Creating the Right Climate for Learning

creating the right climate for learning

Creating the Right Climate for Learning

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2019.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.

Sometimes it does not matter what you have planned, you just know it is going to go badly because of the actions of a noisy minority in the room. Every teacher faces – or has faced this – in their time, but some with more success than others. And it is particularly daunting for those new to the profession.

So what is the secret? How do some teachers manage the behaviour of challenging students with an effortless air, while others flounder just getting them to pick up a pen? In this article, I propose that it is all about creating the right climate for learning.

The right climate for learning means having a culture within the classroom, where the students are less tempted to behave badly and where they value positive behaviour. This can be done via carrot, or stick.

I prefer using a balance of both, but with one simple addition: responsibility.

Students with a sense of responsibility for their actions do not need carrots or sticks. They see the value in behaving well for the long-term. They see the positive influence they can exert on others and they value it for its own sake, not just for a reward, or out of fear of punishment.

This all sounds perfect, right? But how do we get there? Well, the answer is not always straightforward.

Proactive strategies

It is vital to put the work into establishing a positive environment, or ‘climate for learning’. Setting out high expectations, with the reasons behind those expectations being properly explained pays dividends. If the students know, from the off, that good behaviour benefits them personally, they are much less likely to deviate from it.

Play the long game

Remember: Rome was not built in a day. Students often think short-term. They look for quick wins. Teachers should not. They are in it for the long-haul and should be looking to develop positive relationships over time. You cannot expect to be able to fix all behavioural issues on the spot.

Apart from anything else, students often do not want to engage in-the-moment and so any attempt to fix the problem there and then is futile.

The cost in time of this approach for teachers can be expensive in the short-term. However, it usually pays off handsomely, especially when the students begin to see that you are not willing to give up on developing positive relationships. After all, some of them are disruptive because of this lack of positive relationships outside of school in their home lives.

Routines, routines, routines

One of the most important things you can control (and remember, you cannot control everything) is classroom routines. I find that it is really useful to structure lessons in this order, every lesson:

  • Present information.
  • Question the students.
  • Students create something in response to demonstrate understanding.
  • Check students’ understanding.
  • Give feedback.
  • Students respond to feedback,
  • Check responses to feedback.

This structure can be adapted to suit the needs of the class or the nature of the topic, but frequently using such a structure, where students know, each lesson, what is coming next, can help them. Many students crave structure in their daily lives or find it hard to operate outside of one. Nobody loses out with this strategy.

Clarity and consistency and fairness

When implementing your behaviour policy, be it whole school, departmental or your personal code of conduct, be consistent. If students know that when they do A, then B will certainly follow, they will often pause for thought. This can be enough to deter most disruption in most classrooms and maintains a positive climate for learning.

The key, though, is ensuring that the steps used to resolve disruption are seen as fair. This may require an explanation from you when you first begin to teach the group, followed by regular referrals back to these steps.

But, it will keep the students on “your side” if you have to address one of them calling you out as “unfair” when all you have done is maintain the rules that you promised to maintain in everyone’s best interests.

‘Don’t smile until Christmas’

I remember someone telling me this when I first trained back in 2005. I am sure they meant well and it might even work for some teachers, but it was not for me. I still hear it from some teachers today, but I think (hopefully) it is said with a little more nuance.

The point, I think, is to maintain a “professional” exterior. This might involve keeping a straight face more often than you normally would, hence the imperative “don’t smile”.

But this is no mean feat. After all, did we not get into teaching, partly because of the unpredictable nature of the children themselves? It is worth asking more experienced staff for their funniest anecdotes, where they somehow kept a straight face despite the hilarious situation they found themselves in (or even the times when they did not manage it).

Reactive strategies

Sometimes, no matter what conditions you lay down in your classroom, students will break rules, have a bad day, or succumb to the stresses of life. At this point, there are timeless and practical tactics you can employ. Use them repeatedly for maximum impact.

Take the heat out of the situation

Disruptive behaviour has a myriad of origins. Sometimes students come in with an axe to grind and are looking for a confrontation. At other times, they might feel unfairly treated and are not particularly resilient because of other influences beyond their control.

Or, they may want to chat at the back and do not care if it annoys the teacher, as in reality, they are just showing off to their peers.

Any attempt to “confront” these students could end up in a stand-off, that you as a teacher might lose. We all know of teachers who have lost such a stand-off. It can do terrible harm to reputations, destroy the climate for learning and it makes future behaviour issues even more difficult to address, as the authority is lost.

One method to get around the stand-off is to politely and with a smile, invite them for a quick chat in the corridor. This takes them away from the gallery they are playing to. Once you have their full attention you can spend time getting to the root of the issue without them losing face. Be patient and seek to understand them – they will appreciate you for it (eventually).

