Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

10 Behavior Management Strategies: A Special Educator’s Manifesto

Nicole Dempsey

A version of this post was originally published here.

By Nicole Dempsey

If I could go back in time, what behaviour management advice would I give to myself as a newly qualified teacher (NQT)?

As I see it, behaviour management, is the thing that sets the school teacher apart from the many other imparters of information. The rest—tutors, lecturers, instructors and so on—rarely, if ever, experience the same combination of circumstantial factors that a teacher finds in the classroom. She is significantly outnumbered by students who have not been given the choice to be there or not (although, one would hope, they might be persuaded to opt in to their education!) What’s more, they’re active, chatty, and eager to play—in other words, they’re children. It does seem like the odds are stacked against the teacher from the start!

I’m confident that many perceive the main thing that teachers do to be… teaching! In reality, no teaching will be effective until behaviour is adequately managed. This doesn’t even mean bad behaviour, just human behaviour, and again, the behaviour of human children! Effective behaviour management is crucial, and it would be much more straightforward, especially for those new to the profession, if there were a widely-acknowledged and 100% effective way of doing it… but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Previously, when I’ve blogged about behaviour management, I’ve focused on the importance of the behaviour management policy to ensure social inclusion for the most vulnerable learners, and I stand by the importance of those policies. In the UK, Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) assesses schools in various domains. In Ofsted’s assessments of school policies on behaviour, there is little notable difference between the policies of schools rated good/outstanding and those rated inadequate/requires improvement (RI). There are pockets of exceptional behaviour management in failing schools and examples of ineffective behaviour management—or, at least, practice that is open to debate—in those deemed to be successful. Clearly, it is neither the behaviour management policy nor the judgement of Ofsted that is the be-all and end-all of effective management in our classrooms.

Things are about to get personal.

…because it is personal. Of all the aspects of being a teacher—pedagogy, management and teamwork, pastoral—none is affected by individual personality so much as behaviour management.Behaviour Management Style While a strong policy and a school with high overall ratings (according to Ofsted… not necessarily my favourite measure of success!) are an essential basis, there will always be diversity and disparity in how staff approach day-to-day needs in the classroom. In my opinion, this isn’t a problem. Surely the students deserve and benefit from having varied experiences across the school day. And, just like an isolated Ofsted outcome or school policy is not “the answer,” neither is homogeneity of approach. Our students will move on to live in a diverse and complex society. Any school has its share of the “don’t smile ‘til Christmas” crew, the matey and jovial types, and everything in between. Does effective behaviour management exist at one point on that spectrum and nowhere else? I don’t believe it does. So, assuming a strong policy and shared values, are the issues and complexities of behaviour management actually the issues and complexities of striking a balance between expectation and your own personality, personal values and interpretation of that expectation? A delicate balancing act between consistency and individuality? Between parity and variety? Every teacher has to find this balance—your own personal behaviour management sweet spot in which learning can take place. And this is the great skill of a school teacher, the thing that sets it apart from other, similar roles. But it’s also the thing that makes it really, really hard.

This brings me back to my original question: If I could go back in time, what advice would I give to my NQT self when it comes to behaviour management?

Somewhere in the overlapping space between the context, the shared values of society, and my own personality, I was able to find my own style of managing my classroom. This isn’t about a piece of policy or an idea I hold in my mind… this is about managing behaviour when faced with the stark reality of a room full of children. It is how I meet expectation whilst staying true to my own identity and values. It’s how I strive to strike a balance between consistency and variety for the students I teach. It’s what I wish I could tell my NQT self because it’s what I tell myself now, every day. I need the reminder, because I don’t necessarily achieve it… on a good day, I hope I get close!

I’ve developed my own “Behaviour Management Top Ten.” But even the most important strategies and reminders represent my aspiration for each day and not what I am able to accomplish. It’s the rule book I’ve given myself, the way I set the scene for learning in my classroom, and the self-administered mental admonishment I give myself when I get it wrong. These are the guidelines that exist in the space between expectation and my personality. My list won’t work for everyone but I think each teacher will have his or her own version (and I’d love to hear them!). Not “behaviour management in the black box,” but “behaviour management in my black box.”

