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Behaviour Management

8 Ways to Motivate Children Without Rewards

Different strokes for different folks is becoming my new behaviour policy. What works for me as a teacher, might not work for you. Ditto if your parent. Definitely, if you’re a child. The more I have studied behaviour, the more I have come to wonder why would you marry a single philosophy when there are so many options out there? Handcuffing yourself to a single set of beliefs just limits your options. Develop preferences for sure. But if your strategies aren’t serving you, the adult you’re trying to advise or the child, it’s time to change it up and try something new. As long as the approach abides by obvious ethical parameters, its an option.

Reward systems usually evoke strong opinions. Adults can love or hate them. They can rely heavily on them or avoid them like the plague. The truth, as always, lies in the middle. I wrote a piece about developing top-quality reward systems but I acknowledge they are not for everyone and different strategies are needed. But how do we motivate children to behave and learn without rewards? Here are eight different options:

  1. Providing Choice is a strong motivator. It gives ownership to students over their learning and behaviour. Depending on the situation, you can offer them a choice over what they learn, how they learn and where they learn. (More on choice here)
  2. Providing Competition motivates students. The teacher can set a challenge for the child to overcome. They can challenge a child to beat their own personal best. In the appropriate contexts, they can even pit children against their peers. Healthy competition is part of life and should be harnessed positively.
  3. Technology always is appealing to students. They will jump at the chance to achieve learning objectives using technology instead of using pen and paper. Creating their work digitally, photographically or through video will inspire them to apply themselves.
  4. Art should never be underestimated. Whether it is creating work using new and colourful stationery or reacting to a stimulus through clay or painting, children are often motivated by presenting their work artistically.
  5. Drama stirs children’s imagination. A topic such as the Vikings can be very uninspiring in a textbook, but if it is brought to life through role-play, freeze frames and conscience alleys, it suddenly becomes a world of fun and motivation to get involved.
  6. Mysteries that need solving stoke a child’s curiosity. Give them clues and the resources and support to solve them and they will work like detectives to scratch the itch and find out what the answer is. 
  7. Surprises aren’t for everyone. Some children who are anxious need predictability. Depending on your class, however, inserting novelty and surprise activities can shake off the funk children fall into if they find routine monotonous. Variety is the spice of life and it adds motivation to the mixture too.
  8. Deadlines are simple and effective. Whether you introduce a short term deadline with a radial timer or a longer-term deadline, these can motivate children to achieve task completion before the deadline runs out.

Each of these eight options provides effective motivation on their own or paired with a reward system. Incorporating them into your daily routine will prevent misbehaviour before it has a chance to arise and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Behaviour Management parenting

Top Quality Reward Systems

Top quality reward systems can be a great way to start the year and establish the standard of behaviour you want in your classroom. They can be fantastic for intervening if a class is particularly challenging to work with. They can be a wonderful way to motivate children or an individual child to apply themselves to a task. 

By committing to a reward system, you are taking a primarily positive approach that will objectively show you if the desired behaviour is increasing and if you are rewarding it regularly. 

This article explains what the key elements are, what the steps involve and common reasons that they may not work.

Four Keys to an Effective Reward System

Lock in these four keys before creating your system. All successful reward system have these four elements in common.

  1. The students must find the reward desirable. If they don’t, the system will be doomed to fail. Provide choice and pick suitable rewards that you both can agree on. Beware of “reinforcer satiation”. This is where a once desirable reward has lost its novelty. Keep it fresh and change it up.
  2. Ensure the behaviour is defined, explained and practised. Choosing between one and four behaviours for a whole class will keep it extremely clear what is expected. Instead of rewarding “being good”, reward “listening when another is speaking”. Reward the specific behaviour you want to increase. Spend time practising what it looks like as you introduce the system. Ensure the behaviour is within their ability.
  3. Decide how often the children will need to be rewarded. When you set up the system first, reward frequently and overtly. This makes it crystal clear what you are rewarding. Pair your rewards with very specific positive language. “Excellent Caleb, I noticed you were looking at Ellen when she was talking, I have to reward that”. Watch as that behaviour spreads through the room. As the days pass, gradually reduce the frequency at which you reward the behaviours but still intermittently reward and praise them. Wait until break time to reward them. Delay it until the end of the day when they are ready. Finally, the end of the week. If the standard of behaviour drops, increase the frequency you reward again. Find the sweet spot and gradually reduce.
  4. If the behaviour is not forthcoming, do not give them the rewards but equally, do not complain. The attention and rewards are solely for the students who are performing the behaviour. This provides consistency in your approach and will harness children who love any attention to your advantage. If they want your attention, they must play by the rules the teacher and students have agreed.

