Number one for English language teachers

Behaviour management

An article by Alex Case, showing you some ways to predict, understand, reduce and react to bad behaviour in the classroom.

Behaviour management

For even the most experienced teacher, using their favourite tried-and-tested lesson, there are several factors that they fear could mess up their well laid plans once they actually get into class. One is lack of knowledge about the class (especially new classes), which means they can’t predict very well what might happen. Another is that having mixed abilities in the class makes it impossible to predict when all the students will be able to use the language, possibly leading to boredom for some students and frustration for others as you try to fit everything into the standard lesson time. This could be one reason for the third and possibly greatest fear – that bad behaviour by the students could mean there is no hope of getting through the lesson plan at all.

This article aims to show you to some ways to predict, understand, reduce and react to bad behaviour in the class.

The signs of bad behaviour

As what is considered bad behaviour can vary a lot by age, culture, teacher, type of school, etc, let’s first look at what you consider to be serious bad behaviour, not so serious behaviour and not bad behaviour at all. This will also help us when deciding how to respond to bad behaviour of different severities.

Picture just one of the classes you teach every week and for that class mark the behaviour below with points from 5 (totally unacceptable, deserves serious punishment) down to 0 (not bad behaviour at all, maybe even a good thing).

List of ‘bad behaviour’Points for seriousness (0 to 5)
Laughing at inappropriate moments 
Not standing up or sitting up straight 
Adopting sullen, rebellious expressions 
Practical jokes 
Staring out of the window 
Wearing inappropriate clothes or jewellery 
Making noise with classroom objects, e.g. rocking chairs 
Speaking L1 when they should be speaking English 
Not following instructions 
Speaking when they should be quiet 
Making rude noises 
Deliberately going slow 
Refusing to do what the teacher asks 
Doing the opposite of what the teacher asks 
Culturally inappropriate or rude behaviour – e.g. picking their noses 
Not listening 
Cheating in games 
Doodling in/on their notebooks or textbooks 
Not using polite language when they ask for things, etc 
Not completing homework 
Bad remarks, e.g. hurtful comments 
Cheating in tests 
Bad words, e.g. swearing 
Vandalism (or threats of) to school resources or other students’ possessions 
Threats or violence to teacher or students 

The list above is in the order I would put the behaviour for a class of nine and ten year olds I have once a week in a private language school, but would be quite different for my home lessons, lessons in primary schools, etc.

If you found the ranking task quite difficult, don't worry, it was deliberately so. It is a true reflection of how difficult it can be to judge how bad something is in the class. First of all, are any of these behaviours ‘bad’ all the time? When you teach two year olds you soon realise that not joining in could be because of all sorts of reasons and is rarely from a simple desire to make things difficult for people. Also, is the student who is defending him or herself in a fight behaving badly? Are the students not following instructions because they simply don’t understand? Most of all, hurting someone deliberately is very different from doing so accidentally.

Dealing with bad behaviour

One solution to this inability to know for sure what is really bad is to make sure students (and their parents) know what you consider good and bad behaviour to be before the class even starts. Another is for the basic ‘punishments’ in your class to actually be things that you would do even if it wasn’t your fault or you didn’t mean to do it, e.g. say sorry, give a sweet from the teacher to the person who was hurt, say something nice, join the victim’s team, etc. Of course, these might not make much difference to the child who is deliberately and maliciously misbehaving.

Below is a list of some other ‘punishments’ that might be a bit more effective. Read through the list and mark each one for severity and effectiveness in your classes (1 = not strict or effective, 5 = very strict and effective).

