If I could go back in time, what behaviour management advice would I give to my NQT self?
Behaviour management, to me, is the thing that sets the school teacher apart from all the many and various other imparters of information. The rest – tutors, lecturers, instructors and so on – do not, or rarely, experience the same combination of circumstantial factors that the school teacher does. To be significantly outnumbered by students who have not been given the choice as to whether they’d like to be there or not (although, one would hope, they had since been persuaded to fully opt in to their education!) and, what’s more, they’re children… it could seem like the odds are stacked against you! I’m confident that the perceived ‘main thing’ that teachers do is, well… teach! In reality, no teaching will be effective until that behaviour is being managed. I don’t even mean the management of bad behaviour. Just the management of human behaviour… of human children behaviour! Effective behaviour management is crucial. And it would be much more straight forward, especially for those just starting out in the profession, if there was an acknowledged and 100% effective way of doing it… but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
I have blogged about behaviour management before (click here). About the importance of the behaviour management policy in ensuring social inclusion for the most vulnerable learners… and I stand by that; it’s important. However, with little notable difference between the policies of schools rated good/outstanding for behaviour by Ofsted and those rated inadequate/RI, and pockets of exceptional behaviour management in failing schools and examples of ineffective behaviour management – or, at least, practice that is open to debate – in those deemed to be successful; clearly it is neither the behaviour management policy nor the judgement of Ofsted that is the be all and end all of effectively managing behaviour.
Things are about to get personal.
Because it is personal. Perhaps more so than any other aspect of being a teacher – pedagogy, management and teamwork, pastoral – none are affected by personality so much as behaviour management. Because, yeah; a strong behaviour management policy and an overall effective (according to Ofsted… not necessarily my favourite measure of success!) school are an essential basis, but there will always be diversity and disparity in how staff approach that. This isn’t, in my opinion, a problem. Surely the students deserve and benefit from having a varied experience across their school day. And, just like neither the Ofsted outcome nor the policy are, in isolation, the ‘answer’, neither is homogeneity of approach; the students will move on to live in a diverse and complex society. Any school will have their share of the “don’t smile ‘til Christmas” crew, the matey and jovial types, and everything in between… does effective behaviour management exist at one point on that spectrum and nowhere else? I don’t believe it does. So, are the issues and complexities of behaviour management (if we assume a strong behaviour management policy and a set of shared values) actually the issues and complexities of trying to strike a balance between expectation and your own personality, personal values and interpretation of that expectation? A delicate balancing act between consistency and individuality? Between parity and variety? Finding this balance – your own personal behaviour management sweet spot – in which learning can take place is, to me, the great skill of being a school teacher. The thing that sets it apart from other, similar, roles. But it’s also the thing that makes it really, really hard.
Which brings me back to my original question: if I could go back in time, what behaviour management advice would I give to my NQT self?
Somewhere in the overlapping space between the context, the shared values of society and my own personality, exists my behaviour management style. This isn’t about a piece of policy or an idea in a head… this is about managing behaviour when faced with the stark reality of the job; the room full of children. It is how I meet expectation whilst staying true to my own identity and values. It’s how I strive to strike a balance between consistency and variety for the students I teach. It’s what I wish I could tell my NQT self because it’s what I tell myself now, every day. Because I don’t necessarily think I’m achieving it… on a good day I hope I get close! But, generally, this list represents my aspiration as a manager of the behaviour of children. It’s the rule book i’ve given myself for setting the scene for learning in my classroom and it’s the self-administered mental admonishment I give myself when I get it wrong. These are the guidelines that exist in the space between expectation and my personality… it isn’t going to be the same for everyone but everyone, I think, will have their own version (and I’d love to hear them!). Not ‘behaviour management in the black box’, but ‘behaviour management in my black box’… here it is; my advice to my NQT and current behaviour manager self:
My Behaviour Management Top Ten
BE CLEAR – BE CONSISTENT – BE IN CONTROL – BE KIND
- Be crystal clear.
Lead with their name. Ensure that you’ve got their attention before you start imparting your wisdom or giving your instruction. Don’t use sarcasm, idiom, rhetoric or so on… say what you mean. Don’t use ‘please’ unless it’s a plea; use ‘thank you’ for expectations. Say why you’re doing something. If you can’t think of a reason why, then don’t do it.
- Draw your line and stick to it.
Children make mistakes in the grey area between the line you have drawn and the line you enforce. Once you’ve said something is going to happen it has to happen… so be careful what you say! No idle, excessive, unrealistic or non-intended ‘threats’…. Give clear, fair, REAL, causes and effects. If you say ‘no talking’ and then allow a bit of whispering as long as they’re getting on with it, and then on another day say ‘no talking’ and actually want them not to talk at all… how are they supposed to know the difference? If they talk in the second instance then that error is yours, not theirs. If they’re allowed to talk a bit, say so! If they’re not, enforce it. If you create a grey area between the instruction and the reality of the situation they will make mistakes within that uncertain space. And it will be your fault. And, what’s more, you’ve made yourself unreliable.
