This e-bulletin focuses on the best way to start a lesson, pointing out the value of praising pupils’ appropriate behaviour and ignoring that which is inappropriate; rather than admonishing and therefore highlighting the latter

Picture the scene:

It is first thing in the morning (or straight after the lunch break). You have had a dozen things to sort out, messages to deal with, and it is now the start of the lesson. As you approach your room you can hear the pupils already in the room and they are most certainly not ‘on task’.

Obviously, this scene is repeated numerous times in schools all over the country. The details may change slightly: pupils are waiting outside your room or you are there first and you can literally hear the approaching class group. Whatever the individual scene you are visualising, the chances are that your first interaction with the group, or an individual, may be a negative one:

‘Good morning, everyone, Erm… John! Turn around and stop talking and – yes you, Katie, that’s enough, put those things away now and face the front.’

All typical comments, which are sometimes effective, but the overriding message to the whole group is one of negativity. It’s not just what you say that has a strong message; your verbal comments are usually also reinforced by non-verbal signals:

  • Pointing finger
  • Negative facial expression
  • Sighing
  • Hands on hips
  • Clapping hands together
  • Dropping books/worksheets/pencil loudly on to your desk.

Using this tactic over a period of time will not only set the wrong atmosphere in the room, but will actually ‘train’ the pupils into expecting to be corrected before the lesson can begin. There will be almost a feeling of expectation that you need to correct, criticise or remind, before anyone pays attention and begins to comply.

Starting on a negative note will likewise have an adverse effect on your own expectations, and these negative thoughts/feelings will in turn drive you to further negative comments and behaviour.

The challenge for many staff is to overcome the natural instinct to spotlight the inappropriate behaviour and to recognise and praise the acceptable behaviour.

Practical tips
Starting on a positive note requires more than simply saying the right words (although verbal comments will form a strong basis for the effectiveness of your strategy).

There may be many obstructing factors that you may not be able to alter, which could affect your ‘positive start’ strategy:

  • Timetable restrictions may mean you simply cannot be at the room before the pupils
  • Bad weather can adversely affect pupil behaviour, particularly after the lunch break
  • Other factors may have affected your overall mood.

If the above factors are an obstacle, or even if they are not, it is important to focus on the positive, using all possible ‘props’:

  • Body language
  • Tone of voice
  • Volume of voice
  • Knowledge of pupils
  • Use a planned approach.

No matter what atmosphere exists in the room when you enter/approach, or whatever the overall behaviour of the pupils is, focus on the positive.

Make an effort to spot the pupil or pupils who are on task/behaving appropriately/following your expectations. When you see a pupil complying:

  • Use their name
  • Make a positive comment
  • Highlight the behaviour.

Highlighting the behaviour you expect from your class not only rewards the individual pupil, but also reinforces your expectations to the others in the group.

‘Good morning, everyone, great, well done John, you’re looking this way. Excellent Katie, you’ve got your books out.’

Comments such as the above, when accompanied by an encouraging look/smile and even physical contact with the pupil’s desk/table is a very powerful tactic to reward the on-task pupils, together with a positive reminder to all the rest.

Linked to the positive comments and body language is also the need to move closer to the pupils. Trying to deliver a ‘positive start’ message from behind your desk, or while standing at the door, is unlikely to be as successful as delivering the comment in close proximity to the named pupil. The added technique of proximity-praise will be equally powerful for the off-task students: i.e., naming the pupil and labelling their appropriate behaviour will also have a positive effect on the behaviour of those around him/her.

Using a ‘positive start’ to the lesson/day gives you the best possible opportunity to turn around any negativity you may be feeling and provides you with a means to reward, reinforce and build relationships with all the pupils, while setting a firm foundation in making good behavioural choices for the rest of the lesson.

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.