On behaviour

Most of what makes classrooms work lies beneath the surface. The here and now of lessons and classrooms is dependent on the routines and relationships teachers have forged over time. If you’re clear about what is (and is not) acceptable behaviour, firm and fair in applying consequences, and provide meaningful feedback on how pupils’ can improve, it almost doesn’t matter what you do in a lesson: children will learn.

But that’s by no means the complete picture. One of the most damaging and appalling lies circulating around schools and teacher training institutions is this: if you plan your lessons well, children will behave. And if your lessons are not ‘fun and engaging’ they won’t. This patent untruth has crushed the spirit of many a bright young teacher, and it needs to be challenged.

The primary responsibility for behaviour rests with the school, not the teacher. And before you start frothing uncontrollably, please note the word ‘primary’. Of course teachers must bear some of the responsibility for the behaviour of pupils in their lessons. And of course having a well-planned lesson helps. But without watertight systems, classroom teachers are put in an untenable position.

Do any of these apply to your school?

  • Pupils swear at teachers without being excluded
  • Supply teachers and NQTs are hazed and hounded by baying packs of feral children
  • Teachers send pupils out of classrooms for poor behaviour only to have a member of SLT bring them back in and undermine their authority in front of the class
  • Teachers are expected to set and administer all their own detentions and follow up every misdemeanour witnessed in the name of ‘improving relationships’ or to turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not happening.

If so, you work in a bad school. And if you lead in a school where these oh-so-ordinary atrocities routinely occur, shame on you.

But there’s a sacred covenant at work in good schools. Just as your school has a responsibility to ensure that you don’t have to put up with abuse and can get on with the business of making kids cleverer, you have an equally weighty responsibility to uphold even the most trivial and inconsequential of school rules. These rules are there for everyone’s protection. Pupils need to know that they will be upheld consistently. I’d much rather set the bar at doing up top buttons than throwing chairs around. Teachers who are too cool for these rules actively undermine all their colleagues. If you ‘can’t be bothered’ to enforce uniform rules because you don’t really see how a pair of trainers can affect learning, Beelzebub has a devil put aside for you.

Arguably, the first and most important job of a teacher is to establish classroom routines, which enable children to learn in safety. Time spent embedding these routines is time well spent. If you have a rule, stick to it. If you allow children to speak over you, sit where they choose or wait for someone else to get their book once, they’ll learn that it’s acceptable to do it again.

The expectation that there is no slack time and that lessons begin the moment students arrive is a hugely important message. Waiting for stragglers just signals that turning up on time isn’t important. I’m obsessive about tightening up entry routines; if we can shave a minute or two off the time it takes to sit in our assigned seats and have our books open and pens poised, I’m a happy man.

Once clear and sensible routines are in place, there is space for positive relationships to form. Getting to know pupils takes time and many secondary teachers will only see pupils for a one solitary hour a week. How on earth can we get to know the kids we teach when we see so little of them? The first step is to know and use their names; if I use a pupil’s name, I will get to know her.  It’s inevitable that the gobbier a pupil is, the quicker you will get to know them. But there are some fairly obvious things you can do to get to know the others. For this reason alone seating plans are worth their salt. Without them I’m likely to descend to gesturing weakly at a sea of faces and saying, ‘Yes, you.’ But having a printout of my plan to hand ensures that I can direct questions at individuals confident that I know whom I’m addressing. Everything else will start to fall into place and you can join the dots of their lives.

Talking to colleagues is a great way to getting the low down on kids, but parents are a more overlooked avenue. I always endeavoured to make three phone calls everyday. Some in response to incidents (positive as well as negative) that cropped up in lessons, others as I worked my way through the class list. Parents love teachers taking an interest. A quick call to say that their son or daughter is making progress/coasting/lagging behind works wonders. But simply complaining to parents about their beloved offspring is not normally a successful strategy. Focus discussions on progress rather than behaviour. Few are the parents who are completely uninterested in their children’s academic progress and, even if they’re powerless to help, they still want to know.

With routines established and relationships formed, we can then consider developing some of the behaviours we might value in effective learners. I wrote this post back in January 2012 and while I may have changed my thinking about the roles and responsibilities for good behaviour, some of this advice is sensible and still stands.


Bottom line: if you’re consistent, predictable and fair, attitudes to learning will change. It doesn’t matter if some lessons are awful. Sometimes just keeping them in their seats and not swearing at each can feel like an achievement. But, this is a marathon not a sprint. Pupils need to be made to see that they will do better than they ever thought possible and leave with the best results of which they are capable.

