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Struggling with behaviour in your classroom? 6 things you can do straight away to make a difference

Updated: Mar 15, 2022

Adolescence is a tricky stage of life. It is a time of high anxiety, concerns about social groups, and huge changes - physically, mentally and emotionally. Not to mention the constant adaptation to a quickly changing world. We all know the stereotypes. Sullen. Rebellious. Untrusting of authority. I would argue they have good reason, too, but the key to having a positive classroom that creates space for meaningful learning, personal development and relationships, is by the teacher becoming self aware, and making adjustments to their behaviour which affect the atmosphere of the class

Here are Bill Rogers’ key tips that you can use right away to change the vibe in your classroom for the better.

Just a disclaimer - these tips are not a solution to bigger, more deeply rooted problems. If there are issues that are not being addressed outside of your classroom then these will not work and you need to collaborate with your school and the individual student(s).

  1. Name the behaviour (don’t tell them what to do)

No one likes being told what to do. If you’re sitting in a meeting, and your boss barks at you to stop swinging in your chair, many things other than complying pop into your head first. If you wouldn’t like to be spoken to in a certain way, chances are your teenagers won’t, either. Describing the behaviour, Rogers says, brings attention to what the student is doing so that they can take ownership of it, without losing dignity.

Instead of uttering these demands while giving them your perfected ‘teacher look’ until they comply:

‘Stop swinging on your chair this instant!’

‘Put your phone away immediately’

‘Why are you still wearing your jacket? You’ve been here for 10 minutes!’

Try this:

‘You’re swinging on your chair’

‘Your phone is on your table’

‘You’re still wearing your outdoor jacket’

2. Walk away

Once you’ve made your observation, or asked for something ([Name]… can you come up here for a minute), don’t watch them until they’ve done what you asked. Move on swiftly to something else or deliberately look elsewhere. Give them space to take stock of what you’ve said, and to make a decision on their own. If they don’t, there might be a good reason for it. Investigate, don’t dismiss. Rogers calls this ‘take up time’.

3. Ignore the secondary behaviour

We all know what this is. The eye roll, the huffing and puffing, the ‘for goodness’ sake’. Rogers says to ignore all of that. He calls these secondary behaviours. They don’t matter.

Here’s what that might look like:

‘You’re swinging on your chair’

‘Ugh, eye roll, huffing and puffing’ but stops swinging on chair.


Instead of:

‘You’re swinging on your chair’

:huffing and puffing, muttering under breath etc.

‘HOW DARE YOU?? The audacity, the insolence!’ Etc.

Situation escalates.

4. Describe, don’t judge

This is probably the most counter-intuitive tip on the list. Do not use praising or punishing words, such as:

‘That’s such a good painting!’

Instead, try:

‘I notice how you used colour here to highlight X’

The latter is meaningful and gives them specific feedback about some technical aspect of their work, while still acknowledging them and their efforts. Through developing this sort of self-awareness, students start to rely less and less on others for motivating themselves to learn.

5. Use ‘we’

Use language that includes all. This subtly communicates that you are a community, learning and working together. Individualistic attitudes emerge when we don’t feel like we’re part of something bigger than us. Understanding we’re a ‘we’ encourages a greater sense of going through something together.

6. Don’t ask why.

Most people don’t know why they do the things they do. Don’t expect your students to. Reflect on what the motivation is behind asking this question and whether it really matters - do you actually want an explanation because you’re confused about something? Is asking ‘why’ just another way of communicating your displeasure with a behaviour?

I’ve had situations where children have been doing something strange - one moment I remember was a group of teenagers ‘taste testing’ make up. When I asked ‘why’ they responded: ‘because it smells like it would taste nice!’ It was funny, but it didn’t help us make any progress!


Bill Rogers offers some advice that seems counter-intuitive, but in most cases really does work. If you want a classroom where you don’t feel like you’re wading through tar, give these strategies a go and see how they work for you. However, every teacher needs to find their own way, as people are sensitive to when someone is being disingenuous!

  1. Describe the behaviour to raise self-awareness, without telling anyone what to do (‘you’re swinging on your chair’)

  2. Walk away after you’ve described the behaviour and wait patiently for them to adjust

  3. Ignore the ‘secondary’ behaviour - don’t address the tone, the eye rolling and the huffing and puffing

  4. Describe, don’t use praise or punishing behaviour (instead of ‘I love your drawing’ say ‘I notice how you use light to bring attention to X’)

  5. Use ‘we’ to create a sense of community

  6. Don’t ask why - you probably don’t want to know!

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