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 test 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. Reminder 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.