Managing behaviour in the primary classroom.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting some of the 2014 Teach First cohort. There was an awful lot of experience and expertise in the room, and it was a delight to hear about all of the exciting and inspirational stuff that these incoming teachers had achieved. Thanks, perhaps, to twitter and the blogosphere, most of the people that I talked to wanted to discuss the traditional/progressive divide and what this actually looked like in the classroom.

This was interesting to me, and I think that it’s a real success of social media and Personal Learning Networks that PGCE students are engaging with this sort of pedagogic debate. That’s by the by, though, and will no doubt become the subject of a future blog.  

Because I want to write here about the question that I was most frequently asked, which was a variation on: “So, behaviour?” 

I thought that I would note down here what has worked for me, having just completed my first year of teaching in a primary classroom.

This is not supposed to be a comprehensive guide, I remember during training how annoying it was being pointed in the direction of lengthy papers and books for particular areas of practice. So this is a simply a snapshot supposed to give the basics of behaviour management. A starter-kit, if you will.

If you would like something just a little more substantial, though, I’d thoroughly recommend Tom Bennett‘s Not Quite a Teacher/Behaviour Guru or Doug Lemov‘s Teach Like a Champion, which are the books that I found most useful in preparation for my first year of teaching. They benefit from being hugely readable and accessible, and can be dipped in and out of at your pleasure. This means that you can gradually add to your repertoire. 

As a shortcut, though, the following three techniques should give you the basics to go into a primary classroom and ensure that you have all children’s attention whilst you’re teaching. Skip ahead to them if you’re short of time.

In terms of general principles, I believe in relentlessly high expectations for all students, very clearly communicated boundaries and the consistent and fair application of whichever reward/sanction system you use. Sounds simple, but you may be surprised with how easy it is to start to make excuses or exceptions for some children, which invariably leads to a wholesale deterioration in behaviour. 

If you’re anything like me, you will also enter your first classroom mostly concerned with whether or not the children will like you. In my case, this meant that low level disruption – and some higher level disruption – damaged learning for a long time. The received wisdom of children thriving of boundaries prevails for a reason; they do. Set your boundaries and set them early. Don’t worry too much if “Our old teacher did it differently”. You’re in charge now, and everyone will feel much safer if you act like it.

All of these techniques have been stolen from teachers I’ve observed, stuff I’ve read or from somewhere else. I also haven’t included the dozens of techniques that I’ve tried which didn’t work out because of a myriad of variables which happened to define my environment at that time. It doesn’t mean that they were bad techniques, just that they didn’t work for me. So if you try one of these and it just doesn’t seem to work, then do feel free to drop it like it’s hot. 

The Basics

1) Clap-Response

In the primary school, a clap-response is your bread and butter. No doubt you have seen some variation of this during your observations. Stand at the front and clap a little rhythm, which the children have to repeat back. Repeat a few times until all children are responding. This technique also ensures that children don’t have anything in their hands.

Once I have all children responding, I clap one particular rhythm which maps the syllables to “Don’t-clap–this-one-back”, the children don’t clap back this response, instead placing their hands flat on the table. They really enjoy ‘winning’ by not being caught out, and are of course all sat silently and sensibly, ready for learning. 

2) Magic Three

The Magic 3 are the bare minimum that I expect whilst I’m teaching. They are (1) good sitting (straight back and hands together on table), (2) good looking (magnet eyes tracking me at all times), and (3) good listening. To begin with you can turn this into a game. Let the children chat about anything that they want for a minute or so, before giving a clap response and asking for the Magic 3. Time it with a stopwatch and try to beat your personal best. (With primary children, almost any activity can immediately be made fun by timing it and trying to beat your personal best). It’s worth spending some time in the first few days getting this right. I was told exactly this, but made the mistake of foregoing it to get straight in to the ‘learning’. Foundations of sand, my friends. It’s not that you don’t have time to get the behaviour expectations set, it’s that you don’t have time not to.

3) One-Two-Three, Eyes-On-Me

I use this technique less regularly than the clap response, as it’s a bit more intrusive. It’s useful if you need all children’s attention quickly, especially if they are all engaged in group or partner talk. Place your hands on your head and say loudly “One two three, eyes on me,”. Children should immediately place their hands on their head, look at you and chant “One-two, eyes on you.” Hands stay on heads until all children have their eyes on you. If you are waiting for a few children you can list their names to prompt them, or list names of the children who are waiting. 

Post Script

All of these, it goes without saying, should be applied with warmth, patience, care and compassion. Behaviour management in primary classrooms can be a war of attrition, but, unlike secondary teachers, you have the benefit of being with the children all of the time. So make sure you hold fast with the basics. Compromising on them, I’ve found, usually leads to a bigger headache further down the road. 

I think that it’s worth explaining to them explicitly, from the outset, that you really care about them, and that you really care about their learning because good learning will help them to go on to be successful and happy. As long as sanctions are always applied in this context, you should be able to get the children on board. 



  1. Pingback: Behaviour | Pedfed

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