Behaviour Management

The Rocks, Pebbles and Sand of Behaviour Management

I recently have been thinking a lot about the classic metaphor regarding rocks, pebbles and sand in a jar. What are the rock, pebbles and sand of behaviour management? Here are mine.

The rocks must always go in first, but what are they when it comes to behaviour management?

Social, emotional and behavioural difficulties appear to be becoming a prominent issue in schools today. Many classrooms and schools have high levels of needs in this area where there seems to be an increasing number of diagnoses of conditions such as ADHD, ODD, ADD and EBD among others. As well as these children, there are many more waiting to be assessed or have not yet got to this point but are presenting with complex needs that a teacher needs to address. Separation, family bereavements and other domestic issues can also influence a child’s behaviour and a teacher needs a diverse range of strategies to successfully navigate the wide-ranging issues a modern-day classroom can present. All these issues can leave teachers, parents and the children themselves frustrated, stressed or feeling overwhelmed.

Styles, methods and behavioural perspectives are aplenty as a result of this growing issue with new academic research, programmes and initiatives emerging annually to help teachers meet these needs. Depending on your experience and academic grounding, you may take a behaviourist approach to manage your classroom and incorporate something like a token economy system to manage behaviour or you may view and engage with behaviour systemically and follow a strategic problem-solving approach. The number of options can be somewhat overwhelming due to the stress of challenging behaviour as teachers may begin jumping between different approaches if not met with success instantly or struggle to see a starting point at all.

The combining issues of rising needs and rising literature on how to meet these needs have sparked an internal conversation in my head. On a brief number of times, I’ve been asked what I would do in a situation regarding challenging behaviour. I find this an impossible question to answer as without knowing the whole, 360-degree context of the situation, it is foolhardy to think I can give accurate advice. It is only one person’s perception I am hearing which means everybody else could have a completely different view of the situation and my advice may be completely different upon hearing all sides of the story. Yet, offering no help is definitely no help. I want to be able to provide some value in these instances which got me thinking about rocks, pebbles and sand.

There’s an old metaphor about prioritising your life as you would prioritise putting rocks, pebbles and sand in a jar. Put the sand in first and there will not be as much room for the pebbles and rocks. Put the big rocks in first, pebbles in second and the sand in finally and you will fill the jar with far more success. What if we viewed behaviour management through this guise? What would the big rocks be? What would the pebbles be? What would the sand be?

I’ve been playing with this metaphor in my head for a while and using my own classroom experience, college experience and personal experience, I have settled on six big rocks that I believe should go in first into anyone’s behaviour management style. My six rocks are desire, clarity, consistency, positivity, ethics and patience.

My six rocks are:


This is the very first rock I would put in my jar. A teacher who wants to improve the behaviour of a class or a pupil. This is a non-negotiable in my eyes. A half-hearted effort at improving behaviour will beget half-hearted results. A teacher who does not believe behaviour can be improved, will generally not improve the behaviour. If a teacher truly wants to improve behaviour, they have a far greater chance of doing so because they will channel their efforts and time into ensuring it happens. Having the desire to improve means the teacher will be persistent in the face of setbacks and will decline from giving up on the child.

During a visit to a school in Demark that specialised in inclusion years ago, I was given a tour of the facilities and showed how they appeared to use technology to include children with a wide range of needs. I asked at the end of the tour how would the rest of schools manage this standard of inclusion if they did not have the money? I will never forget the response because of how it struck me (and I wrote it down);

“It is possible to be inclusive without money through time and people with the desire to include. Money is still important, but it is always possible to get money. Without desire, it is impossible.” 


Being clear in what you are trying to achieve and how you are trying to achieve it is critical. Defining the behaviour that you want to increase, or decrease is an important first step that is so obvious that it can often be overlooked. What is the problem? Who is it a problem for? When is it a problem? Where is it a problem? Why is it a problem? These are all questions that should have clear answers based on observed and agreed facts. Having clarity is especially important when there is more than one adult in contact with the child. If a class teacher views the problem as one thing and a special education teacher views it as another, it can be fair to assume that this will slow down progress at best and make it impossible at worst. Carving out some time for all the adults involved with the child to meet and clearly define the problem and clearly define the approach that will be taken should give a higher chance of success.

To enhance the chances of clarity, I would forgo the use of diagnoses when defining the problem. Often, in my experience, when labels and other factors like homelife which are largely out of our control are left aside and the actual problem is discussed and defined, it does not seem as intimidating anymore. The problem could simply be that the child will not sit in their chair during certain subjects or the problem could be that the child will not use their hand to speak if they wish to tell the class or teacher something. With a clarity of vision, a problem can reduce in size and strategies can appear more obvious.


This rock sits snugly beside clarity. Dealing with behaviour effectively needs consistency. This is required on a micro level and a macro level for maximum effect. On a micro level, consistency can be seen in the teacher keeping routines throughout the day and week, so the expectations are known. Also, in the classroom, the teacher needs to be consistent in how they deal with a child’s behaviour. They need to be consistent in their approach whether the teacher is tired and frustrated at the behaviour or whether they are feeling particularly relaxed coming up to the end of the term. Understandably, a child will quickly increase or reduce a behaviour if they realise the behaviour gets a consistent response. For example, if a child learns that raising their hand to speak will elicit a positive response consistently, they are more likely to do it. Conversely, if a child realises that every time they shout out, they will consistently lose a point for their group, they are more likely to cease the behaviour. Inconsistent reinforcement of behaviour can lead to children testing the waters or being confused as to what standard is expected.

