Now well settled into a new academic year, the familiar challenges have also returned with any sense of normality. Since September, many students have returned to schools and colleges with a mix of excitement to be back amongst friends and some anxiety having missed the majority of the last two academic years due to Covid.
As students have returned, teachers have quickly found a rhythm after 18 months of online and remote delivery and feeling chained to laptops, computers, webcams, and microphones when supporting students.
And, as we settle into the year, some of the old habits and annoyances have returned: mobile phones; low level disruption and students not following instructions, to name just a few. In the main, teachers are equipped with an impressive toolkit with which to counter these behaviours (and there are plenty here), but there are a minority of students who are not as receptive to the strategies we use. What happens when students refuse to comply? What approaches can we use with those stubborn students who continue to disrupt sessions, again and again?
Below is a detailed method to support positive behaviour with even the most challenging of students, focusing on an individualised approach, but not to the detriment of other students.
So, you’ve outlined expectations, given positive praise throughout the classroom, and used non-verbal cues to emphasise which behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable, but to no avail in a minority of students. So, what next?
Having gone through the above, with little success, it’s time to focus on those who are not complying. If possible, make eye contact to confirm that you are aware students are not on task and wait for improvement. Having outlined expectations, students know the tasks that they should be completing, and by making eye contact, you are communicating that you know they are not completing the tasks that have been set. In other words, you’re letting students know you have ‘caught’ them off task. This is sometimes enough to get students back on track, but for those who don’t, it’s time to move in.
Having given an opportunity to improve, it is time to approach students who are not complying. Do this calmly and with little fanfare, as anything other than this will distract those who are on-task.
Once you’ve approached off-task students, it is vitally important to get down to their level. Whether this means crouching, resting on your knees, or even pulling up a chair next to them, it is vital that you are at their height. Towering above students can be perceived as aggressive and confrontational and this is likely to significantly escalate and worsen the situation.
The temptation here is to immediately confront students, but again this can be construed as confrontational. Better, then, to simply ask if they know what they should be doing and asking them to explain this. Starting with an open question (e.g., ‘what do we need to complete by the end of the lesson?’) is also a great opportunity to identify if they really know what they should be doing.
Having confirmed if students know what they need to be doing, now is the time to repeat and emphasise clear expectations for the session. Confirm what they should be doing; how they should be doing it; time frames; model (if needed) and all necessary expectations.
After confirming the above, give a final reminder of the task that students have been set and confirm what they need to do.
With all the above taking only 1-2 minutes, it’s time to move away from students. You can now confirm that they know what they should be doing, how they should be doing it and you are confident that they are able to complete the set task.
Though it is enormously tempting to pounce on any student who does not immediately comply, this can ultimately prove counterproductive as it is likely to distract all learners from the task and with little improvement. A more effective approach is to give students a set amount of time to get themselves back on task.
The above will support most students to get back on task and engage with activities, but wherever it doesn’t, simply run through the process again. If you find that this is still not having the desired impact, a short conversation outside of the session, with a reminder of consequences for continued poor behaviour, is likely to do the trick (and if not, it’s time to move on to sanctions).
Not only does the above support students to engage with tasks, but it also helps to harbour high-quality relationships with students as they are fully aware of expectations and can easily identify boundaries within sessions.
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of Teaching, Learning and Assessment at a college in the North East. He has previously worked as Head of English and maths in FE and as an English teacher and Head of English in Secondary schools. He tweets @jonnykayteacher and his book, 'Improving Maths and English in Further Education: A Practical Guide', is available now.