Effective behaviour management policies and strategies are based on clarity, inevitability and consistency. This article draws attention to the problem of not meaning what you say when implementing policy

Below are two classic examples of adults not meaning what they say, and thus demonstrating to students (and/or their own children!) that they are not quite in control of the situation. Using threats, even if unintended, will generally have a negative effect on behaviour, and in some circumstances will increase or escalate the unwanted behaviour.

Example one (at home):

‘Right, that’s just not acceptable, I don’t know what you were thinking! You’re grounded for the week!’

After a few minutes of reflection on what you have actually said to your child, the thought begins to form: ‘Who am I punishing here?’ Realising that to ground your child for a week could mean the possibility of seven long days and evenings of him or her being in the house nonstop, unhappy, away from friends and generally making a nuisance of him/herself. At that point you begin to think about what you have said, realise the consequences and decide to relent: ‘OK then, you’re grounded for the day, but if you do it again then…!’ There you go, here comes another threat!

Example two (at school):

‘Right, that’s it, I’m not wasting my time continually asking you to get on with your work! Come and see me at breaktime. Got it? Staffroom, break, and don’t forget!’

Breaktime comes and there is a knock on the staff room door: ‘Yes? Well, I’m having my break now so I haven’t got time to see you!’

The message you have given to the pupil is you are not prepared to back up what you say. He or she learns that in spite of whatever has happened, there is no consequence.

It is not always easy to recognise or even hear yourself using threats. Perhaps this is something you could evaluate with your pupils. Try to work out how often you use comments such as:

  • ‘I don’t want to get angry!’
  • ‘I’m going to have to let Mr/Mrs… know about this!’
  • ‘We’ll see what your mother/father thinks about that!’
  • ‘See me at the end of the lesson!’

How many of the above comments do you actually follow up? How many comments do you really intend to follow up and how many do you really believe will actually make a positive change to their behaviour?

Practical Tips

To eliminate threats from your verbal comments when managing challenging behaviour means not simply being aware of the words you are using, but also being fully prepared and planned in your styles of approach. There is far more chance of you using threats (comments you are not prepared to back up) when you are unplanned, flustered or facing a challenge to your management style and authority.

A top tip to help you eliminate the use of verbal threats is: when faced with a serious challenge or a difficult situation, say nothing at first. In fact, your initial response may well appear to be nothing in either word or action. Tip two is clearly: in such a situation, don’t do nothing for long!

Use the first few moments of such a situation to make an assessment of the following:

a) Calm yourself. Remember, the first person who needs to calm down in a challenging situation is you! (Deep breath, self-talk, calm stance, personal space etc.)b) Go over in your mind your planned response, focusing on both verbal and non-verbal language.

c) Assess the particular situation: who is the student involved and what is your knowledge of/relationship with them? Who else is watching/listening? What is the appropriate next stage in your agreed hierarchy of school/class behaviour policy? What is the likely outcome of your chosen response? Are you prepared to carry out what you are going to say?

The three points above may seem, on first reading, an impossible list of preparatory thoughts/comments, but with practice and reminders it is possible to do it mentally within those couple of seconds of doing nothing before you make any comment to the student in question. Focusing on the three points will stop you being immediately drawn into a conversation or confrontation with the student in which you may well use a threat as a means of attempting to control the situation.

Any form of behaviour management is dependent on consistency, appropriate practical use and, by no means least, the inevitability of your responses. Students need to know you will always be consistently fair, that you will demonstrate calmness and self-control and that you really do mean what you say. Verbal threats will have a totally negative effect on all these areas and will simply encourage students to further test your styles of response and your own self-control.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 2009

About the author: Dave Stott has nearly 30 years’ teaching experience including seven years as a headteacher. He has worked in mainstream and special schools and Local Authority Behaviour Support Services, and is now a writer, consultant and trainer.