Classroom conduct: It takes grit and good management

There are ways to help teachers ensure all students are guided, supported, and enabled to shine, writes teacher and learning diversity and wellbeing leader Sally Lentini.

Teacher, psychologist, and parent educator Hiam Ginott wrote in Teacher & Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers, (1972): “As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all cases it is my response that decides whether a situation will be escalated or de-escalated or a child humanised or de-humanised.”

An effective teacher or educational support officer makes management of students appear effortless. There are many disruptions and outbursts during a term or a year, but these can be kept to a minimum if teachers employ some subtle techniques to create a positive culture in the classroom.

Build positive relationships

Building an effective classroom culture starts with relationships and knowing how young minds work. Students need to feel safe and secure, and they will respond well if they know you care and they are a valued member of the class. When building these relationships, it is important to get to know the students and genuinely appreciate them. This will build trust.

But having a strong relationship with students does not mean there are no boundaries. The classroom needs to have clear behavioural and social expectations to make students feel safe and part of the learning environment.

At my school, St Fidelis in Moreland, Victoria, a focus on “The Agreed Ways” and “The Learning Dispositions” at the start of the year helps students understand what is expected of them. These expectations, reinforced by weekly awards, also guide staff as they get to know each student’s individual needs, interests, strengths and how they learn.

Once students understand behavioural standards, staff need to follow up consistently and fairly when these are not met.

Building trust between teachers and student takes time. Everyone needs to treat each other with respect and dignity. Whilst acting as a role model, teachers must be careful not to become too enmeshed with students.

A student whose behaviour is getting out of control has an unfulfilled need –find and interpret the student’s need and their behaviour will improve.

Spot it at the source

A student whose behaviour is getting out of control has an unfulfilled need. Find and interpret the student’s need and their behaviour will improve.

Whether the need is academic, emotional, or social, ‘acting out’ is often their way of communicating a need to you.

Some students don’t have the necessary social or language skills to communicate what they need or want. It takes time for them to be able to follow rules or explain how they are feeling. The rules need to be taught explicitly. Give specific praise and reinforce the behaviour you expect.

Some students may misbehave if the rules are unclear, inconsistent, or if there are too many rules to follow. Such a student may appear stressed, frustrated, angry or overwhelmed. If this happens, the teacher needs to be calm to de-escalate the situation, not react and escalate it. It is also imperative that teachers not take what students do or say as a personal attack on them.

Specialised strategies

Despite the best efforts and intentions, schools often require specialised strategies to address student needs for healing, growth, and achievement.

The Berry Street Educational Model addresses “students with complex, unmet learning needs”. Its training asks us to consider ambulance drivers who attend an emergency. They keep calm, walking towards the emergency, keeping everyone safe and reassuring the family or members of the public involved in the situation. They ask family members to sit down, they clear the space, and they do the work.

This approach can apply in classrooms. When there is chaos, the adult must be in control. Be calm, say as little as possible and be empathetic.

If a student is unruly, you can say: “I understand that you are angry or upset but I need to keep you safe.” Give the student space and meet them at their point of need.

Respond rather than react

Successful classroom management requires a teacher to be proactive not reactive. After establishing behavioural expectations, set goals and build a positive and safe learning environment in which students want to come to learn.

Consider non-verbal communication such as eye contact, body language, how you speak to the students, your tone of voice, and how you position yourself in the classroom. Make sure you circulate throughout the classroom, give feedback, support, and help all students. Think about the impact of your demeanour on the classroom culture.

Learning about your students on every level is crucial, helping them connect with you and each other.

Ultimately, the teacher sets the tone of the classroom. You can make a student feel valued, safe, and important.

Your job is to project confidence, foster a have-a-go attitude and build rapport. This will ensure you build a classroom climate that is respectful, where everyone is treated with dignity and your students have the best chance to learn.

Sally Lentini has taught in three different countries and in Catholic and government schools. She has experience as a Deputy Principal, Special Needs Coordinator, restorative practices circle coach, educational coach and literacy leader.