On a macro-level, a child may need consistency in how they are managed across the school. If a child’s behaviour is being catered for effectively at a class level using an approach or with allowances, these may need to be consistently applied for the child throughout the school. For example, if a child’s challenging behaviour is managed effectively by giving him consistently positive attention and praise in the classroom, the swim instructor, principal and drama teacher may benefit from implementing this approach also. Implementing a known successful strategy in external contexts can prevent misbehaviour before it arises, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Consistency is a big rock.


There is a quote from Nel Noddings, who lectures on care theory, that I love for its simplicity: “Children will not learn from someone they do not like”. I love it mainly because I can relate to it from my own experience. I had teachers that I clashed with when I was in secondary school and what I learned from those teachers was far less than what I learned from the teachers I had a positive rapport with. Being positive and cultivating good relationships with your students is an important step in managing behaviour. This is not to be confused with being their friend. Positive rapport can be built through ensuring that you show interest in the student beyond the realm of their academic work. Listening to their stories, sharing your own stories and inquiring about their interests are small gestures that can make a big difference along with ensuring the other big rocks are present in the room. A child who has a good rapport with their class teacher will be more likely to try reciprocating the respect that has been shown to them. It may not always be reciprocated but I feel that it will happen a lot more than a teacher that has no relationship with their student.

Positivity is also a key ingredient as there will be ups and downs when dealing with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. I believe having a positive mindset is critical for a teacher’s self-care. Being positive that you are doing your best. Being positive and identifying the minuscule or major progress that has been made despite this setback. Being positive that you keep persevering and keep trying, that progress will be inevitable.


This should go without saying but being ethically sound in your approach is a non-negotiable in how a teacher manages behaviour. Approaches should be consistent with the rights of the child and not causing undue upset, embarrassment or angst in their lives. In the case of punishments, for example, if a teacher were to use such a strategy, they should strive to use the least amount of punishment necessary to cause the desired effect and phase it out as promptly as possible. A teacher should proceed with caution when using punishment procedures to ensure that they are in line with school policy where appropriate. Strategies used should keep the child’s dignity intact and not seek to embarrass the child or damage their self-esteem. Although this rock is not a glamorous one, it is a keystone.


Patience most certainly is a virtue. Patience can go a long way when striving to make progress with children who have behavioural difficulties. Patience is needed in scenarios where you are engaging in tactical ignoring to deny an attention-seeking behaviour the oxygen it desires. It is also needed when a child who struggles with their anger on the yard has an outburst and assaults another child on the yard. Patience is needed when you have invested an abundance of time and energy into a child and they let you down with a bang. There will be many times where your patience will be tested. A teacher will be tired, upset and stressed throughout the year but being patient will aid the teacher make measured responses and strategically communicate their message. To understand the importance of patience, think about a time that you lost yours. It rarely results in a productive message being conveyed, a good decision being made or the issue disappearing permanently. Often, losing your patience can leave a situation worse than it started. A teacher who has patience will understand that an issue may not be resolved overnight and depending on its size – may not even be resolved in the year.

A social media marketer by the name of Gary Vee uses the phrase “micro speed, macro patience”. Although he applies this to a business setting, it is also applicable to dealing with children with behavioural needs. Being impatient and putting lots of time into the day-to-day preparation that’s helpful and necessary to achieve progress with a child who has complex needs, however, having the patience to understand that the progress will not be as quick and may even be glacially slow.

From my own early professional experiences, I have experienced the helplessness and stress of feeling that I was failing a child who had severe behavioural difficulties in my classroom. It affected my self-esteem as I felt other teachers were judging me (tip: they’re not) and I felt I only appeared to be making the situation worse. On reflection, and with years of experience, I now realise that I was overwhelmed. I realised that I was looking at the big picture instead of clearly defining what the problem behaviour was and moving on from there. I was panicking and jumping from one reward chart to another without having any patience or consistency. I was being negative with my instructional language and with my mindset.

It was only when an older teacher took me under their wing and guided me through how to take the first steps in managing the behaviour of this child more efficiently that I began to see progress. I regained my composure, used the academic knowledge that seemed to abandon me when stressed and started to implement strategies based on the six core rocks I have identified above. Progress started to emerge, and I established a passion for all things behaviour.

In my view, if a teacher showed up to work every day and ensured the six rocks of desire, clarity, consistency, positivity, ethics and patience were present, they would cultivate a positive climate where children could thrive and develop. Children would be motivated to behave and learn, and challenging behaviour could be minimised. There are always exceptions and there will always be children who need extra support but starting with these six rocks is be a great foundation. In my opinion, elaborate academic experience, impressive visual displays and the latest strategies and initiatives come in second place behind these fundamentals. Paperwork is necessary but I don’t believe it to be a rock. These may be the pebbles in the jar. There can be times when these may cloud your vision and you may put these into the jar first and forget about your rocks. I believe you can manage without the pebbles, even though they are beneficial, but you certainly cannot manage without the rocks.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list. What have I missed? Am I mistaken to exclude paperwork, evidence-based approaches or something else? Let me know if you feel I’m missing a rock or perhaps included one you don’t agree with.

By Barry Whelan

A teacher with a huge interest in improving behaviour, communication and inclusion.

4 replies on “The Rocks, Pebbles and Sand of Behaviour Management”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s