Settling Your Rowdy Class: A Practical Guide
This article was written for HWRK Magazine and published in the Spring 2020 edition, which you can read here.
Everyone knows that one teacher who everyone behaves for. They seem to do it all so effortlessly. Their presence is calming and with only the briefest of “looks” they can silence a roomful of hormonal teenagers. Students seem to be in total awe of them and it’s hard to see whether that awe stems from fear, respect, love, or a combination of all three. But however they achieved it, you can be absolutely certain that it didn’t happen overnight.
This is good news, especially if you are currently struggling to manage the behaviour of your students. Nothing worth having comes easily. And when it comes to behaviour, those battles are hard-won. For this reason, nobody with any sense will expect you to tame your little lions by 9:30 tomorrow morning. It comes with practice and by using a few simple tactics, some of which I’ll outline here.
But before I take you through the strategies which have helped me to settle even the rowdiest of classes, you firstly need to think hard about the people in your classroom. We can forget this, but they are all different and, mostly, they want to learn (even that boy you found last Tuesday, hiding under a desk, his fingers scooping chocolate spread from a jar smuggled from Food Tech).
There are the quiet, compliant ones, the hard-workers, the easily distracted, the shouters, the interrupters, the fidgeters and those who can’t help but stare out of windows when left to their own devices (this was me). You also teach some natural high-fliers, alongside students with significant learning difficulties. Some have stable, middle-of-the-road lives, whereas others’ are more chaotic. Health plays a part too, as does the level of parental support. Attendance is another huge factor and often linked to all of the above. But over the long term, we usually have little control over any of these, no matter how we try to intervene.
You can only control what happens in your classroom. Remember that and you will sleep a little easier. (Only a little easier though!) Fortunately, there ARE things you can do to tip the scales in your favour, when it comes to settling your rowdiest students.
So, to begin with, we must take care of the bigger picture: the “climate”. No, not those windy days that send half of Year 7 round the bend and the other half up the wall, but the climate within your classroom walls: the routines, expectations and processes that make for a calm and orderly environment.
Rule number 1: Make your expectations EXPLICIT
This has two distinct advantages. Firstly, students will actually have to think about their own behaviour. For some of them, this may be the first time they’ve done this in their lives, so be patient. Secondly, no student can ever again claim that they “didn’t realise they weren’t allowed to do that” (a favourite excuse used by many of my previous students).
Your explicit instructions should be brief and clear. Complexity is the enemy here. You should also remind your class of your expectations for them at regular intervals throughout the year (or half term, depending on your class), to “refresh” their memories. With any luck, you’ll be supported by a well-oiled whole-school behaviour policy, with specialist staff on-hand for those who persist in their challenging behaviour and a functioning national policy for providing support in specialist centres for “exceptional” students. Stop laughing. I can hear you, you know.
Rule number 2: Begin the lesson with naturally calm tasks
For some classes I’ve taught, this is the make-or-break moment. I know that if I can make it through the first five minutes, then the rest of the lesson will be a piece of cake. But there are different ways to achieve this, depending on who you teach, your objective for that lesson and what your long-term goals are for the class.
If you want the class to begin quietly, then don’t surprise them. If they’re agitated, or overstimulated, then they’ll naturally make noise. Anyone who has tried to teach straight after a playground fight or even just a cake-sale at breaktime knows this. Keep it simple. A straightforward task on the board, or on a worksheet works well. Retrieval practice of a recent topic is often better for settling students than a topic learnt a long time ago, as they’ll probably perform better, so won’t give up quickly and look for a distraction. Over time, you can ramp up the challenge.
Begin with the students working independently. If the instructions are clear, there should be no reason to disrupt. Once they’ve worked well for a set period of time, you can allow your students to work in pairs or groups, if appropriate. Use this sparingly and as an incentive for maximum effect. You don’t have to be a Victorian schoolmaster or schoolmistress when going about it though. So long as you are firm and consistent in your rewards and sanctions, your students will eventually trust you and do as you ask. Once you embed this as a daily or weekly routine, your students will start to settle into it without thinking.
Rule number 3: Build relationships
This is a long-term strategy. Some students have relatively few positive relationships in their lives. This means that they aren’t used to having positive conversations. They aren’t used to people offering advice without it seeming like a personal attack. They don’t know how to respond positively to others doing well, when they are struggling themselves. Taking your time to find out a little about your students makes a huge difference to them.Slowly, they come to appreciate it and they will even take an interest in having a positive relationship with you too. This is especially so, if they can see that you are giving them chance after chance, when their perception (rightly or wrongly) is that others have given up on them too easily.