Five Steps to Implementing a Reward System

Whatever you do, spend time working through steps one to three. Think of it like building a house. Build solid foundations and your house will stand the test of time and stormy weather. If you skip the foundations and start by creating a lovely display, you are building on sand and it is sure to decrease the chances of success.

  1. Write and explain clear definitions of the behaviour you want to increase. Actions that can be seen and heard and cannot be argued.
  2. Establish how often the defined behaviour occurs before implementing the system. This helps you decide how often you need to reward it. Raise the standard and increase the time between behaviour and reward as they improve.
  3. List a menu of rewards that they can choose from. Let them have a say in this step to increase compliance.
  4. Create an attractive display. This will maximise buy-in from the kids.
  5. Explain the system clearly.  Taking the time to do this reduces ambiguity and creates excitement as the children can see clearly what they have to do to be rewarded.

Four Reasons It’s Not Working

There is no magic strategy that will solve all problems. Maybe a reward system is not suited to your context. However, there are four common reasons why reward systems fail. Consider these issues and how you might fix them if this ever applies to you.

  1. The students may not clearly understand the expectations or the behaviour may not be within their ability. Put more time into explaining and practising the behaviour you want to increase.
  2. You moved too fast from continuously rewarding the behaviour to infrequently rewarding it. Return to immediately rewarding the specific behaviour you want to increase.
  3. Reinforcer satiation has occurred. The once amazing reward that was on offer has lost its shine. Change the system and rewards to freshen things up.
  4. There are inconsistencies. The child knows that the reward will be given to them anyway. Maybe, they are getting negative attention which they find rewarding. Once the system is set, finetuned and explained, it needs to be executed consistently by all adults in the room to maximise its impact.

Giving children rewards for positive actions and behaviour creates a rapport between teacher and student. If the four keys are secure and the five steps have been taken in the correct order, you will slowly be able to reduce the reliance on your reward systems as the children habitually perform the behaviour. Reward systems are a valuable part of a teacher’s toolkit. Ensure that you use them correctly.

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Anger Management

Before, During and After Physical Aggression

As teachers, physical aggression and violence are two behaviours that we never want to have to deal with. It’s not nice to see a child that upset. It is stressful and there may not be much time to react. There is no definitive way to respond but there are strategies that will help guide you before it is about to escalate, when it is happening or after it has occurred. This article looks to support teachers by providing strategies for whatever stage they find themselves at.

Before 

The Low Arousal Approach focuses on reducing and preventing arousal which will reduce the likelihood of physical aggression. There is a window of opportunity before aggressive behaviour occurs where a teacher’s intervention can de-escalate the situation. There are six simple ways teachers can implement some of the Low Arousal Approach principles:

Appear Calm

Even if you are not calm, focus on presenting yourself as calm. Be aware of what you are saying, how you are saying it and your body language. 

Avoid Staring

Prolonged eye contact and staring can appear confrontational and heighten arousal further. Keep eye contact fleeting when talking to the child.

Limit Touch

Physical touch can increase arousal further. Allow the child personal space if possible. One metre is recommended but some children may need more.

Divert and Distract

Avoiding and escaping the situation that is causing arousal, if it is known, will aid deescalation. Distracting the child with their interests, hobbies and favourite people can help them calm themselves before becoming overwhelmed.

Reduce Demands

Excessive instructions and demands can overload a child who is becoming increasingly aroused. Limiting your verbal instructions and demands can prevent arousal from rising further.

During

If you have reached a point where physical aggression is already occurring, you will need to act swiftly to mitigate the damage to the child, other people and the environment. As I mentioned at the start of the article, there is no single solution, but there are three things to consider:

Can you reduce the audience?

