No topic generates more debates than approaches to behaviour.

mental health

It’s a part of the teacher’s role that is mostly (if not entirely) learned “on-the-job”. Every encounter, every word is an experience and lesson in what works and what doesn’t. We all find our own way, our own character and our own boundaries to maintain. They say that teaching is an act but if it isn’t one based on trying to be the best version of yourself, its not sustainable. Furthermore authenticity is so important in relationship building, it’s a good idea to be who you are as a teacher, not what a colleague believes a teacher should be. And when you find that sweet spot of being a teacher version of you, it allows for your classroom environment to be relaxed but safe, structured but not intimidating. However getting there is dependant on a good combination of classroom management and behaviour support strategies. The debates I’ve seen around behaviour don’t address the different approaches and in this post I hope to explain why we need, and our students deserve both. 

In 1959 the behavioural scientist Frederick Herzberg put forward a 2 factor model of motivation. It discussed hygiene factors (demotivating if not fulfilled) and motivating factors. The approach I am going to put forward is loosely aligned to this concept but instead of hygiene factors and motivating factors I will be referring to classroom management and behaviour support.

Classroom management

If you have ever been on a poorly delivered training course you will understand how easy it is for completely reasonable and capable human beings to become deeply disengaged and, rarely but still possibly, confrontational. As adults we have (largely) developed the emotional capacity to power through these hours – the brain is still developing well into our twentys. Children on the other hand, have not. Good trainers know their content, manage the pace, encourage discussion, move attention between tasks, vary delivery, give delegates confidence to speak out and know how to manage a room of people. It’s the same for teaching. A well paced, engaging, confident, challenging and sensitive delivery will create an environment where learning can occur and most learners will want to learn. This environment is maintained through boundaries, demonstrated through words or actions.

Classroom management therefore is about how you deliver, the pace, your knowledge, challenge, your voice, tone, confidence, ability to direct learning  – basically everything a good teacher learns to do to allow a lesson to just “flow”. If these factors are not present, children can become disengaged and demotivated which can lead to behaviours of concern. Just like an adult would switch off if they lost faith in a speaker, so too a child will struggle to learn in an environment that is not conducive to learning. Getting these basics right is key – think Maslow too, is your room cold/dark/noisy or are views obstructed? Is the projector too dim?

Many will take this opportunity to say this is “teacher blaming”. This is not “teacher blaming”. There will be children for whom despite the excellently crafted lessons, cannot find or utilise intrinsic motivation. I have been a teacher who has delivered to the most “challenging” of classes successfully and delivered to the most “normal” of class terribly. The difference was the subject specialism. Knowing and being confident in your subject was the difference between engaging the “easy to manage” and completely losing their faith. This period in my career, undertaken whilst also exploring SEMH needs in depth, taught me so much about different behaviour responses that are not necessarily related to a specialist unmet need, but were still unmet needs of a type – the type being the need for a different structure and the delivery of the content. This effectively created an unmet need within the students – they wanted to learn and they didn’t think I could provide it.

I might add here that I have been the child to “muck about”. I was placed in a Maths class to obtain a further certificate after my GCSEs – I got an A a year early and was forced to do another useless (for me) qualification. This resulted in my complete disengagement, I wanted to be revising for other subjects. It wasn’t a great experience.

To summarise this I liken it to the hygeine factors. The 90% will get on and achieve well if these things are in place. But the 90% will also show unrest (“mucking about”) if these are not in place, just like adults in a poor training session. Debate rages here when teachers expect all children to respond in a desirable way to these conditions being met. Because it works for some, staff sometimes don’t understand why it cannot work for all. And this stuff makes for great “Top Ten Tips” stuff, but that’s as far as it goes –  it’s not nuanced enough to meet the needs of all.

This brings us to the 10% that will not be able to respond to the well planned lessons and considered, engaging activities.

Behaviour Support

We’ve all met them. There are children in every school who are always in trouble. Always in detention. Always on report. Always isolated. They never show any improvement from these interventions alone. If the problem was a pedagogical one and the teacher kept setting the same unsupported challenging activity and expecting different results, this would be a massive performance related issue. However with behaviour sometimes conventional logic seems to be thrown out the window.

I am talking here about the 10%. The children who just cannot get on. It may be their lives are so complex and traumatic that your lesson is at best an irrelevance and at worst a resented inconvenience. They carry so much into your room they cannot fit in the information they need to process. It may also be those with an undiagnosed SEN who may be experiencing sensory overload. Or those with undetected anxiety disorders. Or a multitude of other unmet (and not solving themselves) needs. These students won’t just overcome their huge disadvantages because of a differentiated outcome or a threatened detention. They may crave the detention to satisfy an attachment need (that could be met in a more productive way).


The debate here starts when some can use the concept of a child who “just mucks about” to discount the possibility of any child having more to their behaviour than just “impressing their friends”. This statement is the biggest diagnosis of all – its saying you know that they have no unmet needs when all teachers are in agreement that we do not diagnose. A child who’s poor eyesight leads to behaviours of concern in Year 1 may not have the capacity to explain they cannot see the board. They may not know its an issue – I only recently realised my eyesight is poor! This child may experience a repeated, un-improving cycle of sanctions with a system that doesn’t recognise the need for further insight (forgive the pun).

So for this 10% we need to use behaviour support skills. It’s investigation, listening, communication, hypothesising and empathising. It may require external agencies and specialist support. You personally may be able to do very little to improve the situation – but you can certainly stop it getting worse due to the forced implementation of all elements of a classroom management model. These children rightfully deserve flexibility but don’t be mistaken; they also need boundaries, engaging activities and appropriate levels of challenge. How do we know what they can and can’t do? We ask questions, listen to the answers and try to empathise. If you know a child really, really well you are in a position to expect more from them at times. If you don’t have the time to make that connection, check with someone that does.

Great teachers don’t think one thing works for all. They acknowledge the intricacies of the human condition and the need for different approaches. The key thing we need to be doing is appreciating both needs. The need for consistency, routine and engagement. And the need for extra support for those that need it. You will know who they are – they are waiting in the isolation rooms.