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Like Taming Lions – Avoiding Certain Activities Because You Can’t Trust Your Class To Behave? You’re Not Alone

Ever fear leaving the classroom even for a second? Avoid outdoor learning because the kids will be even harder to contain? Here's how to regain control

Robin Launder
by Robin Launder
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Meet Rosie. “My class are a nightmare. From the first moment to the last, they are a pain in the proverbial. The only time they’re quiet is when I read to them, but even then one of them will ruin it by chatting or calling out. Try to get them to do anything else and it doesn’t go very well. They come in noisy, they go noisy, they’re noisy when they should be working.

“If I ask them questions they don’t answer properly. They shout out, ‘Pick me! Pick me! Me, Miss, me!’. It’s like being one of those lion tamers, except I reckon they’ve got more control over their lions than I do this bunch. There’s so many different activities I can’t do because I can’t trust them to behave properly. I just don’t get it. I’m no pushover, but their behaviour is so difficult to control. It’s chaos and it’s getting me down.”

If you’ve been teaching for more than five minutes, chances are you’ll have seen or experienced some or all of the above. So, what’s a teacher to do? Luckily for Rosie, advice is at hand from her three imaginary colleagues.

Teacher A: Do As You’re Doing

“Rosie, the problem isn’t the students, it’s your perspective. Because you define the students’ behaviour as chaotic, that’s what you see.

There’s too many dour and authoritarian teachers out there. We’ve all seen them – many of us were taught by them. Their lessons were long and mind-numbingly dull. But your lessons sound playful and that’s as it should be, because play is a prerequisite for learning, especially for primary students. And it’s not as though they aren’t engaged. Look at those hands shooting up!

Sure, there will be tut-tutters out there who’ll tell you that you need a firm hand, but you don’t. The occasional ‘shh’ should do it. After all, why shouldn’t the students be excited about being picked to read? Why shouldn’t they talk to their friends when working? Why shouldn’t they have a bit of fun? Academic and social development have to go hand-in-hand and, by the sounds of it, that’s what you’ve got in your classroom. So, Rosie, my advice is carry on as you are.”

The verdict This advice oozes reasonableness. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong. Letting students do as they please is not the way forward. It’s a paradox, but it’s the boundaries within a classroom that let students grow, flourish, learn, take risks, make progress and have fun. So, hold those boundaries.

Teacher B: Do as I say

“Rosie, you’re right: you have a chaotic class. But, not to worry, there’s a surprisingly simple solution. It’s called ‘rules’.

Here are four that work very well:

  1. We are quiet when the teacher is talking
  2. We follow instructions right away
  3. We let others get on with their work
  4. We respect each other

The first three are helpfully specific, the last (which catches any behaviour not covered by the first three) is helpfully general.

However, for classroom rules to be effective you’ve got to get student buy-in; and this only happens when the students understand why the rules are important. To do this, get the children to link the rules to their learning, progress and classroom community. A ‘think, pair and share’ activity works well for this.

Finish by flipping the discussion (the share) on its head. Get students to discuss what it would be like if your four rules were not in place. Again link to learning, progress and community. You’ll get lots and lots of pro-learning and pro-social responses, and in the process the students will really understand why your rules need to be followed.

There’s one more rule – rule five. This one is solely for you, the teacher, and you must always (always, always, always) adhere to it: be a stickler for the rules. If a student breaks a rule, let them know they’ve broken it. No turning a blind eye. If it requires a consequence, impose it. No empty threats. And if you need to have more classroom discussions about the importance of rules, have them. Time spent on rules is never wasted.”

The verdict Five great rules, with the last being the most important of all. Rule five is a high expectation rule. By sticking to it you’re telling your students that you have extremely high expectations of their behaviour and that they’re fully capable of meeting them.

But if you don’t stick to it, then you’re saying the opposite. Either way, the message is powerful and self-fulfilling – so be careful which you communicate.

Teacher C: Do as I do

“You’ve got chaos because you don’t have any routines in place. All the problematic behaviour you’ve listed (how the students enter the classroom, how they put their hands up, how they get your attention) can be solved by getting routines right.

So how do you get routines right? Use the ‘do as I do’ method.

It comes in three parts: Firstly, you model. Simply put, you model the behaviour that you want to see. Take the routine of entering the classroom, for instance. You literally show the students how to wait in the corridor, enter the classroom, walk to their desk, sit down and get ready for learning.

Secondly, ask some students to model. Get a small group to do exactly as you’ve just done. And as they’re doing it, give them high expectation feedback. If a student doesn’t do it exactly as you modelled it, get them to do it again. Be sure to keep it on the light side of serious, praising effort and focus along the way.

Finally, everyone has a go. As before, aim for perfection.”

The verdict A routine is a behaviour that’s carried out automatically and efficiently – at least it is if you embed it. The way to do that is to insist and persist, and to keep on doing so until you make the routine, well, routine.

So there you have it; advice from three different teachers. You need to ignore Teacher A (students should not do as they please) and do exactly what B and C suggest. With rules and routines in place – together with a big dollop of care and kindness – classroom chaos will quickly become a thing of the past. But only when you stick to those rules and routines. In fact, when you do, two remarkable things will happen. You’ll be able to teach, and the students will be able to learn.

Robin Launder is the director of Behaviour Buddy – a company specialising in evidence-based CPD, including behaviour management – and serves on the executive committee of PRUsAP, which represents PRUs and the alternative provision sector. For more information, visit or follow @behaviourbuddy

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