Are you struggling to manage behaviour? Here’s why.

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About this time in the Northern hemisphere, as teachers settle into a pattern with new classes and norms have been set, there will be many who are struggling to manage behaviour.

There are three statements that I wish to make about classroom management and that I believe to be true.

1. Classroom management exists as a separate set of skills to the other skills involved in teaching, even if there is considerable overlap.

2. Some people are really good at classroom management and others are poor at it. You can get better at it by working hard on it and some people will make progress more rapidly than others. In other words, learning classroom management is exactly the same as learning any other set of skills.

3. Classroom management exists in a school context. You can’t surf if there are no waves and you can’t manage a classroom without support from the whole school community, particularly the leadership. 

Unfortunately, student-centred education is to varying degrees the dominant philosophy in our education systems and it struggles to reconcile itself with any of this. Student-centred educators valorise intrinsic motivation. They see classroom management as extrinsic motivation at best and as a form of coercion at worst.

The problem is that, by definition, you can’t intrinsically motivate students. It has to come from within. Even posing an interesting question for students to investigate is, ultimately, a form of external manipulation. If you give students plenty of choice over what to do and how to do it then those students who are already intrinsically motivated about academic work will pursue it and those who are not will not. And what are you going to do about it? This is a pedagogy of privilege where those who already have a lot will gain more and those who are without will gain little. Think of the child who isn’t taught to read because she’s not considered ready and then imagine how that will play out in the long term.

If student-centred educators accepted this logic then they would need to change their philosophy. So they cling to a myth instead. If only the content can be made interesting enough, relevant enough, authentic enough, then all students will want to engage: we can extrinsically intrinsically motivate children. This is also a convenient cover for managers who don’t want to intervene to help teachers deal with behaviour issues – it’s the teacher’s fault for presenting dull lessons. She should perhaps spend a few extra hours a day designing funky activities.

Although a myth, there are aspects of this approach that are plausible. I have written before that I would back myself to engage most middle school science classes by giving them poster work to do, particularly if I didn’t insist on there being much science content on the posters. 

But I haven’t actually changed students’ motivation. I’ve change my own objective of teaching science into something else that students are already motivated about: bubble writing and drawing pictures. Similarly, I can change my maths teaching objective from teaching students algebra to getting them to play with piles of sticks and form patterns. Students might be more motivated by this than actual algebra (or they might perhaps start throwing the sticks around). 

It is true, of course, that there are more and less interesting ways of presenting a concept. Given the choice, I would pick the more interesting one, provided that it doesn’t reduce the clarity of what I’m trying to teach or subtly shift my objective. But this is still about externally manipulating the situational interest of students rather than changing what intrinsically motivates them.

Ultimately, classroom management reduces to the manipulation of rewards and sanctions coupled with cues and warnings; extrinsic motivation. These can be as subtle as a look or an encouraging word and the can be as radical as exclusion from school. I believe that exclusion has to be available as an ultimate sanction – some students can be a danger to their peers – but I do wonder whether incidents often escalate to the level of exclusion because a systematic approach is not in place prior to this stage.

This issue could present in the form of a new teacher whose relationship deteriorates with her class, gets little support and ends up saying something that prompts a child to push her against a wall, leading to an exclusion. It could look like the student who is never coerced  into engaging in academic work, sees the gap between himself and his peers grow ever wider and becomes angry and resentful. These are two examples of the challenges that breed an environment where students are lost to education and teachers decide to quit the profession. 

We can avoid this situation and we know how. We need to abandon the student-centred philosophy with its queasiness about classroom management.

20 thoughts on “Are you struggling to manage behaviour? Here’s why.

  1. Greg: You are right to say that you cannot intrinsically motivated students (although you can quickly undermine whatever intrinsic motivation a child has, for example by giving them rewards for performance). That is why I find the extrinsic-intrinsic dichotomy for motivation so unhelpful. The fact is that intrinsic motivation is rare, and, in most children, if it exists at all, is focused on a very small number of things. That is why, left to their own devices, students would not spend much time getting better at the things they don’t like to do. That’s why we have education. We create special situations, whether at home, school or elsewhere, which are planned and designed to produce changes in what the child can do. The question is how to maximize the valuable changes that occur.

    In this regard, I find the “dual pathway” theory of Monique Boekaerts a very helpful way of looking at things. When we give students things to do in classrooms, long time learning intentions are translated into short-term responses about whether to engage in the task (and thus potentially learn something) or to focus instead on preserving well-being (e.g., by disengaging, or “playing the fool”). Students with a growth mindset are more likely to engage in the task, but there are lots of other things that teachers can do to “motivate” students. If the students are interested in a task, they will engage in it and some teachers seem to be able to get students interested in things that they weren’t originally interested in (situational as opposed to personal interest). If students care about the topic (e.g., someone who doesn’t like maths, but wants to be an engineer, and knows that maths is part of the deal) then again, they are more likely to go for growth rather than well being, and also the cost-benefit trade-off will be important. The important point here is that intrinsic motivation is so rare that it is almost irrelevant to most teachers. What we need is to understand the different kinds of motivation (e.g., as described by Deci and Ryan in their self-determination theory) and see whether what we are doing is producing more or less of what we want to be happening in our classrooms.

