‘If you have great lessons, you never have behaviour problems, right?’ Paul Dix says this in one of his opening videos for the Future Learn MOOC: Managing Behaviour for Learning.


Reflecting on my own behaviour management ‘training’ throughout my PGCE, I received the same sort of message: ‘If you plan your lesson well enough then the students will behave.’ This was the very worst kind of advice to give to someone like me. I planned for as much time as I could during the day; creating engaging activities, changes of pace and interesting content. When it didn’t work and students disengaged or behaved inappropriately, I planned on evenings and weekends. I put more and more time into my planning of lessons when I should have been more focused on my strategies to manage students’ behaviour. The thing is, especially where resit English and maths are concerned in an FE College, the students enter with baggage; with fears, with concerns, with bad past experiences, with troubled home lives. They don’t enter ready to learn. Add to this their natural urge to test boundaries and you reach a situation where however well you plan, behaviour strategies need to be used, tested, reflected upon and refined. 7 years into my teaching and I’ve still never invested this time in developing my behaviour management.

This year, I’m back in a GCSE classroom (3 years after I was last in one) and I am sure I’ll be contending with low-level disruption and distraction techniques from the students over the coming year. I will be facilitating discussions with some of my colleagues over the coming weeks about our learning on the MOOC, which was my original motivation for signing up, but I’m now in a position where I’ve also realised the need to increase my own focus on behaviour management strategies as a good lesson alone won’t cut it and I don’t have the time to plan each lesson to 500% of my abilities.

‘We’re not scared of you, sir.’

Fear is never an intelligent way to manage anyone, let alone our students. Instances of violence, aggression or extreme behaviour in my classes has been rare. I’m not one for raising my voice or getting angry; it’s just not me. I learned quite quickly that getting to know students and forming positive relationships with them; using praise was one sure fire way of preventing most behaviour incidents.

In the first course video, Paul recounts a teacher who, with one look, could get all the students to ‘behave’. So what did magic David have?

  1. Consistency: this was unwavering and allowed the students to trust him.
  2. Certainty: he would follow-up relentlessly. Not aggressively, but he had a persistence that meant he would never let it lie.
  3. Relationships: he had great relationships with the young people. The ones that sustain over years.

Fight or Flight: The Amygdala

The amygdala controls our threat signals. In a threat situation, the emotional mind is dominant. It stops the rational brain from thinking- deliberately. It releases a small burst of hormones into the rational brain and stops rational thinking. In a threat situation, we need an immediate and responsive reaction of the emotional brain and not the slow lumbering of the rational brain. The amygdala creates connections with what our senses are telling us (warning us of)- for instance, some sounds will happen before pain and others will happen before good things- like food. The amygdala creates Pavlovian associations for us.

Therefore, if we shout in class, this often connects to other shouting they’ve experienced in the past- that either lead to no consequence at all or to pain (emotional or physical). Extremes of emotion trigger extreme sensory overloads and are therefore likely to trigger a reaction in others. Far better to respond in a calm and collected way to our students and the situations that arise.

From birth, we are conditioned that a smile is safety and security and anything else, is a threat. Not smiling before half-term? You’re heading into dangerous territory there and creating all kinds of threat signals for your students.

Adult behaviours…

…affect student behaviours. We were asked to think about our own experiences and how these affected us during our own education. So what adult behaviours lead to what effects? We were asked to reflect on our own experiences (I may return to this list to add more):

Most positive effect

Regular (usually verbal) feedback (praise/comment) on behaviour, effort and work

Getting to know students as individuals (humans not just students)

Asking questions pitched at the right level (not making anyone look like a dummy)

Least positive effect

Assuming adult behaviours when they’re not adults

Most negative effect

Labelling students and indicating their personality is the problem, not their behaviour

When a teacher loses control

When I was asked to take over a group of welding students in my first year of teaching, a group studying functional skills English, maths and ICT, I was told that they’d ‘lost’ 2 teachers already. A picture was painted of what these students might do to me; send me to the edge of my temper. The thing is, my temper is not easily raised and I’ve never got to the point of shouting in a class. Many of the welding lecturers couldn’t understand how the students were so calm in my presence and there was little confrontation. I thought it was pretty obvious: I was calm, so they remained calm. If I had shouted, I would have been shouted at back. However, this calm approach often (and still) strays into me being too informal and lacking assertive qualities at times, which doesn’t help much when you need to get one of the students to leave because he’s on the brink of punching one of his classmates…

I remember our physics teacher at school getting angry in class once. He turned beetroot red, shouted, screamed and lifted up a huge wooden desk before dropping it on the floor again. The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop afterwards and then the nervous giggling began. He’d scared everyone in the room. Luckily, he wasn’t always like this and due to his usually calm demeanour, we knew it wasn’t something that was likely to happen again.

