Change Behaviour By Giving Students Responsibilities

Power-oriented students - those who command attention of staff and peers because of their dominant personalities - tend to be those with leadership potential, and they will continue to demand attention until they get it. One of the best ways to give these students that attention, without spending the whole lesson running round after them, is by giving them some responsibilities.

Giving these students responsibility sends a message that you trust them, and does as much to cement positive relationships as it does to provide a means to occupy and manage them.

Responsibility can take many forms: being in charge of certain equipment; monitoring and supporting more vulnerable members of the class (such as victims of bullying); allowing students the opportunity to grade their own work; letting them choose lesson activities. Here are some ways to give students an element of control through responsibility:

1. Set up buddy schemes

Buddy Schemes can be set up on a school-wide or class-wide basis and the results they bring are often amazing. The basic premise is simple (one student helps another) but the benefits are deep and powerful for both students, and they can bring about quite miraculous changes in the most challenging students.

Example: There is truth in the belief that the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. A buddy scheme can be set up in which the student, rather than receiving the usual punishment for a transgression, is given a ‘buddy’ to look after, tutor or assist. The buddy can be a younger student or one in the same year group of lower ability, or perhaps with special educational needs. Suitable responsibilities might include providing support – e.g. if the student is a victim of bullying, helping with academic tasks such as reading, tutoring in sport or running a break time or lunch time activity. The potential of this should not be underestimated – on more than one occasion I have seen tough, very hard-to-reach students dramatically try to change themselves into positive role models when given the task of mentoring another student.

2. Give them responsibility for teaching the lesson

Giving control of the lesson to a student and letting them ‘teach’ the lesson can be enlightening for both student and teacher. Not surprisingly, students who take this opportunity tend to learn a tremendous amount from the experience, not least respect for you, once they see how challenging teaching can be!

Example: Give an unmotivated student the opportunity to teach part of the lesson in any way they choose and in a way they feel will motivate their peers to listen and take part. Allow them to work in a pair or small group if they prefer, and provide an optional lesson structure or framework for them.

This method can be introduced to students by telling them you need their help as you are struggling to get their attention. Tell them what is coming up in future lessons and give them a choice of topic to teach. Then set up a timetable with them so to help them plan their lesson. Make sure you give 

them a ‘get out of jail free’ card by adding that you will teach the lesson for them if they decide they can’t manage it for whatever reason – impress upon them though that in return you would expect their cooperation and attention.

3. Give them responsibility for managing the lesson.

If you have students who are not responding to your instructions (despite threats and punishments) it is because they feel a perceived lack of power. Give them responsibility (and therefore power) by letting them ensure rules and procedures are followed by other students. This often works wonders and, as with the above method, can be enlightening for the students themselves by enabling them to empathise with the teacher and the difficulties they face when trying to manage challenging behaviour in the classroom.

Example: Speak with selected students and get them to identify problem behaviours which are impeding learning in their class. Offer them the opportunity to manage these problems by giving simple reminders and directions to students so that the lesson can run without interruption. Give them instruction in the best way to direct students without creating conflict, and discuss suitable consequences which can also be administered when necessary.

4. Give them responsibility for the activities & tasks in a lesson.

By giving students an element of control over the particular activities they can choose in a lesson, they have less need to derive power by opting out and arguing about the limited choices on offer. There are fewer power struggles when students are given choices about expected outcomes.

Example: If the aim of a lesson is to explain the key points about a given process, does it matter how that aim is met? Instead of dictating that they complete a single designated task, try giving them a limited choice in the form of a voting slip (a verbal discussion can sometimes lead to arguments and a vote is more fun).

“Which of the following tasks would you prefer?

a) Produce a mind-map on........

b) Produce a newspaper report on.......

c) Work as a group to find a solution to......

d) Complete exercise.........

The activity with the most votes wins and by taking part in this vote you agree to take part in the chosen activity without argument.”

5. Give them a job.

Jobs for students might include: set up or take down equipment; safety monitors; noise level monitors; group motivators; liaison with hard to reach students; errand runners; photocopying; arranging wall 

displays; collecting trip money etc. One of the most successful roles we’ve seen implemented at a school is the VIP.


Example: The job of a VIP is to welcome new students and visitors and act as first port of call for other pupils who are experiencing problems of any kind. VIPs also have special privileges such as break time refreshments, computer time etc. The role can be awarded on a rotation basis or as a spontaneous reward for good effort. At one primary school I was working in recently the VIPs were given dayglo workmen’s waistcoats to wear as a uniform so they could be easily identified.

Some teachers feel uncomfortable giving responsibilities and special jobs to a student who normally causes problems: “It’s not fair on the students who behave well”. It’s a fair point - but we have to remember that all students have different needs. Your students are aware of this, they know that Jonny tends to get more attention from the teacher because he needs it; they know that he needs differentiated work and special arrangements put in place to help him cope with his special needs. In most cases students are happy to see other students being catered for – especially if it means they can get on with their own work without being interrupted.

But what about those students who do take offence? Sometimes we may need to explain why Jonny is being given special jobs to do and the analogy of a car mechanic usually works quite well:

A mechanic can’t use the same tool for every problem when a car breaks down – different problems require different tools. If he tried to use the same tool to fix a broken head gasket as he did to change the oil, he wouldn’t get very far (nor would the car once he’d finished with it). In the same way that the mechanic needs to assess a problem and then pick the right tool to deal with it, the teacher has to choose appropriate strategies to deal with a wide range of individual student problems. 

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