Contact parents (do it before you think you need to)

Parents do not want to receive a surprise call about their son or daughter’s behaviour. Not only does it give them little chance to respond to the issue thoughtfully, but they will often go on the defensive. This is not useful for the parent, the teacher, or the child, as it just kicks the problem further down the lane, to be dealt with later on (possibly too late). If you see that a particular student might be prone to disruptive behaviour, then a quick five-minute telephone call to a parent/carer might be enough to put the brakes on.

Students invariably behave better when they know parents and teachers are working in tandem and are in frequent contact with each other. “Praise calls” to parents can also be an excellent way to develop that rapport that you may need to call upon later on, when the telephone call might not be so positive.

Identify the key players

In any classroom, there are some individual students who can change the general atmosphere. Identify them and pay particular attention to the way they enter the room at the beginning of the lesson.

This might seem as though I am advocating pandering to certain students, but I am not. Sometimes, it is easier to deal with whole-class behaviour when one or two influential peers are already playing by your rules.

As they enter, quietly ask them about their day, or give them a simple physical task that they cannot help but succeed in, e.g. giving out the books.

If they know you care, they might not see you as part of their “problem” that day. Sometimes, giving them a quick psychological win can act as a catalyst for further positive behaviour, which in turn influences others too.

Over time, this simple act can build positive relationships, that require less and less effort on your part to maintain.

Observe other teachers

It seems obvious when looking for good behaviour managers that you would seek out experienced teachers first. This is indeed useful, as it can give you a glimpse of your future self. However, part of the reason why students can misbehave for NQTs is precisely because you are an NQT. Teachers new to the school do not have that reputation, those relationships, or (sometimes) that sense of gravitas, that years in the classroom brings. As such, you would be much better off watching a fellow NQT manage disruption. After all, they are truly in your shoes. If they can do it, then so can you! And if they struggle, can you work together to develop strategies and support one another?

Conclusion

You should view behaviour management as a career-long professional skill that you will continue to develop as you gain experience. Be fair, consistent and maintain high standards. Over time, this builds positive reputations and ultimately relationships, creating the right climate for learning. It is hard-won, but well worth the battle.

Behaviour Management Made Simple

Simple Behaviour Management

[Updated 19 February 2019]

Why is behaviour management so important?

Behaviour management is a huge issue for all of us. It can seem at times to be the main focal point in some lessons and at other times it might not seem to be an issue at all. Or so we think. You might (if you are a ‘successful’ and ‘experienced’ teacher) at this point be thinking, “Behaviour in my lessons is great, I don’t need any help to manage behaviour. of my students“. Great! You need not read on. Or, you could use this post as a way to reflect on how well you are working. Either way, a win-win!

Managing behaviour isn’t just about correcting overtly disruptive behaviour. It’s about setting the tone for your lesson. It’s about demonstrating an example to your students, rather than making examples of them. Ultimately, more progress is made when students don’t have to deal with disruption. This week I’ll be reflecting on some of the behaviour management strategies I’ve found to be most useful in my personal experience.

Behaviour Management: Prevention or Cure?

There are many ways to manage behaviour. Some tactics are used as prevention, some are more of a cure. You need both. Having taught thousands of students, of various personality types, socio-economic backgrounds, levels of ability, etc, etc I can safely say I’ve used a wide range of tactics! I see managing behaviour much in the same way as a sports coach manages his or her team. There is groundwork to be laid before the game (i.e. before a behaviour ‘incident’), then there are separate tactics that you should employ at the moment an incident occurs.

It’s no good explaining the behaviour policy after the behaviour has happened. It’s too late by then and any sanction you then put in place will seem unfair to the student, which will impact upon your relationship, their engagement and ultimately their learning. Also, if you just choose an ad hoc approach to behaviour management, you will just be fighting fires every lesson. Hopefully just metaphorically, though!

So, before the game…

Make sure that your students understand your expectations of behaviour. You may have your own particular way of dealing with different types of disruption, disrespectful behaviour, etc. That’s fine – most teachers develop their own style over time.

Experience is the key factor here. Apologies to all you trainees and newly-qualified teachers – there is no ‘silver bullet’ for learning how to manage behaviour! I’ve seen teachers display behaviour ‘reminders’ on their walls, or alongside learning objectives. Some teachers even involve the class in designing their own behaviour policy! All I do is to explain my expectations of behaviour to the class, right at the beginning of the year. I rarely have to remind them. However, the students know my expectations, as they are in line with most other teachers at my school.

This takes me to my next point. Make sure that both you and your students understand your school’s behaviour policy, if it has one. Most schools do have one. Some are more rigid, some more flexible – it often depends on the context of the school. If a school is in trouble and poor behaviour is rife, then a stricter approach may be more effective. However, more flexibility might be more useful in the long-run, once a school is out of trouble and behaviour of students is generally good. This is a tricky balancing act!