- Know when to not stick to it.
I’m reminded of a kid I used to teach, he was in year 8 at the time, who was the archetypal ‘class clown’, nothing bothered him, right old pain in the neck. Without the support of a strong behaviour management superstructure within that school… I had exhausted everything in my repertoire. I kept him back at the end of the lesson. He was not bothered. I gave detentions. He was not bothered. And then I informed him that I would ring home and speak to his dad. In an instant the tone of the situation had changed. He was crying, he was on his knees with hands clasped, imploring me – voice catching on each sob – not to ring his father. He’d behave himself. He was sorry. I didn’t know what his father might do if caught in the wrong mood. In that instant every interaction I’d ever had with that child flashed across my mind: the cocky swagger as he showed off a black eye or bruised lip and claimed that we should see the state of the other boy; that nothing could bother or hurt him – he was untouchable – he was devoid of remorse or self-care; that, despite all this, he had the most amazing attendance… he never missed an opportunity to be in school, no matter how badly it seemed to be going.
I had drawn my line.
I did not stick to it.
- Don’t get into a dialogue.
If the student has some say in what is happening then yes; have a conversation about it. If they don’t – if you, as the adult, have decided that things need to happen a certain way (silence in a test, safety in the classroom, non-optional tasks/homework, treatment of the other students et cetera)… then allowing a dialogue is giving them the false impression that they have some control. It’s undermining your own position of authority and it’s creating a grey area in which mistakes can be made. That isn’t fair.
- Never back a child into a corner.
The get out clause. No matter what’s happened, or how far a situation has escalated, there should always be a ‘way out’ for the child; there should always be the opportunity of a positive choice they can make in order to take back control and move on from the situation. This doesn’t mean that they ‘get away with it’… this means that they learn from it. Tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable and that the resultant sanction isn’t going to go anywhere. But also tell them what their options are for moving forward in a positive way. And, what’s more, once the sanction has been completed the slate is wiped clean.
- Give them a range of options (all of which you are happy with).
Being in control isn’t the same as being controlling. You’ve got to be in control; they’re young, there’s loads of them, and you’re responsible for their safety and well-being. But, within this, they also need to learn to be autonomous, independent and self-regulating. They can still have choice… genuine choice… just make sure all the options are acceptable to you!
- Winning an argument with an angry and upset child is NOT winning.
In spite of best endeavours you will sometimes end up in a heated confrontation with a student; they’re only human and you’re only human. It will – hopefully rarely – happen. Remind yourself; who in this situation has the power and control? Who is the most vulnerable? Who is feeling the most distress and fear? Approaching this situation with kindness and compassion, putting whatever the issue is to one side for the moment, is not backing down and it isn’t giving in – the best outcome is the one where the child has learnt something valuable that’s going to serve them well as they grow into adults… and not that people will dominate and control them but that people will help and guide them to the right outcome. In a high intensity situation the rational thought processes are by-passed in favour of a more primal ‘fight or flight’ mechanism – no one is in the right frame of mind to learn at that point. De-escalate the situation. Be the reassuring, safe, trustworthy adult. Deal with the problematic behaviour when your message might actually go in. And when it does – and you still have the trust and respect of that child – then you have won.
- They can only be as trustworthy as you trust them to be.
Children learn in the gap between what they can already do and the opportunities they have to try something new. So take risks; the bigger the risk, the bigger the learning opportunity… and sometimes it will go wrong, but that in itself is part of the learning process (for you as well as the student!). Send the naughty kid on an errand, give the least able a position of responsibility, give the notorious bully a caring role. And then be there when they’ve proven that they’re better than anyone, even themselves, ever thought they could be… or to dust them down and set them off again if needs be.
- Remember; you’re pretending.
The moment you lose your temper is the moment you lose control and, for their safety and your own sanity, you must be in control (not controlling!). Give the response that teaches them how their actions can make those around them feel; are you angry? Or are you disappointed? Annoyed? Inconvenienced? Emotionally hurt?
- THE GOLDEN RULE: Unconditional Positive Regard.
When they’re problematic, make mistakes, don’t know something or don’t approach something in the way that they should, you… YOU… are the person that is there to pull them through. You’re the adult. You chose to be there. You work for them. On that basis, is there… should there be… anything they can do that changes that? If you aren’t there for them… why are you there? Show them how you want them to behave. Be their champion!
This is the advice I would give to my NQT self because it is the advice I give to myself now, every day. My personal behaviour management manifesto for fairness.