Why is managing your behaviour so important?

We are the role models for our students and we need to help them to understand their choices and the associated consequences. Behaviour management is not linear- from a bad place to a good one. We need to coach them towards a good place and this doesn’t necessarily mean it will remain there: we’re all human and have greater emotional reactions on one day than another. Training them in how to deal with these reactions is the important work.

The relationship between teacher and student should be too important to throw down every time we feel frustrated. We have to protect the relationship, students and ourselves. Each time we feel frustration bubbling over or like we’re about to lose control, we should try to remember the one teacher who lost their cool and lost so much else at the same time.

So how do you deal with your own frustrations about learning behaviours without letting raw emotion come out?

  • Don’t make it obvious to students what your emotional buttons are: ‘If you do that one more time then I’ll…’ This gleaming red button is too much for some students to resist pressing over and over again.
  • Physical, tonal and verbal language is read by students constantly. How assertive and positive are you feeling? They make decisions about your emotions quickly and will respond accordingly. Therefore, when we’re feeling tired, anxious, stressed, ill, we need to make a conscious decision about our behaviour- whether to tell our students how we’re feeling or adjust into a more assertive performance. If we don’t make a decision either way then we risk upsetting the emotional stability of our classroom.

In week 1, I was feeling unwell but I knew it so I performed assertively and positively to counteract it. In week 2, I was feeling stressed, tired and anxious but I didn’t register how that might impact my lesson- I thought I could handle it. Reflecting now, I think my students could sense it and so they tested my boundaries more than they had in week 1.

  • Young people are not very good at compartmentalising their brain and shutting off what’s affecting them emotionally. People who are tired, frustrated and stressed (us) also find this compartmentalising difficult to do.When we’re controlling our emotions, we need to share the strategies we use to control them so that our students can learn from us- our model needs to be explicit for them- especially where their role models are lacking at home.  Model how we calm our emotional brain- Do we try to control our breathing? Do we count to ten? Do we repeat a mantra? Share these strategies with the students. Demonstrate how successful learners manage their behaviour. Model the behaviour we want to see when it comes to emotion management. Explain our frustrations assertively: ‘I walked away from your table because I was feeling cross. I needed some space to think rationally. Now let’s discuss, together, how we can move forward with this.’ We need to work with our students to learn to rationalise the emotional parts of their brain. If students are constantly having to deal with the emotional responses of the teacher, the students around them and their own emotions, then they’re unable to access the rational part of the brain and the part that aids learning… You can see where this becomes problematic.
  • Instead of assuming positive behaviour, ask for it explicitly and praise those who are displaying the behaviour we want to see. Speak of choices and consequences. ‘You have chosen to do x again and that is a poor choice.’ Don’t engage the student with questions like, ‘What are you doing?’ And statements like, ‘You’re always misbehaving.’ Make it clear that it’s their choice that’s a bad one, not them as a person. Reference the kinds of positive behaviours you’ve seen from them in the past and expect these. Avoid making judgements about students because of their emotional reactions. It’s our responsibility to teach them both appropriate and proportionate responses.
  • Don’t reinforce students’ labels in the staffroom. Yes, it can relieve frustration, but it begins to affect how we see our classes and affects our expectations of students. Negative stereotypes do not help us to manage assertively; they lead us to resignation- ‘Oh, that’s how you behave. That’s who you are.’ Integrity is important in and out of the classroom if trust is to be developed. Public and private verbal attacks on students are avoided by wise professionals.