    1. From memory, there is an interesting debate in the literature between Deci and Ryan and another set of researchers about the use of extrinsic motivators. I seem to remember researching it for the TES. I’ll try and look it up.

  2. I liked a great deal about this article but it sometimes concerns me when, as teachers, we talk about classroom management as something we do TO the students. It isn’t. Good classroom management is getting the students to buy into what you’re doing WITH them… it takes time… and effort… and patience but once you can win students over it then blurs the boundaries between intrinsic and extrinsic because students then have an investment in performing well for you. It works with most classes but it takes a huge effort on the part of the teacher to adjust strategies and try different approaches to tap into different students. Once a level of understanding has been reached… there is much less need for the big stick approach.

    1. I think the idea that we have to get pupils to buy in is to be honest a bit ridiculous. In my first year of teaching I was told to get particular students onside to make the classroom work. I didn’t.

      The class environment needs leadership and if the teacher isn’t providing it then someone else is. Explaining why the class environment needs to be the way it is is very different to wasting time getting children to buy into a system. What you suggest just comes across as highly manipulative and I simply wouldn’t engage in that kind of behaviour.

      1. Of course a classroom needs leadership… I absolutely agree. But leadership is rarely about telling people what to do. Leadership is about modelling good practice, supporting those that need it, getting people to understand and believe in your methods… I too have had classes as you describe and in those situations you’ve got to be tough and resilient. I think you’re misinterpreting my ideas. You also suggest that getting students to buy into my methods is a waste of time… I couldn’t disagree more on two fronts. First… I know my students enjoy my classes and most will fully participate, and secondly… through this level of participation most of them achieve superb results when it comes to GCSEs and A levels. I think the point I’m trying to make is that managing students is a lot more than just disciplining them for poor behaviour.

      2. Tarjinder – How is explaining to students why it is in their interests to engage with a subject manipulative? Surely it is our job as teachers to explain what students do not understand?

        There may well be good reasons why students are not engaging – it may be that the work is pitched at a level that is too hard/easy for them, they are dealing with other stresses in their lives, they may have been brought up with low expectations of their overall ability to achieve, which they are now fulfilling, etc. If we don’t ask, how can we as teachers ensure that we deal with those issues as appropriate?

        True leaders do not dictate, let alone rely on punishment to achieve compliance. It sounds entirely typical for what you said was your first year of teaching. I’d like to think that any teacher with a bit more confidence in their own abilities and a bit more experience would not need to resort to that kind of approach.

      3. classroomninja

        In your reply to Tarjinder you said

        “leadership is rarely about telling people what to do”,

        the dictionary says that’s exactly what it is

        Instead you come up with your own definition which is that

        “Leadership is about modelling good practice, supporting those that need it, getting people to understand and believe in your methods”

        That’s not leadership that’s management

        You then use a strawman which ‘is that managing students is a lot more than just disciplining them for poor behaviour’

        This was not mentioned as the only or major function of classroom management in their arguments TG, GA, DW

        I’ll ignore the anecdote in your comment as any side can argue from there and it’s a logical fallacy.

        Greg Ashman, Dylan William and Tarjinder Gill are stating that motivation in a school is extrinsic with severe consequences for those that are capable of the work yet refuse to.

        They are not claiming a student with poor knowledge in a subject will cope with content that requires good prior knowledge.

        Rather that the teacher and school provide the extrinsic motivation to ensure the student works at the level of their ability and more.

        Furthermore, motivation cannot be left to the student as that varies daily, the level must be high for all.

        Private schools and the more successful Grammars do not waste time trying to get students to buy in they set the standard expected through leadership & values usually straight A’s and expect students to meet it.

        They do the same with content, great poetry & literature for example is taught not for it’s relevance but for it’s intrinsic value whether the student buys in or not is regarded as secondary

        Failure to do so results in intervention, including punishment for unmotivated students.

        Whilst entry requirements easily replicated in a comprehensive by the use of setting ensures a better balance of content to current ability.

    2. “Once a level of understanding has been reached …” the teacher is beholden to the student to maintain that level, just as much as vice versa.

      But, my experience is that this works only if you don’t actually ask the most troublesome students to do very much, and certainly not to do anything very hard.

      So, yes, you get a classroom you can manage — but at the cost that a significant part of that classroom won’t do very much work. Some people are very happy to make that bargain, because they get an easier classroom to maintain. I know one school where it is effectively standard operating procedure.

      It’s not a bargain I’m happy with.

      1. I think it very much depends on the dynamics of the class. I’m not suggesting for one minute that any attempt at reaching a student is to the detriment of them actually doing any work. On the contrary… in every classroom there has to be a “bottom line” when it comes to both behaviour and work. Sometimes I’ve known the troublesome students to actually rise to the challenge of hard work because I have held higher expectations of them which have been above and beyond the label that they have been so used to getting. Again, though… it does depend on the student and if the carrot fails they should know what comes next.