Here is advice to my former self as an NQT and the list that captures my current approach to behaviour management:

My Behaviour Management Strategies Top Ten

  1. Be crystal clear.
    Lead with the student’s name. Ensure that you’ve got his or her attention before you start imparting wisdom or giving instructions. Don’t use sarcasm, idiom, rhetoric or other non-literal language… say what you mean. Don’t use “please” unless it’s a plea; use “thank you” for expectations. Explain why you’re doing something. If you can’t think of a reason why, then don’t do it.
  2. Draw your line and stick to it.
    Children make mistakes in the grey area between the line you have drawn and the line you enforce. Once you’ve said something is going to happen, it has to happen, so be careful about what you say! No idle, excessive, or unrealistic “threats” you don’t intend to carry out—only clear, fair, real, causes and effects. If you say “no talking” and then allow a bit of whispering as long as they’re getting on with their work, and then on another day say “no talking” and actually want them not to talk at all… how are they supposed to know the difference? If they talk in the second instance, the error is yours, not theirs. If they’re allowed to talk a bit, say so! If they’re not, enforce it. If you create a grey area between the instruction and the reality of the situation they will make mistakes within that uncertain space. And it will be your fault. What’s more, you’ve made yourself unreliable.
  3. Know when not to stick to it.
    I’m reminded of a kid I used to teach who was in year 8 at the time. He was the archetypal class clown—nothing bothered him, and he was a right old pain in the neck. Without the support of a strong behaviour management superstructure within that school, I had exhausted everything in my repertoire. I tried keeping him back at the end of the lesson. He was not bothered. I gave detentions. He was not bothered. And then I informed him that I would ring home and speak to his dad. In an instant the tone of the situation had changed. He was crying, he was on his knees with hands clasped, imploring me—voice catching on each sob—not to ring his father. He’d behave himself. He was sorry. I didn’t know what his father might do if caught in the wrong mood. In that instant, every interaction I’d ever had with that child flashed across my mind: I thought of the cocky swagger as he showed off a black eye or bruised lip and the claims that we should see the state of the other boy. I thought of all the times he showed that nothing could bother or hurt him. He seemed to be untouchable and devoid of remorse or self-care. Despite all this, he had the most amazing attendance… he never missed an opportunity to be in school, no matter how badly it seemed to be going.
    I had drawn my line.
    I did not stick to it.
  4. Don’t get into a dialogue.
    If the student has some say in what is happening, it’s appropriate to have a conversation about it. If the student has no say, there is no need to talk it over. If you, as the adult, have decided that things need to happen a certain way (silence in a test, safety in the classroom, non-optional tasks/homework, treatment of the other students, et cetera), then allowing a dialogue gives them the false impression that they have some control. It’s undermining your own position of authority, and it’s creating a grey area in which mistakes are easy for students to make. That isn’t fair.
  5. Never back a child into a corner.
    The get-out clause. No matter what’s happened, or how far a situation has escalated, there should always be a “way out” for the child. There should always be the opportunity for the student to make a positive choice to take back control and move on from the situation. This doesn’t mean the student is “getting away with it.” It means he or she will learn from it. Tell the student that the behaviour is unacceptable and that the resultant sanction isn’t going to go anywhere. But also provide options for moving forward in a positive way. Then, once the sanction has been completed, the slate is wiped clean.
  6. Give them a range of options (all of which are acceptable).
    Being in control isn’t the same as being controlling. You’ve got to be in control; they’re young, there are loads of them, and you’re responsible for their safety and well-being. But within this, they also need to learn to be autonomous, independent, and self-regulating. They can still have choice… genuine choice… if all the options are acceptable to you!
  7. Winning an argument with an angry and upset child is NOT winning.
    In spite of best endeavours, sometimes you will end up in a heated confrontation with a student; they’re only human and you’re only human. It will happen—hopefully very rarely. RemindBe-haviour Statements yourself: Who has the power and control in this situation? Who is the most vulnerable? Who is feeling the most distress and fear? Approaching this situation with kindness and compassion, putting the issue to one side for the moment, is not backing down or giving in. The best outcome is the one where the child has learnt something valuable that’s going to serve him or her well in adulthood. The student does not need a lesson that people will be dominating and controlling but that people will be helpful and guide him or her to the right outcome. In a high-intensity situation, the rational thought processes are bypassed in favour of a more primal “fight or flight” mechanism, and no one is in the right frame of mind to learn at that point. De-escalate the situation. Be the reassuring, safe, trustworthy adult. Deal with the problematic behaviour when your message might actually be heard. And when it does and you still have the trust and respect of that child—then you have won.
  8. They can only be as trustworthy as you trust them to be.
    Children learn in the gap between what they can already do and the opportunities they have to try something new. So take risks! The bigger the risk, the bigger the learning opportunity, and even though there will be times that it all goes wrong, that in itself is part of the learning process (for you as well as the student!). Send the naughty kid on an errand, give the least able a position of responsibility, give the notorious bully a caring role. And then, be there when they’ve proven that they’re better than anyone, even they, ever thought they could be… or dust them down and set them off again.
  9. Remember that you’re pretending.
    The moment you lose your temper is the moment you lose control, and for their safety and your own sanity, you must be in control (not controlling!). Give the response that teaches them how their actions can make those around them feel: Are you angry? Or are you disappointed? Annoyed? Inconvenienced? Emotionally hurt?
  10. THE GOLDEN RULE: Unconditional Positive Regard.
    When they’re problematic, make mistakes, don’t know something or don’t approach something in the way that they should, you are the person who is there to pull them through. You’re the adult. You chose to be there. You work for them. On that basis, is there or should there be anything they can do that changes your commitment? If you aren’t there for them… why are you there? Show them how you want them to behave. Be their champion!

