Staying in control

March 2010


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The model of effective practice: BILL ROGERS advises a calm, non-confrontational approach to behaviour management

Dr Bill Rogers started teaching just as corporal punishment was being abolished from Australia’s schools in 1985. Now a recognised expert in behaviour management, his techniques are a far cry from the days of the strap and the cane, and are being taken up in countries as far flung as the US, UK and Estonia.

A regular visitor to New Zealand, Rogers espouses an approach to classroom management that he says treads the difficult middle ground between the hard-line conservative and strongly liberal. In Rogers’ model, there are consequences for actions, but effective teachers are calm and avoid confrontation. They recognise student dignity and present students with choices that will allow them to maintain that dignity.

Most classroom misbehaviour is the natural result of having so many young people in a confined space for relatively long periods of time each day, he says. It includes talking out of turn, inattention and generally being off task – it’s not major, but there is a lot of it and teachers can handle most of it if they have a skilled, non-confrontational approach.

Rogers talks of “non-confrontational leadership” which stems from confidence, the ability to relate to young people and the ability to know what to say under pressure. An effective teacher is marked out by their ability to avoid confrontation and use language that is as positive as possible.

Imagine for example a situation where a group of boys is playing with window blinds instead of working. The teacher could tell them to stop, but Rogers says a simple description – “Boys, you are playing with the blinds and it’s distracting” – in a calm tone is likely to be more effective. And if they don’t stop? Then give a simple direction.

Rogers says directions are the most common form of discipline language and they are most effective when they are not negative. For example, “Put the blinds down and face this way” rather than “Don’t do that”.

And when Rogers suggests a “calm” tone, he does not mean unemotional. It sounds a difficult balance to strike – teachers should not come off as wimpish, but on the other hand an angry or nasty tone can appear defensive.

“Tone and manner and intent are very important, particularly when you are communicating with adolescents.”

“Research shows teachers who are loud, teachers who have a sharp voice... they don’t look confident. Teachers who are slower, who scan the room, speak confidently and clearly... their ability to convey calmness, even when under pressure, is a significant feature of effective practice.”

A difficult area for some teachers is the secondary behaviour that young people might exhibit immediately after their initial misdemeanour has been noted. “If I say, ‘you are chatting, face this way’... it is not uncommon that kids will sigh and their eyes will roll to the ceiling. That secondary behaviour teachers find really annoying.”

But Rogers suggests “tactically ignoring” such behaviour, saying that telling children off for it can be counter-productive and result in a snow-balling situation. However, he notes that blatantly rude or dangerous behaviour should never be ignored.

Choices are also important. Telling a boy to put his i-pod on your desk could result in a confrontation if he refuses. Better to suggest he either put it in his bag or put it on your desk – “very few kids will argue with that because you have made it easy for them to make the positive choice”.

Then there is ‘take up time’. That boy with the i-pod? Don’t stand over him till he puts the i-pod away. Tell him you’ll be back to check on his work in a minute and move on. This is important with adolescents, Rogers notes. And if that boy still doesn’t put away the i-pod, the teacher can explain the rules and the consequences – and then enforce them if necessary.

Consequences are important and Rogers distinguishes between them and mere punishment. Consequences should relate to the behaviour that caused them and should maintain the student’s dignity. Picking up rubbish is pointless and a better approach is to get the student to write about what he or she has done, their point of view of the incident and what they could do to make amends.

Rogers notes that this is not a soft approach – often students are much tougher on themselves than their teachers.

Also, the consequences for an action should be reasonable – not doing homework is a minor issue, bullying is not – and might be negotiable, though those for serious infringements such as drug use or carrying weapons are not.

Be prepared

Preparation is a key foundation for good classroom management, advises Otago University’s John Taylor. If a lesson is not well planned, it will fall over, he warns.

But the most effective classroom management practice is to engage students in what they are doing. If students are enjoying an activity, they are not going to be stabbing one another with compasses or giving the teacher a hard time. Taylor suggests that the starting point for engaging students is a student-centred approach. The opposite can be very counter-productive, he warns. “If you are standing at the front of the class and talking at them for 50 minutes, then sooner or later they are going to get bored and you’re standing at the front – you’re a sitting duck.”

There is clearly a balance to be found here, because Taylor also suggests that establishing routines and expectations are important for classroom management. “You can be as exciting and dynamic as you like, but if the kids don’t understand that they have to stay in their seats or be quiet during the lesson... then you might as well give up.”

And when discipline is required, it is important to be reasonable in your demands but also to ensure there are consequences. “If you give two warnings, the third time something has got to happen.”

Start as you mean to go on

At the heart of Rogers’ approach to behaviour management is setting solid expectations at the start of the year. This means establishing with students the rights, rules and responsibilities that govern the classroom.