Removing the child from an environment where they are being watched can help them come down from their heightened state faster. Reducing the number of people also lessens the chance of others getting hurt. You may be able to do this by guiding the child to a more isolated environment or by removing the other children themselves.

What do I want them to do?

Choose your language carefully as we are aiming to keep instructions to a minimum. Short directive statements will be processed easier than a constant barrage of language. Calmly direct them to do what is essential. “Put down the scissors” is more effective than telling them “Do not hurt anyone with the scissors”. Secondly, provide directive choices. Calmly ask them to “Go next door and take a break or have a seat”. Non-confrontational tone and calm are key. If you are being ignored, you can add in a time-limit. “If you do not choose in the next ten seconds, I will escort you next door to (insert suitable teacher/adult) who will let you take a break and calm down”.

Is someone in immediate harm?

If there is imminent danger to other children in the room and all other interventions have been exhausted, physical intervention may be required. The ins and outs of this are beyond the scope of this article. One tip that has stood me well, however, is the concept of “fixing.” If a child has grabbed or bitten any skin, hair or something which can be damaged, you can support their hand or head gently in place. Your gut reaction can be to pull them apart. Do not. This could hurt someone. Fixing the two things together will prevent further damage and the child will most likely release what they are clamping onto.

After

If you have navigated your way through a crisis, you may be emotionally exhausted. It is a highly stressful event. Keep these four steps in mind for dealing with the aftermath:

Debrief

Talking about what happened will help you process it. If you are debriefing with someone who was handling the situation, just listen and allow them to talk. Ensure that everyone knows the conversation is confidential and a means to process the incident.

Maintain Positive Relationships

A key belief to hold is that the child may not have total control of their actions. They may have entered a fight-or-flight state where rationalising and reasoning with them just isn’t going to work. It is important to remain positive with the child and remember that the behaviour was negative a negative experience for you but the behaviour is not the child.

Forgive

After something so stressful, ensure you forgive yourself for any negative thoughts or feelings you have about the incident or child. It is natural to experience negativity after something traumatic to deal with. Equally, forgiving the child and providing them with a clean slate will prevent self-fulfilling prophecy causing this to be a needless repetitive cycle.

Consider a Crisis Management Plan

If this is a recurring event, identifying the trigger (Read: 7 Most Common Triggers) will help effectively intervene before reaching the point of physical aggression and violence. Creating a crisis management plan will also support teachers and adults to handle the situation effectively and cohesively. Having the plan laid out and automatic will prevent mishandling the situation or hesitation.

Physical aggression and violence are possibly the most challenging behaviours a teacher can deal with. Having an idea of what to do before, during and after it has occurred can help you react effectively at each point and hopefully, reduce the frequency at which you have to.

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Behaviour Management

3 Questions and 2 Strategies for Defiance

Defiance is a common challenge for teachers. Being honest, it’s a downright pain. You’ve planned out what you want to do and now they’re not cooperating. Maybe, you have an immediate need to complete a task and they’re refusing. It is excruciatingly frustrating. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to defiance. Behaviour can be the result of a myriad of reasons and emotions. However, there are three questions you can ask yourself and two strategies to consider that can help you get to the bottom of their defiance and win without fighting.

Three Questions

What are they defying?

This is a great place to start. Clearly defining a problem is an essential first step in solving a problem. Defiance isn’t necessarily the problem. If a teacher asks a child to jump out the window and the child defies them, that’s an intelligent decision. 

I would advise the teacher to create a physical or mental record of instructions the child is defying. If a teacher can see a high volume of defied instructions, it could be a sign that they are over-instructing the child. Is there a need to have so many direct instructions? Think of your direct instructions as a finite resource for the day. Keep them to a small number so they’re more likely to be followed. Alternatively, the child might be refusing to engage with a certain subject or type of work? This will give the teacher crucial feedback when it comes to choosing a strategy. Perhaps it’s too difficult or doesn’t interest them. Search for patterns.

Why are they defying?

