Look after yourself and you’ll be in better shape to help your pupils. Phil Craig suggests eight strategies

A few years ago, I heard Simon Cusworth, an educational psychologist, talking at a conference about a concept he referred to as ‘selfish altruism’. He said the first priority for all teachers was to look after their own emotional, physical and psychological well-being. If they were able to do that successfully, then they would be better placed to be ‘altruistic’ towards their pupils. Conversely, if teachers are constantly stressed by the inappropriate or challenging behaviour of their pupils, then they are likely to react in ways that will actually escalate situations rather than calm them. The end result of this is that the process damages both teacher and pupil, creating lose-lose situations rather than the win-win ones that we want to achieve.

This concept of selfish altruism makes sense to many teachers and support staff in schools. The simple fact is that if we become involved in situations that develop into confrontations, we damage not only the pupil, but ourselves as well.

When talking about behaviour management in the classroom, Alistair Smith (1) says that pupils need to know:

  • who is in charge?
  • what are the rules?
  • are the rules applied fairly and consistently?
  • what are the consequences of breaking the rules and/or adhering to the rules?

That’s the ‘what’ of behaviour management in the classroom. Quite simple really, isn’t it? However, the ‘how’ is much more difficult to accomplish. It’s my belief that implementing many of the strategies of positive behaviour management espoused by colleagues such as Bill Rogers, Alistair Smith, Andy Vass, Trevor Hawes, Sue Roffey and Sue Cowley, will make the ‘how’ a lot easier to achieve. In fact, these strategies are the very foundations of selfish altruism.

It is estimated that over 20 per cent of teachers leave education within the first three years of qualifying and up to 50 per cent within five years (Roffey2, 2004). Many of these teachers cite the poor behaviour of their pupils as one of the principal reasons for their departure. For that reason alone, it is plain to see that effective and positive behaviour management in schools is a very important issue for all concerned with the future of education, not only in this country but elsewhere, because this crisis in teacher retention is mirrored in the USA, Australia and many other European countries.

What then are the key concepts in achieving ‘selfish altruism’?

It’s not personal – so don’t bite!

A good beginning is to tell yourself that it’s not personal. Easier said than done, I hear you say, but it really is true. Very, very rarely is it personal. When a pupil has lost control in the ‘immediate emotional moment’ (as Bill Rogers calls it) he or she is telling authority (because that’s what you represent), the school, the world to ‘get lost’ (that’s the polite version) – not you! If the problem you’re facing is just general, low-level misbehaviour, then it’s a case of pupils testing the limits. Again, it’s not personal – it’s just what pupils do. The important thing is not to bite. If you do, then you break Alistair Smith’s first rule about the teacher being in charge. In the classroom, only one person can be in charge and it’s got to be the teacher. If we react badly, we have lost control twice – of ourselves and of the class. We have shown them how easily we can be wound up and isn’t that entertaining for the rest of the class? Additionally, we have raised our own stress levels and damaged at least two people in the process.

A really good example of ‘not biting’ came from a teacher in a Bradford secondary school. A pupil had said to her, for no apparent reason, ‘Miss, why are you so fat’? She would normally have gone ballistic with the pupil. However, this time some-thing inside her clicked into gear and she heard herself say to the pupil, ‘You know, Jack, I’ve often asked myself the same question. I go to the gym, I try to eat sensibly but I still can’t seem to shift the weight’. The pupil was shell-shocked by her response and blurted out an immediate apology. This was not the response he had expected from her and, as a result, she had created a win-win situation out of something that could have spiralled out of control. She also reported that she had felt ‘powerful’, in control of the situation and that this interaction had marked a turning point in her relationship with the pupil.

Allied to this strategy is ‘partial agreement’. Support staff in schools frequently report responses from pupils such as ‘You’re not a teacher’. Partial agreement requires them to respond with something like, ‘Absolutely correct, Kyle, I’m not a teacher, but I am a lunchtime supervisor (or what-ever the correct title is) and I am responsible for your behaviour during the lunchtime period’. Again, the secret is not to ‘bite’ and risk escalating any situation into a lose-lose one. This strategy works at all levels because teachers, and even senior managers in schools, also get retorts such as ‘You’re not the headteacher’.

Is it an eight or is it a two?

McGee (2001) proposes that when something negative happens in your life, give it a score out of ten, where nine or ten is really, really serious and two or three is much less so. He adds that when something happens today that you would score as an eight, nine or ten, ask yourself, ‘Will it still be that important in six months time or even next week?’ Hence, if a pupil does not respond in an appropriate way to you, ask yourself immediately, ‘Is this an eight or is it a two?’ You’ll find this strategy also works very well at home with your own children or even, dare I say it, your partner!

Rules rule

Alistair Smith’s second question about classroom management is whether or not pupils know what’s expected of them? He states that they need to know the class rules in order to comply with them. Every classroom should have the classroom rules on the wall in print big enough to be read by everyone in the class. Additionally, the language used on the poster should be the language of inclusion eg ‘In our class, we will keep hands, feet and objects to ourselves’. As well as governing everyone (adults as well) in the classroom, how many misdemeanours does that one rule cover?