This is the advice I would give to my NQT self because it is the advice I give to myself now, every day. My personal behaviour management manifesto for fairness.

What’s yours?

Editor’s Note: We kept the author’s spelling of “behaviour” for the article but intentionally changed the spelling to “behavior management strategies” for the title so we could promote these ideas to an American audience. 

Nicole Dempsey is the Individual Needs Coordinator (INCo) at Dixons Trinity Academy; an outstanding mainstream secondary free school in Bradford, northern England.
At DTA, all systems have been designed to meet the needs of all students as an intrinsic part of the main offer by being flexible and responsive to the needs of each individual child. All children deserve access to highly qualified subject specialist teachers. The  level of individualisation and responsiveness afforded to the least able and most vulnerable students is the entitlement of all of our students.
Whatever it takes for as long as it takes. When they need it and because they need it.

Longer, Faster, Harder: Tips for Addressing Challenging Behavior in the Classroom

Longer, Faster, Harder
By Jenna Sage

I recently began training to run a half marathon. When I first decided to compete in the race, I knew very little about what it took to become a runner. As a novice, I thought that if I ran longer, faster, and harder my body would fall in line and running would become easy. I very quickly learned that there is a science to training for a big race—that training requires that you be strategic, patient, planned, and purposeful. Longer, faster, harder will only hurt you.

Many teachers have the same philosophy for addressing challenging behavior in the classroom. If a student is not following teacher directions, refusing to remain on-task for extended periods of time, calling out and being disruptive, or using inappropriate language, we follow the myth that the consequence or punishment should be longer, faster, or harder. Unfortunately, this has the same effect on students as it has on my knees. It isn’t going to lead to long-term, meaningful change.

Training Tip #1: Longer Isn’t Always Better

The first myth that exists is the idea that if I just send the student to time-out for longer periods of time, this will deter future misbehavior. Or if I use the next-door teacher’s classroom as a consequence for longer periods of time, this will eliminate maladaptive behaviors. The truth is, time-out and time-away are ONLY effective if the student wants to be doing the task he or she has been asked to do. Most students would much rather sit in the back of the classroom for ten or fifteen minutes, even if it means they can’t interact with their peers, because it also means they can avoid tackling that challenging math worksheet or reading passage. And here is the harsh reality: if a student continues to engage in the challenging behavior, time-out is most definitely not working!

So, what do we do instead? The first important thing is to determine if the student is trying to avoid or escape doing the work. The next thing is to determine if it is a matter of being able to do the work and not wanting to do it, or whether the student is not able to do the work—Won’t Do versus Can’t Do. If you have a student who is able to do the work but just doesn’t seem to want to participate, then one helpful strategy may be chunking the work so that the student is able to work for a short period of time and then take a short break. Essentially, you are providing a way to avoid the task for only short, prescribed periods of time which you control. A student could have a break card procedure, with which he or she can request to take a break or certain number of breaks from a task. Consider this: when you are working for hours grading papers or creating a fabulous lesson plan and your neck begins to ache or your dog starts barking, don’t you take a short break? That is the socially acceptable way to say, “I’m struggling and I just need a moment, “ instead of jumping straight to using behavior to avoid the task: “I’m going to misbehave so I’m forced to take a break.”

Training Tip #2: Faster Only Makes You Fall Behind

The next myth has to do with responding to misbehavior faster and faster and then more and more. Again, it is important to determine why a student is engaging in challenging behavior. If you feel like a broken record or you go home and continue to say, “Sally, no,” or, “We don’t do that in this class,” then you may be dealing with a student who is motivated by attention. For some students, the negative attention they get from you during the day may be the only attention they get. And, believe it or not, they’ll work for negative attention even more than positive. Think about your body language, the level of your voice when you are correcting behavior as opposed to recognizing good behavior. The two typically look very different. If a student is starved for attention, the angry and animated you is worth calling out in class and calling you names. If you are responding over and over to a student, two things happen. You may be inadvertently encouraging the misbehavior, and you become so focused on everything wrong that you can sometimes forget to pay attention to what the student is doing well.

The easiest solution is to change the focus of your attention. When you focus on what the student is doing well, you will encourage those appropriate behaviors. It may not be easy at first, but start looking for those milliseconds when the student is engaging in the correct behavior. Utilize Pivot Praise—this is the practice of recognizing the students who are engaging in the correct behavior and ignoring the students who are not engaging in the expected behavior. This will encourage the students to make adjustments accordingly. For example, when the class returns from the gym, you might say, “I like the way Suzy is sitting. I like the way John is sitting.” You may even notice that when you focus on the good behavior and reward what is going well, you start to feel better and more positive.

