From the category archives:

Classroom Management

Planning heirarchy

I‘ve been in a few conversations lately that have made me think about my way of viewing classroom problems. Top down and bottom up aren’t quite right, but I suppose it’s such a common metaphor that I’m finding it difficult to break free of it. The top and bottom in this case are not people but the different levels of action and planning that go into teaching.

Have a look at the heirarchy at the top. The base level is the classroom, the things you do in the moment. Above that is your lesson planning, the detailed short term planning. Then there is programming, where you ensure that your activities are leading to your outcomes and you have the assessments to prove it. At the top is your class philosophy – your vision, your goals and your behaviour management policy. The size of the step indicates the time spent in each level, and each step does some of the work for the step below it.

All levels are influenced by outside things like school policies and procedures. But they cannot be replaced. It may sound as if it’s just extra work, but spending a bit of time clarifying and writing down how you want your classroom to run and why supports everything else you do. It keeps you on track because you know where you are trying to go. It gives you a range of options for managing behaviour that you’ve already thought about.


By classroom problems I mean things like engagement, assessments that aren’t working or behaviour – the day to day ‘this isn’t going how I want it to.’

Focusing on fixing the problems individually is bottom up thinking. Looking at your whole program or delivery is top down thinking. Say you have a group who are coming late, opting out and mucking around.

Bottom up –

  • You could have a consequence of making up the time they’ve missed, either through lateness or not working.
  • Set a minimum amount of work that has to be done and chase them in their own time for it.
  • Have a system of escalating consequences that are followed through including involving parents, contracts and other supports.
  • Use routines, agendas and break lessons down so that there is a sense of moving forward, not getting bogged down.

Top down –

You might analyse the pattern in the classroom and decide it is based around non-engagement, they are deciding not to be involved in the work and finding ways to avoid it.

  • Look at your program and try to increase buy-in so they want to do it. eg negotiated curriculum or directly relevant work.
  • Increase learning activities that play to their strengths and interests, eg art or presentations rather than essays.
  • Have lots of active lessons such as visitors, experiments or going places around the school so they aren’t spending a lot of time sitting at their desks.


I’d like to emphasise that there is nothing wrong¬†about either of these ways of dealing with classroom problems. Both are valuable strategies and should be used in their place. However teachers have a tendency to get stuck in bottom up reactions¬†rather than pro-actively looking for top-down preventions. It’s top-down that is going to give you long term momentum, and ultimately it becomes less work.

Yes it’s a little more at the beginning of term. It does give you less control if you are negotiating (although I question how much control you actually have). It can be hard to think of inventive ways of teaching some topics. But it soon becomes a habit and a style you don’t have to think about. I haven’t done more than re-read and tweak my behaviour management philosophy in years because it’s at a point where it’s working for me. And that is far easier, and much less depressing, than writing out incident reports after every lesson or giving up my breaks chasing students.

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Challenging Behaviours

You can’t extinguish a behaviour. Can’t be done. Behaviours can only be replaced, not extinguished. And if you think for a moment it’s very obvious – if they aren’t doing whatever the problem is, they must be doing something instead. Even staring at the wall is doing something.

Unfortunately, too many behaviour management plans focus on the behaviour you are trying to change.

This has two problems – a negative focus is likely to lead to negative strategies, and it could leave you with an even worse behaviour than you started with.

Successful behaviour modification needs to focus on the replacement, not the problem. The question to ask is not

“How do we stop them doing this?”


“How do we get them to do that?”

The first step is to decide exactly what you want them to be doing –

  • Working?
  • Sitting quietly?
  • Staying in their seat?
  • Actively participating in a discussion?

Because the strategies you use to achieve the change will depend on what you want – if you’re happy with sitting quietly you don’t need to encourage them to participate.

Then you can look at why it isn’t happening and go back to the basics of your pedagogy.

  • Are you setting work at levels to cater for everyone in the class?
  • Do they understand what you want them to do?
  • Are you giving them a variety of ways to demonstrate the skill or understanding?
  • Is the work rich and engaging?
  • Are there ways you can negotiate with them and give them some control?

After you’ve torn into your own programs then you can start to look at individuals or groups of students and ways of encouraging them into the behaviour you want. This is where praise and all the different types of reminder, reward and contract systems come in. But the emphasis needs to remain on setting expectations and supporting and encouraging students to meet them. Not on stopping them from misbehaving.

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I taught a chaotic class this morning. There were teenagers everywhere, laptops, chemicals, singing, maths game websites, shouting at each other, quite a bit of swearing. I’m fairly certain there was no actual hitting, and though the walking may have been fast I don’t think it could really be classified as running. If only because there was too much stuff all over the place and no room to run. And I was out of the room several times so it could have happened then.

Like many science teachers, I am a control freak at heart. They may be diluted but they are still acids and corrosives and fire for goodness sake. Nothing would make me happier than to force them all to prove that they are serious and careful and safety conscious and will never, ever be distracted before letting them loose. Except it would either mean we never do practicals, which would make me very unhappy, or it could mean there was very little fun happening, which would make me unhappier still.

So in spite of the fact that this morning’s class had me figuratively curled up in a corner gibbering, I’m also extremely proud that I can corral my inner control freak enough to do it.

Good chaos and bad chaos

There is most definitely good chaos and bad chaos, and being able to pick the good chaos and ride it is essential in teaching. Because if you want independent thought and experimentation and engagement, good chaos is where it happens.

