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Decelerating poor behaviour

Decelerating student’s poor behaviour and stepping calmly through consequences will yield positive results.

Our emotional responses to poor behaviour are often disproportionate. Reaching for the ‘biggest stick to crack the smallest nut’ is irrational and unfair. It might seem to work for a short time, but you are storing up problems for later. Use the biggest sanctions too soon and you leave yourself nowhere to go. Lead with fear and no one thinks that their behaviour is their responsibility.

What does your ladder of consequences look like? Is it planned in big steps or small increments? How fast behaviour management can a student accelerate to the top? True skill in the management of behaviour lies in increasing disapproval in tiny increments. Skilful shifts in intonation, verbal and physical language cues stop you relying on the big sticks. From disappointment to disapproval, there are a million shades in between. The best actors only ever show part of their range, the rest left for the audience to guess, and so it goes in with teachers. The adult who barks constantly at the children is soon ignored; those who never shout always have somewhere to go.

There are more subtle skills that it’s not easy to observe in others: control over the pace of the conversation, the subtle tonal changes of direction, empathetic shifts in body language. Being able to manage the arc of the intervention and end on the right note can be the difference between compliance and crisis. Your behaviour directly influences the outcome.

From the time you take to calmly repeat instructions to the contrast you make with a sharp ‘No’, it’s the unseen skills that are pivotal. The skill is in decelerating, in slowing down the rush towards consequence and encouraging pause for thought. Offering to ‘make a deal’, giving the student a clear choice, walking away and giving ‘take up’ time, waiting for the tears to stop, diverting attention, refocusing on the rules, criticising the behaviour and not the child. For some young people, the distance between emotional upset and physical aggression is short. The quicker you can decelerate, the less chance you have of a chair flying across the room.

When you intervene to stop poor behaviour, it’s the model that you give to the student that is critical. Not simply the model of your own calm and assertive behaviour, but the example that you use of the student’s previous conduct. “Do you remember when I gave you that positive note to take home to mum? That is the behaviour that I need to see from you, that is the lovely Sam that we know.” Of course, you’ll need to expend energy in creating this anchor, in catching students behaving well and marking the moment. It is time well spent.

The mindset that you choose to adopt before you decide to intervene is crucial. See the student’s behaviour as a symptom of ‘broken Britain’, a symbol of society in decline or the ills of modern parenting, and you’re unlikely to achieve the inner calm that you’ll undoubtedly need to deal with the poor behaviour you are faced with. How you frame or reframe the behaviour in your head will affect how and what you say about it. Check your emotional response throughout. Plan your interventions or your thoughts may ambush you. You perceive it, ruminate on it and then speak it.

Children are not imperfect versions of adults, they are apprentice adults. Their brains are not small versions of our own. They’re in rapid development, not fully formed, and the emotional triggers and routines need learning, internalising and embedding. Teach them that their behaviour can provoke a disproportionate response and you teach them a dangerous lesson: that your emotional response is controlled by their actions. That is too much power in the hands of an apprentice. Such power corrupts. It can tempt some to make a habit of it

The Three As

When you intervene in poor behaviour, think about the following…


How might the audience affect the interaction? How could they be affected by it? Consider moving to quieter space or having the conversation away from the group.


How can you stop the situation accelerating? Which deceleration techniques work with this student?


How are you managing your anger and the anger/emotion of the student? Do you need to give the student time to calm down, time to think or consider their next move?

First published in Teach Nursery Magazine in 2011.

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This article is from the free online course:

Managing Behaviour for Learning

National STEM Learning Centre