It’s vital that you and your students share the same understanding of how the behaviour policy works. If you disagree on the behaviour that warrants a sanction, then that can be a source of even further conflict. Make a point of talking through the whole-school policy with your class at the beginning of the year. It will save you a lot of hassle further down the road.

Then, during the game…

Easy Behaviour Management Strategies

1. Be consistent

There is nothing worse as a student than finding that you can’t get away with chatting to your friend, whereas the student across from you seems to get away with it all of the time. Inconsistency breeds resentment. It also will create a culture in the classroom where students will lose faith in your authority over certain members of the class, whom it looks like you are unwilling to challenge. Where your treatment of different students could potentially appear inconsistent, make it clear why you are treating the two cases in different ways.

2. Fairness, or ‘perceived’ fairness at least

So long as you are seen to be fair, then the students will more likely stay within the boundaries you set for them. As I mentioned earlier, some teachers engage the class in developing their own behaviour policy, so that students can take ownership over what is decided to be ‘fair’. But, so long as you apply the rules created by the students in a consistent way, they can’t really accuse you of being unfair. Ensure that the level of sanction matches up to the behaviour you are seeking to address. Better to under-react than to over-react, as you can always escalate the sanctions you impose if behaviour deteriorates further.

3. Making an example vs setting an example

We often hear about figures of authority ‘making an example’ of somebody for breaking the rules. It rarely helps the long-term situation for the people involved. Students who are “made examples of” will be very reluctant to re-engage, as they will (rightly) feel humiliated and perhaps even unfairly treated. Regardless, the poor behaviour that started the whole spectacle is likely to re-appear.

Instead of making examples of poorly behaved students, you should react to their behaviour with impeccable maturity. It’s likely that they will not be used to this. Their surprise at your moderate response, where you engage your rational rather than emotional brain, may give them pause for thought. Remember, ‘bad’ behaviour is often exhibited by students who are just copying from their role-models elsewhere in their lives. If we really want to change the behaviour of a student who reacts loudly, violently, emotionally, etc, then we must model the exact opposite. It might be the only time they see an ‘appropriate’ reaction to a difficult situation in their life.

4. Greet students as they arrive at your door

One of the easiest behaviour management strategies you can use is a simple “hello”. We often forget that the lives of our students are a lot more chaotic than our own. In many cases, seeing a friendly face and hearing that someone is genuinely pleased to see them again (even if we aren’t!) can make all the difference to a student’s mindset for the remainder of the lesson.

5. Actively build relationships

This is ultimately the most effective behaviour management strategy. Having rules and routines nailed down can be effective, but without the goodwill of the students, you won’t really get them to fully engage with your lesson, they’ll just be “going through the motions”. I’ve found that if I choose one of the main “characters” in the room and actively cultivate a positive relationship with them, then the other students will follow their lead when they see them behave positively in the classroom. Be warned though, this can take some time. And progress, as ever, may not be linear!

6. Only one person speaks at any one time

This is not negotiable. If you are speaking, the students must be silent. Similarly, if the students are giving verbal answers, do not interrupt them, but let them finish. By modelling the behaviour you want to see, students will, over time, improve their behaviour to meet your high standards.

More Behaviour Management Tips

Here is a fantastic video by outlining some really easy to implement behaviour management strategies, that can make all the difference, whether you are a trainee, a newly qualified teacher, or you’re experienced but are looking for a refresher.

Top Behaviour Management Books

This blog post is just a little taster. If you want the full five-course dinner of behaviour management strategies then look no further than these two excellent books.

Firstly, Tom Bennett’s Behaviour Management Solutions For Teachers is and has been for some time, my go-to resource on all things behaviour-related. The book doesn’t have to be read all in one go, you can just dip in and out with ease, depending on what you want. Bennett has spent a lot of time crafting the perfect resource and just reading through the contents list will give you a flavour of the different possible behaviour-scenarios that he has catered for. His writing is clear and the tactics he promotes are explained simply and have stood the test of time. Click here to take a look.

Secondly, Sue Cowley’s Getting The Buggers To Behave is another classic. Her understanding of what makes students of different ages tick is invaluable and will save you a lot of time and reduce your levels of stress. Cowley’s accessible guides to promoting better behaviour make this a must-read, especially for trainees and NQTs. Click here to take a look.

Final Thoughts…

Behaviour management is a long game, but a fairly simple one. If students believe that you treat them fairly and if they know your boundaries and understand the sanctions you dish out, then they will respect you all the more for it. And to those teachers who feel too timid or are afraid to tackle the ‘bigger personalities’ in your classroom, here is my parting advice: “fake it til you make it”. They’ll never know unless you tell them!

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