“I think behaviour is the elephant in the classroom, one of those things we don’t talk often enough about. It’s one of the biggest reasons why teachers leave the profession and one of the biggest fears new teachers have.
“It’s also one of the things that most head teachers say is the biggest training needs of their newest teachers. They say, “I wish my teachers knew more about running their space.” And my response to that is that I’d like to see more leaders knowing how to run their spaces – which is a school. I’m not making it a blame game because nobody’s trained to do this. When I started out in teaching I had no idea how to run a classroom. I asked, ‘How do I do this? How do I capture a room?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh you’ll learn that on your teaching practice.’ So I’d go for my teaching practice and ask, ‘What do I do?’ And they’d say, ‘Why don’t you flirt with them, something like that. Why don’t you make them run the class?’ And I’d think, ‘Thank you for telling me that. Mind if I just kill myself now?’
“There were rarely any fixed answers. If you had a challenging class where the kids were running about you like a maypole, you’d ask ten people and you’d get ten different answers. So I decided to make it my mission to find out what better people were doing.
“It’s a teacher rights issue as well. It’s a retention issue, a recruitment issue, and it’s certainly a public service issue. I talked to the institution for trained teachers and they would often say things like, “Oh they’ll learn it as they go along” – osmotically somehow, as they wander like a grasshopper through the mystery of their life. But children don’t have time to waste and nor do teachers.
“I have been in schools where there’s nobody in the school who knows what should be happening next, nobody you could learn from, and I think it’s terribly sad that some of the basics and fundamentals of the core aspects of our profession are criminally underrepresented in the training.
“Research by the London School of Economics (LSE) found that poor behaviour was leading to the loss of up to one hour of lesson time per day on average. An hour a day through stop/start, through teachers having to repeat themselves; that’s one day a week and one year per cohort. I’m going to argue that most children don’t have a year to waste of one of the most precious things in their lives, and I think teachers get stressed out by this. If you think schools should be examination factories graded by A stars or whatever, you want behaviour to improve; if you want schools to be flower beds where children are youthful butterflies of creativity, fine, but you want great behaviour to make that happen too. Creativity isn’t fostered by incivility or chaos; Mozart wasn’t born out of nothing to become an opera composer at the age of five, Mozart’s dad hot-housed him like a tiger mother. Albert Einstein was bloody good at school. Shakespeare’s creativity is undisputed but you can see the learning dripping off every single page.
“The first thing I found was that teachers and schools having problems with behaviour management were using what I call a reactive triage model; they just try to do their jobs until somebody misbehaves and then they respond to it. The teacher walks into the classroom and says something like, “Good morning, open your papers up, page 42…” and just hopes that they can plough on with as much as possible until the kids mucking about. We do have to respond to challenging behaviour but it’s not enough to only do so. By far the most effective technique I found in use was a proactive approach, laying out what good behaviour meant in that space in the classroom or the school so that children knew where they stood and could gravitate towards it as well as learning effective reactive techniques.
“I went around as many schools as possible and I asked school leaders how they managed. I went to schools with very challenging demographics, difficult areas where teachers were hard to recruit and hard to retain. I went to coastal, rural, urban, elementary, secondary, primary. I went to special schools, alternative units and secure units. I interviewed hundreds of school leaders and interestingly, many of them could not verbalise what they did.
“I found some universalities but as you’d expect, a lot of it was very contextual. We don’t do the same thing with a three-year old as we would with an 18-year-old who is just out of prison. There are very few magic bullets, very few things that will work with every child, everywhere. What we’re looking for are best bets most likely to work with most people – and then we specialise our strategies beyond that.
“And it became apparent that the main strategy important for all classroom teachers and schools was this: you’ve got to build the culture of the classroom and the school. You’re the architect of that culture and you’ve got to build it consciously. By culture I mean the beliefs and values of a community, the things you all think are reasonably true about conduct and what’s important in life.
“It doesn’t matter if your pupils walk on the left or the right or up the middle so long as that’s part of the culture that you want to have. And if you’re going to have a culture, commit to the culture. People often ask me whether schools should have uniforms and my answer, annoyingly enough is, “Maybe”. If you’re going to have a uniform, you can use that as a lever to project a certain culture, fine. There are really good reasons for having a uniform, but I also see schools with great behaviour that don’t have uniform so that tells me that different levers can achieve the same effect.
“The teachers can have a huge impact on that culture. You establish it, you set the tone for the culture you want to have in the classroom. I don’t mean steam-rollering over their own social or ethnic backgrounds, I mean offering them a school culture or a classroom culture which optimises the flourishing of all. And children are incredibly fluid about taking cues from different cultural cues in classrooms. We all know the child who can go from one teacher to another and behave beautifully in one lesson and terribly in the next. What’s happened is that there’s a different culture in each classroom and the child reacts to that, they know where the expectations and the boundaries lie.
“You create a culture by creating social norms. You flood children and staff with normative messages, ‘This is what’s normal, this is what we do here, we expect you to…be kind. We expect you to… try your best, we expect you to…’ And you don’t say it once, because that’s not how you build habits, you say it all the time, and you make sure that messaging is virtuous and for the flourishing of everyone.
“What you don’t do as a leader is allow staff carte blanche to say what they think, and what you don’t do as a teacher is just hope children will be good. If you’re teaching the sons and daughters of Swiss diplomats you might get away with it, but if you’re teaching human beings, you may not.
“Culture is a huge lever to normalised behaviour and it pre-empts poor behaviour, it minimises poor behaviour. As soon as you meet your class, you start flooding them with normative messaging: ‘Here are the rules of the classroom, they’re not negotiable but here’s why I’m doing them’. You’ve got to sell the benefits because you want kids to agree with you. I don’t agree with co-authoring rules with the kids because there’s not a lot of rules they can come up with that will surprise me.
“Another way to create the culture is through routines. It’s not sexy or glamorous, it’s about rolling up our sleeves and getting on with the job. Far too frequently we’re looking for O Captain! My Captain! moments when in actual fact we should be building routines – teaching, marking a script, handing it back, saying the same thing, repeating expectations and so on. It’s meant to be like that.
“Not everything has to be routine, you only need a routine when there’s a big difference between the picture you want and the picture you have. If the kids are behaving well in the corridor, you don’t need routines for your corridor. And if you’ve got a school where the classroom behaviour is okay but the public behaviour is terrible, you need the routines to help them learn how to behave in a certain way in a certain space.
“It’s weird because we often focus very much on the academic curriculum but very frequently forget that the socialisation curriculum is the one that helps them achieve and access the academic curriculum. And if we’re not helping children to behave in those ways, we’re not actually helping them learn these routines and instructions and to act in this way, we’re de-skilling them for academia and for life.
“It’s not enough to say, “You should know how to behave”, you have to define it. What does it mean when you can’t get an answer and you’re stuck? What does good behaviour mean when somebody starts teasing you or won’t share with you or ask you to share?
“And it’s not enough just to mention it once, it’s immersive and then you have to practice it. And you don’t practice something until they get it right, you practice it until they can’t get it wrong. If your children are not lining up properly, get them to do it and tell them how you want it done and there’s nothing better than making them do it again, until they do it right. It’s tiresome, but it’s that investment which pays dividends during the entirety of your career, your relationship with them and hopefully throughout their academic and social life.”
Teacher and behaviour expert Tom Bennett is the founder of UK-based ResearchED, an international community of educators who believe in evidence-based policy.