Student Behaviour

For anyone who’s a teacher (or parent for that matter) the issue of behaviour can sometimes be the cause of our greatest concern and distress.   In fact, in the staff wellbeing training and development that I run with school staff, student behaviour features very regularly as the number one cause of teacher stress.  Interestingly though, I am still hearing from new graduates that they have very little (if any) training that is specifically related to student behaviour, so it seems not much has changed since the good old early ’90s when I was at uni and ‘Student Behaviour Management’ was a one semester ELECTIVE that I thought I’d be stupid not to take.  I clearly remember wondering why it wasn’t a compulsory subject, my logic being that if you as a teacher were unable to maintain some semblance of order in a classroom there wasn’t going o be a whole lot of learning going on.

As it turned out, SBM ended up being one of my favourite subjects and 20 years on, here I am blogging about it.  My teaching career always had a heavy behavioural component to it and has spanned hard to teach schools in the Northern Territory, England (including a stint as a classroom teacher as specialist behaviour school in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire), culminating in a School Counsellor position since 2006, a position which I have only just relinquished in May this year.  It’s fair to say I’ve seen a significant range of different behaviour presentations in these positions over the years and have some definite ideas about what works really well in supporting students with their behaviour choices and what can make it definitely worse.  Realise here that this info is intended to provide participant in tonight’s #teacherwellbeingchat with a little background and hopefully make for some useful sharing and discussion so it won’t be a broad and comprehensive guide to student behaviour.  I am simply going to include some examples of theory, practice and ideas that changed the way I taught and supported students with their behaviour and which I considered much more effective (in some instances) than your go-to sticker charts and the time-out chair.


Tell students what you want them to do instead of what you don’t want them to do.  The reason for this was exemplified in a webinar I participated in just this past Monday night, hosted by Emma Grey, director from WorkLifeBliss.  She explained it this way…

“If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, what immediately comes into your mind?  Of course, it’s a pink elephant.  And the reason for this is the mind can’t visualise the “don’t” part of that instruction but can definitely visualise the pink elephant.  So when you say to a student “Don’t run/snatch/run/cheat/pick your nose/whatever” the instruction is essentially useless because all their minds do is conjour the image of whatever it is you are telling them not to do.  The same applies when we give just blanket “don’t” or “stop it” as the instruction.  Don’t what exactly?  Breathe?  Be a boy?  And stop what?  Blinking?

When giving instructions you need to tell students exactly what you want them to do.  Explicit instructions will leave the student with absolutely no room for misunderstanding.

“Come here.”

“Leave her hair alone.”

“Get off the roof.”

To add some oomph to your instructions (and also to make them more polite) I suggest using ‘thanks’ instead of ‘please.’  Please can sound desperate (I’ve heard mums in the shops pleading, begging with their children to ‘just stop – pleeeeeease’).  Much more effective but no less polite or authoritative is ‘thanks.’  Thanks gives the impression that it is about to be done, and works like a recognition n advance (‘Come and sit on the mat now thanks,’ ‘thanks for releasing him from a headlock’)

Restorative Practice:

I was introduced to the concept of Restorative Practices in 2006 by Terry O’Connell, an ex-policeman who had extensive experience with working in juvenile justice.  He was sharing the information the court systems had introduced in the rehabilitation of young offenders which instead of throwing them into detention held them accountable for their wrongs and through interviews with their victims had them understand the damage their actions had caused.  Instead of a ‘hurt and harm’ punitive approach, RP allowed perpetrators of crimes to take responsibility for their behaviour and to have the opportunity to make amends for their wrongs.  This process had significant impact as young people were seen to learn from their mistakes which resulted in a substantial reduction in re-offending.  The following passage clearly shows how the RP process supports students with managing their own behaviour:

If a Child…

“If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach.

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we ….

            …teach?                  …punish?

Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?”

Tom Herne (NASDE President) Counterpoint 1998, p2.

In the school context and also with my own children I have successfully used the RP process to teach students how to take responsibility for their behaviour and learn from their mistakes. As with many other South Australian schools, had great success using a modified version of its framework when sorting out behaviour issues with students (and I have to say also with parents).  I simplified the questioning format from the original 5 to these 3 questions and used them in 95% of the conflict situations I worked through in my role as counsellor:

1.  What happened?

2.  Who has been affected?

3.  How can you make things better?

What I found with this process was that as long as children weren’t too frightened to take responsibility for their behaviour (and some needed to be taught that telling the truth would not compromise their safety) some resolution could usually be reached relatively quickly.  As RP became an established practice at my site and students learnt that conflict was normal and could be resolved relatively quickly as long as everyone was calm and told the truth, behaviour issues quite drastically declined.  From my perspective the process certainly changed as students learned not to fear punishment when they experienced difficulties with their peers but to expect support through a scaffolded process when they needed help to work through issues.

