How can you make positive changes to the behaviour of pupils who are not disruptive but are not engaged with the learning process?

This issue looks at the problems caused by pupils who are constantly off-task, but not overtly disruptive: how, if not proactively addressed, their behaviour can have a negative effect on peers, be the source of constant frustration for you, and if not dealt with can quickly disengage the pupil from the learning process.

Often seated by a window, playing with a phone or close to some other form of distraction, the off-task pupil can happily while away lessons paying little or no attention to what is going on, and will eventually require more of your attention to clarify, reinforce or explain the activity or lesson content.

Admittedly, there could be a very strong temptation, when the class group contains other more disruptive or challenging pupils, to take the stance of: ‘if he/she is not bothering me, then I won’t bother him/her!’ You choose to ignore the pupil on the basis that there are more pressing problems concerning the overtly disruptive behaviour of other pupils in the class. In other words, by failing to address the issue, you demonstrate to all the pupils that you are prepared only to deal with those who are either actively working and engaged with the lesson, or who cause you significant problems due to their unacceptable behaviour. Once again, as touched on in the last issue of Behaviour Matters, the middle group is left to their own devices.

The obvious problem with this approach is that no one benefits. You become increasingly frustrated with the off-task behaviour and the need to constantly re-explain lesson content. Other pupils can quickly catch on that you are prepared to overlook some aspects of unacceptable behaviour and, perhaps more importantly, the target pupil continues to be disengaged with the group. So in recognition that all pupils should be encouraged and involved in all aspects of learning, how can you proactively change the behaviour of the not overtly disruptive, but not on task?

Practical Tips
The word used above is ‘proactively’. In other words your actions should be both positive and encouraging, trying to avoid a reactive response which can often result in the inappropriate use of sanctions, verbal reprimands and unnecessary attention.

Once again, it is important to not only be aware of low-level interventions, but to actually put them into practice. As well as reviewing the activities and content of what you are presenting for your pupils, ensuring high interest levels and differentiated content, be prepared to practise all of the proactive, low-level techniques that encourage and help to involve pupils in the learning process.

Techniques such as:

  • Involved introduction at the start of the lesson with mental warm-ups, questions and introductions.
  • Carefully thought-out and pre-planned seating arrangements which avoid the need to move pupils when problems occur: on the basis that trying to move a non-disruptive pupil can cause even more problems!
  • Use well rehearsed low-level interventions to bring students back on task.
  • Physical proximity: continue teaching but reposition yourself closer to the off-task pupil. With this technique there is no need to even use names or actions – just the awareness of you being closer is often enough to change behaviour.
  • ‘Proximity praise’: give recognition to those pupils close to the target child who are on-task and involved. Don’t forget to say why you are giving positive recognition to their behaviour.
  • Use the off-task pupil’s name during any verbal instructions you are giving to the whole group. Be very careful with your intonation and volume levels. As a proactive intervention, you do not want this technique to sound threatening or patronising.

Use pre-planned indicators with the off-task pupil. A thumbs-up when you catch his or her eye, a light tap of his/her table as you pass by or even a direct question will give a clear indication that you are ‘on their case’ but that you are prepared to remind and encourage rather than reprimand and threaten.

In addition to the simple but effective techniques outlined above, there is also the well proven method allocating responsibilities to difficult or off-task pupils. Regular tasks which the target pupil is expected to perform every lesson, such as giving out books, equipment or a review of the previous lesson, etc, are all proactive and effective strategies to ensure that all pupils, even the ‘not overtly disruptive, but not on task’, will adopt appropriate styles of behaviour and be actively engaged in the learning process.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 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.