Behaviour is the most important issue for any primary teacher and it is the one that is taught the least on teacher training courses in the UK. It is not unknown for a primary PGCE or BEd course to contain only one lecture on behaviour management. Primary teachers have to work out their behaviour strategies for themselves and this can be a long, difficult road, often leading to disillusionment with the profession.
A recent survey suggests that a majority of teachers in the UK find that behaviour is worsening. Primary schools are not exempt from this. An article in The Independent claims: “Around 89 youngsters aged between five and 11 were ordered out of the classroom each day for these reasons [violent behaviour] in 2010/11, Department for Education (DfE) statistics show.” It is sometimes thought that primary classrooms are soft, nurturing environments, where children are well-behaved; however, children of this age are often unable to articulate their problems, which may be deep-rooted, and this manifests itself as difficult behaviour.
Some of these causes are societal, such as the changes in children’s attention spans caused by technology, and some are familial, particularly family breakdown and re-formation.
This means that some strategies for behaviour will work in the classroom and some won’t.
To begin with one that won’t: shouting. Intimidating children will not make them respect you and in many cases will only replicate what they receive at home. They know how to deal with it at home – by shouting back, or storming off – and will therefore do the same in school. Shouting at children only leads the teacher into situations they cannot control or win.
This is the essential point. A behaviour strategy that works is one that enables the teacher to remain in control at all times. And control is essential for quietening-down noisy classrooms.
The classroom needs to be organised as effectively as possible. Remember that you decide who sits next to whom and in what arrangement, not the children. Do not be afraid to move someone from their best friend if they cannot work together appropriately. Careful thought given to this makes practical lessons (those most likely to be noisy) easier to arrange. There is no single answer to this: it could be differentiated groups, mixed ability groups, rows, pairs, or a mixture.
Children often do not understand how the boundaries of acceptable behaviour shift from situation to situation. For example, what is appropriate in a DT lesson, where the children are working in pairs building something, will not be appropriate during a writing lesson. Children have to be taught this concept and it has to be revisited, through PSHCE and SEAL lessons. It has to be reinforced regularly through careful questioning before and during different activities – especially those likely to be noisy.
So before trying to quieten down a class, there have to be the bedrocks of good behaviour management practice in place.
Then there come the day-to-day strategies for effecting quiet.
First among these is the projected, assertive voice that does not shout. This emanates control and authority. It needs to come from as low in the throat as possible and be as emotionally neutral as possible. It also needs to use the appropriate vocabulary: “Quiet please/Thank you everyone/You have all worked well but now…”
As an alternative, the quiet, persistent voice that just continues until the class has realised the teacher is speaking. This voice is just the teacher talking over the children as if he or she were addressing another adult. This takes courage when doing it for the first time but the children get used to listening out for the teacher’s voice among the hubbub. Eventually the silence spreads.
When using the voice to quieten the class, positive reinforcement is essential.
A teacher who uses positive strategies effectively will quieten a class by highlighting the children doing the right thing, using the most positive vocabulary. “Well done Bob. You can have a housepoint for making the right choice,” for example. Emphasising that behaviour is a choice helps children realise that they can control it. These children can then be rewarded in class or school celebration assemblies.
A quietening-down procedure will sometimes be timed and will mix the timing with positive reinforcement: “Five…excellent sitting Jemma…Four…Shahid is making the right choice there….” and so on. It will be reinforced with appropriate class-based rewards: “This could get us five minutes extra play on Friday…” (or whatever the school’s policy for class rewards is).
A word of caution. Threats can be appropriate, but they must be followed through and they must be proportionate. For example, it is acceptable for a teacher to inform the class that a certain reward or privilege (say, football at breaktime) is contingent upon becoming quiet whenever asked. However, keeping the class in because some children are noisy is not acceptable. This kind of collective punishment demotivates those who always make the right choices.
Some primary teachers prefer not to use vocal strategies at all. The teacher can raise their arms and wait for everyone else to follow; they can clap rhythmically and the class knows it has to join in before falling silent. These procedures and strategies need to be taught from the beginning of the year.
Getting a class quiet when the teacher needs them to be is a key focus of every teacher’s professional practice. It does need some research and some thought, but it also makes a much wider range of practical and exploratory activities possible. If a teacher can guarantee that their class becomes quiet whenever needed, so much trust is therefore built between class and teacher that it could be the gateway to a much more exciting classroom life.