  3. Greg,

    You have recommended ‘Classroom Management That Works’ a few times on your blog and I am tempted to buy it, yet, I also have a variety of other texts being recommended to me:

    “Assertive discipline – Canter”
    “Behaviour Guru – Bennett”
    “Getting the buggers to behave – Cowley”
    “Beyond Discipline – Kohn” etc..

    Would you be willing to share what other books you have read on this topic over which you recommend CMTW?


  4. On this topic for teachers looking for advice for parents here are two suggestions:
    123 magic for younger kids
    Drop the worry ball for older kids.

    Both hold that during up to 18 years old kids are not fully responsible and the adults around them are the ones who must take charge. Drop the worry ball is particularly good for advice on how to manage the transition to unsupervised adulthood while not suddenly abdicating the role as adult.

    1. I should add I didn’t see anything about buy-in in either. Both make it clear the responsible adult gets to make the rules. The fine detail is how to do this and provide the child opportunities to have some control over their life but it is not a negotiation.

      1. In the UK a 16 yr can legally produce a child if the parents in their life do not regard them as fully responsible then that’s what many do and get the state to intervene with money.

        14 to 16 is the transition period, not 16 to 18, if you are still treating a 16,17,18 as not a full adult a whole lot of problems will manifest including – a lack of intrinsic motivation

        The best advice anyone can get when they become a teenager 13y+ is

        You are free to make choices, but you are responsible for the choices you make.

        Do that and by the time they are 16 they will function as an adult, as legally and biologically they are designed to

      2. Leo,
        So it’s “fully responsible” at 16 or nothing. Sounds like your own strawman to me. There are all sorts of age dependent restrictions for sex acts, voting, drinking, buying cigarettes, joining the army and so on. If you believe these tell us at what age all children become fully responsible adults then how do you pick which one or which country got it right?

        Even your advice as to what to tell at 13 year old misses the other big part – what consequences a parent might apply to the children in their care for the child’s choices.

        I am not saying there is simple answer other than the real adult has to be the one deciding what choices to allow the child and what consequences to shelter them from or not. Further without good advice many parents will make mistakes. I suggest you at least browse Drop the worry ball.
        It might not be as far off your thinking as you imagine.

  5. I would agree with Dylan Wiliam re different types of motivation and also with classroomninja above in that I find your sole preferred approach of ‘doing things’ to unwilling students a relentlessly negative view of classroom management, and one in which, although you may win individual battles, you are rather needlessly setting up a state of war. The purpose of education is not to force unwilling students through eternal and randomly-selected hoops, but to engage the individual student and enable them to be better versions of themselves. It is neither possible nor desirable to attempt to achieve this without at least some buy-in from the individual students, and your assumption that the teacher-student relationship within the classroom must be one of conflict, in which the teacher must assert their dominance, seems curiously male and really rather hard work.

    I start from the opposite perspective – that it is in the students’ interests to learn, that learning will benefit them rather than me or anyone else, and if they have failed to realise it, then the best form of classroom management is to try to understand why and get to the bottom of what is fundamentally self-destructive, rather than destructive, behaviour. My aim is to help the student learn, not solve some abstract problem of classroom management. Classrooms don’t have feelings – kids do. As teachers, we are there to help kids learn. They are not there to behave well to make our lives easier.

    Progressive teaching methods are neither here nor there – in a truly successful classroom, the aims of the students and the teachers are perfectly aligned. The dichotomy presented here between student-led and teacher-led classrooms is false.

    1. I do not assume that the teacher-student relationship within the classroom must be one of conflict. In fact, I would say that a characteristic of well managed classrooms is the lack of teacher-student conflict.

      1. Maybe I misunderstood you then, but your claim that “classroom management reduces to the manipulation of rewards and sanctions coupled with cues and warnings” does seem to suggest that you see education as fundamentally about forcing reluctant students to do things against their will, which, yes, is about winning a ‘battle’ or conflict within the classroom. I would find that a rather depressing and extremely exhausting approach to classroom management!

        Personally, I love learning and watching others succeed in learning; I hope that that attitude is infectious. Obviously, not all teachers possess the necessary passion, which is a shame. But rewards and punishment regimes sound like a poor substitute for this passion, at best.

      2. Passionate delivery is an extrinsic cue/motivator. It won’t be enough in many circumstances and other extrinsic motivators are needed. You might want to read the summary of research on classroom management that I link to in the piece.

        It appears that you have a fixed mindset about teaching: “obviously, not all teachers possess the necessary passion”. Given that you see this as a prerequisite for good classroom management then is classroom management innate rather than something that can be learnt? Do some teacher have ‘it’ whilst others never will?

  6. I think the key for me is relentless consistency in adhering to the rules of the classroom and applying consequences dispassionately. This provides stability and helps build trust and strong teacher-student relationships. It also conveys a clear message that I have high expectations of the students. I find that this approach based on respecting the rights of all students to learn is especially helpful for students whose home life may lack consistency and boundaries.

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