In the long-run, students who have built up positive relationships with their teachers are more resilient in those lessons, compared to others. They try that little bit harder and don’t want to let people down who they particularly trust and respect. Not only that, but investing time in your students is infinitely worthwhile for its own sake. When we learn about their lives and build those relationships with them, we enrich our own lives too. On your toughest days, this can be the thing that gets you through. Some of the most challenging students earlier in my career are now some of my fondest memories and this is all down to those times I spent really listening to them and learning from them. The funny thing about teaching is that it’s a two-way street.
Tactics you can try right now
Sometimes, you need to pay a little more attention to some of your students at the beginning of the lesson, to settle them. Zero-tolerance and outright appeasement strategies both have their place in certain contexts, but are often too extreme for most students to respond well to and they can backfire spectacularly. Just imagine the reaction of your most volatile students if you resorted to barking commands at them every lesson. I bet they wouldn’t put in their maximum effort when it came to completing that homework. Instead, here are some tried and tested methods to help guide your most spirited students towards positive behaviour.
Tactic 1: Keep them busy / grease the wheels
In the past, I’ve taught students who would go straight into “look at me” mode upon entering the classroom, unless I greeted them, asked them to sit down and take out their planner and pen. I’d then remind them of a recent achievement and how I’d like them to keep at it today to maintain that momentum. I’d then give them the instructions for the first task one-to-one, but loud enough for the rest of the class to hear, so I didn’t have to repeat it. Sometimes, I’d even help them with the first part of the answer, just to make sure they could make a start, whether they needed help or not. Remember: give, give, give. For some students, all you need to do is to grease the wheels a little, as it allows them no opt-out and therefore fewer opportunities to disrupt others. The added bonus is that the rest of the class see this “lively” student working and this can have a calming and positive effect across the rest of the class.
Tactic 2: Physical activity
Some students haven’t experienced much success during their week at school. So when you give them a challenge, it can lead to exasperation and fear on their part. At this point, some of them turn to disruptive behaviour. You can avoid this, however, by giving them a quick physical task. This could be giving out equipment, collecting homework, checking on something in the classroom, writing the date on the board, etc. It could even be unrelated to the lesson, but a favour to you, e.g. “would you mind moving those books over there for me?” Whilst I’d love to challenge my students constantly, it can have a negative impact at times. Give little Charlie that endorphin-boosting quick win to build his self-esteem and resilience, so that when the real challenge comes, he can tackle it without throwing his arms up in the air before writing a single word.
Tactic 3: Problem-solving
Some students love to tell you what you should be doing. After all, only they know what it’s like to be in their shoes, innit? Well here’s your chance to turn that challenge back to them. Give them a problem to solve, with all the materials they will need and place your most animated students together in one group. The effect this has on the other groups is that it gives them the time and space to do things their own way. The effect it has on that energetic group is that Paige will eventually be forced to listen to Millie, without shouting across the room. You can increase the level of challenge by removing some of the materials that they need to complete the task easily. Or you could only offer them partial instructions so they have to work things out using inference and creativity. Be warned though: this might undo all the hard work in getting them to focus on the work, so remove those scaffolds carefully, or Paige and Millie might kick off again!
Tactic 4: Make it all about them
We’ve all taught a student who made it all about them at every possible opportunity. Why not harness that? Some students respond particularly well to being given the opportunity to “rant on a page” about their views on a topic, or their response to an assessment score. The trick here is to get them to keep writing. Students should be given free rein to explore their thoughts in whatever direction they feel is most honest. But make sure they can support all of their arguments with reasons!
Some of them just want to get something simple off their chest, like how unfair question 8 was, or why they should be studying chemistry at all. But the more they write, the more that they and you will uncover the underlying reasons for their attitudes. It might be that question 8 was perfectly fair, but Kenzie didn’t have time to revise that topic because of a lethal combination of ballet rehearsals, Geography coursework and her newborn twin sisters keeping everyone in the house on their toes (not ballet-related).
One way to make this task particularly effective is to tell students from the outset that their responses won’t ever be read out to the class. This not only avoids the potential for libellous anonymous disclosures being made, but it also gives your students the freedom to express their views without fear of what others will think. Most importantly though, it builds their trust in you, which you’ll need if you want to deepen those ever-important relationships.
I won’t lie to you. Settling a rowdy class isn’t easy, just watch me try to teach Year 9 during period 5 on a Friday. But if you play the long game, you’ll get there. It’s classroom experience that wins in the end and you’ll be there longer than they will. Maintain your high standards, be patient and pay attention to your students. Everything else will take care of itself.