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