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Behaviour management: from consistency to certainty in 10 steps

Published: Sep 9, 2014 7 min read

STEM learning

Guest blog from Paul Dix, a behavioural management specialist at Pivotal Education. Paul is running a free 5 week online course for the National Science Learning Centre in July 2015 to help teachers harness their own behaviour and body language to improve their students behaviour.

Inconsistent classrooms and labs are difficult places to learn in. Inconsistent teachers are unpredictable, fuelled by emotion and swing from passive to aggressive in a heart beat.

My teachers were consistent. Consistently violent, aggressive and harsh! Board rubbers aimed at the head, rulers to the back of the knees and the occasional fist (yes, I have been thinking about behaviour management for quite some time now!)

We desire consistency but there is this nagging doubt that absolute consistency does not reflect our true nature. None of us are 100% consistent and to pretend that we are can mean setting yourself up for a fail. We need a realistic aim. You can create a consistent environment by getting it right 80% of the time; you can create a consistent school with 80% of the adults holding the line. The muttering 20% in the staff room can continue to mutter. If the rest of the staff are united, a sea change in behaviour can still be effected. When we fall off the wagon and act irrationally there must be a consistent willingness to apologise, to recognise our own fallibility and climb back on.

When you hear students talking about their teachers they discuss those who are consistent, (‘Don’t mess her about, she always gets you,’) and those who are not, (‘I hate him, he shouted at me and I only asked a question). They know when you are late to the lesson, unprepared, impatient or react with more emotion than thought. They are forming opinions about your consistency that are quickly set and hard to change. Students bring these attitudes and expectations to the STEM classroom and begin the class with them. Lessons can feel like an uphill struggle when a group expect to be treated unfairly or lack a consistent model. The more they sense inconsistency the more they will be tempted to exploit it or defend against it and the workshop becomes an unstable place for learning.

There is an idea in the popular press that teaching through aggression, fear and hostility was what made British classrooms disciplined and productive. In truth the best teachers have always used something far more effective and far less damaging to relationships than fear. The best teachers working with the most challenging learners have, with hard work over an extended period, moved beyond consistency to certainty.

‘How is it that when I give Kyle a hard stare he laughs at me and when you shoot a glance at him he immediately corrects his behaviour?’ It is certainty. The certainly that you will take action and follow up relentlessly. The certainty that there are rules, routines and learning habits that will always be applied. The certainty that inappropriate behaviour will be met with a rational rather than emotional response. The certainty that even if the child decides to escalate the incident with secondary behaviours the initial behaviour will always be addressed and not forgotten. The certainty that you will keep your promise. The certainty that when it all gets crazy, there is a kindness, humanity and humility from the teacher that shines through. It is these teachers who make the greatest, positive long term impact. It is true that no one forgets a violent, aggressive or hostile teacher. But I am not sure that we remember them for the right reasons.

The roots of a consistent classroom lie in the habits and routines that are relentlessly taught. The learning habits that are embedded in each activity must be clear to everyone, enforced and reinforced until the students tell you they know, ‘Alright, enough already, we know the routine…Sir!. From mundane organisational routines (lining up, deciding on groupings, distributing equipment) to more complex learning rituals (deconstructing a practical demonstration, peer assessment, devising success criteria) your insistence on following the agreements creates consistency and safety for all students.

Set your routines, teach them, model them but most importantly of all, display them. If you are teaching the group how to work productively in groups tell them precisely the behaviours that you want to see from them. Write them out, use words, pictures, symbols, digital animation even. Set the routine, agree it and then catch those who are following it. Sounds simple. In practice it is relentless and tiring.

When you sense that your emotion is getting in the way of your rational consistency it is your routines that provide your best fall back position. Lengthen your emotional fuse with your favourite mantra; ‘Just for today don’t get angry’, ‘I am a 38 year old woman talking to a 12 year old girl’, or ‘I am relaxed, I am calm….I am not about to throttle Wayne/surrender to the men in white coats/have a screaming fit…really I am not!’. Fall back on the language patterns that work and remove yourself from the situation with grace, ‘I am going to leave you to think about what you said, I will come back in a minute and I am sure you will show me how polite you can be’.

Perhaps the greatest challenges to your personal consistency are those children who are most inconsistent in their own behaviour. They may be comfortable surrounded by chaos; for some it replicates their life outside of the classroom. How can we reconcile being consistent when different children demand different levels of intervention, positive reinforcement? We differentiate lesson content, support, resources, groupings for learning. This same differentiation can be applied to behaviour. You are differentiating your responses according to the needs of your students just as you differentiate for learning. Some children need to hear your verbal praise more often that others

Their short concentration span or limiting self belief needs the gentle nudge of your encouragement to keep them working. Try not to get caught up worrying about how you can be consistent across the whole school. Instead focus on individual classes and whenever possible how you are being consistent with individual children. As your consistency and certainty increase you will find children adjusting their behaviour as you arrive. In time you will be able to shoot that look to Kyle across the hall and adjust his behaviour in an instant. Newly qualified teachers may gasp in awe and demand to know where you buy the magic from. Unfortunately you cannot buy it, but you can make it with time, patience and a large helping of humility.

10 Steps to Certainty

  1. When students escalate take them back to the original behaviour before you deal with the secondary behaviours.
  2. Display your consistency clearly on the walls of your teaching space
  3. Manage escalating inappropriate behaviour with an emotionless almost scripted response.
  4. Use phone calls home and positive notes home to reinforce your positive certainty. Even in the most inconsistent homes.
  5. Map rules, routines, learning habits and rituals for individuals and specific activities that are becoming difficult to manage.
  6. Have a clear tariff for appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Send it home to parents and be prepared to concede when you have a bad day and don’t apply it correctly.
  7. Use ‘choice’ when you are speaking to children about their behaviour ‘If you choose to stay on task throughout this activity you can be certain that I will catch you and give you praise and reward. If you choose to ignore the routine/make a sanctuary under the bench/eat Charlene’s rubber you can be certain that you will receive a sanction that I will enforce’.
  8. Don’t judge yourself too harshly when you fall off the wagon and behave inconsistently apologise and get back to your consistent habits and routines.
  9. Resist the temptation to deal with minor indiscretions with high level sanctions. In effect you are ‘crying wolf’, when you really need support for behaviour that warrants a high level sanction colleagues may not be so keen to support.
  10. Aim to deliver and execute sanctions on the same day so that every student can start each day with a clean sheet.

Watch the video to find out more about our free online course commencing in November.  Please register  to attend our Behaviour Management Course here.