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Phil Craig takes a positive look at behaviour management in the classroom

It seems to me that if you want to manage something, the first thing you have to do is understand it. So if you want to manage behaviour, you need to understand the underlying factors which lead to the behaviours you encounter.

I find it useful to look at behaviour in terms of nine principles of behaviour management which suggest that behaviour is:

  • a language of its own
  • learned
  • conditioned
  • purposeful
  • chosen
  • a communicator of needs
  • the result of “bad day syndrome”
  • able to be changed
  • able to be taught.

Behaviour is a language of its own

An individual’s behaviour speaks to us; it tells us something about what is going on inside that person's head at that precise moment in time. Many, but not all, of the difficult to manage behaviours we encounter in schools and colleges occur as a result of stress, either real or perceived, or because of individuals feeling pressurised. Most of the remainder is down to individuals testing limits, but more of that later.

There are four basic reactions to stress or pressure: fight, flight, freeze and flock.  

“Fight” can be verbal or physical and can occur as a result of a pupil feeling as if they have been backed, or have backed themselves, into a corner with no escape route. The only course of action they can perceive at that moment in time is to fight. Fortunately, though, assaults on members of staff in schools and colleges are still very rare occurrences.

A much more common response to stress or pressure is that of “flight”. Flight occurs when a pupil decides that his/her stress levels are so high that their only option is to flee the situation that is causing their anxiety. They sometimes feel that if they stay in the classroom, they might get involved in a physical confrontation and, as a result, end up in even more trouble than if they run away from the situation.

The worst thing a teacher can do, in this instance, is to block the doorway (the pupil’s escape route) and attempt to stop the pupil exiting the classroom. Teachers must learn not to intervene physically when a pupil has chosen to flee the classroom. Instead, after the event, they should send a pupil to the school office to inform those who need to be informed that a pupil has left the classroom without permission and is currently unsupervised on school premises. After all, the teacher still has a responsibility to educate the remaining pupils in the class.

“Freeze” is when the body or brain shuts down as a result of perceived stress. We have all seen game show contestants who, under the pressure of the situation, find it difficult to remember their own names, let alone the answers to a simple questions. In class, some pupils also freeze when they feel stressed or unable to cope. For example, when unexpectedly asked a question by a teacher, they may feel totally unable to verbalise the answer, even if they actually know it.

“Flock” is when teenagers, in particular, congregate in groups in order to reduce stress levels and feel safer. Flocking is not always a bad thing; teachers can turn this to their advantage by using these friendship groups in a positive way. Very often, during my time in the classroom, I allowed pupils to work together on trust with the proviso that if they abused that trust, I would break them up and move them to other groupings.  I would tell them it was up to them how they chose to behave and whether they wanted to risk having to move. The key to this strategy is not to bluff; if pupils do choose to misbehave, then move they must.

Behaviour is learned

The learning of behaviour starts early because a child’s first teachers are its parents/carers. Take, for instance, the example of a baby or infant in the supermarket. At the end of the shopping expedition, the parent goes to the checkout to pay. On either side of the trolley are conveniently (and not accidentally) placed chocolate bars and sweets. The child, understandably, creates a fuss because it wants a treat. However, it is how the parents/carers react to this behaviour that is now so important. If they capitulate, usually because of embarrassment, they are actually teaching the child how to behave in the future in order to achieve what s/he wants.

So, just like the parent, it is very important for the teacher to start very early in any new academic year to ensure that pupils learn what is expected of them in terms of behaviour in the classroom. Bill Rogers (1995) calls this the “establishment phase” of the year and any effective work that is completed in the autumn term to establish rules, routines and expectations will undoubtedly pay dividends for the remainder of the year. 

Behaviour is conditioned

This conditioning largely comes from the child’s home environment, functional or dysfunctional. When I first came into teaching in the 1970s, there was little or nothing that could be done by teachers to influence what went on in the child’s home. Nowadays, there is much more. I think most parents are now more open about the difficulties they are experiencing at home with their offspring and are more open to advice about parenting skills. This is evidenced by the proliferation of TV programmes about child behaviour in which “experts” give distraught parents advice on what to do and what not to do. Some schools are now also offering parenting classes, often with advice and help from their educational psychologist.