34 Responses to On behaviour

  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

    • Several years ago, for a relatively brief period, in a land far, far away, I found myself teaching young adult men in a military college. There were very strict rules, many arbitrary, imo. Regular punishments included lying on burning hot tarmac, being blasted with high pressure hoses, sleep deprivation, and worse. There was no way I was participating in that, and the students knew it.

      At first, they didn’t bring books, pens or paper, and would try and spend as much of the class as possible asleep, or talking and chatting with their friends. And, yes, there were the occasional fights, and these were big lads with military training. Sending them out would have worked, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I knew what would happen to them if I did. I also know that sending them out would have been the easy, lazy option. So, I needed to make sure we got to a win-win situation with mutual respect. I gave them freedoms they didn’t have elsewhere. I let them undo the top buttons on their uniforms, slacken their belts, and even drink water. I had to work incredibly hard, but I got them to work really hard too, and when I earned my first salutes, I felt quite chuffed.

      Okay – that was a very extreme situation, and not one I’d wish to repeat. But I don’t see why we can’t work towards win-wins and mutual respect in every single classroom rather than taking the lazy, easy options.

  2. mrbenney says:

    All spot on as far as I’m concerned. SLT have a responsibility to support (I hope we do) and all teachers have a responsibility to consistently apply rules. I know a pastoral colleague in another school who battles daily against facial piercings with pupils. Then some teachers turn a blind eye to it in their classroom. The reason- “I’m more concerned on what they are doing in the lesson than what they look like.” A corner of hell for these?

  3. A little rigid here I think, David. I do lead in a school where students can be returned to lessons after they have been sent out. It is too simplistic to say that if a student is sent out for poor behaviour that it undermines the class teacher. I have no doubt there are school leaders who do this in an abrupt manner that does undermine the class teacher, doesn’t solve the immediate problem and offers no long term solution. In fact, I remember being that class teacher! However, now as a senior leader if I come across a student removed from a lesson for poor behavior I have to assess the situation, which will involve me considering the following:
    1. Is this student in any frame of mind to return to the lesson?
    2. Is the poor behaviour so bad that he’she warranted being sent out?
    3. Can I effectively return the student to the lesson without undermining the teacher?
    4. Will the student’s return to the lesson damage the learning of others?
    5. Will returning the student to the lesson damage my relationship with the teacher?
    6. Is there a pattern of this teacher sending students out?

    As you have no doubt come across there is at least one teacher in every school who is quick to press the ejector button for a student and whilst I agree the school must have systems, systems, systems, it’s also our job to ensure that the systems are being used effectively.

    So there will be occasions–in fact I have dealt with one this morning–where I will make the decision to place the student back in the lesson with the teacher’s agreement. As with building relationships with students it’s vital that my relationship with class teachers allows me to do this. However, for this to really work, returning the student to the lessons is only part of the story. It’s what happens next that matters. Here a follow up face to face conversation with that teacher takes place, a checking that classroom based systems were followed and an explanation from me as to why I felt it was appropriate for the student to return. I do not question, examine or challenge the planning or teaching of the lesson. As you rightly point out a well planned lesson will not remove the chance of poor behaviour.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    Best wishes,


    • David Didau says:

      Your questions to consider are good, but I would suggest that most times they should be considered later not during the lesson. Pick them up, deal with them in some way that is catered for my the school’s effective behaviour system, follow up with teacher afterwards, then make a decision about whether the child can be returned to the class the following lesson.

      There are certainly teachers who eject students more than others. That maybe because
      a) they are following the school’s behaviour policy
      b) they are struggling to cope with poor behaviour because they are not supported by the school
      c) they are struggling for another reason

      Are there any other categories? I can’t think of any circumstance where returning a student to the lesson would produce a positive result in any of these scenarios.

      Thanks for commenting, DD

      • R. Craigen says:

        (d) (paired with (a) ) because their fellow teachers are not enforcing schools’ behaviour policy, thereby undermining their efforts to do so.

      • Sylvia Thomas says:

        It entirely depends on the scenario as described by the respondant above. I will take pupils back into the room and work with them for a period of time within the lesson if I see fit, having surveyed the situation first of all. Many situations have been escalated unnecessarily and pupils have been backed into, or backed themselves into, a metaphorical corner – but missing a whole session of learning is not always necessary or desirable and very often a member of staff will be quite happy to accept a learner back in. In the majority of cases situations can be resolved very quickly without undermining the teacher in any way.

        • David Didau says:

          Why not conduct on anonymised survey of your teachers to see if they agree with your views? I suspect that they might not, but you probably know best.