List of possible ‘punishments’Severity (1 to 5)Effectiveness (1 to 5)
Give them a disapproving look  
Count down from five, then punish if they don’t stop by that time  
Take time off their time limit for the next round of the game  
Take points off the team  
Call out the name of the student misbehaving (most)  
Divide students from their friends  
Sit them elsewhere, e.g. boys next to girls or at the front  
Disqualify their team from the game  
Write down the student’s name (on the board or in a special book)  
Leave them out of the next activity  
Make them complete their homework while the others play a game  
Give them written work while others are playing games  
Give them something special to hold for speaking L1, etc. This is passed to next person when they are caught  
Make them tidy up the classroom  
Make them stand up when everyone else is sitting down  
Make the student(s) stand in corner  
Make them put faces on arms on desks and be quiet for one minute  
Stop the game halfway through and start bookwork  
Talk to them individually after the class  
Put black marks on a special wall chart  
Put a black mark on the student’s book  
Make them stand up with hands on their head  
Send them out of class for five minutes  
Send them out for the rest of the class  
Tell their homeroom teacher  
Tell their parents  
Put it on their report card / permanent record  

The punishments are listed in ascending order of strictness for a class of seven year olds I taught twice a week in a private primary school in Bangkok, but judging effectiveness is perhaps easier. The biggest factor in making a punishment effective is how much it involves peer pressure – if you take points off their team, the team will soon make sure that it doesn’t happen again! Also, be wary of humiliating students; this will just lead to resentment towards you.

Using team and other peer pressure doesn’t have to be just negative, as giving points can be at least as effective as taking them away. Here are some other ‘rewards’ you can use for behaviour management, to make a ‘carrot and stick’ approach when combined with the punishments above.

List of ‘rewards’

  • Give the teams not misbehaving extra points
  • Keep students in the same teams for several lessons and give a prize to the month’s winning team
  • Let students who finished the bookwork quickly join the next game as they finish
  • Put stickers on their written work for good work
  • Put stickers on a wall chart for good behaviour / good work
  • Praise good work
  • Smile
  • Point out the best student or team
  • Give a round of applause
  • Use positive gestures – raised arms for victory, thumbs up, etc
  • Have class monitors and team captains
  • Have badges for the students with best pronunciation, spelling, etc, each lesson
  • Have a favourite game to play as a reward for when the class is good
  • Give sweets or small toys
  • Write personal positive comments next to their written work

Again, it is difficult to decide which are the biggest and most effective rewards for each class, but it is important to have at least a vague mental ranking before you go into class. This is because of the most important of the top twelve behaviour management tips below – be consistent. More than anything else, if students start to think that you are showing favouritism or picking on one student or group of students, all your efforts at behaviour management are likely to come to nothing. Below are all the top twelve tips, in no particular order.

Top twelve behaviour management tips

1. Be consistent

As above, if students think you are showing favouritism or picking on one student or group of students, they are much less likely to behave themselves.

2. Make sure students (and their parents) know what you consider good and bad behaviour to be

There are many ways of achieving this, e.g. making a poster of class rules or a class contract, sending letters out to the parents, etc.

3. Start from a blank slate

It needs to be possible for a student who has got into a pattern of bad behaviour to be able to start again from zero, e.g. only counting bad behaviour in the present class and trying to forget all preconceptions from previous classes, wiping points boards clean once a month, etc.

4. Do yourself what you expect the students to do

If you don’t expect the students to shout, don’t shout to get their attention. If they aren’t allowed to use L1, don’t resort to it yourself, however difficult something is to explain. If you expect them to say ‘please’, do the same yourself.

5. Teach good behaviour as a classroom topic

Lots of the language and topics of bad and good behaviour can be fun and useful in class, from story books about kids who wouldn’t go to bed, to games where all the class mime bad behaviour with their fingers or finger puppets and the nominated ‘teacher’ has to tell them, ‘Don’t…’ to stop them all within a time limit.

6. Have a clear set of phrases and gestures for things you want them to do

For example, putting your finger on your lips for ‘be quiet’ and your hand behind your ear for ‘please speak’. If these are gestures that are used outside the students’ country, all the better. Again, bring this into class as a classroom activity/game/topic and be consistent with the gestures you use. Planning the gestures you will use before each class can also be useful.