I like viewing behaviour through the lens of emotion. There’s a theoretical perspective that states behaviour is the result of pleasure, pain, fear or anger. I love this view as it is easy for teachers to grasp without extensive training. When the child is defying an instruction, are they defying because they get pleasure from the attention? Are they afraid of failing? Are they angry at not having their opinion listened to? Do they feel the pain of being unable to do the work in front of their peers?

Depending on what the underlying emotion is, the strategy will be very different. It is critical to be curious when faced with challenging behaviour as opposed to judgemental.

Is the instruction worth it?

If you are teaching an extremely defiant child, this question should be your go-to. The answer may be yes, but the answer is often no. I often do this, I bring an interaction close to a full-scale confrontation and then realise it’s over where they stand in a line or picking up a crayon they claim isn’t theirs. From reflecting on my teaching, I have come to realise that a lot of direct defiances can come from me trying to assert my authority needlessly, micromanage a child’s actions or providing minimal choice in their day.

Two Strategies

Choice and the language you use to instruct children prone to defiance are your best friends as they limit the situations where a child has only two options of yes and no. 

Choice

Distracting a child with simple choices can create win-win interactions where they are so preoccupied with choosing the seat they sit in and the colour pen you’ve offered them whether they respond to a topic with a poem, comic strip or comprehension that they are achieving the main objective you want them to. Here are three areas you can provide choice.

How they learn: The learning objectives are the core of the lesson. How they learn them isn’t. If you give a defiant child choice over how they achieve these objectives, there is less room for defiance. For example, let the child choose how they learn facts about a country. They could research online, they could read books from the library, they could watch videoes, they could listen to audio about the country. The only limit is the amount of choice you are willing to prepare.

Where they learn: If you are unable or unwilling to change the task, let them choose the location. Allow them to choose from a variety of locations. Perhaps they want to sit beside a friend. Maybe they want to sit at the teacher’s desk. Could they sit at a table alone? The key is to build the trust that by allowing them this choice, they are agreeing to engage with the task. You are allowing them control over the less important things so you control the most important: what they learn.

What they learn: This can be great for topics such as history where the topic is the Vikings, for example, and you allow them to choose what area they focus on. They could choose from weapons, food, clothes, day-to-day life. You set the framework that they must learn five new facts, but they are controlling what the topic they learn about is within that framework.

Language

The way you “sell” a task is crucial when working with an oppositional child. Everything needs to appear attractive, optional and fun (even if it isn’t). It takes a lot of practice to change the way you instruct a class but it can prevent problems before they arise. I taught a defiant child who would immediately engage in a full tantrum at the instruction of desk work. It was incredibly frustrating as I used to go to huge lengths to ensure the work was fun and within their ability. I overcame this through learning they needed to see some fun on the horizon. I started to preface all deskwork with a question to the general room, “Would anyone like to do P.E (or whatever was deemed fun) today?” to which all the hands would shoot up. I would then follow it with “Ok, we’ll get this quick task completed and then we can head straight down”. That small tweak in language made a huge difference as they saw the light at the end of the tunnel and were fully motivated. If I ever slipped back to direct instruction of desk work, defiance crept back in. Reflecting on and improving how you sell your instructions can improve compliance.

I’ll be the first to admit that defiance rubs me up the wrong way. Obedience is far easier to deal with. However, if we reduce the situation to the point that the child is not changing their ways and the teacher is not changing their ways, nobody is going to win. Making changes and incorporating choice is extra work and there can be an underlying urge to go toe-to-toe with a defiant child and try to assert your authority. I believe that winning without fighting is always a better solution, however, and the three questions and suggestions above can help you achieve this goal.

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Anger Management Behaviour Management Inclusion parenting

4 Key Questions Before Using Break Cards

Using break cards can be a fantastic strategy if a child is having a true meltdown when faced with work or a situation that they feel is challenging, new or too demanding. The Break Card is a simple, easy-to-use strategy that allows a child to opt-out of a task for a short time before reengaging with the situation afterwards.

Although the concept sounds simple, I have made numerous mistakes over the years trying to implement it successfully. It is easy to fall into the trap of designing an attractive card, laminating and displaying it without ever really putting in the groundwork to ensure it is a success.

