Six Behaviour Management Tips to Build Positive Classrooms

Shift the focus from managing behaviour to leading behaviour.
Christopher Hudson
Feb 27, 2024
Behaviour management should be based on high care for students and high expectations for learning.

‘Just don't smile before Easter’.

I received this piece of behaviour management advice from a veteran teacher as I walked into the staffroom on my first day as a graduate teacher. I smiled politely in response but walked out of that staffroom bewildered. Arnold Schwarzenegger hardly cracked a smile in 137 minutes in Terminator 2 - Did I have to turn into the Terminator to be a successful teacher?

This was - obviously - terrible advice. I now know after seven years of teaching to smile, and smile often. Smiling is a key pillar of strong relationships with students, which underpin good behaviour management.

The assumption behind the veteran teacher’s advice was presumably that if you’re too light with your students at the beginning of the school year, they'll walk all over you - ‘give an inch and they’ll take a mile’ sort of thinking.

The thinking is, of course, outdated and if used, can create a confrontational and negative classroom culture and is based on using a power imbalance to maintain ‘control’. It is difficult to build positive teacher-student relationships with a hardened approach such as one that not smiling before Easter would entail. Such an approach, in turn, is more likely to lead to challenging student behaviour in the future than an approach that seeks to get to know and understand your students.

My approach to behaviour management is based on high care for students and high expectations for learning.

Here are six essential tips that can serve as a checklist to help you with behaviour management as you prepare to start the 2024 school year. These tips work for any teacher whether you are a graduate or an experienced teacher. In my experience, they form a roadmap to positive behaviour and, therefore, to positive classroom environments.

1 Establish and Develop Positive Relationships with Students
The key to leading positive classrooms is to develop teacher-student relationships that are defined by trust, respect, and fun. Smile. Be approachable. Be kind. Be curious. Show that you care. Get to know your students and have them get to know you a little too.

2 Get Your House in Order
You control the way your classroom looks, feels, and is set up. Understanding how different physical conditions (e.g. temperature, seating layouts) influence students' behaviour allows you to limit off-task behaviour before it occurs with the way you structure the physical environment. Traditional classrooms promote a control mindset with teacher at the front, which is not conducive to building relationships.

3 Establish Behavioural Expectations
Students need predictability and consistency in the classroom. They look to the teacher and other students for cues on how they should behave and interact with others. It is therefore important for teachers to establish expectations early on in the school year and make them clear, and apply these consistently over time, which allows for students to understand what it means to be a productive and respectful member of that class.

4 Build Routines
Establish routines around transitions where off-task behaviours are likely to occur - entering the classroom, changing activities, and moving between locations in the classroom. For example, teaching and embedding a light-hearted call-and-response strategy during in-class transitions can help students stop and focus on the teacher’s next instruction. Drawing on The Lion King, I say ‘Hakuna’ and ask my students to respond with ‘Matata’, which works well (and often leads to smiling).

5 Build Relationships with Parents/carers
Developing good relationship with students' parents/carers at the start of the school year allows you to discuss behavioural challenges and solutions with them in the future if necessary. For targeted students (typically those who require Tier 3 support), emails and phone calls can be helpful, depending on parent/carer engagement and responses. Keeping parents in the loop about their child's learning in your classroom builds trust.

6 Learn to Understand the Function of Off-task Behaviour
If a student is consistently engaging in off-task behaviour, deal with the motivation or the function of the behaviour rather than the behaviour itself. Consider what the student may be trying to access or avoid. There might be something else going on beneath the surface e.g., boredom, lack of understanding of the task, an issue at home, a learning disability or the like.
Once you know the function behind the behaviour, you can then employ strategies to support the student’s learning. For example, if Student A is avoiding the learning task by disrupting another student, and you have ascertained that Student A is experiencing task confusion, you can address the function of the disruptive behaviour through further explanation or differentiation for Student A.

While not exhaustive, these six tips are the basis of a roadmap to leading positive classrooms. Most importantly, they allow you to smile more than the Terminator ever did.

Christopher Hudson’s book, Leading Positive Classrooms, is published through Amba Press. This article was first published by the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership on 30th January, 2024

Image by Andrea Piacquadio