20 psychological principles for teachers #17 Classroom management

This is #17 in my series on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning and is the second of two posts examining how classrooms should be managed: “Effective class- room management is based on (a) setting and communicating high expectations, (b) consistently nurturing positive relationships, and (c) providing a high level of student support.”

It’s an oft-repeated truism that nobody rises to low expectations. This is as true of standards of behaviour as it is for academic achievement; the more you expect, the higher you place the bar, the less children will expect to get away with. What we accept becomes acceptable. It’s up to us to determine what will be permitted in schools and classrooms.

Classrooms are microcosms of a school. While in-school variation can be immense, the values reflected in classrooms tend to aggregate towards the values espoused by the school. I’ve argued before that the climate for effective classroom management is set by school leaders. Students’ behaviour, whether in the classroom or the corridors, is the responsibility of the head teacher. Of course teachers share in this responsibility and, of course the way teachers behave affects students’ behaviour, but blaming teachers for the way students choose to behave is a sure sign of poor leadership.

Students choose how to behave and they quickly learn which teachers can be safely ignored. Teachers, especially new teachers, need to know the school has their back, that they’re genuinely supported. Teachers’ end of the deal is to follow the school’s rules to the letter. Failing to follow the behaviour policy – whatever it is – undermines every other teacher and those most in need of support go to the wall. As the Top 20 report puts it, “students need to have a clear understanding of the behavioural rules and expectations of the classroom, and these expectations must be communicated directly and frequently and consistently enforced.” This needs to be done at the macro as well as the micro level.

Rather clumsily, I’m sure, I’m equating the three aspects of this principle with three different body parts:

  • Balls: setting and communicating high expectations
  • Heart: consistently nurturing positive relationships
  • Mind: providing a high level of student support.

The first principle of effective classroom management is a whole-school policy which is clear, fair, predictable and proportionate. With this in place teachers have the authority to take their classroom, metaphorically, by the balls. This is about setting boundaries, establishing routines and pissing in the corners of your classroom (Again, not something to be taken literally!) Students need to smell your pheromones when they enter your room. Here are 5 suggestions for establishing routines:

  1. Know the school rules and stick to them
  2. Never let pupils sit where they want [Some people are unhappy with ‘never’, so to be clear it’s  generally not a good idea to let children choose their seats, apart from the occasional one-off occasion. And to be clearer, I can’t think of any occasions where it might be a good idea.]
  3. Use agreed consequences fairly and consistently
  4. Never let pupils work off punishments
  5. Contact parents at the start of the year, just to say hello

When this work is done, we can then embark on forming relationships which we focussed on in Principle 14. The report says, “The most effective teachers, schools, and programs also emphasize the development of supportive and nurturing relationships with students.” It’s often said that teaching is ‘all about relationships’ and to a large extent this is true. If kids like you, trust you and respect you they will, by and large, learn from you. There will always be some students who don’t click or whose lives take them down dark paths, but there’s a tipping point at which a majority are on-side and you have their hearts. If you’ve won their hearts, then you can begin the serious business of changing their minds.

Changing minds is two-fold. It’s about teaching the academic curriculum, but it’s also about supporting students in developing the self-regulation they need to be successful. How best to achieve these aims?

The report proposes two school-side suggestions which are, I think, less sound. The first suggestion is restorative justice. The theory goes that programmes which “enable students to gain an understanding of how to restore relationships damaged by disruption and violence” will be beneficial. But to who? The biggest problem with restorative justice is that it often becomes a blunt and clumsy stick. The culprit’s needs are often placed over those of the victim. A victim may not want a relationship to be restored and this should never be imposed.

The second suggestion is social-emotional learning strategies. Time spent trying to explicitly teach students to manage emotions, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions is time that could be spent on teaching an academic curriculum. For this time to be worthwhile it would have to be both successful and necessary. There’s little evidence that such programmes do teach the skills they intend students to learn. What’s more, teaching an academic curriculum might be a better way to incidentally model and practise the skills we want students to possess.

