Students can sometimes find it difficult to maintain their engagement in group activities, especially if their own self-image or confidence is poor. How can your questioning and positive verbal leading empower students to continue their involvement and reduce the likelihood of unacceptable behaviour?

While some students can be a source of annoyance and disruption by constantly shouting out answers to your questions, there will be some students who are most reluctant to take the risk of offering an answer during a group activity. A lack of self-confidence or a simple lack of knowledge may be the reason, but for many students, they do not want to be seen as failures, especially in front of their peers.

The type of questions you ask, and your response to their answers or comments, are absolutely critical. If they get the question right and you use appropriate praise, then self-image and confidence will receive a huge boost. A wrong answer and a closed or dismissive response from you can lead, at best, to the student’s disengagement with the process, and at worst, the start of a whole process of disruption and challenging behaviour.

‘Positive leading’ is a verbal technique to engage, motivate and positively recognise student contributions to group or class discussions. It involves using open rather than closed questions, and giving positive feedback to students’ responses rather than simply telling them that they are right or wrong (see ‘Practical tips’ section, below).

Throughout the day there will be numerous occasions and opportunities to develop positive leading dialogue with students. These include:

  • meet and greet time (the start of the school day)
  • the start or introductory session of the lesson
  • question and answer sessions to promote interest and engagement in the activity
  • questioning for clarification and understanding
  • plenary or review sessions
  • evaluations
  • one-to-one meetings.

To simply focus on the student giving you the correct answer will undoubtedly lead to closed questions. In other words, the student can feel that there are only two options when attempting to answer a question: getting it right or getting it wrong. Either way, this is an opportunity to engage, motivate and further stimulate thoughts and ideas. Your responses can either shut down any further involvement or promote misconceived self-worth – or, when using positive leading, deepen the students’ involvement with the learning process.

Students who are involved and motivated are generally less likely to become involved in off-task or disruptive behaviour.

Practical tips
Try to avoid closed questioning, which only needs a one-word or short-phrase answer. The reasons for your questioning should be manifold:

  1. To check knowledge and understanding of concept or facts.
  2. To seek personal viewpoints on a subject.
  3. To reinforce what has already been covered.
  4. To engage all the learners in the teaching and learning process.

There is a distinct possibility that closed questioning and involvement of only those who know the answer will alienate students who are lacking in confidence or unwilling to take a risk and increase disengagement of those who want an easy ride through your lesson.

Throughout your discussion and question/answer sessions, remember to use positive phrases and statements. Try not to give a flat ‘that’s wrong!’ style of reply. Positive leading requires you to acknowledge the effort that the student has made to offer an answer or suggestion and then to move them forward in their thinking on the subject. Here are some examples:

  • ‘That’s a really interesting answer, Nathan, I can see where you are coming from. Have you though about it from another point of view?’
  • ‘What do you think, Katy? OK, that’s good, now see if you can develop that thought.’

Obviously you need to maintain good control over your verbal and non-verbal language. Intonation, stance, volume and facial expression will all contribute to your positive leading techniques.

Effective use of positive leading will generate lively debate and a learning opportunity which will not simply reinforce the learning and knowledge, but also strengthen student involvement, self-worth and peer approval. For some students it may be helpful to have an initial individual conversation before the group or class sessions to forewarn them of some of the questions which might arise. This gives them the opportunity to prepare for the social situation they will find within the classroom, as well as thinking about suitable wording and so on.

Positive leading can be seen as a proactive technique for managing behaviour. It utilises all the social and emotional aspects of learning by promoting:

  • self-awareness
  • managing feelings
  • motivation
  • empathy
  • social skills.

Build confidence, restore or promote engagement with the lesson and reduce off-task and disruptive behaviour without using levels of consequence or sanctions by using positive leading in all your dialogue with students.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2010

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.