To avoid the mistakes I made, here are four questions you need to answer clearly before using a Break Card successfully:

Who will supervise their break?

A fundamental principle of a break card is that the teacher has to honour it as soon as the child asks for it. If the child is opting to take a break, the teacher cannot tell them to wait for five minutes or that they “may” get it later when someone returns to take them. The teacher cannot decide that the child does not need it. Ensure that a break is granted instantly if you are implementing this strategy. If you do not have an extra pair of hands in the room, create an area inside the classroom for taking a break.

What will they do on their break?

Distractions techniques work best as a break. This can be engaging with one of their special interests. It can be breathwork. Their break can entail some light or intense exercise. The idea of the break card is that it is a true break. Make it engaging and take their mind off the task that was agitating them so when they return, they have rid themselves of any negative emotions.

What changes after their break?

This is an area that needs attention also. The work that was presented before the break was a trigger. It will still be a trigger after the break so teachers need to make a change. We can reduce the difficulty of the task. We can reduce the quantity of work. We can change how it is presented. Perhaps a worksheet could be changed to a similar task on an iPad? We can make it look less scary. A good rule to keep in mind is the 80/20 rule for children who find task completion difficult. Keep the first 80% of the task easy and achievable before having the final 20% as the challenge.

How will I implement the Break Card?

Take the time to explicitly teach how to deal with a task or situation that is new, challenging or too demanding. Teach them to:

  1. Try a little.
  2. Ask to watch someone else do it or ask for help.
  3. Take a break.
  4. Try again.
  5. Make a deal or negotiate how much has to be done.

We need to teach this repeatedly. Remind the child of it. Before assigning them a task, ask them how they are going to try it. Reward them when they follow the steps. It is so important to teach this skillset and then constantly remind them and reinforce it before they become stressed at a task. We do not let them tantrum to get their break. We ensure they ask for it calmly. Constantly reinforcing them for attempting difficult tasks despite whether they get the right or wrong answers will help them overcome their trigger point. The break card can be a key step in this process if harnessed correctly.

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Anger Management Behaviour Management

Stop….Have a Debate and Listen!

Have you ever had two kids who are constantly fighting? They just seem to rub each other up the wrong way. They can’t walk past each other without a sly comment, a slight nudge or out on the yard at lunchtime is a free-for-all with fighting, cheating and lots of other undesirable behaviours? These types of situations can be quite common in schools as children can find it difficult to cope when they believe they don’t like someone who is constantly in the same area as them. Learning to be civil around someone you loathe is a life skill.

There are common strategies to try to cope with these scenarios. Perhaps a reward chart might be incorporated and kind words, kind hands and kind feet are positively reinforced. The teacher might use a punishment strategy to try to decrease the undesired behaviour where the children lose privileges if they engage in negative behaviour. The teacher might read social stories, use the zones of regulation or try discussing their issues with them separately to try to calm them down. They might even use the I-ASSIST model or Letters of Anger. These are all good strategies which might bear fruit, but what if they don’t?

As I have constantly parroted on this blog, anger is an emotion like any other and it is okay to feel. It is how the anger is communicated that needs to change in these situations. An unorthodox strategy that may be worth keeping in your toolkit for these instances is organizing face-to-face debates.

Face-to-face Debating

Often, children who are furious will only settle when they feel the situation is resolved to their satisfaction or their point is heard. Organising a face-to-face debate facilitates this as they get uninterrupted time to voice their grievances without fear of interruption of reprimand. There are several ways that this could be successfully implemented.

If the two children are fighting daily, religiously schedule a debate for after lunchtime where each gets five-ten minutes (depending on the context) to air their opinions and not a minute longer than the teacher prescribed. The other child must sit and listen for the full five minutes before he can speak for five minutes also. On the following day, the child who went second in the debate gets to start it. Once this is made a routine fixture, the pair should reduce their number of arguments outside of the designated debate time as they realise they will get their chance to argue later. It is, therefore, a great tool for de-escalating out on yard as the teacher can remind them to wait for the debate time.

