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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Managing classroom behaviour

Fiona Crawford
Robyn Beaman
Contact: robyn.beaman@speced.sed.mq.edu.au

The old adage that you catch more flies with honey is also true in the classroom. A recent Macquarie University study has found that teachers should spend more time giving positive attention to good classroom behaviour than in reprimanding bad behaviour. Where teachers dealt with troublesome behaviour in a negative way, students not only perceived themselves to be less engaged, but their on-task behaviour was reduced.

When negative attention was directed primarily towards the boys in the class, observations identified that the on-task behaviour of girls was also lowered. This finding is of some importance in the current educational climate, where student engagement and participation in class are the subjects of much discussion.

The research involved studies in two main areas. The first examined, via a questionnaire, the perceptions of 145 secondary teachers from New South Wales about behaviours they found to be troublesome in their classrooms. Teachers were asked to select the behaviour they found to be most troublesome with the class as a whole from a list of ten behaviours, which included physical aggression and verbal abuse. Teachers were also asked which behaviour occurred most frequently, to differentiate it from severity. ‘Talking out of turn’ was identified by teachers as the classroom behaviour of most concern, and was the one that occurred most frequently. Importantly, it was also identified as the main misbehaviour of the most troublesome individual students. The high level of this relatively trivial misbehaviour can become dispiriting for teachers over time.

Other behaviours that were reported as troublesome were the hindering of other students, being slow to respond to teacher instructions, and idleness. Teachers’ anxiety about such minor misdemeanours contrasts with the current media attention given to violence and disruption in schools.

Respondents indicated that, typically, about four students in a class of 21 were likely to be troublesome. Trends in the data suggest that difficult behaviour builds in Year 8, peaks in Year 9 and starts to ebb in Year 10. Boys were clearly identified as the major cause of disruption, with 70 per cent of all troublesome students being boys. Moreover, nearly 90 per cent of all teachers said that a boy was the most difficult individual student in the class.

When teachers were asked if they thought they spent more time than they should on classroom behaviour management, 53 per cent reported that they did. Those teachers who responded in the affirmative to this simple question also reported significantly higher numbers of students in the class as troublesome (around 30 per cent of the class was regarded as being behaviourally difficult) and had significantly higher stress scores in relation to their classroom teaching.

Patterns in teachers' attention towards students

The second of the two studies involved observations of a subset of 79 teachers and their classes, looking at how teachers distributed their attention to students in the classroom. It gave particular attention to differences in how they responded to academic behaviour and social behaviour. The study found that teachers readily provided approval for students’ academic work, but were not as forthcoming with praise for students’ positive social behaviour.

It was pleasing to find that teachers were more approving than disapproving overall. However, they still provided a lot of negative attention to inappropriate social behaviour. Typically, the teachers in the study gave seven times more approval than disapproval to academic work. In contrast, they were giving six times more disapproval than approval on the social side. Previous research has suggested that teachers should aim to give four or five times as much positive attention as negative attention, to foster desirable behaviour.

Another aspect of the research investigated how teachers directed their attention differentially to boys and girls. In a sub-sample of 57 classes, observations of teacher responses indicated that boys received two-thirds more teacher attention, on average, than girls. A large amount of this attention, however, was of a negative nature. Boys received more than twice as much negative attention as girls, principally in relation to their social behaviour or conduct. This was the case irrespective of the gender of the teacher. The observations also showed that boys were ‘on task’ significantly less often than girls.  

There has been a good deal of debate in the educational research literature over time about boys receiving the ‘lion’s share’ of teacher attention. This study has demonstrated that the nature of that attention may not necessarily constitute an ‘advantage’, however. In fact, the nature of the classroom environment may be quite aversive for many boys, a fact to be borne in mind in contemporary discussions about boys’ achievement in, and disengagement from, school.

It may seem logical that if boys are the ones causing most of the disruption in classrooms, they will be reprimanded more frequently by their teachers. This conclusion, however, assumes that this is the way teachers should respond to such behaviour.

Achieving classroom harmony

Classroom harmony can be better achieved by focusing on appropriate and positive behaviour, and trying to build such behaviour into the repertoire of a student’s classroom skill set. While negative attention will usually curtail troublesome behaviour when it occurs, it does not often reduce the behaviour in the long term. Ideally, teachers should watch for appropriate behaviour and subtly draw it to students’ attention. This is much more effective in reducing disruptions and for shaping appropriate behaviour than reprimanding students.

Creating three or four classroom rules will also help improve behaviour. Rules should be worded positively. Starting a dialogue with students about how they would like the classroom to be is another effective behaviour management strategy. Teachers need to focus on what they want students to do, not on what they don’t want them to do.

The set-up of the classroom is also critical in shaping behaviour, and there are ecological ways of maximising good behaviour. Previous research in this area suggests that seating arrangement in particular is a powerful antecedent for behaviour. It is important to organise seating so that it relates to the task. If teachers require their students to work independently, then the ‘old-fashioned’ way of seating them in rows rather than in small table groups has proven to be more effective. Good lighting and temperature are also very important.

Schools have an obligation to make schooling as positive an experience as they can, and there is room for improvement. Many teachers are hampered in their work because their teacher preparation does not equip them with the skills required to shape more positive classroom behaviour. Dealing with adverse behaviours day in and day out is very wearing for teachers and students alike. Classroom behaviour management is one of the main reasons teachers leave the profession and is a significant factor in student disengagement. It is hoped that this study will inform debate on how classrooms can become more positive environments for both teachers and students. Providing increased opportunities for teachers to learn positive techniques to shape desirable and pro-social classroom behaviour might be a way forward.

Robyn Beaman, Research and Development Manager at the Macquarie University Special Education Centre (MUSEC), recently completed her PhD research on troublesome classroom behaviour and the interactions between students and teachers in high school.
Fiona Crawford is a journalist with the Macquarie University News and this report is an expanded version of her article of the same title published in May 2006.


Subject Headings

Girls' education
Boys' education
Behavioural problems
Behaviour management
Classroom management