Are you constantly reacting to poor behaviour? Then it’s time to change your approach from tackling it to preventing it, says Dave Stott

If you feel that you are constantly ‘firefighting’, ie having to react to poor behaviour rather than focusing on teaching and learning, then it’s time to change your mindset and your approach.

There is no doubt that inappropriate or challenging behaviour in the classroom is unacceptable. However, changing that unacceptable behaviour and creating an environment which focuses on teaching and learning requires a proactive approach.

‘We need to focus and really start to tackle these behaviour problems,’ is a statement often used in staff and departmental meetings. But the very acceptance that poor behaviour is taking place puts you on a negative footing and reduces the likelihood of your focusing on positive and proactive management styles.

Rewards and sanctions are not enough

The reward and sanction systems that are in place in many schools and classrooms are an essential tool for recognising good behaviour and responding to poor behaviour. However, if your overall aim is to significantly reduce the number of behaviour incidents, then rewards and sanctions alone will not succeed.

A typical class group will consist broadly of three major groups: the ‘perfects’ (often not the largest group), the really difficult (again, not the largest group) and finally the ‘could go either way’ (this is usually the largest group!).

Tackling the really difficult group and their behaviour simply shifts all your attention onto the negative and gives too much emphasis to the behaviour you do not want. The result is often that the ‘perfects’ remain the same, but gain little or no recognition for their good behaviour, the ‘really difficult’ get the majority of your attention and continue their unacceptable behaviour and the ‘could go either way’ group decide to have a bit of your attention, thus increasing the size of the really difficult group.

If your class is as finely balanced as the description above then it will not take too much movement within the three groups before a major shift occurs and the behaviour of the total group is tipped over the edge. This often results in your having to up your game and ‘tackle’ even greater behaviour problems.

Practical tips

To avoid this ever increasingly difficult situation, you need to focus on prevention. If you can reduce the number of unacceptable incidents and refocus on teaching and learning, using your reward systems for appropriate behaviour, then the ‘could go either way’ group will recognise and respond to your clear boundaries.

Change your focus

Instead of dwelling on the number of behaviour incidents and trying to work out ways of how to tackle the problem, change your focus and concentrate on what kind of behaviour and ‘on task’ activities you want and how to achieve this.

Lessons need to be at least good. They should be well-paced and offer the right amount of interest and challenge. All staff, especially NQT’s and staff new to the school should be supported and inducted into the positive ethos. Pupils who are inspired and actively involved in the learning process are far less likely to opt for the ‘really difficult’ group.

Use your school-wide and classroom policies to prevent problems occurring. For example, have a strong emphasis on punctuality, with associated rewards, ensure the whole environment is litter and graffiti free, have sufficient staff on duty to ensure the corridors and outside spaces are calm and sociable and that staff interact with pupils not just during lesson times but at break and lunchtime.

Speak to staff – usually support staff – who see pupils in a variety of teaching and learning situations and find out how your colleagues interact with pupils you find troublesome. Lead by example, making yourself a role model for both verbal and non-verbal behaviour.

To help build good relationships between staff and pupils, thus reducing behaviour problems, show that you are prepared to listen to pupil views and ideas rather than trying to overcome problems. Circle-time activities and school council will play a leading role in this approach.

An effective management style

Whilst concentrating on prevention and a positive style it should also be a ‘given’ that incidents are not left unchallenged and responded to. A proactive style of prevention that cultivates an it’s OK to be good culture will be a very effective management style in reducing the number of challenging incidents and will most certainly move the ‘could go either way’ group towards the ‘perfects.’  

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2012

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.