John d’Abbro, the headteacher in Channel 4’s popular TV show Jamie’s Dream School ( Not on Australian TV?) and recipient of an OBE for services to special education, has no doubts about what’s important when it comes to behaviour management. It is vital, he says, to develop a good relationship with students by being “fair, trustworthy and honest”.
The head of New Rush Hall Group, an organisation that works with children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties, says: “Learning is an exploratory and uncertain process so children have to trust you to learn from and with you. A big part of it is about making children feel that you care about them.
“That’s not to say we should be all lovey-dovey; and it’s not about getting children to like you either, you can respect someone without liking them. We need to go into class confident, and work to gain the respect of our students, making them realise we want to be there.”
So, with his extensive background in handling students with complex needs, what wisdom does d’Abbro have to offer around behaviour management? Last week he came to the Guardian’s offices to give us his five top tips. Here’s what he said:
Start the lesson well
I always try to greet children as they come in. You need to respect them if you want them to respect you. If you came to my house I’d greet you as you came in, it’s just good manners.
I’d also say, as a general strategy, don’t be noisy at the start of class because often a noisy teacher leads to a noisy class. I’ll get in trouble for saying that, but in my experience, it tends to be the case. At the start of a lesson the children have to take up their places as learners and, if they are coming in straight from the playground, you need a bridge – something to ease the transition from being switched off to being switched on. If children come in still sweaty and buzzing I might give them a starter activity that lets them talk for two minutes, but then it’s their turn to listen.
Plan, plan and plan again
As the old adage goes: failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Of course, there have been times when I’ve walked into a class to cover a lesson not knowing exactly what I am supposed to be doing, but I always have about three or four pre-planned lessons in the bag. If you have a relationship with children you can get away with being less prepared, but if not, it can result in chaos. So, always cover the basics to ensure you have a well-behaved lesson, including having the right equipment and a plan B for when things don’t go as you thought they would.
Use a range of teaching strategies
In some lessons I use a whiteboard and in others I talk to the children or adopt a kinaesthetic approach. This works because we all learn differently. One student might not respond well to the particular strategy you are using and become distracted and/or disruptive. So, if you use a range of techniques chances are that most of them will get on well with at least one of them, and you minimise the potential for disruptive behaviour.
Mean what you say and say what you mean
Never threaten to do something if you’re not going to do it. Kids need consistency and security. For example, with one child recently I said that if he directed inappaopriate language at me he’d get 30 minutes in detention. He did, and I made him stay to the minute. It sends the message that if I say something I mean it.
Having said that, you can always be flexible once you have a framework. About six months ago, for example, I had a kid in detention and as part of his bail conditions he had regular meetings with his youth offending team. He told me he couldn’t do detention because if he did he’d be late to meet them and be in breach. I said, “I am happy to ring the officer up and tell them” but he said it was his last chance and he’d been late all week. He said he would do the detention the next day and in the end I decided to meet him halfway. Sometimes I think you just need to adopt a more human approach.
In that circumstance we’d built up a relationship – it was later in the year. At the beginning of the school year it is important that you set your stall out, and make the pupils clear of your expectations and the consequences of inappropriate behavior. To quote that great Bill Rogers line (I wish I had said it): “The certainty of the consequence is more important than the severity.”
There are days when you go in and you are not feeling a million dollars but you have to act as though you are. It’s not about being disingenuous – kids have a right to the best lesson you can give them.
Confidence also goes a long way in terms of classroom management. I was running a PRU [pupil referral unit] a few years ago and we were really short staffed one day. I’d never advocate doing this, but I took 15 really hard and challenging kids out to play football on my own in the mini bus. It could have all gone off badly – these were really tough kids: two of them were tagged. Looking back perhaps that was my ego running wild but I was feeling confident and I had by this time in the term established a relationship with them. I thought, I am going to get them/me through this. I wouldn’t have done it earlier in my career but now I’m more experienced I don’t mind (occassionally) taking a gamble.