimes.
Alongside this blog post, there is also a teacher handout full of great tips on ‘repairing relationships and tackling low level disruption’ from our recent TeachMeet here.