A Six-Step Plan For Dealing With Low-Level Disruption

Having an effective strategy for dealing with low-level disruptions is KEY to successful Classroom Management for any teacher. This sort of disruption can be like water torture to the teacher, that incessant symphony of pencil tapping, silly noises, poking, bogey-flicking, giggling, inappropriate flatulence, paper-passing, ruler-slapping, desk shoving, hair-pulling, and general fidgeting.

Kids will be kids though, and in themselves, many of the above are all fairly harmless activities (though those involving bodily functions can be hard to stomach, and hair-pulling can really hurt). Taken collectively they are incredibly wearing and can make a teacher’s life hell.

There are as many ways of dealing with low-level disruption as there are types of disruption – from the use of humour to thumbscrews – but I’m going to give you a stepped script here which you may find handy because it can be used to address virtually any type of low-level interruption…

Here is my six-step plan for dealing with low-level disruptions that can be used by any teacher in any classroom:

Step 1: State what they are doing, and what you want them to do instead –

The first thing to do is to point out very clearly what they are doing wrong. It’s surprising the effect this can have on them – sometimes they might not be aware of how annoying their behaviour is for other people in the room until it is spelled out to them. In terms of what you want them to do you need to make their choices as simple as possible and leave no room for misunderstanding. As the teacher, you also need to explain why they should do what you’re asking – ie, tell them what will happen if they don’t follow your instructions. By doing this you show that you’re not just getting on their backs just for the sake of it – there are reasons for your actions. This, of course, gives them fewer excuses to complain or argue.

“Jonny you’re not doing your work and you’re putting everyone off with that tapping. You need to pick your pen up and finish your target so that you don’t have to get it finished in your own time.”

If they don’t immediately start doing as you’ve asked or if they answer you with a promise to do it soon, you should move on to stage 2. A promise that they will do as you ask ‘in a minute’ or ‘later’ is their way of trying to control the situation – so treat it as if they have ignored you and move to stage 2.

Step 2: Explain exactly what will happen to them if they continue disrupting the lesson or ignoring you 

Tell them very clearly what the outcome will be if they continue – calmly, clearly and without fuss or reactive emotional outbursts. 

“Jonny, if you don’t stop throwing those bits of eraser you’ll have to come back at break to clean the floor.”

Step 3: Give them time to think about your instruction 

Immediately follow on by giving them a time limit and then back off, walk away and give them some space. Allowing them to save face and giving them some time to process everything that you have said is crucial. It’s hard for them to jump to attention and do what you want when you’re standing over them, particularly if their friends are watching (which they probably will be).

“I’m going to give you two minutes to do as I’ve asked.”

“I’ll be back in one minute and I expect to see it done.”

It’s all about telling them exactly where the boundary is and exactly what they have to do to get back on the right path. By backing off – walking to another part of the room or going to help another student – you’re giving them a chance to back down without losing face; you’re giving them an escape route. A child backed into a corner finds it difficult to back down in front of their classmates if you’re standing over them and will react accordingly – usually with more defiance. By walking away you take the pressure off.

Step 4: If they do as you’ve asked, acknowledge it 

A few words are all that’s needed to let them know they did the right thing and to encourage them to do it again in the future. It’s a big step they’ve just taken and they need to know you've noticed it. Don’t lecture them about how they should follow instructions faster next time; just give them a sincere smile and some quiet, private praise.

Younger students can be rewarded more formally – perhaps by giving them a sticker or a certificate for meeting the behaviour target ‘Follow teacher’s instructions’.

Step 5: If they choose not to follow your instructions then you simply give them their consequence 

“Ok you’ve chosen to carry on doing…… . You’ll be coming back at break for 5 minutes. Now get on with your work so that you don’t lose any more of your time.”

Step 6: If the consequence has little or no effect 

If they continue to ignore you or if the behaviour resumes after a few minutes respite, repeat the procedure with a tougher consequence this time; the next in your hierarchy.

This is why you should always start off with a small consequence. If you wheel out your big guns straight away you have no reserves if they continue to misbehave.

“You’ve already lost five minutes of your break, if you don’t want to lose another five minutes you need to pick up the rubber you just threw.”

“Jonny that’s five minutes of your break gone. Unless you want to...(insert next consequence on your hierarchy such as 'lose your whole break', 'stay behind after the lesson/after school for two minutes', 'take a letter home to your parents', 'clean my car' etc. )... I suggest you settle down and get the work finished.”

There you go, a six step script for dealing with low-level disruption. Obviously it's not the only way to deal with disruptive students, and it's not going to work in every setting, every time but hopefully you'll see that having a stepped procedure in place like this  can be very useful and is the foundation of a suitable response to many incidents. 

Want more solutions for your classroom problems? I'm planning on setting up a completely live, online 'classroom management surgery' in the near future. It will be completely free of charge and will give you opportunity to ask questions and have answers live on air.

Obviously this depends on demand - if enough people tell me they want it, I'll do it.

So... if this is something you'd appreciate and make use of, type 'I'm interested in the free classroom management surgeries' in the comment box below.

Thanks in advance.


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