But arguing about the efficacy of these programmes misses the point. What’s really important is that the structure imposed by schools is balanced with support. If students are just punished, they may well end up feeling oppressed and disenfranchised. We can take a zero-tolerance approach, but the evidence seems to suggest this doesn’t have the effect we want and unruly students just end up as someone else’s problem. An effective behaviour policy seeks to help students make better choices. The report concludes by stating that schools which strive to balance structure and support are likely to have lower levels of suspension and bullying. And that’s go to be worth aiming for.

References cited by the report

16 Responses to 20 psychological principles for teachers #17 Classroom management

  1. 4c3d says:

    I agree with you when you say, although not in so many words, that “This is my domain” in referring to the classroom. Your point about relationships is also very important in my view too. So lots of good practical teaching advice here. Where I am a little less supportive, and it may only be semantics, is the term “Behavior Policy” in schools. I believe teachers should say “Welcome to my world” and their classroom should be a reflection of that world. It should be exciting, engaging, managed, collaborative, challenging, rewarding and positive. The learning experience should then mirror this. So in setting an engagement rather than a “behaviour” policy we are taking a more positive approach, one that is about creating a world where teachers can teach and students learn rather than just behave. I make the distinction because I have experienced policies that are more about subjugation rather than providing or supporting a learning environment.I think you make this point in your last paragraph when you say “What’s really important is that the structure imposed by schools is balanced with support.”

    I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it is only semantics or as I believe a subtle but important distinction – behaviour or engagement policy!


    • David Didau says:

      Hi Kev – thank you for your comments. I’m not interested in subjugation but then neither am I interested in any kind of policy that seeks to lay down rules of engagement. Engagement has long been a weasel word in education and any attempt to mandate such a thing would, I think, do much more harm than good.

      That saud, the overwhelming majority of teachers like children. If there is a clear behaviour policy and teachers feel supported then the chaff which get in the way of forming relationship is clear away. Then the more positive appraoch you urge can take root.

      • 4c3d says:

        An interesting change of context and meaning when you add “rules of” in front of engagement! Certainly not the context I had meant.I think of engagement more as what behaviours are we interested in that demonstrate engagement in learning. You see I have read texts that have insisted students only learn when they behave in a certain way and the policy therefore is that they must behave in this way if they are to learn. I feel that good behavior (that which supports learning) can be a subjective term and prone to fads and false beliefs. What we are really interested in achieving is student engagement in learning and because of this I favour an engagement policy over a focus on behaviour. certainly not rules of engagement however. I don’t think you can mandate engagement but you can create the environment and thereby promote it and that to me is the aim. I accept there will be certain behaviours that we would require in order to achieve that environment but insisting on a set of behaviours that may or may not suit or facilitate learning is like specifying the ingredients before deciding which dish to cook (okay – not a good/the best analogy).

        I agree about teachers needing to feel supported but my caveat would be “not at all cost”. I have experienced teachers who do not or can not adapt their practice to create a learning environment that engages learners and when they “kick off” expect the behaviour policy and the “enforces” to restore order as it were. They expect withdrawal rooms, sanctions and discipline to prop up poor teaching. Perhaps we should have a behavior policy that not only suggests how learners should behave but how teachers should behave too. If we were to discus this at school level perhaps we would begin to think about ways of creating an environment that supports the engagement of learners rather than specifying how they should behave. It would be interesting to get hold of a few behaviour policies and see what they contain. From my experience there is little or nothing about teacher behaviour in there.

        • David Didau says:

          I used “rules of” deliberately because I’ve so often seen engagement mandated in schools. I see engagement as far more prone to fad than behaviour. I’m not at all interested in “achieving student engagement” as a thing. Have a read of this: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/does-engagement-actually-matter/

          I’m also a firm believer in treating teachers as professionals. As such, a behaviour policy for teachers sounds truly appalling.

          • 4c3d says:

            We may have a different definition of learner engagement. I think, looking at the CEM list, that the outcomes of behaviour management through a policy could be regarded in the same way as poor proxies for learning. (Compliance may even be a learning disability!) Given we differ on what we mean by engagement I can see why you are not interested in it as a thing. I expect you are interested in learners taking responsibility for their own learning, having a sense of inquiry, making the link between effort and success and having self belief and a “growth mindset” (as per Dweck). This is where I am going with the term engagement. I would rather place an emphasis on this as an outcome than a set of prescribed behaviours but I would expect appropriate behaviours be a result, we can hardly learn or teach in a chaotic environment.

