Margot McCamley discusses discipline and offers practical advice and suggestions on how to ensure students behave well in class.

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How do we get students to behave in class? Usually not by telling them to behave, but by using behaviour patterns that ensure they behave. This article contains tips and strategies for you to try.

Before you begin, however, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself.

Things to consider

  • Have you set a code of behaviour in the classroom?

In order that they don’t break ‘the rules’, students first need to be clear what the rules are. A behaviour code should be set with the students, where possible, so they know the consequences of their behaviour. This is also a good activity for an early lesson. Get the students, in groups, to think of examples of good and bad behaviour, then agree as a class on what the final set for their class should be. Display this prominently on the wall or the board. Five or six key points are sufficient. Sometimes, just pointing to this is enough to bring disruptive students back in line.

Also, a code of behaviour for the teacher should be included. This should state what the teacher will do for the students, e.g. be patient, never yell, work hard to help you learn the language… etc.

  • Are the students really understanding you or are they missing most of what you are saying?

There is one way to demotivate students and that is for them not to understand what is really going on. Very often, bad behaviour patterns are because students do not understand what is being taught to them and they find no purpose in the noise coming from the teacher. Make sure your students are engaged and finding relevance in what they are learning. This does not mean games where students are over-active: fast-moving games are not necessarily the answer to discipline. In fact, they often exacerbate the problem.

  • What type of ‘troublemaker’ are they?

Attention seeker: do they show off to get the rest of the class laughing?

STRATEGY: Ignore minor misbehaviours up to a point (set a limit). Be FIRM and CONSISTENT; when behaviour is good, give attention to that behaviour.

Power seeker: do they want to ‘put one over’ on you all the time?

STRATEGY: Don’t argue or fight with the student; remain fair and firm about the behaviour. Catch them out doing something good, rather than bad.

Revenge seeker: act defiant, e.g. a student won’t move to another area of the classroom when you think his or her behaviour is unacceptable.

STRATEGY: Most of all, don’t act hurt – students see that as a weakness because they have had a reaction. Convince the student that he or she is liked – find the student doing something good and smile at and commend that good behaviour.

Withdrawn or depressed: gives up easily and then sits in silence.

STRATEGY: Ignore failures, but counsel regularly. When counselling, always give good news first – e.g. I like what you did here – then counsel with the bad behaviour. Lastly, finish positively – how the behaviour can be addressed and arrive at a solution.

Most of all, be FAIR and CONSISTENT and praise and highlight good behaviour over bad.

Tips and strategies

  • Change students around

Have ‘bad behavers’ sit at the front of the class. This way you can move towards them more easily and maybe touch them lightly on the shoulder or pause near them if they are getting out of hand. Make eye contact as you move away. Sometimes these small gestures are enough to keep students in check.

  • Use soft reprimands

Find time to praise the good work the student does. If the bad behaviour is minor, then ignore it wherever possible. Don’t yell. Remain silent until the group settles down. If you have some students on side – those who do know what is going on – they will settle the rest of the group down. Let them be the ones to say ‘shush’. Sometimes, simply clapping your hands a couple of times brings the group back in line. Then speak softly, not loudly. This has a calming effect on the whole class and means the students have to quieten down to hear what you are saying.

  • Encourage even your ‘worst’ student

When they are behaving well, catch them doing that. Say, ‘Well done’, ‘Good work’. It is amazing how soon you get them on-side if they think you are finding them out doing good work. Counsel when you can and don’t make it always about bad behaviour. Speak to a student after the class, sometimes in front of their friends, and say how well you think they are doing. This motivates the rest of the group, too.

  • Don’t allow yelling at the teacher in class when students know something

Shouting, ‘Miss!’ and ‘Sir!’ and standing up and coming to the teacher all the time is another disruptive behaviour. It can be VERY noisy if all the students know the answer and are yelling at you, and you don’t want a rush of students all trying to show you their work.

They soon learn the discipline of putting their hand up when a response is needed or that you will look at their work at an appropriate time. This makes for a more productive classroom and students feel great when they are chosen to answer. You feel better too because you don’t have a headache from all the noise!

  • Move around in the proximity of the misbehaving student when the bad behaviour is persistent

Not in a disciplinary way, rather in the guise of helping them with the problem they have. Maybe they don’t understand something? Move towards them, see if you can help, then when you have calmed the student, walk away with a smile and a ‘Well done’.

  • Create some healthy competition and encourage peer pressure for good behaviour

At the start of class/term, put your students into teams. Allow them to choose a team name or assign team names yourself, as you feel appropriate. Throughout the lesson/term, award points for good work/behaviour and deduct points for inappropriate behaviour. Award a certificate/stickers/small prize to the highest-scoring team at the end of the class/term. This encourages students to do their best work and you will find that the ‘threat’ of point deduction spurs students on to put pressure on their peers to behave well. If your classroom has digital facilities, ClassDojo can do all of this digitally and is often very effective and popular with young learners.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Your (more experienced) colleagues and manager/s can often give you new ideas and approaches to try. Colleagues who have had similar issues with their classes (or even taught your own students previously) can give a fresh perspective and say what has/hasn’t worked for them.

  • Be firm but approachable

It often works best to start off being firmer rather than friendlier with new classes – especially with ones you think may be problematic. It’s easier to start firm and then soften your approach with learners than to do it the other way round. At the end of the day, students (even teens) feel more secure when they have clearly defined boundaries and understand clearly what is/isn’t acceptable. Parents will also expect teachers to be able to keep control of the class.

  • Don’t lose your temper!

As trying as students may be, once you’ve lost your temper you’ve lost control of the class and the balance of power then resides with the students.

  • Don’t humiliate students

Whether this is by chastising them in front of the class, or inflicting demeaning punishments such as ‘naughty corner’ (or even corporal punishment – still seen as acceptable in some parts of the world), humiliating students will only turn them against you and cause resentment. As you are passing the student, quietly say that you want to see them after class.

When talking to them later, get down to their level (either by sitting or crouching) so that you don’t appear intimidating. Find out the cause of their misbehaviour and explain that it is not helping the student to behave in this way. Explain why their behaviour is wrong and what consequences (other than punishments) this might have for them and others (for example, how their inappropriate behaviour might make others feel). Try to elicit all of this from the students themselves, if possible.

At the end of the conversation, try to mention something positive about the student (for example something they are good at or some good work they have done) and agree on a plan or agreement going forward for how their behaviour will improve. End on a positive note, ensuring that the student understands that it’s their behaviour choices that you dislike, not them. Making the student feel bad about themselves won’t motivate them to change their behaviour.

  • Get parents on side

Explaining (gently!) any behavioural issues to a parent/guardian can often be insightful. You may discover previously unknown reasons for students behaviour related to their life outside the classroom, or you may discover techniques that are used effectively at home / other educational situations that work with the learner. However, tread carefully: parents nearly always dislike criticism of their child, and in some cultures parental punishments for misbehaviour at school may be harsh. Be constructive.

  • Remember you are in control

Be friendly, but don’t try to be the students’ best friend (they more than likely already have one!). You DO know more than them (that is why you are the teacher!) and keeping a slight air of authority will enable the students to respect you.

  • With very young learners, try ‘fingers on lips/hands on head’

If the class is getting rowdy, stand at the front with a finger on your lips or your hands on your head. The students who are paying attention will copy you. Slowly, the rest of the class will catch on and do this too. Don’t stop until the whole class is quiet and copying your action. This may require a little patience on your part, but is a good way to refocus the attention of a class, especially if you need to speak to them as a whole. 

A final message

  • But most of all, be FAIR