NQT Special: Strategies for managing behaviour


Managing behaviour is often the biggest challenge for NQTs. As part of SecEd's NQT special edition, Matt Bromley discusses why students misbehave, how teachers can and should react in different circumstances, and offers 10 strategies for NQTs on how to ma


When we were boys, my brother and I used to play at being superheroes. We’d climb up onto the bannister at the top of the stairs, and propel ourselves forward so that we’d be stretched diagonally across the bulkhead. Looking down, it felt like we were flying.

But one day, as I stood atop the bannister and threw myself forwards, I misjudged the distance. My tiny fingers fell short of the wall, and I tumbled head-first down the stairs. As I lay at the bottom in a crumpled heap I realised that I was not superman. I was in fact a six-year-old boy with a dressing gown wrapped around his shoulders and underpants on the outside of his trousers.

I still remember that moment whenever something doesn’t go my way. I remind myself that I am not superman. I am human. And sometimes mere mortals make mistakes. Sometimes life doesn’t go to plan. As a NQT, the first step towards excellence is to acknowledge that you too are only human.

And because you’re human, sometimes things won’t go your way. Sometimes one of the 30 or so other others humans in your classroom – humans who, like you, have home lives which might not be perfect; humans who, like you, have emotions and hormones – might not behave as well as you’d like them to.

Misbehaviour is not your fault

And hear this: it will never be your fault. Students misbehave for a variety of reasons – some complex, some simple – but never because you make them misbehave.

Often there are things you can do to prevent students from misbehaving. Often there are things you can do to curtail and correct their misbehaviour once it’s arisen. But, nevertheless, their misbehaviour is never your fault. So do not take it personally. Do not, for one moment, allow it to demoralise you. Do not become downbeat and assume that you’re not cut out for teaching. You are brilliant and you will continue to grow into the role of a teacher. So let’s look at why students misbehave and explore a few things you can do to help...

Reasons for poor behaviour

Broadly speaking, students misbehave for one of four reasons:

  1. They are bored.

  2. They are stuck.

  3. They have additional and different needs.

  4. They are naughty.

When students are bored, they might entertain themselves by being naughty. They might talk, throw paper darts, they might stick pencils up their nostrils and sing hallelujah. They are either trying to alleviate their boredom or trying to make you aware that they’re bored and need more challenge, or indeed both.

When they are stuck, they might send up metaphorical smoke signals by being naughty in order to draw your attention to their difficulty. Alternatively, they might try to mask the fact they’re stuck by being naughty. Either way it’s a cry for help.

Whether they’re bored or stuck, the cure for their ill behaviour is better differentiation, because clearly the work isn’t appropriately pitched. If they are bored, the work is too easy. If they are stuck, the work is too hard. 

What you want is to pitch the work in what Vygotsky calls “the zone of proximal development” or what I call the Goldilocks Bowl: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. Work needs to be difficult enough to provide challenge, but not too difficult so as to be unachievable. The secret to differentiation – and indeed to outstanding teaching generally – is to know your students. And you get to know your students by talking to them and by assessing their work regularly. 

Assessment is a form of planning because it provides you with valuable information about where each of your students is now and about what they need to do next in order to fill the gaps in their learning and make progress. So the first tip is to ask yourself whether or not the work you have set is appropriate and challenging. If it is, and you’re confident your students are neither bored nor stuck, then your students must be misbehaving for another reason.

Additional needs

Students with additional and different needs such as students with ADHD cannot always control the way they behave. They may lack social skills or have difficulty concentrating. Students with additional and different needs should have an individual education plan (IEP) or individual behaviour plan (IBP). Whatever the circumstances, you are not alone in dealing with students who have emotional and behavioural difficulties, should seek expert help, and follow your school’s policies at all times. 

So the second tip is to find out as much as you can about the specific learning needs of each student you teach and ensure you take account of IEPs and IBPs and follow your school’s policies and procedures, seeking expert help where relevant.

But sometimes students are neither bored nor stuck, and do not have any specific learning needs or disabilities: they are just plain old-fashioned naughty. And that is not something you will hear many people admit. It is an open secret that some students some of the time are naughty for naughty’s sake. They have work to do which they can access and which challenges them, and there is nothing per se in the way the teacher is teaching which instigates their misbehaviour. They just want to be naughty.

Perhaps it’s fun, a distraction, a means of reminding others of their existence. Perhaps it’s a way of taking control of their lives because, let’s be honest, children’s lives are not really their own and that must be frustrating. Perhaps they haven’t actively chosen to misbehave, they do it subconsciously like tapping a pen or humming a tune. Whatever the motivation, it is not an indictment of the way the teacher is teaching.

So you are not to blame for students’ misbehaviour and you are not responsible for it either. But, as the adult in the room with a responsibility for teaching, you do have a role to play creating a climate which minimises misbehaviour as well as a duty to respond to misbehaviour when it happens. 

So let’s now turn our attentions to some classroom management strategies that you can use when students are naughty for naughty’s sake.

Classroom management strategies

First, never forget that you are a teacher not a bouncer. You are not paid simply to manage students’ behaviour, to strong-arm young people into submission, to crowd-control. Behaviour is only effectively managed when the whole school works together. There must be clear policies and procedures in place which are understood by everyone in the school and these must be followed consistently.

And it’s another open secret that students like teachers who follow the rules. They like boundaries. They like to feel safe. They like to learn. So you should always follow the school’s policies. It is a war of attrition but you will win eventually. 

Tough or love? 

Each time you tackle a naughty student, you should ask yourself what you want to achieve. Do you want the student to behave, re-engage and learn? Or has the student’s behaviour now gone too far? Do they pose such a threat to other students’ learning that the best course of action now is to remove them? Both answers are acceptable and understandable within context. Once you have decided, you need to take the appropriate action.

