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Behaviour management – The confidence trick that keeps students in line

The Pygmalion Effect means that if you assume your pupils will behave impeccably, they are highly likely to do so, says Gordon Cairns...

  • Behaviour management – The confidence trick that keeps students in line

Some teachers just seem to have it – an ease of control over all of their classes, regardless of how problematic these students may behave with other colleagues.

This natural authority is lightly held, based neither on a strict disciplinary regime nor a laissez faire attitude towards school rules, and the practitioners in question are not necessarily the most experienced nor the most progressive in their approach.

Perhaps the most infuriating thing about these colossuses of the classroom is that they can’t explain why behaviour is never an issue, and maybe don’t even realise they have actually unravelled the Gordian knot of discipline.

However, rather than shrugging our shoulders and accepting that we are never going to be as adept as they are, an old piece of research from the middle of the last century on improving pupils’ performance might hold the key to improving our classroom management abilities…

You may have come across the Pygmalion Effect in the context of improving academic performance at some point in your teaching career; but the remarkable power of teacher expectations can also have a significant effect on how our classes behave.

The original research was conducted over fifty years ago by Harvard professor of social psychology Robert Rosenthal, and an elementary school principal in the South San Francisco United School District, Lenore Jacobson, and involved tricking teachers into believing that randomly chosen children were ‘Growth Spurters’ based on the non-existent Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.

Over the course of an academic year, the selected group didshow greater intellectual development than their classmates.

The kids in the experiment, named after a sculptor in Greek mythology who brought to life one of his creations after kissing it, didn’t know it – but they were responding to the greater faith their ‘misdirected’ teachers had on them.

Professor Rosenthal went on to define the Pygmalion Effect as “the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behaviour comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy”; and it is in the subconscious assumption of positive student behaviour where teachers can use this effect extremely successfully.

Need to lead

While one class teacher’s verbal message and teaching materials might be exactly the same as their colleague’s in the next door classroom, the Pygmalion Effect makes the difference between the teacher who has control over their class and the one who struggles to maintain discipline.

Rosenthal examined the plethora of non-verbal communication undertaken by teachers to understand the syndrome: facial expressions, tone of voice, posture and gestures, which together constitute a large part of how we interact with our students, even though we often don’t realise what we are doing.

It is not in what the professional says, it is in the unconscious signals they send through their confident body language which shows to the class they assume that the lesson will be conducted in an orderly manner.

It was actually through taking part in an equine coaching session, a method of leadership training developed through guiding horses, that I began to realise how we can unconsciously set the tone of behaviour in our classroom.

Colin and Ed were both 16 hands tall and without a doubt the two biggest class members I’ve ever had to manage, but they followed me around the paddock like pussy cats, as I had the belief that they would just follow on.

The concept behind this kind of coaching is that as herd animals, horses willingly follow those who want to lead, without the need of rope or reigns.

Perhaps there is a similar unconscious herd instinct amongst humans who wish to follow the pack leader. In a classroom scenario, it should be the teacher, but this isn’t always the case.

In the wild, horses don’t select their pack leader through strength, intelligence or appearance but choose the one who wants to lead; similarly school students probably don’t know what is the criteria for following the direction of some teachers over others – but that individual’s desire to lead must have an impact.

Better habits

The most common method of promoting positive behaviour currently occurs on the deliberately conscious level of applying praise, but this can only have a limited shelf-life – especially with older students, who will soon become deaf to the mantra of learned phrases (‘Well done for making the correct choice!’) when they are repeated ad nauseam.

The power of Pygmalion is that it occurs on a subconscious level and so will appear natural and sincere.

However, the downside is, of course, that it’s not easy to change such instinctive behaviour. It’s like learning how to be a successful poker player; you don’t want your body language to be a ‘tell’ that you are not expecting the students to behave.

However through the repeated acquiescence of the class, the poker playing aspect will fall away as you become used to good behaviour in the classroom, and assume this will be consistent.

Do be aware, though, of Pygmalion’s opposite: the Golem Effect. If you have been warned about the poor behaviour of a class before you meet them, it is more than likely that your approach will change and the students will misbehave – exactly as you expect them to.


4 steps to a calmer classroom

1 | Go further

Great teachers don’t expect good behaviour, they assume it. This is more than semantics; simply expecting the class to behave introduces an element of doubt that they might not. However by assuming that perfect behaviour is a given, students are less likely to misbehave.

2 | Unleash your inner politician

There is a current trend amongst certain of our politicians simply to deny the facts when their contradictory statements are exposed by journalists – I think you know whom I am talking about. I’m not advocating that teachers should start lying to pupils, but the politician’s confidence in delivering a message no matter how fanciful it is, is worth mimicking as it brooks no argument.

3 | Be more direct

Without being rude, of course! Use commands to control your class rather than requests, to show that you assume the young people will do as they are told. So, ‘Could you sit down please?’ becomes ‘Sit down, please.’

4 | Change your habits

Habits are started by repeatedly doing the same actions on a conscious level – handing out the textbooks every lesson instead of asking a student to do so, for example.

When we have repeated the action often enough the brain switches to other more pressing tasks and we continue the habit unconsciously even while we wonder why we are continuing to do this counterproductive action.

Luckily, habits are not set in stone and we can change what we do on the subconscious level with a bit of work; first of all by telling ourselves we can control our behaviour and then by using our unlimited resources of willpower to break the habit of not believing in our ability to control the class.


Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils with ASD.

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