Behaviour Saviour

Letter 1: Confused of Middlesex

Dear Behaviour Saviour,

A confrontation in the corridor between the Head of Design & Technology and a year 11 student spilt into my room while I was enjoying a quiet five minutes at break. The teacher was angrily berating the year 11 student. Fingers were pointed and voices were raised beyond any level of comfort. Neither party was backing down. The argument became more heated and the teacher backed the student into a corner. In a sudden escalation, the student pushed past the teacher and ran out of the room. The teacher has asked me to be a witness and support his report that the student assaulted him. I’m not sure what to do.

My response:

Dear Confused of Middlesex,

It would be worthwhile writing down the incident from start to finish as you witnessed it. Stick to the facts and avoid judgements on either part. This way, you maintain your integrity without destroying the relationship with your colleague. 

Letter 2: At the end of the line, Newcastle

Dear Behaviour Saviour,

I have come to the end of my tether with Year 8 set 3 Science. Despite constant visits from the senior leadership team, 13 whole class detentions and a ban on any practical work, there has been no improvement. The behaviour of two individuals in particular is beyond the pail. Ryan Davies and Chelsea Adams, who should have been excluded for calling me an ‘Evil Witch’, are orchestrating others against me. I have told them that if they do not start behaving that I will refuse to teach them. This is the worst class that I have ever had the misfortune of teaching. If someone doesn’t sort them out soon, I don’t know what I’ll do.

My response:

Dear at the end of the line, 

We have all had students who have pushed us to our limits but the situation is retrievable. You mention that unless they start behaving that you will refuse to teach them. What does ‘behaving’ well in your class look like? Do you think that all of your students are clear about this? You could reinforce your expectations through praising the kinds of behaviours students are displaying that lead to a safe and pleasant learning environment for all. Do you think you have labelled the whole class as the ‘worst’ when it is only really the behaviour of these two students that has been the catalyst? It would be worth apologising to the class for wrongly labelling them and threatening to stop teaching them. This isn’t something you will be doing and you’ll be staying to work with them: this restores trust and sends a clear message that you’re not going anywhere (when some of the students may have been let down by adults in the past). Make it clear with your two most challenging students that it is the choice they’ve made about their behaviour that is questionable and not them as individuals (reference times when you’ve seen them display positive learning behaviours). Through these actions, you will have the power to turn around the behaviour of this class. 

Letter 3: Shocked and disgusted, Suffolk

Dear Behaviour Saviour,

In the staff room recently, I heard a new teacher being drawn into an open and extremely negative discussion about a student. There was no attempt to keep this conversation private and there were unpleasant assumptions about family background drifting across the room. As the interaction developed, the subject moved to the child. There were some very poor choices in language and ugly labelling emerging from the staff. I felt genuinely uncomfortable listening to any more and took my coffee elsewhere. Next time, how can I deal with this better? Should I have said something or was I right to keep out of it?

My response:

Dear shocked and disgusted, 

It’s understandable that you chose to avoid this behaviour; it’s not always easy to deal with colleagues who aren’t displaying the kinds of behaviours we’d expect from them. Next time, if you felt like you could, perhaps draw attention to how the student and/or the family might feel if they were heard being spoken about in this way. If you felt that would be too confrontational with a number of your colleagues then perhaps take the new member of staff to one side at some point and have a discussion- pointing that the labelling of children is unhelpful and perhaps taking a more solutions focused approach to helping them deal with the behaviour in their class. If you don’t have the kind of relationship with the new member of staff that would allow this, why not take it up with the head of department or their mentor so that the situation can be addressed. These are damaging things for a new member of staff to hear and you’re right to feel shocked and disgusted.

In the management of behaviour, there’s only one thing we have absolute control over and that’s our own behaviour.

I’ve already been thinking that I need to catch student doing the right thing in order to reinforce the kinds of student behaviours I want to see (see below for the actions we were given to chose from.) I’ll be trying out strategies to praise students and reinforce positive behaviours over the next couple of weeks, perhaps with Class Dojo to provide praise points. I’ll be considering what difference it might make to the learning behaviours students are displaying.

  • Meet and greet with a smile at the door.
  • Deliberately catch students doing the right thing and acknowledge them for it.
  • Explain the behaviours you want as you explain a task or activity.
  • Use the phrase, ‘I need you to’, when giving instructions to individuals.
  • Change the way you end the lesson and send students off.
  • Write a list of the names of students who are behaving brilliantly on the board.