Trouble vs problems:

Following on from this, normalising conflict and pointing out it is actually healthy and can be helpful is useful when supporting students with their behaviour.  Replacing “being in trouble” with “sorting out a problem” gives students a very different perspective about what conflict means and results in students feeling more empowered to seek support when issues arise (as they invariably will).

*Note here there are exceptions to this: for extreme and/or repeated behaviours or when students refuse to take responsibility for their behaviours there is sometimes no other option other than to implement negative consequences for such behaviour choices.

ABC of Student Behaviour:

Sometimes it’s really hard to work out why a student might be behaving in a certain way.  It might just not make any sense.  This is where recording incidents can be useful to establish patterns in behaviour – sometimes once we see data it is much easier to make sense of situations.  A really simple framework to use is known as the ABC Model, with ‘A” standing for antecedent, ‘B’ for behaviour and ‘C’ for consequence.  Antecedents are predicting factors or triggers which may set students off.  Examples of this might be sugar, a change in routine (such as a relief teacher) or not feeling well.  We can’t always see antecedents but sometimes its very easy over time how certain situations create patterns of a particular response.  Behaviour often refers to what we see and the consequence is what happens to the students as a result.  The table below is an example that shows how the consequences we impose can actually reward the behaviour, even when our intention is for the consequence to be negative.

Model for Problem Behaviour – ‘What Is The Payoff?’

(Source unknown)





Obtain or get something


An adult



Social Attention


Escape or avoid something


A peer

Tangible Activity


I wonder if you are familiar with the Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF).  They are based in Melbourne and do excellent training known as SMART which stands for ‘Strategies for Managing Abuse Related Trauma.’  What the work of the ACF is focussed on is providing school based staff with strategies to support young people who have experienced trauma, and they do this by explaining how the brain of a traumatised child (and this includes traumatised by neglect, war, medical intervention and witnessing family violence) develops differently from a child who grows up in a safe and loving household.  SMART training turned the way I responded to and supported young people on its head, resulting in my practice with young people becoming much more supportive and inclusive.  And when I looked at it closely, I realised that many of the students I worked with who had so called ‘behaviour issues’ actually had trauma backgrounds and were most likely presenting in ‘fight, flight or freeze mode’ instead of out of conscious choice mode.  I can’t recommend the work of the ACF and SMART training enough – its simply fabulous. Check out for more details (includes state by state trainings as well as an online module to help you understand the neurobiology of trauma).


In closing I just want to bring to your attention a quote from the Talmud (the central text of mainstream Judaism) which says “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.”  I want to acknowledge that some students who present with behaviour issues can be extremely challenging and that it takes a huge amount of energy to give them the support that they require.  Working with students of this calibre often seems painstakingly slow, which we teachers as ‘solution oriented’ practitioners can find extremely frustrating.  It is often hard to be compassionate or empathetic to these individuals but it is actually compassion and empathy that is most helpful when working with students with such complex profiles.  Most often their histories will be chequered at best and may include incidences of abuse, trauma, diagnoses of illness or disability.  My suggestion here is to change the way you perceive these students, as tricky as they may be to work with, and to show more empathy when working with them.  Its also useful to remember that we aren’t always the best behaved creatures on the planet either, and when things aren’t going well for us, what we really need is for someone to just be there to give us a hand if we need it.

2 thoughts on “Student Behaviour

  1. Hi Louiza, this is a great post. I’m AMAZED that student behaviour is still not included in many teacher education courses. At my university (Kuringai College of Advanced Education – now UTS) it was a fairly significant component of our undergraduate study and one that we all participated in keenly because usually our greatest fear was what to do when faced with an unruly class.

    I think you make a good point about the language we use. Being in trouble vs sorting out a problem puts a very different slant on things. Same with the word punishment which has very different connotations to words such as consequence or discipline.

    Thanks for the interesting post. Looking forward to the chat tonight.

  2. Couldnt make chat but great post- thanks. Agree SMART trainng was outstanding and powerful. Changed my beliefs and assumptions. Made me a better teacher.

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