Your A–Z guide to fostering positive behaviour in the classroom

Education expert DAVID VINEGRAD offers his guide to boosting positive student behaviour, good routines in the classroom and a sense of connection to school.

Following extended periods of remote learning, rising rates of school refusal has been a popular topic in the media. To effectively tackle school refusal, which I prefer to discuss in terms of school connection, we must look to behavioural science and the latest research – not to unfounded ideologies such as ‘tough love’.

People problems need people solutions. School connection is all about relationships, not rules. We must work with students whose connections to their classroom, playground and peers have been weakened, and not think that punishing students will work to reduce their anxiety levels.

Teachers need more time to plan great lessons and less time in meetings that don’t reflect the principles of engagement. We must also avoid dumping mental health practitioners into schools without adequate resources, funding and supervision.

In my time as a teacher, I have come to understand that a ‘behaviourist’ approach to discipline – carrots and sticks – comes a poor second to a ‘humanist’ model – community and cooperation. It wasn’t about learning new skills and approaches; it was changing my mindset and beliefs about what works and what doesn’t.

The following A–Z of behaviour management represents a mindset shift away from doing things to students, towards working with students. It is a guide to helping you become a consistent, persistent and insistent teacher.

The A–Z of behaviour management

A          Acknowledge positive behaviour. Catch students being good and reinforce that behaviour. Students will never learn if we only tell them what not to do.

B          Behaviour. All behaviour is an expression of needs. Think Maslow’s four basic needs – escape/avoidance, sensory, attachment, power/control. Learn how to address these in functional ways to transform classroom trouble into class cooperation.

C          Consistency. Being consistent means basing everything on your school values. (Though, if your school values are about zero tolerance, eye for an eye, stamp out poor behaviour etc, then stop reading!)

D         Detention. Progressive schools need to use progressive consequences. The use of whole-class detentions does more to damage relationships than to change behaviour. Avoid the quick-fix thinking that making a student suffer will change their behaviour; reflection is much better than resentment.

E          Engagement. Behaviour is closely linked to engagement. An engaging, well-planned lesson means fewer behavioural issues. We can’t engage 100% of our students 100% of the time, but we can measure the level of engagement when students are listening, talking, thinking, watching or doing.

F        Fairness. Being fair is not about equality – treating everyone the same; it is about equity – giving students what they need at the right time to be safe and successful in your classroom. Explain to your students: fairness is not sameness.

G         Greetings. Engagement can be improved by a warm welcome at the classroom door. Showing students that you like your job, and that you like them, goes a long way to providing a positive classroom atmosphere.

H        Habits. Our brains love predictability. Help students feel safe and by being clear about expectations, and explicitly teaching procedures and routines: This is how we do things in our classroom. Use the sequence – procedures that are practiced become routines, and when repeated become habits.

I           Intrusiveness. An effective behaviour management plan must work on a spectrum of least intrusive to most intrusive. Keep the small stuff small and don’t go nuclear when a peace talk will do. Keep a student’s dignity intact and think about when and how we need to intervene.

J           Juggling. With so many tasks to manage, it helps to develop something I call withitness. Learn to keep track of the social, academic and emotional dynamics in the classroom.

K          Kindness. Most of us want to be known as a kind teacher, but this doesn’t mean excusing poor behaviour. Focus on being respected. The best way to achieve this is to be firm and fair.

L          Language. There is no such thing as bad language, just bad use of language. Set an appropriately formal register for working with students. To create inclusive spaces, as much as possible use language that includes everybody.

M        Mood. As Professor Breńe Brown says, calm is a superpower. Your personality sets the climate in the classroom, and your daily mood influences the weather (adapted from Haim Ginot, circa 1972). Students need you to be a calm and assertive adult role model in order to feel safe and to be at their best.

N         No. Instead of using negatives like no, must, never, use if, then, when phrases. Another tip is to use place and time phrases, such as not here or not now. For example, “In our classroom we never say those things” or “We never use scissors like that”. When there is no wriggle room regarding a certain behaviour, use not ever.

O         Ownership. Invite students to own their own behaviour by asking them what they need to say and do to make things right. If you dictate the solution, you take over the problem. Another option is to ask what the other students need to see and hear from you. This way, students actively learn how to fix things without coercion by the teacher. And don’t forget: “In our classroom, an apology means that we will change our behaviour next time.”

P          Proxemics. This means moving around the classroom. Establish where you will stand when you give the whole class an instruction, and how you will speak to a student privately or address a small group. Active supervision of the classroom is a skill, so practice, and observe colleagues.

Q         Questioning. Practice asking two or three powerful questions and use turn and talk for responses. Move away from the over-used hands up strategy as this often causes disruptive behaviour and disengagement.

R          Rules. It is admirable to have a set of rules – however, if you want more cooperation, develop them into classroom agreements or expectations – statements about how we are going to treat each other. Have no less than three, and no more than six. Give students some input and ownership and regularly review them with your class.

S          Seating plans. Don’t use them to conquer and divide, use them to build Cooperative, Productive and Respectful relationships, or C.P.R., which will breathe life into classroom relationships. There are some great phone apps to generate random seating plans and change them every few weeks. Don’t cave into parent demands about who sits where.

T          Transitions. This is where behavioural issues often pop up and time is wasted. Use a bell, a visual sign, or a class call-out to signal that the class needs to stop, look and listen. Use body language, and position yourself in the classroom to scan and wait to promote a language of expectation, rather than telling students to pay attention. Teach students your routines to smoothly manage transitions.

U         You. Student behaviour is more about you than them. The science of behaviour management doesn’t care what you believe; it is based on the research, which shows we teach students, not subjects. Get curious about the research and learn what works.

V        Voice. One of the best ways to promote positive student behaviour is to be a good listener. Be more curious than judgemental by asking the five Ws – what, which, where, what, when. When students realise that you listen, relationships improve, and uncooperative behaviour decreases.

W        What. Replace why with what and it will change your interactions and relationships in a snap!

X          X-factor, aka remain flexible. No two classes are the same, your perfect lesson may not work, anything can and will interrupt your class. Have a Plan B up your sleeve – and when things aren’t working, switch to it.

Y          Yelling. Never do this. In fact, refrain from raising your voice above the volume of the class. One in five teachers strain their vocal cords. Use an audible or a visual signal to gain the attention of the class (see ‘T’). It is the certainty of the follow-up, not the severity, that will achieve cooperation.

Z          Zero tolerance. The only acceptable form of ‘zero tolerance’ is that you will never ignore harmful behaviour and will uphold your classroom agreements.

Want to learn more?

David Vinegrad is hosting two upcoming courses at the Teacher Learning Network designed to help educators foster positive behaviours and routines with students and promote optimal learning conditions in the classroom. Click below to register:

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