The important point about rules is that pupils should be involved in the making of them and, once they have been decided upon, they need to be constantly reinforced with reminders. Otherwise, they get forgotten and become redundant. Additionally, when a pupil asks, ‘What have I done?’, it’s much more effective to point to a rule on the wall and say, ‘We all have a rule about keeping objects to ourselves (name of child), and I expect you to comply with it’.

Admit you’re fallible

Pupils like teachers who are human. When a situation has not ended in the way you would have hoped for (eg when a student has had to exit the classroom in a previous lesson), it’s okay to begin your follow-up with something like this: ‘Maybe I didn’t handle that situation in the best way that I could have, Saied, but in order to prevent this happening again, this is what I need you to do in the future’.

Sometimes you have to lose the odd battle in order to win the war

As a teacher, it’s sometimes easy to slip into the frame of mind whereby you can’t be seen to be wrong – or be seen to ‘lose’ in interactions with pupils. This is where we can inadvertently react to the ‘secondary behaviours’ of pupils and not focus on the primary reason for the interaction. For example, reacting badly to a pupil’s poor body language when they are doing (unwillingly) what you are asking of them, is a classic example. What do we seriously expect of them in this situation? They’re doing something that they really don’t want to do: do we really expect them to be (and look) happy about it? We’ve got to realise that the pouting and sulking is their ‘battle’ (their little bit of victory) after the ‘war’ has been lost.

Rewards are more powerful than sanctions – choice is the key!

In any school, the reward system is much more important than that of sanctions. Ridiculous as it sounds, I have had very difficult sixteen year olds almost turning cartwheels for a positive letter or even a phone call home, telling parents how well they were doing. However, no matter how good the reward system is in a school, unfortunately there will always be occasions when sanctions are needed. The key to effective sanctions is that they are ‘certain’ rather than ‘severe’. I believe that sanctions have to be perceived by the pupils as an irritating inconvenience.

For example, if a pupil is consistently off-task and not working during a lesson, then I think it is perfectly legitimate to say something like, ‘I need you to finish this piece of work during this lesson, Natasha. You’ve got 20 minutes left. If you don’t choose to finish it during class time, then you’re choosing to finish it during break/ lunchtime/after school. It’s your choice. I’ll let you think about it’. You then walk away, expect the pupil to be compliant and give him or her what Bill Rogers calls ‘take-up time’. You are not challenging and you matter-of-factly and unemotionally state the consequence. The important issue here is not to bluff. If the pupil doesn’t finish the work during class time, then he or she must finish it in his or her own time. The powerful message is that, if the pupil does not make the right choice, the teacher can say, ‘Natasha, you chose to miss your break’.

Use the collective power of the organisation: you are not alone!

All schools are powerful institutions. Don’t forget that fact. If you are struggling with a difficult individual or class, don’t suffer in silence. Tell someone. Members of the senior management team have a duty of care to all staff in their school and if you are really struggling with an individual pupil or class, then seek advice and support from one of them. If you are reluctant to involve a senior manager straight away, seek advice from a colleague you trust and respect. The worst thing you can do is to bottle it up and hope the problem goes away, because it won’t!

If you are struggling with a difficult individual or class, don’t suffer in silence.

Cherishing and cultivating your life outside school is, to me, the core of selfish altruism. Look after yourself first and be in a better state of mind to help your pupils. Some teachers feel guilty if they think they’re putting their own interests before those of their pupils, but McGee writes that ‘guilt’ needs to be re-defined as:

  • Give yourself
  • Uninterrupted
  • Indulgent
  • Leisure and pleasure
  • Time at least twice a week

Feedback from teachers who have adopted the principles of ‘selfish altruism’ has been very positive. Many have reported reduced stress levels both at work and at home, including comments from one colleague, ‘I wish I’d known all this 20 years ago. I could have saved myself, my pupils and my own family an awful lot of stress’.

What I’ve described above is only the start of a different way of thinking about the demands of behaviour management. Good luck and have fun! TEX



  1. Alistair Smith, Accelerated Learning in Practice, Stafford: Network Educational Press, 1998
  2. Sue Roffey, The New Teacher’s Survival Guide to Behaviour, London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 2004
  3. B Rogers, Classroom Behaviour, London: Paul Chapman Publishing 2002
  4. P McGee, 59 Minutes to a Calmer Life, Reading: Cox & Wyman, 2001

Phil Craig is Head of Service for Pupils with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties for Kirklees LEA. He has taught in mainstream and special schools in Britain and Canada and has lectured in both countries. He delivers training in positive behaviour management to colleagues in schools, colleges, universities, scout leaders and even office workers who have to deal with difficult customers.

Reproduced with permission of ‘Special’ Magazine.