          • alex says:

            School rules are arbitrary lines in the sand. The higher up the beach they are the better protected the whole community is.

            Interesting, is that the same with laws as well? Should we introduce a new law on top buttons so that people don’t steal?

            Are children naturally inclined to punch each other and swear at teachers?

            Do parents make their child wear a uniform at home so that they don’t punch or swear at them?

            There are thousands of pupils in today’s schools who punch each other, swear drink and do much worse, are we really saying the only thing stopping a massive wave of children riots Following in their footsteps is proper footwear?
            Are all children naturally evil?

  4. Nic says:

    Having mainly worked in schools where the gap between the code and actual conduct was vast, I think I need to defend the turning a blind eye approach, You see, had I not turned a blind eye, it would have taken half the lesson just recording the various breaches – let alone doing any kind of follow-up sanction. Whilst I don’t object to antagonising pupils in principle, you need to choose battles you have some chance of winning. I focussed energy on things that mattered most to my classroom – punctuality, listening, equipment – and simply overlooked the short-stumpy ties that were de rigueur.

    This was not me refusing to pull with the team, trying to be ‘cool’ or simply being lazy. As a student and NQT I observed many teachers who had ‘excellent’ behaviour management. Invariably, they were experts at choosing their battles. Furthermore, chasing up minor issues with a pupil with BESD or who was on a pre-exclusion notice, would be criticised for exacerbating the situation.

    I think you are absolutely right to finger the school (i.e. SLT) as primarily responsible. I think to suggest that teachers who don’t chase every misdemeanour are doing so because they are ‘too cool’ ignores a reality that many teachers face.

    I worked, briefly, with the National Strategies and had to continually challenge them when they talked about what happened ‘in a good school’. The problem was that they were creating training that didn’t recognise the reality faced by many teachers – particularly the ones that were struggling the most.

    So let’s not reserve those devils just yet. There may be a few teachers who are a bit slack but, for the majority, it’s simply a matter of compromise and priorities.

    • David Didau says:

      Yes, you’re quite right – a teacher can only uphold school rules where the behaviour system supports them in doing so. Attempting otherwise will lead to a coronary. Sorry I didn’t make this clearer.

  5. Cazzwebbo says:

    Due to my ‘trained’ background being more research student / PhD and postgrad student type, I find it hard adjusting to any situation where I’m the one who needs to be ‘in control’. My preferred classroom experience is one with self regulating adults where an assumption of mutual respect is in play. Clothing is definitely not a topic of relevance and I’d say casual is preferred in order to break down barriers. I like to create and facilitate learning environments and experiences, and I find the behaviour issues in younger students tiring. I’d just prefer it if they were all doing PhDs or MSc’s, frankly.
    Having said this, I’m working in FE mostly at the moment (although I do part time MSc supervision still as well). Obviously in FE I’m working with minors who are young adults but who still sometimes display behavioural issues and resistance to learning. There’s no uniform though 🙂
    The thing about consequences and consistency is still the same, however. But, you’re right… This needs to have support right through the system and consequences need to be followed through at higher levels, or all of it is meaningless.

  6. Ian Lynch says:

    I generally agree that structure fairness and consistency are keys to putting order into many instances of disorder. My only caveat is that we need to consider the positive motivators as well as the negatives. McGregor Theory X vs Theory Y is discredited not least as over-simplistic polarisation. Motivation theory is complicated but it is important in optimising learning. It’s why I challenge “evidence based” teaching that is purely based on cognition theory when it is only one of the key variables. It’s bad science. What matters in the end is empirical data on learning outcomes but even then, what works for one teacher or in one context is not necessarily automatically transferable to another.

  7. Alex Marsden says:

    I do agree that if you have a rule it should be followed out by the whole school and consistently but I question the motivation for having a lot of rules.

    instead of thinking “what should we do about this pupil who broke the rules” should more time be spent on thing “why do this person want to break the rules? and how do we minimise this?”
    whilst I agree with a lot of what you have said I find it weird that most school don’t let pupils have an opinion on rules and let more students take ownership of these rules.
    does the top button of a shirt need to be done up? is that a worthwhile rule?
    does uniform improve behaviour? does it improve the attainment of the class?
    why is it students feel the need to try to “get away” with everything?
    are detentions an effective method of incurring learners engaged with learning?
    what are the causes of a learner being late, or asking another way, why do some learners not want to arrive on-time?

    a lot of the time these are almost taken for granted and no stops to think should we even be doing this?

