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Free article: Dealing with low-level disruption

Published: Thursday, 02 June 2022

One of the key factors that interferes with learning in class, and which hinders school improvement, is low-level disruption. It is also wearing for teachers, and for those students who want to get on with learning. Sue Cowley gives some advice on dealing with the frustration caused by students chatting, calling out and using mobile phones.

Summary

• An expectation of complete compliance is counterproductive. Ensure that your approach is suitable for all ages and phases in the school.

• You should be able to distil the core of your behaviour policy into one or two pages, to ensure that it is read and understood by all.

• The flexibility needed to support individual children, particularly those with SEND, can be flattened out by a policy being followed to the letter.

• Encourage teachers to plan ahead, thinking about routines, positive responses, pinch points in lessons and how to manage these.

New teachers often ask for advice on handling low-level disruption. It would be wonderful to offer them a simple, one-stop-shop solution. However, a complex range of factors are involved in creating classes that are focused and on task: the school ethos, the effectiveness of the school approaches, the routines, and a repertoire of subtle but key skills that teachers develop over time.

Keeping a perspective

When considering low-level disruption, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective. Even as adults, we are not immune to creating ‘low-level disruption’: we just don’t think of it that way. Who hasn’t sat in a dull staff meeting and sneaked a peak at their mobile phone, or whispered quietly in a colleague’s ear during a dull presentation on an INSET day? Low-level misbehaviour has a negative impact, but these behaviours are not personal, just a feature of how humans beings work.

Take care not to expect unreasonable levels of focus and attention as an expectation of complete compliance is counterproductive. We must bear in mind the need for reasonable adjustments for learners with SEND. We must also ensure that our approach is suitable for all ages and phases in the school, not only for some year groups or phases.

Reflecting on your behaviour policy

For twenty years, as part of my work providing CPD on behaviour, I have asked teachers questions about their perceptions of behaviour and their school’s approach. When I ask staff how many have read their school’s behaviour policy cover to cover, shockingly only around 60% have usually done so.

This is perhaps unsurprising given the typical length of school behaviour policies – teachers are busy people and policies are often longer than they need to be. I have read a lot of behaviour policies, and they often run to 20 pages and more. Although your policy might need appendices, you should be able to distil the core of it into one or two pages, to ensure that it is read and understood by all.

Involve your class teachers in creating whole-school policies, because it is only where policies are enacted on the ground that they work. Systems and procedures are important, but if staff are too busy to follow them, or if policies don’t work for them, teachers tend to become inconsistent in applying them. This leads to confusion for students, particularly in secondary schools, when they move between different teachers.

Policies and philosophies

Some schools have a ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ approach where teachers are expected to uphold the policy exactly as written. The idea is that students receive complete consistency of approach from all staff, with the policy applied in the same way in every classroom. These policies often include detailed expectations of behaviour around equipment and uniform.

In theory, this approach creates the consistency required to achieve student compliance: students get the message that it is ‘our way or the highway’. Unfortunately, these policies can have problematic side effects, including issues around inclusion and negative reactions from parents.

It is important to remember that your staff will have their own philosophies on how behaviour management should look. Although they understand that they need to get on board with the way the school’s policies work, at the same time they need to align with their values, or it is difficult for staff to be consistent.

Reasonable adjustments

A key concern about zero-tolerance behaviour policies is how they align with the legal requirement to make reasonable adjustments for students with SEND. Simply adding a line to the behaviour policy about staff complying with the requirement for reasonable adjustments is unlikely to be sufficient. The flexibility needed to support individual children can be flattened out by a policy being followed to the letter.

Schools do not operate in a vacuum; the approaches taken in one school impact on what happens to other schools in an area. Recently, concerns have been expressed about some schools with high levels of use of isolation rooms, excessive student ‘turnover’ and lower than expected numbers of children with SEND. Where one school in an area takes a very firm line, this can lead to other schools having a higher number of what might be termed ‘challenging students’.

Proactive, not reactive

The key to handling low-level disruption actually lies in minimising the chances of it happening in the first place, as well as understanding what to do when it does happen. This is not to say that low-level disruption is the teacher’s fault, simply that they can take proactive steps to minimise it.

An important point to remember about low-level disruption is that the instinctive reaction to it is usually the wrong thing to do. It is entirely rational to feel like raising your voice when faced with difficult behaviours, shining a spotlight on the problem. However, as the saying goes, ‘Don’t give attention to the attention seekers’.

Encourage staff to think ahead about pinch points, moments during lessons when things tend to go wrong. Then encourage teachers to plan ahead for those times, for instance by creating a clear focus, adding pace, incorporating a surprise or something to spark curiosity, and so on.

Focus on the positive

When faced with a class of students who are slow to settle, instead of immediately pointing out the problem and calling for silence, a useful technique is to highlight what is going right. For instance, praising three students who are waiting quietly to begin, saying ‘thank you’ to each in turn.

In addition, thinking carefully about routines, and the way the lesson begins, helps create pace and focus for students. Having a learning activity already on tables or on the board, to start on immediately, creates a sense of diving straight into the lesson.

Clarity of expectations

One of the central features of effective behaviour management is clarity of expectations. However, it is surprisingly hard to be clear and to avoid sending mixed messages. We cannot just give reams of expectations to students, and expect them to be retained. A simple core of expectations, delivered with conviction, works better than a long list. In fact, it is not so much about what we say, but about whether or not our learners believe that we mean it.

Teachers need to come across as confident when setting and explaining expectations. Their face, tone of voice, posture, movements, gestures and their attitude to disruptions will all feed into this perception of confidence. It is also important for teachers not to become defensive when faced with poor behaviour – much easier said than done!

With experience, teachers learn how to maintain a calm attitude in the face of difficulty, using low-level interventions to handle issues before they escalate. For instance, moving close to a student to indicate that ‘I’ve spotted what you’re doing’, rather than calling them out in front of the class, and risking escalation.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

Checklist – Behaviour policy

About the author

Sue Cowley is a teacher, author, teacher trainer and presenter, who has taught in all phases of education. Her international bestseller, Getting the Buggers to Behave has been in print for over twenty years. Find out more at www.suecowley.co.uk.

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