Heavy-handed responses to low-level disruption run the risk of turning a small problem into a big one. Dave Stott suggests some less formal and more appropriate ways to respond

Low-level disruption in the classroom not only interrupts pupils’ learning but can also distract you from teaching. How can you deal with the problem without the heavy handedness of staged sanctions, which may just escalate the situation?

The definition of low-level disruption can be subjective. What one person interprets as low-level disruption may not even be an issue for another. For the purpose of this article we can classify low-level disruption as behaviours which are not overtly confrontational or challenging, but which nevertheless disrupt the teaching and learning environment, such as:

  • late arrival to lesson
  • persistent chattering or whispering
  • daydreaming
  • lack of correct equipment
  • out of seat
  • continuous questioning
  • tapping
  • fidgeting
  • eating.

As individual behaviours these do not represent high-level challenges. However, if they are allowed to continue, the concentration and learning of other pupils will be badly affected.

One of the problems in responding to such low-level disruptive behaviour is that it is very easy to overreact. If you currently use a staged system of sanctions within your school’s behaviour policy, you may well find yourself running through one, two or even three levels of response and finding that behaviour such as fidgeting or daydreaming is receiving a totally unrealistic sanction:

Teacher: ‘Mark, stop that noise and get on with your work.’
Mark: ‘It helps me to concentrate.’
Teacher: ‘Mark, that’s your first warning. You will have to stay behind for two minutes at the end of the lesson.’
Mark: ‘That’s not fair, I’m getting my work done!’
Teacher: ‘That’s a level two! Don’t keep answering back!’
Mark: ‘But George is wasting time too!’
Teacher: ‘OK, that was your second warning – you now have a lunchtime detention!’

Sticking rigidly to your behaviour plan does demonstrate consistency and show that you are not prepared to negotiate, but the problem with the above example is you have now escalated a simple issue of fidgeting into answering back and finally issued a lunchtime detention, probably involving your own time for supervision!

It is important to maintain your existing behaviour policy responses in terms of rewards and sanctions, but there is a clear need to have additional strategies and responses to manage the types of low-level disruptions which occur on a daily basis.

Practical Tips
As with many many practical tips offered to help manage difficult behaviour, the following may make you want to say:

  • That’s just common sense!
  • I already know that!
  • That’s nothing new!
  • That won’t work, especially not with my pupils. They’re far too difficult for that!

All of the above may be true. However, it is important not to dismiss suggestions which at first seem too simple or too obvious. If you take the time to try them, they may have quite dramatic positive effects on pupil behaviour. It is just a matter of remembering the tactic in the first place, and then using it with positive expectations.

The temptation, if you have a staged behaviour system in place, is to immediately resort to the levels of that system, with the end result as described above.

Here is a list of suggested responses to low-level disruption. As with all the best suggestions, they won’t work with all the pupils all of the time, but they will form a comprehensive addition to your ‘toolbox’ of strategies and may help to prevent an escalation of behaviour, or an escalation of your responses to that behaviour:

  • Meet and greet: Be at the door of the classroom before pupils to set the scene, welcome and remind pupils about expectations.
  • Positive language and use of praise: Catch pupils doing the right thing and verbally recognise this. You may also choose to use ‘secret’ or predetermined signals for target pupils.
  • Recognition: Name the pupil and their acceptable behaviour, ensuring the target pupil hears and sees the appropriate behaviour.
  • Proximity: Simply being closer to the target pupil will change his or her behaviour. Don’t remain stationary behind your desk or rooted at the front of the class. Be aware of personal space.
  • Use first names: When giving instructions, praise or any verbal comments be prepared to use first names.
  • Check for understanding: Ask questions of all pupils to ensure full understanding and to reinforce your expectations.
  • Responsibility: Give pupils who are prone to low-level disruption a post of responsibility within the classroom.
  • Rewards: Include positive comments, signals (thumbs up, etc) and ‘The Look’ as part of your reward systems. It is not always necessary to formalise the rewards as per the school system.
  • Pre-warned questions: Talk to the target pupils before the lesson/activity and warn them of the questions that are due to come up in discussion. Get them to work out answers prior to the discussion. They are then pre-warned and ready. Make sure you praise correct answers.
  • Avoid sarcasm: While some comments may seem appropriate to you at the time and are intended to be taken in a lighthearted manner, they can be very damaging to your relationship with pupils.
  • Avoid peer pressure: Comparing and judging behaviour between pupils will invariably lead to bad feelings and at worse confrontation.

These are just a few examples of low-level responses to low-level disruption. Used appropriately and proactively they can reduce any escalation of difficult behaviour without the need to resort to more formal responses and consequences.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2011

About the author: Dave Stott has 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools, and Local Authority behaviour support services. Dave is now a writer, consultant and trainer.