    • David Didau says:

      School rules are arbitrary lines in the sand. The higher up the beach they are the better protected the whole community is. No student is likely to see doing up top buttons as valuable, and in and of itself, it isn’t – if students break this rule, no one is harmed. There are certain students who see testing out authority as their duty. Whatever rules we apply they will kick against. If they’re kicking against buttons then it’s more likely that they’re not swearing at teachers or punching their peers. People want to break rules just because they’re the rules. Upholding the rule of law if essential if we want to arrest the inexorable entropy enacted in the microcosm of schools.

      • Ian Lynch says:

        You’ll be pleased to know I agree with this. It’s reasonable sensible and measured. I’d like to extend it to a hypothesis about why we get into a lot of protracted arguments when I don’t think the majority are at ideological loggerheads.

        The downside of emotive terms like obedience is that it conjures up

        Theirs not to make reply,
        Theirs not to reason why,
        Theirs but to do and die:
        Into the valley of Death
        Rode the six hundred.

        This is the snag with Tweets and to an extent text based blogs. The emotional signals are lacking and in education emotion really matters (and I’m a scientist saying this). We know this, it is well-publicised yet it still gets ignored in the next flame war. Maybe we all just enjoy flame wars.

        Words can produce different images and understanding in different people so expecting arguments to be “toneless” or “pure logic” or “evidence based” when littered with emotive terms like obedience, progressives, denialists is naive. How is the other person going to think and feel when I say this? Difficult enough delivering a difficult message face to face to an individual, guaranteed to be interpreted differently by thousands of individuals. If adult teachers can’t appreciate the importance of this how do we expect children to learn how to do it? And yes dealing successfully with people is learnt behaviour just not solely dependent on the prefrontal cortex.

        I’d say the problems with discipline in schools is more to do with incompetent execution than it is ideology though at time ideologies will be used as an excuse to cover up incompetence and that applies across the spectrum.

  8. lorenzo snow says:

    As for increased teacher/pupil interaction, we are encouraged to interact with pupils within the schools, and become involved in pupil enrichment (e.g. lunchtime, choir practice) to provide children and young adults with more opportunities to become engaged and see the school as a place of interest rather than a place of punishment/torture! It can’t hurt that they get more access to seeing teachers as ordinary people. School layout and timetabling will play a big part in this.

  9. […] reading the first sentence of this blog I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to read more and see what else I would stumble across. From […]

  10. Adam says:


    I think your article is brilliant and really highlights some of the problems in the school system that we face with regards to behaviour. Good systems followed by everyone, including senior managers means that schools run effectively. I was amazed at some comments defending putting children who have caused disruption back into the classroom, apologies, weak leaders do this; those who court popularity to the detriment of the majority. I have seen it, the same leaders who will ‘Hi Five’ the worst behaved child in school.Amazing stuff! I always wondered how those students whose lessons have been destroyed feel when they witness this kind of grotesque posturing; the same child who has destroyed numerous lessons being congratulated and having their negative behaviour reinforced. The middle of the road child can only think that to type of behaviour is acceptable and the norm, swinging the balance and thereby creating more misbehaviour.

    I am not against building positive relationships, nor do I espouse a draconian system. Children who misbehave often have unmet needs, it is the schools duty to diagnose and put in place support to help the child succeed to the best of their ability. Securing their future, giving them the skills they need to succeed. However in the context of the mainstream classroom we must ensure that standards remain high and that children understand that negative behaviour has consequences. Restorative meetings need to take place afterwards, not during, as you rightly stated. When these systems are followed children see misbehaviour dealt with, staff feel supported and the school functions better as a whole.

    Hierarchical systems, which go hand in hand with increasing levels of support is what is required. Not the senior leader who actively undermines members of staff. I can safely say as a teacher and a middle leader I challenge such behaviour from senior leaders. I find it disgraceful. The educational system seems to be full of these incompetent leaders who have failed upwards.

    • Adam,

      This is certainly an emotive and highly charged response. Your image of the senior leader high fiving the worst behaved student in the school is comical but surely the stuff of anecdotal myth. Comments such as “disgraceful” and “weak” when referring to leaders is hardly adds to the insight that is evident in the extended debate that has taken place around the original post from David.