            Perhaps a case could be made for some form of hierarchy with behaviour and engagement where, like Maslow safety is below self actualisation, one is on the way to the other.

            I too am a firm believer in teachers as professionals and only included the suggestion to emphasise what I see as the debilitating nature of a behaviour policy. A point it appears I am failing to make. Although I do not take your response about teachers as professional as an acceptance of how limiting a behaviour policy can be some may draw such a conclusion. Having said that I also believe we can all learning something new too and CPD is an essential element of teaching.

            Have a look at this from the Dept for Education, especially the language used, to see what I mean about the debilitating nature of a behaviour policy.

            “Behaviour and discipline in schools
            Advice for headteachers and school staff”


            Item ten lists 10 “key aspects” and number 6 is “staff development and support” so it looks as though there should be something in a behaviour policy about staff behaviour if we need to develop and support them. Well according to the Government anyway – be prepared to be appalled.

            To end with David, it looks as though we are going to have to agree to differ on this one. I wonder what others think.

          • David Didau says:

            I’ll give this some thought. Thanks for your input: always pleased to have my ideas challenged 🙂

          • 4c3d says:

            I look forward to seeing what conclusions you reach David. In the meantime here is the link to my article on compliance mentioned in my previous reply. http://wp.me/p2LphS-kd

  2. suecowley says:

    Could I ask: would you apply your ‘never let students sit where they want’ rule to early years and primary, or just to secondary? Also, what are the implications of this rule for teachers of subjects without seats, such as PE and drama? Thanks.

    • David Didau says:

      I never intend anything I write to apply to KS1 or early years as I know almost nothing about them. The implication for teachers without seats are rather obvious, no?

      • suecowley says:

        Thanks for clarifying. A drama teacher could get his/her students to sit in a specific order, for instance when they’re in a circle, so that they ‘never sat where they wanted’. I never used that approach when I taught secondary drama, although I did specify groupings so they didn’t just work with their friends.

  3. How many teachers would have the ‘balls’ to say this to their students “Don’t you care, at all, about what you think my expectations of you are. I want you to think of what your expectations are for yourself. And if what you come up with doesn’t excite you, then we can talk about that. If what you come up with terrifies you in a good way, then follow those expectations without reference to what you think anyone else thinks of you.” This would be a lesson for way beyond that one teachers classroom as it puts the ownership of expectations in the hands of the student, rather than the student’s teachers, who’s expectations can vary so much it’s dizzying. Wondering what others think?

  4. […] 17. Effective classroom management is based on (a) setting and communicating high expectations, (b) cons… […]

  5. Daniel Stevenson says:

    David, part of my new role will be to develop students’ social and cultural capital – I agree that some behaviours must be punished and have a direct consequence but I wanted to elaborate further from my tweet (being constrained by the word count).

    My initial thought is that we should have a behaviour framework but should feel empowered not to punish depending on individual circumstance and the situation. I think that allowing children to atone for their behaviour or make reparation is an important part of learning. If students are given this opportunity, without a sanction, and still fail to modify their behaviour – a punishment should be issued.

    I’ve also always felt that allowing students the opportunity to work detention time off in a lesson, removes resentment (which can cause students to detract from learning). This also promotes ownership as the student can amend their behaviour and take a new direction.

    I don’t feel that the above suggests that students can ‘get away’ with poor behaviour but rather they have a teacher who is forgiving and recognises that poor behaviour is a mistake that can be made, like any other.

    Any advice you have would be welcomed.

    Ps we used the Secret of Literacy as a key text to underpin our whole school literacy strategy – it worked wonders (thanks). I’ve just downloaded ‘What If…’ – looking forward to cracking in over the summer.

  6. Rich says:

    Use of technology from stone-ware (http://www.stone-ware.com/lanschool) can help with the difficulties in classroom management. Teachers can help students remove distractions and monitor and assess each student’s progress. That is the real help that teachers can offer students.

  7. […] to implement restorative practice programmes in schools. David Didau identifies this problem in his list of psychological principles for […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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