How to cope with disruptive behaviour | Education Support
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How to cope with disruptive behaviour

10th January 2019

The Teacher Wellbeing Index notes that disruptive and threatening behaviour is a key concern for teachers. Our CEO Julian Stanley offers some advice.

Our 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index highlighted many issues that teachers are struggling with. Disruptive behaviour and feeling threatened in the classroom was a common complaint, with 42 per cent of respondents saying they have felt threatened in some way in their classrooms. This figure rises to 51 per cent among senior leaders.

Of those who felt threatened, 60 per cent said it was because of students, while 50 per cent said it was due to parents. The Index also showed that teachers working in secondary schools reported higher levels of stress than those working in other sectors.

All schools have a duty of care towards teachers to protect them from harm, threats, violence, intimidation and bullying. However, our free 24-hour helpline receives many calls from teachers who have felt unsupported by their school leaders and work in schools where threatening behaviour isn’t checked.

All threatening behaviour should be logged and reported to your senior leadership team. In the meantime there are steps that teachers, especially NQTs, can and should take to help you gain and keep control of a classroom – the key lesson is consistency.

Controlling a classroom

Be aware that though they may think or say otherwise, children want and actually welcome boundaries. They like to think you are in charge and even though you may feel a little wobbly at times, it is vital that you give off the sense of being in control.

Students need to know what’s expected of them. One example I saw recently involved an explicit set of rules displayed prominently in the classroom – rules that tell students what to do, rather than what not to do. This kind of guidance is clear and informative and shows that you can be authoritative without being authoritarian.

I like to think that it is comparable to an actor on stage. The audience wants to feel confident that the performer knows what they are doing. If you have ever experienced a live show where things went wrong, you will know what it is like to cringe on someone else’s behalf. So lesson number one is to try not to give your students any cause to cringe for you.

Don’t turn your back on them

Another lesson teachers can learn from those who make their living on stage is never turn your back on the room – not until you’ve “got them” at least. This is a simple technique that will help you gain confidence in front of a class – and it is something even seasoned teachers need to remember. Grab your audience as quickly as possible and make them feel at ease. It is also helpful to know that your audience – your students – will relax and absorb far more if they genuinely sense you are in charge and know what you are doing.

A quiet word

If a student is being deliberately disruptive, rather than confront them in class and give them the attention they may be craving, walk around the classroom and when you get to their desk, tap them gently on the shoulder and say quietly: “Let’s have a word afterwards.”

This can diffuse the situation rather than letting it escalate and makes it clear who’s in charge. It is important you are seen to be in charge even if you don’t always feel as if you are.

This touching on the shoulder is part of the PEP approach to dealing with disruptive behaviour in class:

  • Proximity: walk around the classroom, stand by a pupil that may be about to misbehave. Stand a “little too close for comfort” but don’t invade personal space. Try not to come over as aggressive or intimidating.
  • Eye contact: holding eye contact expresses dominance. What you say will be taken more seriously if you can maintain eye contact before, during and after speaking.
  • Posing questions: rather than telling a pupil off, pose a question, such as “why have you not started your work?”

Play-act a character who can cope

If you don’t feel confident in front of a disruptive class or one that has a number of disruptive pupils you can always try play-acting a character who has the confidence you wish you had. Here again teachers can learn a lot from the acting profession. Every public performer has to do this – get into character before a show begins.

Visualise yourself as a strong character. If it helps, imagine you are entering a stage rather than a classroom and you are play-acting a role. This kind of “standing outside yourself” can help you cope with tough times in front of a class.

It’s a bit like wearing a mask – and why masks are popular in some methods of training actors. You assume the role of a commanding person who is in charge. You could even think of it as a little game you play with yourself with no-one else knowing. As soon as we make something out to be fun it reduces the fear element.

Acting techniques

Using acting techniques can help you perform more enjoyably in a classroom and also more effectively. You may be able to stop low-level disturbance from escalating into something less manageable using these methods. At the very least, it’s worth trying. And remember, all teachers have had to face disruptive pupils at some point in their careers. Even the most experienced teachers can come up against challenging pupils.

We’re here

If it all gets too much, refer to your leadership team and please remember that our counsellors on our free helpline are available 24/7. Do please call if you need to off-load or need extra support. Sometimes talking to a stranger – which is essentially what counselling is based on – can be enormously beneficial. So don’t forget we’re here for you. See also our factsheet on managing pupil behaviour which you may find useful.