This week’s issue of Behaviour Matters looks at the importance of practising the techniques that you use to manage students’ behaviour

In spite of numerous new books and articles giving advice on the subject of behaviour management, there seems to be a wealth of material already out there − either in use, going to be used, or, unfortunately, tried, failed and now forgotten. For many members of staff working with young people in schools and other educational establishments there are certainly “favourite” styles and techniques, ones that you have used in the past with some success, which now form the basis of your whole style of approach in the classroom. Just like any other skill, however, these approaches can be marred or undermined by bad habits that tend to creep in almost unnoticed. If one was to ask the question: “Have you ever broken up a fight at school?” The answer is likely to be a resounding “Yes!” from a high percentage of staff. If one then asks the question: “How many of you ‘practise’ breaking up fights?” The number is significantly lower. The obvious next question to ask, therefore, would be: “If you don’t practise the skill of breaking up a fight, how do you know how you will respond to the situation, and how do you know your actions will be appropriate?”

If this same questioning is applied to all the behaviour management techniques you use in the classroom, logically it follows that many of us are responding in ways that have perhaps evolved though:

  • advice received on a course, at a meeting, or from a discussion months ago.

Inevitably, these techniques and strategies may well suffer the same fate as a message in the game Chinese whispers. The strategy was fine and appropriate when first discussed and used, but over time it has become corrupted by a whole range of difficulties, ranging from a) your own feelings and emotions to b) good and bad advice received along the way. All strategies should be framed in a positive way and should be delivered in a calm, structured and carefully planned manner. They need to be evaluated and altered where necessary, but, above all, you and your colleagues need time to discuss, perfect and practise the professional skills needed to manage the often difficult situations faced in the teaching and learning environment.

Practical Tips Before attempting to practise appropriate techniques it is useful to try to identify individual strategies.

For example, many staff may use the strategy of issuing a warning within their hierarchy of responses to challenging behaviour. In order to practise the skill of issuing a warning (which for some staff is considered simply as a bland statement made to the pupil when further consequences are imminent!), it is important to break down the component parts:

1. Attracting the attention of the pupil.

2. The tone, volume and pitch of your voice.

3. Distance from the pupil (personal space issues).

4. Wording to be used.

5. A reminder of your expectations.

6. What may happen next.

7. How you will remain calm.

8. Facial expression.

9. Other body language.

If a warning is to be an effective stage in your management of challenging behaviour, then all of the above must be considered and delivered in such a way as to allow the pupil to make a good choice of response. When reading such a description of the component parts, it is relatively easy to put the technique into theoretical practice. It is a much more difficult situation when you are required to perform the same skill under classroom conditions. Your behaviour, if not well practised to the point where it becomes your normal “professional” response, will be affected by the emotional highjack of the “fight or flight” response. The only sure way of overcoming the emotional highjack is to practise the situation in theory and in practice. Sportsmen and women talk about “muscle memory”. In other words, an action done so many times − rehearsed, evaluated and practised repeatedly − it becomes your automatic response, even when faced with stress, confusion or unfamiliarity.

List a range of skills that you and your colleagues regularly use in the classroom, such as:

Now break down the skills required to successfully manage any or all of the above. Once you have a skills list, try working with a group of colleagues to practise the skills. Have one or two of your colleagues acting as observers or critical friends in the scenarios and listen to their observations. Evaluate the techniques and practise again.

Remember, just as we teach to the different learning styles of our pupils, we ourselves need to learn through visual, auditory and physical practise.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2008

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a wrtier, consultant and trainer.