4. Behaviour improvement approaches and strategies to try

There are, of course, many strategies designed to improve behaviour, but as we said at the beginning of this section, it is not solely your responsibility to improve behaviour. Any behaviour strategy that you choose will only work, if it is underpinned by the following principles:

  • there are 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
  • there is a whole school or college approach
  • there is 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
  • there is awareness of adults’ emotional responses to inappropriate behaviour

Improving behaviour

Behaviour is an issue for all levels. Recent reports warn of an increase in violent behaviour from primary school and research by Teacher Support Network found that overall behaviour in primary schools had deteriorated.

How you approach tackling behaviour will vary depending on the level you are teaching, although there will be some similarities.

We will break down techniques by primary and secondary.

Primary and secondary

We are going to talk about four basic approaches, which research has found to improve classroom behaviour

  1. Rules and procedure
  2. Teacher-pupil/student relationships
  3. Disciplinary interventions
  4. Mental set

Some of these strategies are widely used, some are under used and some may even be a little quirky. Some are obvious, but think back to how you said you responded to inappropriate behaviour earlier. [If you did not complete the question, go back here] Is there anything you may want to change or improve? Could a simple or small change have a dramatic effect? You are, like many teachers, concerned about behaviour, but think about it this way: if you keep doing what you are doing, you will keep getting the same responses.

1. Rules and procedures

Classrooms become more orderly places when rules are clearly stated. They get even better when rules have been negotiated, discussed and justified. Pupils and students need persuading. Here are ten steps to improving rules and procedures:

  1. Create rules and express them positively. It shouldn't be a list of don'ts and try not to have too many as pupils are more likely to agree them if they are few and their purpose is clear
  2. Justify rules and rehearse them! "Because I say so" is not a persuasive justification
  3. Discuss rules with the class. Explain their purpose, i.e. health and safety, to improve learning, to enjoy the class situation
  4. Negotiate with the pupils and students to get commitment. Suggest rules, ask for deletions, additions and suggestions. Remember justify and compromise. Get the pupils and students to work in groups, make posters and get them to sign up!
  5. Regularly review the rules together. It's not a one off process.
  6. Encourage pupils to devise rules. Suitable for older, more responsible groups. Encourage ownership and commitment.
  7. 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.
  8. Encourage and develop team working (team rules for success)
  9. Regularly get pupils to self-assess their own behaviour set against the rules. Create a self-assessment form and use it to set targets together
  10. Link the rules to the five broad areas of "low-level disruption"

2. Teacher-pupil/student relationships

Think about the style of relationship you have with your pupils or students that you decided upon earlier. [link back if skipped question] Your relationship with a class or group will, of course, depend on the group, but a balance between a dominant and cooperative style is regarded as the most effective way to improve classroom management.

How do you increase your dominance / assertiveness?

This does not mean that you have to shout or strut about. Dominance and assertiveness is about effective leadership, having a clear path to learning goals and good behaviour, pursued with vigour and enthusiasm, but which is also pupil or student centred. Here are ways to increase dominance and assertiveness

For the class or group

  • Negotiate ground rules
  • Goal setting assessment criteria (what does this mean?)
  • Set learning objectives
  • Set specific behaviour objectives

For you

  • Be authoritative in your speech and in your body language
  • Fake it until you make it and be absolutely confident and in control even if you don't feel it
  • Try the PEP* approach:
  • Proximity: dominance is increased by walking closer to the pupil. Walk around the classroom, stand by a pupil that maybe about to misbehave. Stand a "little too close for comfort" but don't invade personal space. A difficult judgement sometimes. You don't want to come over as aggressive or intimidating.
  • Eye contact: holding eye contact expresses dominance. What you say will be taken more seriously if you can maintain eye contact before, then during and then after speaking.
  • Posing questions: rather than telling a pupil off pose a question with proximity and eye contact such as "Why have you not started your work"?
  • Get out of the habit of sitting behind the desk

These actions are often more effective and far less exhausting than getting angry or shouting and will make you appear in control, even if you do not feel it.

How do you increase cooperation and collaboration?

We all know how challenging it can be being cooperative with badly behaved pupils. How many times have we or our colleagues talked about THAT class or THAT year group. Sometimes a cycle can develop between the teacher and the students that makes things even worse: the pupils misbehave more - you dislike them more - you are less positive and friendly - they dislike you and your classes more - they disrupt more - and so it goes on. The cycle needs to be broken. The next time you have a class with a particularly difficult student or are worried about a challenging group, why not try the following: First try focusing on putting negotiated and clear rules in place. This will often require a great deal of emotional generosity and patience or restrain! Try working on those acting skills if needs be. The main aims are to be more positive, friendly and fair.


  1. Meet and greet by the door. Get off to a good start.
  2. Catch them doing the right thing and comment positively in private. Much inappropriate behave is attention seeking.
  3. Put the pupil in "intensive care". No it's not what you think! Smile, use their name positively, ask for their opinion, make a point at looking at their work, comment favourably about genuine effort or achievement. Talk to them, be patient and helpful, have high expectations and keep calm. Show you value them. But don't overdo it! Don't sound desperate and be fair, use this approach with your well-behaved pupils as well.
  4. Learn their names. Seems obvious. But it is especially valuable when you are new to a school
  5. Engage in an informal way .Let them know you don’t just see them as pupils but as individuals with interests, hobbies, and life outside school.
  6. Use eye contact and proximity
  7. Collaborate .Problem solve together. What’s the problem here? What can we do about this?
  8. Build team and group work.
  9. Have high expectations and let them know
  10. Develop flexible responses and teaching styles
  11. Give responsibilities to targeted pupils
  12. Avoid sarcasm. What you might think is light-hearted may be damaging your teacher- pupil relationship
  13. Check for understanding, reinforcing learning and expectations
  14. Be a good role model for your pupils by acting the way you want them to behave

3. Disciplinary interventions

Think back again to how you respond to inappropriate behaviour in the classroom. [link back] Are you reactive? Do you wait for problems to happen and then respond? Are you consistent? Are you fair? A proactive approach to improving behaviour is usually much more effective. Remember managing behaviour is not just about responding to inappropriate behaviour. It is about creating conditions that encourage positive behaviour.

