Pupils need not only to hear your instructions but also to process and understand what is required. Dave Stott looks at techniques for ensuring they understand and comply with what you are asking them to do

As many of us are only too aware, some pupils are just looking for an opportunity to avoid engagement with an activity and will claim not to have heard or understood.

This can happen even when you seem to have gained the attention of the whole class and have been clear in your delivery of instructions. Such students may then go on to disrupt you or other members of the class.

This invariably leads to your needing to repeat the instructions, answer constant queries or  manage further behaviour problems such as disturbing others, answering back and/or being generally ‘off task’.

This is not true only of group situations. It can often occur when you speak to an individual pupil. He or she may not be concentrating on the conversation or may even be having problems in processing the information. Rather than going down the negative route by focusing on their reluctance to comply or their apparent failure to hear and understand, it may be necessary to differentiate the manner in which you give the instruction and/or information.

Simple techniques to ensure the pupil has heard and understood what you have said can quickly and easily avert any possible escalation of disruption. Techniques such as:

  •  gaining attention
  •   tactical ignoring
  •   rephrasing your instructions
  •   checking for understanding
  •   involving a third party

will help pupils get to grips with what is being said and what is expected of them.

Here are some practical tips to avoid the inevitable time wasting, questioning, constant reminding and possible challenging or disruptive behaviour.

Practical Tips 

Gaining attention: If you do not have the attention of the individual pupil, or the group of pupils, then it is unlikely that they will either hear or understand what is required. Consider teaching all pupils how you will ask for their attention. Your technique should then be taught in just the same way that you would teach any other part of the curriculum: teach the skill/technique, check for understanding, give the opportunity to practice the skill, repeat and consistently reinforce the technique.

Tactical ignoring: Some pupils may simply need a little extra time to process and apply the instructions they have received. Be prepared to give these pupils a small amount of time/leeway to comply rather than expecting an immediate reaction. In some cases it may be necessary, for a moment, to ignore their initial response. This technique may seem a rather passive approach and may, if used for an extended period, lead to further disruption and escalation. However, to give the pupil a moment or two rather than immediately following up your instruction with a negative comment or ‘look’ will help to maintain a low-level approach to your management. It is important not to allow the ‘tactical’ ignoring to become simply ‘ignoring’.

Rephrasing/checking for understanding: Before giving instructions, think carefully about the phrasing and verbal content. If you use language which the pupil/s cannot understand, or you give the instruction when you have not got their attention, then expect a failure to comply.

Understanding is not simply related to the actual content of the instruction, it is also important to consider physical proximity. It may be necessary for you to move closer to the pupil who is likely to misunderstand before speaking. Also, consider using the pupil’s name, and even asking them to repeat back what has just been said. For some pupils, the use of key words or phrases and ‘secret’ signals can also help to focus their attention.

Involving a third party: Focusing too much attention on a particular pupil can have a negative effect on their ability to understand and comply. They may view your persistent attention as being too intrusive and feel you are ‘picking’ on them. Try involving others at crucial times – check for understanding with other pupils in the group even though you are confident they have heard and understood.

Finally, to fully reinforce any of the above tips and techniques, it is important to use positive recognition with any pupils who are having difficulty in complying with instructions. Pupils who do listen, demonstrate an understanding and respond to instructions should receive reinforcement via your positive praise and reward. A simple ‘well done’, ‘thanks’ or even a thumbs-up will help to reinforce and differentiate your instructions.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 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.