Training Tip #3: Harder Won’t Get You to the Goal

The third myth is that the harder we push our students, the more likely they are to respond positively. We know from years of research that the students who are given the harshest punishments and longest removals from school are those who likely need to be in school the most. Students who exhibit challenging behavior are most often given punishments for more subjective behaviors (campus or class disruption, defiance, disrespect) as opposed to referrals for objective violations (dress code, technology use/possession, weapons). Remember the Can’t Do versus Won’t Do: If a student lacks the skills to do the work, pushing him or her harder will only create a higher level of anxiety and disengagement. You may need to remediate the skill first. Consider creating lesson plans that include active student engagement and activities that include all of the senses. Work toward differentiating your material to include individual student needs and interests. The old adage that idle hands do the devil’s work applies in the classroom setting. Your day should include consistent routines. Students should know what is expected of them from bell to bell. The in-activity and between-activity transitions should be planned so that there is no down time. Consider having a song, a saying, a rhythm that is repeated during each transition.

Winning the Race

Just like training for a marathon, you can’t be ready for the big race overnight. You have to take time to train, to know your limits, to break old habits. You can’t change behavior overnight, either. Instead of trying for longer, faster, harder… work on training yourself to identify why a student may be engaging in challenging behavior. What are they really asking for? Students engage in challenging behavior because they are communicating a need that they don’t have the skill yet to identify and address. Take time to focus on what you want to see. Water the roses and ignore the weeds. And gently encourage students to participate in class by including their favorite topics, items, and interests into your lessons. If you stick to a good classroom management training regimen, you’ll be collecting your trophies before you know it!

Photo Credit: Kashif Haque/Flickr

Dr. Jenna SageDr. Jenna Sage is currently working as a District Administrator for Special Education.  Her position provides opportunities to facilitate IEP meetings, act as a liaison between schools and families, and ensure compliance with district, state, and federal policies.  Dr. Sage’s experiences in education have included working as a paraprofessional, substitute teacher, classroom teacher, consultant, trainer and behavior resource teacher.  She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst.   Her passion is providing supports and resources to school staff to ensure student success through compassionate and meaningful education.  Dr. Sage can be reached at

12 Things To Remember When Working With Challenging Students

12 Things
Let’s face it. Some students are hard to work with for a litany of reasons. Maybe you are experiencing a challenging year in your classroom. Before you throw in the towel or give up hope, read this list of DOs and DON’Ts when encountering students who push you to the brink.

DO know your students crave your love and attention even though they may not know how to ask for it (you can still love and not let them” walk all over you“)
DO NOT get discouraged that you are not doing enough for them (sometimes progress is slow but there is still progress)
DO expect them to communicate with you (it just might mean you have to “listen” to their behavior instead of them using conventional means)
DO NOT take it personally when they display challenging behavior (remember…it is not about you)
DO have high expectations for their academic work and their behavior (they need someone to believe in them)
DO NOT “poke the bear” when there is no need to (no…I’m not saying students with challenging behavior are bears – it is only a expression)
DO allow them to explore things that they are interested in (special interests and hobbies can unlock creativity when used wisely)
DO NOT give up on them…ever (“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.” ― Thomas Edison)
DO take an interest in who they are (invest some time in really getting to know their likes and dislikes)
DO NOT forget to offer multiple ways for them to show what they know or to communicate how they feel (can you say Universal Design for Learning?)
DO enjoy their happy and/or joyful moments (sometimes they are few and far between)
DO NOT forget to play lots of music in the classroom and have fun (we all need a little more fun ya know?)

I hope these 12 reminders have inspired you to keep going even if you feel lost and hopeless. In addition to the above suggestions, I would recommend finding someone to talk to that you trust. We all need to share our frustrations in a safe place and be encouraged in our teaching practice.

Thanks for your time and attention.

Photo Credit: Rusty Clark

What are some helpful strategies that have been effective for you when working with challenging students? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

Think Inclusive Podcast #007: Who Cares About Kelsey? with Dan Habib

Recording from my living room in beautiful Marietta, GA…you are listening to the Think Inclusive Podcast Episode (007). I am your host Tim Villegas. Today I will be speaking with Dan Habib about his new film Who Cares About Kelsey? **You may be familiar with Dan because of his previous groundbreaking documentary about his son “Including Samuel”** The film will be broadcast on public television beginning the weekend of September 28th. In addition to the film there are 11 mini-films available to watch on the website: that support the message of inclusion and positive behavior support. Dan and I talk about Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, the importance of leadership in systems change and the all important question…who we think is going to win the World Series? So without further ado…Let’s get to the podcast…Thanks for listening.

Pin It on Pinterest