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Is This A Private Conversation Or Can Anyone Join In? – How To Tackle Classroom Group Chats

From a familiar corner of the room, Oscar and pals are distracting the class with loud discussions about anything but classwork. Paul Dix looks at how you can get these lively lads back on task...

  • Is This A Private Conversation Or Can Anyone Join In? – How To Tackle Classroom Group Chats

Promotional videos for teaching paint a beautiful picture of classroom harmony – groups of children work together productively, their conversations are focused and their questions to each other suggest a deeper intellect beyond their years.

But in reality, group work that is genuinely productive takes a long time to perfect – especially if you have Oscar’s group. Despite warnings, sharp words and threats, the second you walk away they’re instantly off task. Topics of conversation range from Ashraf’s dad’s new car, football and ‘wounds I have got from doing dangerous things’. It doesn’t matter if it’s the world’s most exciting session or an epically dull lesson in history, you᾿re certain to spend a great deal of time returning to their table to try to get them back on track.

While the children᾿s social lives are thriving, it’s clear that their work is suffering. They’re not intentionally disruptive to the class, but they᾿re not learning much either, and expectations are tumbling. If you don’t act now, you’ll have intelligent boys underachieving – not because of their ability, but because of their behaviour.

What will you do next…?

A. Drawn and quartered
Split them up to the four corners of the room.

B. Iron fist
Read them the riot act then sit on top of them (not literally).

C. Rehabilitate and reinforce
Apply sanctions with care.

A. Breaking bad

Nobody is happy about the move. To disrupt their social club, Oscar and his crew are split into the four corners of the room. Unfortunately, they take their disruption with them. You manage to put a stop to their attempts at long-distance communication – intercepting notes and blocking sign language, unofficial sign language and lip reading.

But as you step back from the room it’s clear that while you might have lost one disruptive group, you’ve now gained four more. Tables that were previously focused and diligent are shocked at the ‘work ethos’ their new member has brought. Immaculately behaved girls look at you with questioning eyes, begging you to take this hooligan away.

Now you don’t know whether to persist with the current groups that are disrupting learning for everyone, or to keep trying different combinations in the hope that something sticks. Putting the boys back into their original group doesn’t seem like the right thing to do either. You find yourself issuing warnings to everyone, going in circles and getting nowhere.

Talking behaviour
• Is it better to leave a group to disrupt themselves or to spread the disruption through the class?

• Is the solution to ensure these children work individually?

• How could you teach them the key routines and boundaries for productive group work?

B. Band management

At breaktime you read them the riot act. Perhaps it was the lack of caffeine, or just utter exasperation, but in the moment it seemed like the right thing to do. It wasn’t the full ‘hairdryer treatment’, but it was heard as far and wide as the front office and the kitchens.

The boys got the message. There was appropriate contrition, shame and apology. They are, after all, lovely lads – just irritatingly unfocused lovely lads. You resolve to sit at their table for at least the next week so that you can be absolutely sure they’re meeting your new expectations.

The new regime starts well, and by lunch you feel that it is working – but as the afternoon progresses, you realise that you’ve unwittingly given the most easily distracted group a constant source of interruption. As a stream of children come over to see you, they each take the opportunity for a spot of banter with members of the notoriously chatty group.

Oscar’s gang are very quickly focusing less on their work than they were before. You realise that your encampment at their table can only be a temporary patch, and that when you inevitably have to move away, they will likely return to their old routine.

Talking behaviour
• Is it enough simply to ‘come down on them like a tonne of bricks’?

• Is it fair on the children who are working fantastically hard to spend all of your time with those whose behaviour is poor?

• How could you withdraw from their table and make sure that they retain their focus?

C. Oscar winner

Your current routine of warning upon warning is having no effect on their behaviour. It is, however, having an effect on your teaching, the other children and your sanity. You decide to adopt a more graduated approach that will draw the boundaries of acceptable behaviour – reminder, warning, two minutes after class, time out and restorative conversation.

It’s also obvious that you need to make your expectations absolutely clear – that you want them to stay on task. Using the laminator like a seasoned pro, you seal the new rule to the middle of their table. In time, you would like them to develop much higher-level group skills, but the foundations must be laid.

You carefully explain the ‘Stay on task’ rule and the steps you will take if they choose not to follow it. The boys listen, but don’t take you too seriously. The reminder and warning go almost unnoticed, as they quickly slip into the old routine.

However, there is some shock and protest when you move two of them further down the list. They don’t like the thought of staying behind, even for two minutes. Oscar is distraught that ‘talking’ now ‘seems to be a crime’ and finds himself booked into a restorative meeting. It takes time, persistence and a good deal of resetting expectations. Behaviours that seemed to be acceptable for a long time are now not OK, and the boys struggle with it.

After a week they are all at the end of the list, but some children need that, just to know you’re serious. Their behaviour is improving, and you know that it’s just the right moment to change the focus to positive reinforcement.

You ask the rest of the class to write something good about the changes they have noticed with the group. They post them secretly in a hat, and you have the pleasure of reading them out anonymously to Oscar’s group. They cannot help their smiles of pride showing. A corner may well have been turned.

Talking behaviour
• Would it be easier just to bribe them into working harder with heavy reward?

• Is the positive reinforcement of the class as important as positive reinforcement from an adult?

• Why don’t repeated warnings work ?

Your style

A. Divide and unrule
The quick fix is counter-intuitive. Separating the children has multiplied the problem. You need to teach the new behaviours, not trust that the boys will know what they are. Leaving the responsibility of teaching learning behaviours to the rest of the class is unlikely to have the outcomes that everyone needs.

B. Boot camp
Squashing the behaviour by sitting on the children will work for a while, but it inevitably has consequences for the rest of the class. Who deserves your attention most? The children displaying the worst behaviours, or those displaying the best?

C. Tough love
Small steps in consequences, coupled with restorative conversations, can bring a halt to old behaviours and teach new ones. As the children start succeeding, the positive reinforcement kicks in and the sanctions reduce until they are not needed. With well-drawn boundaries, these lovely lads have every chance to grow into lovely men.

Paul Dix is a lead trainer at Pivotal Education and co-presenter of the Pivotal Podcast

The Pivotal Curriculum is a licensed trainer scheme that allows every school to deliver Pivotal Behaviour and Safeguarding Training – you find out more at pivotalcurriculum.com and by following @pivotalpaul

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