In the traditional classroom, particularly where teachers mistake lecturing for Direct Instruction, students are more likely to be disengaged, overwhelmed with information, uncertain of what is being taught, bored and tired. As a student in such an environment you will undoubtedly have been familiar with: kicking the chair in front of you, trying to knock another student off his seat, hiding exactly behind the student in front of you so that you could disengage/hide from teacher questions, putting foreign objects on seats in front or beside you, random sounds, noises from anonymous corners of the room, a division between engaged and disengaged at front and back respectively where there is free choice of seating. And so on.
However, there are certain disruptive behaviours that are common to both classrooms. Here are ways to deal with them.
1. Disruption due to a lack of clear expectations
When a student or students are talking off task or being disruptive it is an obvious indication that they are not hooked by the topic or that they are uncertain of what needs to be done. As with all discipline issues, prevention is better than cure so to ensure that students are focused on a task, make sure it is readily apparent what is expected.
- Open a lesson with a strong hook – something that makes the student care about what is being learned and that connects it to the real world. Preferably you want to pose a problem for students which requires them to acquire new knowledge and skill to find a solution. Write the problem, preferably in the form of a question, clearly on the board. Return to it throughout the lesson.
- Always make the key learning objectives clear on the board at the beginning of the lesson. Spend time to clearly explain the objective of the lesson, how students can meet this objective and what successful completion of an objective looks like. Return to these objectives throughout the lesson to gauge how students are progressing.
- Make the link between the activity students are engaged in and the learning objectives clear. If your learning objective, for example, is to have students identify bias in a historical document and your hook was to show students carefully doctored images of Stalin and his dwindling inner-circle, it is important to regularly circulate and ask students “What are we learning?” “Why are we learning this?” “Where else is this knowledge useful?” etc. This ensures that students are able to join the dots from learning activity to deeper objectives to real-world connections.
- Make sure to end a lesson by referring to the problem you set at the beginning of the lesson. Use an exit-ticket, be it a high-tech solution or simply have students write answers on a post-it, so you can gauge student understanding at the end of a lesson. This informs you of where the students are and whether you can progress to the next lesson without losing the group. If you ask students to complete a reflection with their name on it you will be able to immediately see who needs extra support with the topic and you can intervene to prevent disruptive behaviour in your next lesson based on whether any students feel lost.
2. Disruption based on seating layout
It is more likely that students will engage in disruptive behaviour where there are long, inaccessible rows of desks. Where desks do not allow the teacher and students to freely flow disruption will probably happen.
- Make sure that you are not stationary and you do not stand at the front of the room only. Design desk arrangements that allow you to move between desks and have full access to any student. When a student is not easily accessible it leads to a sense of anonymity. This can result in a student “switching off” and it leaves ample room for misbehaviour. Anonymity is a powerful means of misbehaviour. Once you have adequate space to move between desks and you notice a student being disruptive, do not break the flow of your lesson or given him a platform to entertain his audience by engaging with him directly. Instead, move into his social space – anywhere within one meter distance. This sends the message that you know he is being disruptive and that his anonymity is gone. If this is not enough, reduce the space between him and you or engage him directly by asking him if the task is clear and how he is progressing on the outcomes.
- Do not use your seating plan as a means to “control” disruptive students. It is essential that you think carefully about your seating arrangements but it is an all too common formula to see seats that are arranged thus: boy/girl or “good kid”/”problem kid” etc. Research has shown that when students self-select seats the most engaged will sit in the direct line of sight of the teacher (front and centre rows) while minority and disengaged students will sit to the peripheries. Mixing up groups does not automatically guarantee engagement and can lead to a sense of resentment. By moving disruptive students into seats in the zone of engagement (front row) at best you can hope for compliance but that comes at the cost of making another high-performing and engaged student feel unnoticed. It can also send the message that acting badly is the best way to get noticed in your class. Importantly, having a seating partner is an important way to engage with differing perspectives and skills. Where students resent the partner forced on them they are less likely to engage and learn from one another. Rather than having a seating arrangement that is defined by behaviour, define it by skill. Your seating arrangement should change depending on the task at hand and the skill-set of the students in the class. Pair students who can learn from one another both socially and academically.
3. Disruption caused by environmental factors
- I had a group of grade 7 students that I saw three times a week directly after lunch. By Halloween this group was one entire unit of study behind the two other grade 7 classes. The problem was that after 45 minutes spent on the soccer courts they were too energized to focus on their studies no matter how good the hook. After variously trying to motivate, reason, frighten (telling them how far behind they were) I tried another approach. I closed the shutters and turned off the overhead lights in the classroom. I put on soft lighting and as students came into the room I asked them to fold their arms and put their heads down. I then had a student count slowly backwards from ten while I helped them visualise the lesson by referring to the objectives and hoped-for outcomes. Students responded well to the sedate atmosphere and we were soon able to resume a normal schedule.
- Experiment with soft lights, music and activities for lessons at different times of day. In early-morning classes do not mistake lethargy for eager learning. It is a good idea to start a lesson with an upbeat activity to get students going and engage their learning with energy. Equally, lessons after lunch are likely candidates for misbehaviour as students are tired, find it harder to focus and are thinking about going home. Make sure to build in little teambuilding routines or activities every 15 minutes to maximise waning student concentration.
4. Disruption caused by fidgeting
- The more lecture-style a lesson is the more likely it is that student interest and attention will wander. In such cases it is not uncommon to hear pens flick off desktops and all kinds of rhythmic patterns emerge from knuckle-cracking to foot-stomping. It is a good idea to always keep a box of stress balls on your table. When you have a question-and-answer session, throwing the ball to the students is a great way of ensuring that your intended student answers and also it is a simple means of keeping students physically and mentally alert. Introducing these into the classroom also provides you with the perfect cover for equipping ADHD students, who can simply appear as disruptive to their classmates, with an outlet for energy without being labelled by their peers. Make it clear that any student who would like to have a stress ball is welcome to one at the start of every lesson. When you hear the tap-tap-tapping of a pen, throw a stress ball in its direction.
Any classroom management issues that you will face outside of these are most likely going to be the result of serious social, emotional or psychological factors. In these cases, just as in all of the cases above, the best means of prevention of classroom incidents is familiarity. You would like to think that when you start a school year you will have full knowledge of which students need special attention but this is not always the case. Often you will not know that a student has a difficulty, severe or otherwise, until there is a scene in class. When you have a student behaviour that you feel is unwelcome in class the best course of action is always to have a personal chat with the child. Take him aside immediately after class and ask directly in a calm and open manner what caused that behaviour. By talking away from the rest of the class the disruptive student is deprived of an audience and so is more likely to be honest about the root cause of his actions. Be conscious that this may be intimidating. Do not do this so openly as to humiliate him and do not do it in a manner where he feels isolated and bullied. Your aim is to remind him of what is acceptable in your class but you are forging a relationship by giving him the opportunity to be honest about his actions. How you manage that information will determine the nature of your relationship with that student and his future behaviour in your class.
The most important piece of advice I can give is that dispensing punishment to students, even if it is part of your school’s discipline plan, without clearly explaining why you are doing so and how you expect it to benefit their future behaviour, will certainly and deservedly result in you being despised by them. A teacher who consoles himself by inflexibly declaring ‘those are the rules’ is very often simply a bully who demands compliance. Getting to the root of poor behaviour, hard as it may be, is always the better and more rewarding solution.