Having one group up the back showing neutralisation, another at the side making bath bombs, one at the front catching hydrogen in a balloon and another comparing red cabbage indicator to universal indicator would be difficult enough. Add in the fact that they have designed the experiments themselves and there’s another layer, with forgotten items, elaborations and bits that didn’t work out the way they expected. Then add in video cameras and suddenly they don’t need to just do the experiment, they need to make sure it’s in the light and held up against a white background and they are standing out of the way.


And unfortunately there was also some of the other kind. There were technical problems with transferring the videos onto the laptops. The editor couldn’t deal with the file type from the camera and there was no converter. Videos are big files and take a long time to copy, save and manipulate which means hanging around waiting.


I made some mistakes here. I checked that we had the editing software but it didn’t occur to me that we would need or not have a converter and I should have checked. I think it was a reasonable assumption that the school video cameras would be useable with the editing program, but assumptions are never good and can always trip you up, as this one did. Always check.

I should have had a backup ready. Do I think it would have been useful? In this case not really. Given that there were so many things happening I can’t really see those particular students quietly sitting down with another activity, but I didn’t even have the option of trying. And you never know, one or two of them might have. Bottom line, it’s always a good idea to have something you can whip out if things go pear-shaped, especially something like a relevant puzzle or cross-word so they don’t feel they’re being punished with more work.

Were they so bad?

One of the reasons I’m reflecting on this here is the perception of other adults in the room that the class should have been kept in. Of course I was reflecting anyway, but that really made me question the lesson.

I still think the correct answer was no.

Leaving aside the whole issue of appropriate consequences for student behaviour, I want to go a step back and ask what was appropriate behaviour in this context? Because I think part of the problem that makes planned chaotic classes even harder comes from judging them against an ideal, rather than reality.


The ideal but non-existent classroom.

In the ideal view of classes, all students are engaged and on-task. I’ll even bet that for the majority, if they were asked to envision a classroom with everyone learning, the image would include students sitting at desks and studiously engaged in reading or writing, or possibly bent over a computer. If you stop and think about it you know that this is an ideal image. Someone in that class is thinking about the weekend rather than the lesson. Someone is listening to a friend or an iPod. Someone is creating art rather than writing. We know that, and we accept it. So long as the majority are on task the majority of the time, we know that reality is everyone gets off-track occasionally.

Now translate that into a lesson that you know is going to be chaotic anyway, with people walking around, asking questions, needing help and needing a lot of space. Everything is noisier and more active. And that includes the people who are off task. When everyone else is being loud and walking around they aren’t going to surreptitiously whisper to the person next to them, they’re going to head over and see what the other groups are doing or call across the classroom.

And where was I while all this was going on?

I was in and out a few times, getting things that people hadn’t realised they would need. But the larger part of the time, I was helping students. Part of the deal when you plan a chaotic lesson is that you will run the whole time, because active thinking and exploration is hard and students need lots of support to confirm and push their daring. And the art of teaching is in the choice – is this disruptive enough that I stop what I’m doing here to go deal with that over there? Making those calls is why we get paid.

Of course I was keeping a lid on it – as I stated at the beginning I don’t think they went over the line, while the swearing was louder than normal I don’t think it was worse than normal. Everyone completed their videos and got them uploaded, which was the aim of the class. Do I wish it had been smoother? Of course. But I can’t blame them for technical problems and me not having a backup.

In the end

Chaotic classes are hard. I know teachers who can do them effortlessly and thrive on them, but that’s not me. I generally have a ball while they’re happening but it’s hard on the nerves. Because they really do put it up there in great big flashing neon lights – you are not in control.

You know what? You are not in control in the quiet classroom either.

In fact you’re almost never in control, and if that’s your aim then you’re in the wrong profession.

The thinking, the learning, the exploration that happens in a chaotic class are what it’s all about. And it’s more important to be riding that whirlwind than making myself feel comfortable by pretending I’m in control.

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Post image for Bumps

The Theory of Bumps is the basis of Peter Smilanich and Barry Bennet’s “Classroom Management: A Thinking and Caring Approach.” This is an excellent resource, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I was lucky enough to be trained by Peter Smilanich himself in not only using it but coaching other teachers.

It’s a very, very simple way to describe classroom behaviour and literally tells you step by step how to deal with it. Assuming that you share some philosophical convictions with the authors about the classroom being for education.


The classroom is bubbling along and there is an ‘incident,’ called a bump. How you and other people around respond determines whether the bump is dealt with and bubbling resumes, or if it is bumped up, and up, and up.

Kids bump each other all.the.time. Most of the time it’s not malicious, it’s just about establishing tribes and loyalties and trying on opinions and roles. They also have a tendency to kick when down and hunt in packs, things I say with the utmost affection and acceptance – they are learning how to interact and finding their place. Usually an adult can smooth it over pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is the adult doing the bumping. A teacher, an aide, a parent, someone in the classroom who doesn’t shut it down but encourages the incident to get bigger. I’m sure it’s not on purpose, but it goes back to that shared philosophical conviction of the purpose of a classroom. If you ask people straight out, you’ll generally get an answer along the lines of ‘of course it’s for education!’ But if you delve into a particular incident or particular actions, sometimes you get very different answers.

And that’s where teachers (parents too, this works exactly the same with your own kids) need to be reflecting –

  • what is my goal in this setting?
  • Am I meeting that goal, or is my own behaviour bumping it up?
  • If I’m bumping, am I happy with that or do I need some new tools?
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