      As I have indicated in a previous reply above it’s not always acceptable or practical to simply ratify the decision a teacher has made to remove a student from a lesson. As senior leaders that is not our job. Our job is to ensure that the systemns around conduct are adhered to by students and staff. However, a school can spend days and weeks designing, developing and implementing systems but that does mean a student cannot be removed from a lesson and then returned following a conversation–it’s about how that conversationa and situation is managed by the senio leaderr, the approach of the teacher in question, the mindset of the student in question. If, for example, I come acorss a student who has been sent out of a lesson I have a converstation with that student. If that student demonstrates to me that he is in the right frame of mind to return to the lesson (and the behaviour he has exhibited is extreme ie. abusing towards the teacher) I will inform the teacher that the student is apologetic for their behaviour and the ask the teacher if they are happy to have the student back in the lesson. If they say no–which they are perfectly welcome to do so–the student will not be returned. Episodes like this, far from being examples of “weak” leadership are a examples of leaders effectively managing complex situtations. As a middle leader I would be interested to know how you deal with students who have been sent out of lessons by teachers in your department. Do you simply send them off without question to your internal exclusion room? I hope you take each such episode on its own merits and make effective decisions that are in the interests of your teacher, the individual student, the wider group of students and the school as a whole.


      • David Didau says:

        I would hope that each student is dealt with in exactly the same way in the first instance in order to reinforce the behaviour system and support the teacher. This could include asking the teacher what they wanted to happen. Following the lesson, I would hope that each student is dealt with on their own merits and then effective decisions are made in the wider interests of the school community. Not approaching behaviour problems in this way will always undermine the teacher as it takes the view that the more senior member of staff knows best. It might be helpful for all senior leaders to assume that classroom teachers knew best about their class’s needs.

      • Adam says:


        You state that what I described is the stuff if anecdotal myth, I assure you it is not. In fact I was as astonished as you appear to be when I witnessed it myself; building positive relationships remember! The answer to your question which you asked above is yes. I agree with David, always in the first instance. The RJ bit can come in afterwards. By putting a pupil back into the class you are first of all completely and totally disregarding this member is staffs professional judgement. In essence you are saying, you do not know as much as me. Secondly who pupils see this will continue to misbehave, they will see there misbehaviour having leadership support, and it will act as a catalyst for more bad behaviour; if all I have to do to get back in is say sorry then I will (as a child I would gladly lie to avoid further consequence). Thirdly are you willing to stop a lesson in order to do the RJ? Really? That for me is poor leadership, surely the learningof the pupils comes first? Clearly that is not instructional leadership nor systems leadership that is ‘I know best because I am in leadership and you cannot be trusted to make a decision in your own classroom’ … I firmly believe in high standards and no excuses, systems like this which I believe are termed ‘put backs’ breed bad behaviour, destroys staff moral empowers the recalcitrant child, and are extremely inconsistent.

        You state on there which shocks me further, that a child apologising for being abusive, I am assuming by this swearing at a member of staff, it is deserving of a ‘put back’. This is amazing stuff, if a teacher was abusive to a pupil they would lose there job…. This is a serous matter not simply one to be shrugged off because in your grand judgement -like yoda- you felt it was okay. I will tell you how I would deal with that. I would ask the member of staff to write up what happened. The child would be FTE, sending a strong message to all other pupils about swearing or being abusive to members of staff, and in the re-intergration meeting I would make it clear to parents should such behaviour be repeated again the FTE would be for longer. I would the arrange an RJ meeting with the teacher and the pupil, agree some strategies and targets and monitor them. Or on the other hand – less work involved, simply make the yoda like decision to put the pupil back and go about my day….

        The best schools as outlined in numerous reports and government papers are ones in which the school policy is consistently applied by everyone – SMT – included. I truly believe that the school system has bred a culture of failing upwards…

  11. […] good behaviors in students. You can get access to his blog by clicking this link to the his blog The Learning Spy. This blog really stuck with me because he brought up something that I feel is very important when […]

  12. […] focus on behaviour. I wouldn’t talk about anything else for the first few weeks. As David Didau notes, behaviour is the key. If you can’t control the room, it doesn’t matter how good the lesson […]

  13. […] that while teachers are responsible for holding children to account for unacceptable behaviour; the primary responsibility rests with the school. If school leaders fail to support teachers’ attempts to enforce school rules, and worse, if […]

  14. […] 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’ […]

  15. […] that while teachers are responsible for holding children to account for unacceptable behaviour; the primary responsibility rests with the school. If school leaders fail to support teachers’ attempts to enforce school rules, and worse, if they […]

  16. […] be made to work well for some students in some contexts. But unless senior teachers understand that students’ behaviour is the primary responsibility of the school, not the teacher, report cards can backfire badly. Use with […]

  17. […] where does that leave us in schools? I’ve maintained in the past that behaviour is a choice, but is this just a romantic, liberal humanist illusion? Certainly, some people think so. […]

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