Disruption comes in many forms, one of the most dreaded being questions unrelated to what is being taught. Behaviour Matters delves into this reoccurring problem to seek a positive solution. ‘Please Mrs Butler This boy Derek Drew Keeps calling me rude names, Miss. What shall I do? Lock yourself in the cupboard, dear. Run away to sea. Do whatever you can, my flower.

But don’t ask me!’

Please Mrs Butler – Allan Ahlberg

In Mrs Butler’s defence, perhaps read the rest of the poem first! At some point however, I am sure we have all had our Mrs Butler moments. Repeated questions such as those asked by the pupil in the poem not only disrupt the learning of others in the class, but are frustratingly stressful for the teacher who is always at the receiving end of them.

What would you have done in Mrs Butler’s place? Is there a way that the pupil could have handled the situation without involving their teacher and causing disruption to the class? Behaviour Matters investigates.

Deflect the pressure strategies

The pressure created by students whose first and only strategy when they have a problem is to seek your help is often enough to tip you over the edge. Interruptions and constant “I don’t understand”, “How do you spell?”, and “What if?” questions distract other learners and are a source of pressure both for the teacher and non-teaching assistant. They can prevent you from responding appropriately and test your patience to the limit. Under this kind of pressure even the simplest of problems can grow into major issues. All your training and practice about style of response and using a behaviour plan in the classroom can be compromised. You may have differentiated the work and made allowances for the different learning styles, but even the clearest explanations often result in a forest of hands, random calling out or many students simply being off task. This can lead to frustration, pressure, and disruptive behaviour. Previous Behaviour Matters bulletins have dealt with seeking the attention of the teacher, suggesting hands up, showing cards and a variety of other techniques that are perfectly acceptable in the classroom. Problems arise, however, when there are simply too many students demanding your attention, with questions ranging from relevant and acceptable to downright time wasting and caused by a failure to listen in the first place! Many primary school class teachers will have experienced the “crocodile moment” when they turn from one student to find a line of children curling crocodile-like around the classroom, all clutching their books and demanding your attention. Likewise, time-wasting tactics (endless questions) and interruptions take the secondary school teacher’s attention away from more deserving and pressing issues. Rather than trying to alter your responses or become even more patient, it is time to teach your students some practical alternatives to turning to you as their first option when faced with a problem.

Practical Tips

The benefits of giving students practical strategies to solve problems without using you as the first point of assistance are numerous. The intention in providing other options is to allow students the opportunity to develop more self-reliance and self-confidence, the ability to take risks (no matter how small), promote a cooperative and interruption-free learning environment and also improve listening skills. As stated above, it will also reduce the pressure on you as the sole provider of solutions and explanations. Students should have the necessary skills to “have a good shot” at finding solutions to their problems and difficulties, without the teacher. For self-reliant strategies to have any chance at success, they should be taught, questioned, practiced and reviewed regularly. Strategies may be general, for use by all students, or can be individually tailored for students who regularly have specific difficulties. Strategies that individuals should try before asking directly for your help could include:

  • Can you find the answer somewhere in the room? Is there relevant information on the white board, display, or in a textbook that you can access?
  • Could you ask another student? (Do your students have named “learning buddies”?)
  • Ask the other adult in the classroom (TA, etc).
  • Ask yourself: “What did I do last time?”
  • Get on with something else for a short time, and return to the problem after you have had a break.

You can probably think of many other possible solutions. Don’t forget to ask the students for their suggestions. It is worthwhile settling on no more than three possible strategies as a whole classroom strategy rather than giving endless lists of possibilities. It is important that whatever strategies or systems you agree on, they become the “way we do things in this classroom”. Make sure the system is taught to all the students and is reinforced both verbally (and rewarded when used) and non-verbally (have a permanent display of the techniques in your classroom and ensure that it is not just written but also includes some visual clues). When working well, students will become more self-sufficient and able problem solvers. Equally important, the pressure on you will be reduced and you will have more time to teach, scan, monitor and evaluate. Overall your teaching and learning environment will become efficient, interruption free and enjoyable!

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2007

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