Educational professionals must learn to positively affect the attitude and behaviour of their students, and encourage compliance, by making their requests polite at the same time as making it clear that they are instructions to be carried out

Just as non-verbal signals can be influential in your behaviour-management strategies, (eye contact, hand movement, stance, speed of approach, etc), so are your key verbal messages. As the leader in the classroom it is imperative that your verbal messages should be clear and assertive, without becoming hostile. However, an overriding emphasis on politeness and a constant attempt to keep the dialogue non-threatening, could make your verbal communication ineffective and will appear weak, almost pleading. That is not to say you should not be modelling a polite approach, but polite needn’t mean passive.

Admittedly using the word “please” does denote a sense of politeness. But a clear instruction, complete with a final “thank you” gives the pupil a clear and polite message of what you expect together with your expectation that the pupil will comply with your instruction. Effective behaviour management dialogue should be based on unambiguous instruction and expectation rather than a pleading question (in the hope that the pupil might comply).

Take some time over the next couple of days to listen to colleagues’ dialogue with pupils. Make a note of the number of times colleagues use a question to direct the pupil’s behaviour.

  • “Come on, John, will you please get on now?”
  • “Katy, please, how many times do I have to tell you to…”
  • “Right, you two, will you move away from the window please?”

Note how often your colleague uses the word “please”. It’s also worth noting the non-verbal signals that are being used. Passive signals are usually reinforced by open palms, looking upwards and sighing, while hostile signals are often accompanied by tension, speed of movement, etc.

It is very important at this stage to also monitor the effectiveness of the technique:

  • Did the pupil comply?
  • How many times was the instruction given before the pupil complied?
  • What did it feel like when your colleague used a passive or hostile technique presented as a question?
  • Did a dialogue ensue?
  • Did other pupils join in with this dialogue?

The above monitoring will give you an idea of how effective your colleagues are in managing “on- and off-task” behaviour. If you are really brave, ask a colleague to monitor your own style over a two-day period.

When evaluating your results, pay particular attention to the format of your behaviour-management language. Do you give clear instructions or do you constantly ask questions?

Practical Tips
If you or your colleagues are constantly phrasing your behaviour-management tactics in the form of questions, or are finished using the word “please”, chances are it takes two or three (or more) requests for pupils to comply. Additionally, asking a question will more often than not result in a reply – a reply that you may not want!

The net result of this tactic will be your frustration, failure of pupils to comply with your directions, arguments and far too much off-task behaviour. Interestingly, such a situation will also attract the attention of the pupils who would normally be on-task. Before you know it, the two or three pupils who were failing to comply can quickly become a group of six, eight or ten. In other words the situation has become significantly worse. Turn things around by combining all your tried and tested techniques with a more direct, non-passive style.

When giving an instruction related to behaviour, use proximity, vocal tone and volume, and the names of the pupils together with the words “You need to” or “I need you to”. By using this as an initial phrase, you cannot make a question of your request. You will also give a clear instruction of what is required of the pupil. “You need to” will automatically lead you into the exact description of your expectation.

“John, you need to stop bothering your neighbour and start work right now – thanks.”

The above does not include a question, and so does not require a verbal response from the pupil. It is a clear assertive statement indicating exactly what is expected and finally the “thanks” relays an expectation of compliance.

By comparison:

“For goodness sake! John! How many more times? Get on, will you, please?”

This statement contains no clear instruction, and moves from a passive comment towards a hostile one. There is a strong chance that you will get an unwanted reply from the student (“No!” or “Just a minute!” or “Why?”). The final “please” in the comment confirms the pleading effect. Chances of compliance? Low!

There are plenty of opportunities in the teaching and learning environment for discussion. When it comes to behaviour-management it is perhaps better to restrict these opportunities and focus more directly on what you expect from the pupil. Without asking questions your behaviour instructions will be clear, supportive, polite and effective.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2008

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.