7. Play games where good behaviour results naturally in winning the game

If you have a class that never listens, play a game where you whisper some of the words they need to react to. If they are too active, play a standing still game like ‘dead lions’ or ‘musical statues’. In both cases, they will also need a chance afterwards to use their natural noise and energy levels.

8. Be aware of their energy and concentration levels

However well you use the classroom management skills above, if your class can only usually concentrate for five minutes on one thing, there is little you can do to stretch that past ten minutes. If it’s not working, switch activities and maybe go back to it later. As you get to know a class well, you will be able to sense when they need an active physical activity to tire them out and when they need a quiet sitting down one to cool them down. Timing the bookwork so they are not restless but not too tired is also important.

9. Make sure the lesson is fun

Easier said than done, I know. Have a look at the Games section for some ideas.

10. Bond

If the students like, care about and are interested in you and the other students, and feel that you and the other students feel the same way, this is sure to stop them doing something that would disappoint the class. You can form a close connection to your students by learning and using their names and other personal information in class, e.g. their hobbies, birthdays and families. Friendly nicknames can also sometimes help. The students can bond with each other during activities where they work in teams and groups, both cooperatively and against other teams. Having activities where they give and ask for real personal information such as likes and dislikes is also useful, as is giving each student a chance to show off their particular skill in English class – be it music, drawing, football skills or using a yo-yo.

11. Plan your classroom management

All the things above could be brought into the lesson spontaneously, but are much easier to include if they are in your lesson plan. Having a lesson plan with flexible timings and ordering of activities helps. If classroom management is something you particularly want to work on, try having specific spaces on your lesson plan with this in mind. Examples include ‘classroom language’ that you want to include and/or teach that day, a ‘seating plan’ to put particular people in particular places, ‘energy burner’ games, ‘cooling down’ activities and ‘reward games’.

12. Think about why they are misbehaving and change that

The one and only negative thing about having full command of the range of techniques above is that you might be managing the class so well that you are missing a much easier way of getting to the root of the matter. Often simply moving their chairs, turning on more lights and turning down the heating can make a huge difference. Below are some more reasons that should be possible to solve.

Reasons for bad behaviour

Physical and environmental

  • The classroom is too hot or dark (brighter and colder than a normal home helps concentration and learning)
  • Nothing in the classroom marks out where they should be, so they move around a lot
  • They can’t move and feel restricted
  • Students are too close to each other and feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable
  • They can’t see the board, flashcards, etc.


  • The students don’t get what they expect in class
  • The students expect the class to be boring or a waste of time, and act accordingly without giving it a chance
  • They expect adults to be overly strict or not strict at all

Problems from outside the class

  • Diet, e.g. additives in drinks and sweets
  • The lesson before and after, e.g. sports that got them over excited or tired or a test
  • Personal problems from home or school (e.g. they've had a bad day at school or had an argument with a parent) can put them in a bad mood


  • Showing off to impress other students
  • It isn’t cool to be good at school
  • Personality clashes between teacher and student(s) or between students
  • They have personal or cultural reasons for reacting badly to one type of teacher, e.g. a female teacher


  • What they should be doing isn’t clear
  • They can’t understand the rules of the game
  • They don’t understand why they are playing the game or learning that particular language


  • The task/language is too difficult/easy
  • They feel like they have been put in the wrong level class and are resentful or nervous

Energy levels

  • They are over-excited
  • They have too much energy and need to burn it off
  • They are physically and/ or mentally tired – especially if the lesson happens after a hard school day or just before or after lunch


  • They have personal or cultural reasons for not liking the English language
  • They are demotivated by losing games all the time
  • They are demotivated by past failure in language classes

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Readers' comments (2)

  • This is very helpful information to remember. I especially like the list of reasons why students might be engaging in bad behavior: It reminds me not to take it too personally, as a multitude of external factors come into play in the classroom. Thanks!

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  • Quite informative and practical. Im often confronted by those bad behavior situations. I almost gave up trying to teach until I saw this helpful article! I will definitely try to use these tips and suggestions to make my students as well as myself become more effective in learning and teaching. Thanks for this article again!

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