One of the main areas of challenge in teaching teenagers is that of behaviour. I have covered some long-term strategies on improving classroom atmosphere, which will in turn improve behaviour. However, in this post, I want to focus more on specific strategies for teachers to deal with unacceptable behaviour when it does come up. Which it will. Quite often! There’s a more in-depth discussion on why teenage learners want to push the boundaries here.
Defining the acceptable
It’s important to start your course off by defining what you as the teacher and the you as a class think is acceptable or unacceptable. Depending on the age of the students, you might want to try:
- Class contracts. This is a strategy I use with younger teens. They are allowed to choose five rules for themselves (no eating in the classroom, no phones unless specified by the teacher etc) and two reasonable rules for the teacher (no shouting, not more than 2 pages of homework…). We then create the contract on a large paper and sign it; teacher included.
- Small group/whole class discussion (depending on the size of your class). This is a similar concept, but more loosely structured. I tend to go this route with teenagers aged 15 and up, as they can see the physical contract as being a bit babyish. They discuss their experiences in other schools and talk about what they feel is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for both students and teachers. Then, we agree to hold ourselves to our own standards throughout the year. Of course, they will need reminding of this when they misbehave!
When it comes to following rules at school, there should always be consequences of some sort. The scale of those consequences is up to you, but I would avoid using the ‘nuclear options’ of calling parents about bad behaviour, sending the student to the head teacher/director and so on for those occasions where it is really necessary. Try to achieve compliance with the rules by the most minimal means possible – then, you always have somewhere else to go should the situation continue.
Consequences may not always mean a reprimand. Consequences could be a neutral stare (or a hard stare as the next step), changing your position in the room to stand next to the misbehaving student or calmly and quietly saying their name.
When dealing with more serious misbehaviour, work your way along your ‘consequences scale’, from minimal to nuclear, as appropriate. It is essential to tell learners what the consequences will be at each stage of misbehaviour. Calmly signpost what’s coming up: “Lara, if you continue to interfere with Maria’s work, you will move seat. If you stop, you can remain where you are. Thank you.” Teenagers have a very heightened sense of what is unjust, so giving advance warning and clear reasoning will help avoid escalation and cries of “That’s not fair!”. Give the student a choice: continue and accept the consequences, or stop and we’ll move on. If the student chooses to continue, then the result of their action can’t be argued against. They chose it.
Just as negative behaviour has consequences, so should positive. Don’t forget to reward those who follow the rules. Of course, when dealing with teenagers, we can’t simply hand out stickers, as with children. Verbal feedback is usually well-received, such as a simple “Thank you for your hard work today, Sara”, or “Good job today Ivan, great focus”.
Teenagers love having attitude. It’s their favourite. However, as the teacher and the adult in the room, it’s essential to rise above it. When learners smirk, slam doors or roll their eyes, it is done entirely to provoke a reaction from you. Stay calm. As long as your request is followed, the eye rolls can be ignored until another time. Reprimanding learners for one thing, then adding on more and more ‘attitude’ issues will do absolutely nothing other than provoke more attitude and more problems. Treat the original issue and move on. The other learners will see that you can’t be goaded into shouting or otherwise flying off the handle, and the level of attitude given should gradually reduce.
Try to discern between ‘bad attitude’ and ‘young people having fun and trying to make their friends and/or the teacher laugh’. I’m a big believer in using humour and building rapport with learners to improve behaviour. It’s a huge part of positive relationships, so don’t be afraid of it.
Here are a few quick and easy management strategies to deal with various levels of misbehaviour in the classroom:
- Ignore attention-seeking behaviour.
- Look at the student with a neutral stare – no frown, no judgement.
- Give your best ‘teacher look’: a hard stare, perhaps over glasses with arched eyebrows.
- Stand next to or behind the student who won’t stop talking.
- Say the student’s name, fairly quietly. It’s surprising how well this catches the attention, even in a pretty noisy room.
- Count down from 5 or 10. There should be silence by the time you reach 0.
- Give an intentional fake cough to bring the students’ attention back to you.
- Put a hand gently on the edge of the learner’s desk furthest away from them and quietly but purposefully say “Thank you”.
- Humour/sarcasm. This one can be incredibly effective, but must be handled with extreme care. It is important, above all, that the student doesn’t feel shamed or humiliated. I would recommend only using humorous reprimands with classes and students you know extremely well, who appreciate that kind of interaction with their teacher. If in doubt, only ever make jokes at your own expense.
- Crouch down to the student’s level or lower. Quietly explain why their behaviour needs to change and explain the related consequence if they continue. Thank them, smile and stand up, continue the lesson.
- Move learners to seats away and – importantly – out of the eye line of friends/collaborators in mischief.
- Sit and work with the misbehaving learner until they are back on task.
- If the misbehaviour continues, follow through with the given consequence and explain why you’re doing it. “Jonas, I asked you to put your phone away. You have decided not to do that, so, as I said before, I need you to give it to me to lock away until the end of class. Thank you.”
- Loss of privileges where appropriate, e.g no longer allowed to keep their phone in their bag during the lesson for the next week/month, but must give it to the teacher at the start of class.
- Holding back a learner after the lesson for a private discussion of their unacceptable behaviour.
- Calling parents. When using the threat of calling parents, be aware of the learner’s home situation. Do the parents agree with the school’s idea of acceptable behaviour, or will they brush off the reports from school? Are there any difficult family dynamics the school is aware of that may be exacerbated by contact from the school?
- Exiting the classroom. This is a tricky one to manage, as it needs to be handled very calmly, and the student must have somewhere supervised to go and work to do. Try to avoid this as much as possible, as some learners actively want to leave the classroom. It may also undermine your authority as it indicates that the teacher cannot control a particular student.
Have you ever had difficulty dealing with bad behaviour in the classroom? What strategies did you use to overcome it?