Managing pupil behaviour


With a small rise in general abuse against Scottish secondary teachers being reported, Julian Stanley explores what schools and teachers can do to improve poor behaviour.

Do you recognise any of these situations?

“I have just started a new job … I have never experienced such bad behaviour. For a number of lessons I might as well not be there. Children walking on desks ... mobiles out ... ignoring staff.”

“Ten to 15 per cent of school population are in detentions on average … the behaviour in them is terrible ... swearing, walking out, calling out etc. I have only been in my present post for three weeks and already I want to look for a new job.” 

“I am a teacher of 27 years and feel like a novice at times due to disruptive pupils. Feel vulnerable and undervalued.” 

“I have no behaviour problems in my classes. Others in my school do. I know that teachers can really improve the behaviour of pupils. They should not have to. That is a parental role: get your child to school in a manner, which will allow them to be educated. End of – my job is/should be about teaching.”

If the examples described above feel familiar, you should know that you are not alone. Disruptive pupil behaviour is a frustration for many teachers. 

Last year’s report Behaviour in Scottish Schools revealed that 35 per cent of secondary heads and teachers had experienced violence and abuse. “General verbal abuse towards other pupils” was cited as the disruptive behaviour most likely to have the greatest impact, while small increases in sexist abuse, general abuse and physical aggression towards staff were also highlighted. 

An earlier survey by Teacher Support Network found that 92 per cent of teachers felt that behaviour had gotten worse over the course of their career; 70 per cent had considered quitting the profession because of poor behaviour.

It is not all bad news though. Along with the 40 per cent drop in the number of exclusions from Scottish schools since 2006, Behaviour in Scottish Schools stressed that behaviour is not an issue for most pupils. 

“This report makes clear that the majority of Scottish pupils are well behaved, and this is itself a commendation of the very high teaching standards which we have in Scotland,” explained Anthony Finn, chief executive of the General Teaching Council for Scotland at the time. 

Yet, poor behaviour remains a barrier to learning and can easily threaten the health and wellbeing of teachers. So what can teachers who are worried about behaviour do to improve the situation? 

Jayne Davies, who wrote the Managing Pupil Behaviour Guide for Teacher Support Network, suggests that there are many strategies designed to help behaviour, but she is clear that improving pupil behaviour is not just about responding to inappropriate behaviour – it is about creating conditions that encourage positive behaviour.

These conditions can only work, however, if they are underpinned by the following principles:

  • Clear, robust, behaviour and discipline systems and a framework of consequences, which are understood by all (staff and pupils) and contributed to by pupils and students.

  • A whole-school or college approach.

  • A focus on positive recognition of appropriate behaviour.

  • Positive relationships are developed and maintained.

  • Organisations work in partnership with agencies and stakeholders, including parents/carers.

  • Awareness of adults’ emotional responses to inappropriate behaviour.

Research has found that there are four basic approaches to improving classroom behaviour: rules and procedure, teacher-pupil/student relationships, disciplinary interventions, and mental set. Here is are our advice for appropriate rules and procedures: 

  • Create rules and express them positively. It should not just be a list of don’ts.

  • Justify rules and rehearse them! “Because I say so” is not a persuasive justification.

  • Discuss rules with the class. Explain their purpose, i.e. to improve learning.

  • Negotiate with the pupils to get commitment. Ask for suggestions and remember to justify and compromise. Make posters and get them to sign up.

  • Regularly review the rules together.

  • Encourage pupils to devise rules and take ownership of them.

  • Remind pupils of any relevant rules before a potentially disruptive activity or if you are aware of “something brewing”. This kind of response can drastically reduce inappropriate behaviour.

  • Encourage and develop team-working (team rules for success).

  • Regularly get pupils to self-assess their own behaviour set against the rules.

  • Link the rules to the five broad areas of “low-level disruption”: talk, movement, time, pupil-pupil relations, teacher-pupil relationships.

More information on managing pupil behaviour can be found on the  Teacher Support Network website.

  • Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).


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