Try the following approach: - Remind pupils of rules before activities take place - Reinforce appropriate behaviour. Use tokens and symbols which can be used for privileges - Encourage pupils and students to self-assess their and behaviour and award themselves appropriate tokens/points - Individual/ Group/Whole class rewards. To receive these rewards there needs to be very clear success criteria - Mild punishments: What’s important is the consistency and fairness of the punishment. Its success as an intervention is also dependent on the assertiveness in which it is given. It means being firm, unemotional, unapologetic and confident. It does not mean being hostile or aggressive. (But a warning and sticking rigidly to a behaviour plan demonstrates consistency but can also lead to a non-negotiable situation whereby a small problem escalates out of all proportion.)

4 Mental set

Although, you are not solely responsible for improving pupil behaviour, improving your attitude to classroom management can have dramatic effects. There are two parts to this:

  1. Withitness. Knowing your classroom. This is a term first used by Kounin (1970 ) meaning an awareness of what is going on in all areas of your classroom and having a quick response to actual and possible disruptions. It’s a “nip in the bud” approach that stops inappropriate behaviour spreading.
  2. Emotional objectivity. Thinking how you will respond to disruption and not letting your emotions lead the way. Withitness strategies
  • Invest time getting to know your classroom and pupils
  • Get to understand the physical, social and psychological settings that you and your pupils and students find yourselves
  • Find out where the “hot spots” are. Run a behaviour audit or make this a specific of classroom observation
  • Scanning. Position yourself so you can scan regularly and make eye contact with as many of the class as you can.
  • Intervene promptly. Make your pupils know straight away or even before it happens! Combine eye contact and proximity approaches as mentioned earlier. Early identification and intervention is an essential factor in successful behaviour management
  • Use of names combined with eye contact (sharp tone)
  • Silent and still approach. Stop what you are doing and remain silent and give eye contact until you get the response you want, then continue
  • Non- verbal reminders and commands. These are quite traditional but are still effective e.g. finger to lips to ask for silence, standing straight with hands on hips to signal displeasure, click fingers to signal “stop it”.
  • Be organised. Prepare your classroom and have materials ready!
  • Reminders and warnings about rules before an activity
  • Walk about with plenty of eye contact

Experienced teachers

As teaching, learning and classroom management are all dynamic processes, it is important that teachers do not forget that they also have to change and be versatile, no matter how experienced they are; to self-evaluate and then take action. This does not mean losing sight of principals and letting the students rule, however. It is about realising that schools change and student behaviours change according to so many influencing factors: sociological, attitudinal, cultural and technical to name but a few. It is no good teachers reiterating throughout their career that things have changed, schools and students are not the same, things are worse now, if they themselves continue to act in the same way.

Again, this does not mean discarding techniques that work – there is a lot to be gained from old, tried and tested methods. Teachers do need to keep up-to-date with learning processes, styles and how young people learn. The ability on behalf of the teacher as they become more experienced to use a variety of teaching methods to match various learning styles is crucial to good classroom management and can reduce disruptive behaviour and keep pupils engaged, which ultimately leads to high quality learning.

Try the following: - reflect on your current behaviour management techniques. Write a list of what works well. Next to it write of list of techniques that do not work so well. Consider why these work well or not so well? Does it depend on the group? Do you need to refresh how you employ these techniques? Are they no longer relevant? - Remind yourself of behaviour management skills you have learnt and used in the past, but no longer employ. Could they work again? - Get to understand the physical, social and psychological settings that you and your pupils and students find yourselves - Compare notes with colleagues – old and new. How do they manage classes and groups? What works well with them? What does not work so well? - keep up to date on the latest learning processes - how do you respond to change? Some older, more experienced teachers do not like change and this in itself can cause tension and stress. Take a look at John Fisher’s Personal Transition Curve (John Fisher 2012) to help manage change.

Emotional objectivity

It is not always easy to remember, but bad behaviour is not an attack on you. It is not personal. If you do see it as something personal, you are more likely to get angry, upset, depressed or resentful. Try to remain unemotional, this does not mean being distant. You should be alert and business like, but you are protecting yourself and your emotional wellbeing.

Understand yourself

Try not to show anger or frustration, you'll look and feel more in control. Easier said than done as pupils will press buttons you didn't even know you had! But practice. Remember what upset you, so that you recognise the situation next time.
You can also try some of the exercises in e-couch to understand yourself better here.

Students have their own issues

Also remember that your pupils or students may well be dealing with difficulties or issues themselves that maybe causing the inappropriate behaviour.

A 2010 Behaviour Survey by Teacher Support Network found that most education staff believed that discipline and motivation by parents/carers was the most important factor in a pupil’s positive behaviour. The behaviour of their friendship group was also highly rated, and in a minority of cases, special educational needs and/or disabilities were acknowledged as a factor.

You are not alone

You do not need to suffer inappropriate behaviour alone. We will talk about how to get support from within your school or college and outside of the workplace, but it is important to recognise your own feelings. Talk things over with a friend, family or colleague, your union or Teacher Support Network.

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