Behaviour is purposeful

In any social setting, an individual's behaviour has a purpose. Dreikurs (1998) postulated that there are only four basic reasons for the types of poor behaviour that are prevalent in schools and colleges and that most young people are merely testing limits. These are:

  • attention-seeking
  • power/control
  • displayed inadequacy
  • revenge.

Attention-seeking behaviours
Pupils have to learn that there are acceptable and unacceptable methods of gaining attention and teachers have to learn not to reward pupils for using the latter method. It is much better to reward good behaviour than to constantly give a pupil attention by admonishing poor behaviour.

Pupils are conditioned to test limits to find out how far they can push. Once they have found that out, by and large, they feel safe.

Displayed inadequacy
When pupils exhibit an “I can’t do it” mentality in relation to their school work, I find that the best approach is to point out that they can't do it yet, but that I am there to teach them how to do it. The pupil needs to understand that if we work together, we can get the work completed.

Strangely enough, there is not a lot of evidence of revengeful behaviours in schools. Some definitely takes place, but not as much as you might think. When I talk to pupils who have been excluded from schools, most accept (when they have had time to calm down and reflect) that their behaviours which led to their exclusion were serious and unacceptable.

Behaviour is chosen

By and large, children and young people choose to behave the way they do. The word “discipline” is derived from the Latin word “disciplina” and means teaching. The challenge for adults in education is to help/teach pupils how to make the right choices. It is important that pupils are given the opportunity to make choices for themselves but often what they need is limited choice, not unlimited choice. For example, if a student is playing with a mobile phone in class, the teacher could ask the student to immediately put it away in their bag or hand it over to them, to be returned at the end of the lesson. This is a simple choice between two options. The pupil should be given some “take-up time”, to let them choose which option they prefer, and the teacher should exhibit relaxed body language to show that they expect compliance. It is crucial that the teacher “follows-up and follows-through” to ensure that one of the two options is taken by the pupil. The aim is to keep the whole episode as low-key and unobtrusive as possible.

Behaviour is a communicator of needs

A pupil’s behaviour can communicate their needs or deficiencies, such as tiredness or hunger. Indeed, how many pupils regularly come to school having had a good night's sleep and a nutritious breakfast?

Behaviour can be the result of “bad day syndrome”

Pupils sometimes bring their emotional baggage to school and they can simply feel like they’re having a “bad day”. Teachers, too, are not immune to “bad day syndrome”. What teachers have to do is to recognise when they are having a bad day and be extra-vigilant in their dealings with pupils to ensure that their bad day doesn’t make any pupil’s bad day even worse.

Behaviour can be changed

Behaviour is not totally static and fixed: pupils can learn from their mistakes and from the modelling of acceptable forms of behaviour by others. We must never give up on a pupil because we never know when we are going to make the breakthrough and make that connection. Indeed, in the past, I felt very pessimistic about the ability of certain pupils to make the “right choices”, only to be proven wrong time and again. What we need to do is be totally consistent in our day-to-day dealings with pupils, model the behaviour we are looking for from them and retain high but realistic expectations of them.

Behaviour can be taught

A range of initiatives by the previous Government assisted in the process of developing a “behaviour curriculum”, whereby pupils have opportunities to think about and discuss how important behaviour is in society in general and in school in particular. A range of excellent materials were produced which covered the social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL). Pupils can now learn, in a planned and systematic curriculum, about such important behavioural issues as what bullying is and why it is so harmful, how to form and maintain friendships and how to cope with new beginnings and transitions. This is the formal aspect of teaching behavioural skills, but it is just as important is the “informal” teaching that occurs when every adult in an educational establishment consistently models the behaviours they wish to see in every one of their pupils or students.


Positive behaviour management can be very complex and there are many underlying factors which contribute to the behaviours we encounter every day in our schools and colleges. Hopefully, though, this article will have provided some food for thought regarding how to understand problem behaviour and how to develop strategies to help young people manage their behaviour.

Further information

Phil Craig has worked as the Headteacher of a school for pupils experiencing behavioural, social and emotional difficulties, as the head of a pupil referral unit in a shire county and as the head of a behaviour support service in a large metropolitan borough. He is now an independent educational consultant and trainer:

This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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