Challenging inappropriate behaviour: Getting back to basics

Written by: Gerry Mallaghan | Published:
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When managing behaviour it can often be a good idea to get back to basics. In this spirit, experienced teacher Gerry Mallaghan offers some practical suggestions for dealing with discipline problems in your classroom

In recent years, it has been sad to see an increasing number of teachers struggling with the challenges of the profession. While there is debate on the reasons why, what is certain is that there has been an increasing number of teachers leaving education (as shown by the Department for Education’s regular school workforce statistic updates).

Throughout my career, I have seen too many teachers, both new and experienced, in tears because of a terrible lesson with a difficult class.

Working with young people is extremely rewarding, but can also be very challenging; sometimes things do not go to plan. Remember, a difficult class is not an entire class, but often just a small number of individuals creating a particular dynamic.

This article is intended to offer some suggestions that can change the dynamic of a class and/or tackle the behaviour of individual students.

Ask a colleague

Working in a classroom, teachers can sometimes forget that they do not work in isolation. In any institution, there will be staff with a wealth of experience and knowledge.
It is very likely that a colleague already has experience of working with a similar, if not the same, class. They can give you advice on what they have already tried, what worked and what did not.

Do not be afraid to ask a colleague if you can watch how they interact with their students, or invite them to watch your lesson and give you some constructive feedback. Teaching assistants are also a good source of information as they often follow the same student and or class around all day and know how they react to different teachers in different environments.

Speak with parent/guardian

Over the course of my career, I can count on one hand the number of times I have interacted with parents who are not supportive. I have worked in some challenging areas and I know that there are parents who are less engaged with their child’s education – but they are a minority.

Most parents just want to know that their child is behaving, making progress and whether there is anything they can do to help.

In my experience, it is important to contact a student’s parents as soon as possible when they are not meeting expected standards. I would always make first contact by phone, making sure to record the date, time and telephone number used.

Before you make the phone call, check you have read any notes on the student’s profile and have identified the name and title of the main contact. To start the call, I would ask for the main contact, give my name and place of work, then ask if the person had a few minutes to talk about their child.

I would then outline the concern, describe the impact it is having, identify the actions you have taken or will take in response, and, crucially, what you want from the parent.

For example, student X is always talking in lessons and is not making enough progress. This lack of focus will result in a lower grade than they could achieve and is distracting others in the class. They have received a detention at lunch and been put on report. Can you (the parent) speak with them about their behaviour and check their report daily to help monitor any improvements.

Telephone calls do not always go as easy as this example, but remain professional and you will be fine.

If things start to go wrong, thank the person for their time and end the call as politely as possible. If you are very nervous or inexperienced you can always set the phone call to speakerphone and have a colleague listen in on the call. Always make a written record of the discussion and any outcomes or actions that result.


Pre-empting and planning a solution is always a better approach to tackling any issue rather than waiting until the problem arises and dealing with it then (hence the importance of greeting your students at the door).

Teachers can spend hours preparing materials and activities for a difficult class. However, you must also plan a response to student behaviours. If student X often gets disruptive and distracts others, plan to use the school behaviour policy – e.g. three strikes and removal from lesson – to deal with this.

For example, have a piece of self-contained work and appropriate work space available in case the student needs to be removed.

The important things are to record any incidents and to ensure that your strategy fits within the school’s behaviour policy. Sometimes, as the students arrive at your door, you must accept that the activity/lesson you planned will not work and that you will need to adapt or abandon it. Do not make the mistake of trying to implement activities anyway – if things are not going to plan, save it for another day and try something else.

Seating plan

When setting up a seating plan, teachers fall into two camps. First, there are those who spend hours using all available information and data analysis to develop a finely tuned seating plan. Then there are the rest who just get the students to sit down and over time move them to get the best dynamic.
If there are problems in your lesson, identify the groupings that work and keep them, break up the groupings that do not. Sometimes you need to go a step further and rearrange the furniture in the room to get a seating plan that works.

Reward systems

All schools have a behaviour policy and it is critical that you follow it, keeping accurate records. Schools should also have a rewards policy, but this often varies in its effectiveness and implementation.

If there is an effective school reward system, use it. I have never found a student who does not like positive reinforcement. You can of course use your own rewards as well as (not instead of) the school’s system.

There has always been debate regarding the use of food, such as sweets, to reinforce positive behaviour. I have known staff who use this type of reward regularly and while it is expensive, they swear by it.

Based on my own experience, I would suggest that this is best avoided as a regular method of management. However, never underestimate the power of a sticker, or a positive postcard, email or phone call home. This takes time out of your day, but using templates and admin support you can speed the process along.

Parents also appreciate you taking the time out of your day to say something positive, as all too often schools only get in touch when things go wrong. Just remember that the shorter the time between the action and reward, the more impact the reward has.

The school’s policies

I have already referred to this, but it is of such importance that I have to give it another mention. All educational institutions have policies in place and you must ensure that you are implementing the procedures within them. If you do not, it makes escalating any issues very difficult.

Furthermore, teachers often record major behaviour incidents, but not low-level disruption. However, low-level disruption could be an issue with a student across the school and if nobody records the issues formally the problem will never come to light to get resolved.

When I had to deal with escalated issues, it was difficult to discuss these with parents when the only evidence provided was a general complaint from a teacher. The most effective discussions occurred when I could present written reports with dates, times, details of poor behaviour and the actions already taken by staff.

Armed with this information, it was difficult for parents to argue and the conversation focused on addressing their child’s behaviour, rather than passing blame.

Formal request

You can ask any member of staff, including your line manager and/or head of department, for support. However, you can also ask your line manager and or head of department for support more formally. This support can be requesting an additional member of staff in the classroom, asking that they have a discussion with key students regarding behaviour, or even place key students on report.

When you make such a request it should be in writing, digitally or on paper. You should outline the problem, list the steps you have already taken to resolve the issue and describe the specific actions you require from them. The critical part is that you show that you have taken all reasonable steps as the classroom teacher to resolve the issue first.


These strategies will work with some classes and individuals, but might not work with others. The important thing is stick to policy and keep records of everything.
Despite all your planning and hard work some things are beyond your control. A last-minute room change, larger than normal class size, the weather, what the student had for lunch – the list of external factors is endless. So focus on the factors that you can actually change and do your best.

  • Gerry Mallaghan is an experienced teacher of 13 years, currently working at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire.


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