There are other benefits to this method such as the building of a positive relationship with the teacher who is clearly impartial and no longer must seek who is to blame or reprimand negative behaviour. As the children have a full five-ten minutes to speak, apparent misunderstandings will appear, and the children will listen to how the other perceived what was happening which can help prevent future incidents. Finally, on the days that there are no issues, having to sit opposite each other as if to start a debate can provide a spark of humour and demonstrate the progress made. Perhaps make them just talk that day and see how a rapport may flourish that could even become a friendship.

Concerns

I am sure that there will be teachers reading this horrified. How can you organize the very situation that we want to avoid? Where will I get this time for a debate? What if it escalates the situation further?

To these teachers I would say, this strategy is great when other strategies are not bearing success and alternative logic is needed. It is apparently time-consuming, but the chances are if you are using this strategy, you were losing teaching time anyway having to deal with these negative situations. This is a method that gives the teacher control over a tricky situation. I would encourage the teacher to set firm minimal rules for the debate such as no swearing and having to remain in your seat. Otherwise, the teacher must sit in stony silence and allow the venting to occur.

What do you think? Could it work? Let me know your thoughts!

Thanks to Papantuono, Portelli, and Gibson’s book “Winning without Fighting” for the idea.

Categories
Anger Management Behaviour Management

“Dear Donald, I’m f*cking furious…”

Children who struggle to manage their anger can be quite intimidating. Outbursts can be violent, self-harming, loud and laden with profanities. Tantrums and outbursts can lead to other parents coming in complaining about their child being the victim of violence or having to witness/listen to inappropriate behaviour. It is only natural that a teacher wants to shut down these forms of angry behaviour as quickly as possible for everyone’s sake – not excluding the angry child themselves who can become very stressed and upset. The question is how?

There are a couple of fundamentals that can help. Allowing anger is an important concept. Everybody gets angry and this is a normal emotion like happiness, sadness and fear. Trying to suppress anger can lead to a volcanic eruption when it becomes too much. I have often found that children who struggle with anger find it hard to comprehend that anger is okay. Once they are calmed down and a discussion occurs, they might make a wild promise like “I’ll never get angry again”. It’s important to separate the behaviour and emotion. It’s fine to get angry but to hit or swear or scream is not okay in a school setting. The Zones of Regulation program, social stories and SPHE lessons are great ways to discuss anger and explicitly teach this depending on the age group you are teaching.

If you are trying to reduce certain behaviour, it’s important that you are trying to replace it. If you’re telling a child that anger is okay but the way they are demonstrating it is not, then you must teach them a way that is appropriate.

Letters of Anger

Letters of anger is a strategy that I found beneficial over the past few years with children old enough to write. It’s a very simple and empowering strategy. The premise is that if a child who struggles to contain his anger has a forum to express his anger in any way they wantThe child can write a letter to the individual they are angry at, to the teacher to explain why they are so angry or a diary-style entry to vent their frustrations. They can swear and speak their mind in their writing without fear of reprimand. They can show the teacher at the end if they wish or they can put it away once finished. They are not allowed to show it to other pupils, of course.

The benefits of this exercise are the implied message that anger is acceptable when projected in the right way and the expression of anger is encouraged in a child who struggles to manage it instead of attempting to push it down. Writing a letter is like slowly releasing the lid on an over-fizzed bottle of Coca-Cola. Releasing the lid too quickly can result in a mess. 

There are also the benefits that writing a letter takes time which will help the child gradually self-regulate their emotions while if the teacher is allowed to read the letter, they will learn to understand the child’s perspective which could build rapport and help prevent further similar outbursts. In my experience, the children wanted me to read their letters and there was an instantaneous improvement when I introduced the strategy as if they were relieved that their anger was being accepted.

Give it a go if you have a child in your care who struggles to contain their anger and let me know if you find it as beneficial as I have. This is one tool to add to your behaviour management toolkit which could come in handy one day.

Hat tip to Winning without Fighting by Papantuono, Portelli and Gibson where I found this strategy.

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Behaviour Management

The Rocks, Pebbles and Sand of Behaviour Management

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:

Desire

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.” 

Clarity

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.

Consistency

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.

Positivity

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.

Ethics

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

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.