Whatever the reason, if you are using or issuing a warning, both you and the student must be fully aware of what the warning indicates

We have probably all either said it, or thought it, at some time or other: ‘Right, this is your last warning!’ or ‘I’m warning you!’

What exactly do we mean by such comments? What are we warning the student of? Does the statement really mean anything, or are we just saying something while desperately thinking of what to try next with a particularly difficult student? Whatever the reason, if you are using or issuing a warning, both you and the student must be fully aware of what the warning indicates.

  • What is the behaviour that has caused you to use a warning?
  • How many warnings are you prepared to issue?
  • If this is the last warning, what happens next?
  • What happened last time you used a warning?

Warnings are given in various forms, some more effective than others. The warning which is yelled across a noisy classroom, added to a withering glare, is likely to have little or no effect on the student, but will certainly increase your stress levels. It will simply increase your heart rate and scramble your thoughts. Any possibility of a clear, calm and structured response, allowing the student to make a better choice about his or her behaviour is now highly unlikely. The structured and proactive use of a warning should allow you not only to reinforce your rules, boundaries or expectations, but should also present you with the opportunity to remain calm and remind the student of his or her choices. Remember that for positive behaviour management, the first person who needs to calm down is you. Volume and tone of voice, body posture and facial expression together with proximity to the student are just as important as the content of your warning. An effective warning need not necessarily be a verbal warning. In fact you may decide to use ‘the look’ as the first level in your structured and proactive approach. If you are not sure what I mean by ‘the look’ then try to observe an assembly where all the students are seated in the main body of the school hall or dining room, with the teaching staff seated (usually on chairs) down the sides of the room. Watch the staff carefully; within minutes you will see examples of ‘the look’ being used, sometimes effectively, sometimes with a child who simply refuses to engage eye contact.

Practical Tips

If you are to use warnings as an effective proactive strategy in managing behaviour, you must take some time to prepare and structure how they will be used. Consider the following:

  • Proximity to the student: move in to the student without invading their personal space, using their name to attract attention and possibly gain eye contact.
  • Be aware of your voice. It should be clear, positive and non- threatening. Do not fall into the trap of using a negative tone or style.
  • Be absolutely clear in your own mind what your next step will be if the warning goes unheeded.
  • The content of your warning should form a reminder of what the student should be doing (thus reinforcing your rules), and also what to expect if the student fails to comply.
  • How many warnings are you prepared to use? Only one would probably be insufficient to allow the student to consider their behaviour and to make a choice, whereas more than three will appear to be nagging or passive. In other words the student continues to ‘test’ you and discovers that in fact you do not mean what you say. As a rule of thumb, three clear and specific warnings should be used before considering the next stage of your proactive strategies.

Once you have moved in to the student, and you have calmed yourself down (if necessary), state exactly what is causing the problem: ‘John, I can see you are having trouble with this work, but I can’t allow you to keep interrupting your neighbour.’ If a warning is to be issued, it should also be accompanied by a clear instruction of what the student should be doing. Do not phrase this as a question and always end with the expectation that the student is going to comply, ie use the word ‘thanks’ at the end of your statement rather than ‘please’, which tends to imply that you are pleading with them to comply. ‘You need to stop bothering your neighbour and get on with your own work right now. This is your first warning, you need to get on right now, thanks.’ All the students need to know you are operating a three warning system and both you and your students should know exactly what the next step will be if they choose to ignore your warnings.

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This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2007

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.