If it’s the latter – students pose a threat – you may need to take tough action to remove the student either through internal isolation or exclusion. Never forget that removing a student from your classroom or seeking the help and advice of a colleague is not the same as failing or admitting defeat. Taking action to protect the interests of the majority of students – even if that means excluding one or more students – is sometimes the right thing to do.

Moreover, your school leaders have a responsibility to support you and you should never feel guilty about asking for their help. Even if they disagree with your judgement, they should publicly back you every time. 

Of course, enlisting the help of school leaders is tough because you will find yourself comparing their methods with your own. But when observing more experienced teachers in action – particularly school leaders – you should remember that they have had more practice at managing behaviour than you and have more authority which makes the job of managing behaviour inherently easier. 

Don’t assume the fact that students seem to behave better for other teachers is in any way an indictment of your methods. It’s hard being a new teacher in a new school, it takes time to establish yourself and win the respect of students. But you will. 

If it’s the former – students will re-engage – you need to remain patient and professional, and engage in some positive classroom management techniques, or positive discipline. As much as being positive in the face of disrespectful teenagers might stick in your throat, it’s the right thing to do...

Zero-tolerance to zero-tolerance

When a student misbehaves, it is human nature to become defensive and to want to get tough, but getting angry and taking it personally is counterproductive. 

Defiant young people don’t often succumb to coercion, rather they can be incited by it. If your sanctions are harsh you might possibly be able to subdue a short-term rebellion but in so doing you will demotivate the student and this will prove a hollow victory over the long-term.

Dealing angrily and harshly with misbehaviour can also lead the student to fear you, dislike you, think that you don’t like them, avoid you, or become sneakier so they don’t get caught next time. Moreover, it doesn’t model the kinds of behaviour you want students to acquire. You want to show them what it means to be an adult, to be mature, to be calm and collected.

Here are 10 useful tips for managing behaviour in a calm and collected manner.

Top 10 behaviour strategies

  1. As the teacher, and the adult, you are “in charge”. It is your classroom and you must actively and consciously make the rules and decisions, rather than letting them happen out of habit, poor organisation or at the whim of students. Demonstrate your authority by the position you take in the room; keep on your feet as much as possible and be where you can watch everything that is going on. Students should believe that you have eyes in the back of your head.

  2. Students need to know what is expected of them in your classroom. Establish a set of rules which make desired behaviours explicit and display them prominently in the room, referring to them as often as possible so that they don’t disappear. The rules should tell the students what to do, rather than what not to do.

  3. Reward the right behaviours more than you sanction the wrong ones. Give students rewards for displaying desirable behaviours. The goal is to establish the habit of co-operation. Standards can be subtly raised once the habit has been established. Praise is the most powerful reward. By rewarding good behaviour you are giving oxygen to the students who deserve it most and you are providing naughty students with a role-model to follow.

  4. Get a student’s full attention before giving instructions. Make sure everyone is looking at you and not playing with a pen, turning around, chatting. Be very clear in all your instructions and expectations. Have a student repeat them back to you.

  5. Tactical ignorance is sometimes good but be aware that low-level misbehaviours can escalate if they are not dealt with quickly and consistently. A student’s behaviour is reinforced when s/he gets attention for it, but don’t be tempted simply to ignore it. Find a calm and quiet way to let the student know that you see exactly what s/he is doing and that there is a consequence, without making a fuss, getting upset or sounding annoyed. Use eye contact or a question.

  6. Avoid confrontational situations where you or the student has to publicly back down. Talk to the student in terms of her/his choices and the consequences of those choices, and then give sufficient “take-up” time.

  7. Never attempt to start teaching a lesson until the students are ready. It is a waste of everyone’s energy, giving the impression it’s the teacher’s job to force pupils to work and their job to resist and delay. 

  8. Do not teach up to the last minute and rush because the next class is waiting. Allow time to answer questions, review that day’s learning, outline plans for the next lesson, and put equipment away. Try to end the lesson on a positive note. 

  9. Use positive language. For example, instead of “will you stop talking”, say “I’d like everyone listening”; instead of “stop turning around”, say “I’d like everyone facing this way please”. Say please and thank you as often as possible. Use choice direction such as “either/or” – “You can either work quietly by yourself or you can come up and sit with me” – or “when/then” – “When you have finished tidying up your desk, then you can sit wherever you want.” Make a deliberate pause to gain students’ attentions and a direction to ensure they have sufficient time to act: “John ... could you face this way ... and listen, thank you.”

  10. Use positive body language. Gain their attention with eye contact before you say what you want to say. Allow “take-up time” – ask someone to come to you then turn away, talk to someone else, the student will come to you in their own time. Alternatively, in a corridor, ask someone to come over to you for a second then walk to somewhere more private away from the audience.

And finally...

You should ignore any fool you tells you, “Don’t smile till Christmas”. Smile as often as possible. Show students that you are enthusiastic about teaching them. Be yourself. Be human. Be brilliant. Good luck!

  • Matt Bromley is an education writer, lecturer, and consultant headteacher. He is a member of the executive board of the Derby College Group and Education Trust and teaching and learning improvement director for six college academies and three schools. Until 2012, he was acting headteacher of one of the top five most improved schools in England. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley

NQT Special Edition Download
On November 28, 2013, SecEd published in partnership with the NASUWT, eight pages of best practice and advisory articles aimed at supporting NQTs and young teachers. Ranging from behaviour and CPD to SEN and pedagogy, the articles offer valuable, practical advice and are freely available. You can read them in the best practice and blog sections of this website. Or you can download the free eight-page PDF at http://bit.ly/1aYJWUo


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