Learning the art of silent behaviour management

Although I can see the value of no-excuses behaviour approaches, I currently work in a school which does not use it. There are many ways to secure the behaviour you want – a more widely applicable approach for those who don’t work in a no-excuses environment (which makes it hard to introduce it in one classroom exclusively) is the art of silent behaviour management.

The stereotype of managing behaviour outside of the classroom is one of a screaming or shouting teacher; or possible a teacher with some sort of indefinable and yet ubiquitous presence in the room whose students never do anything wrong for some powerful and yet ineffable reason. Trainee teachers often feel like they need to  The reality, though, is that monitoring 30 students at once requires a wide range of techniques, some of which I outline below.

  1. Silent confiscation. Recently, someone’s phone went off in my lesson. Mobiles are banned at my school and so the phone needed to be confiscated. Luckily, although I doubted I’d be able to get the phone and so decided not to pursue it, a moment later I saw a student pull a phone out of their pocket as discreetly as they could and glance at it. The rest of the group were engaged in a task so I just walked up to her and put my hand out in complete silence. I did not say a word, but I held my hand out until she slipped the phone into my hand and I quickly put it in my pocket. No one else even realised she had had it confiscated (until the very end, when she asked if she could have it back in front of some other students). What made me happy with this incident was that the behaviour was corrected without any disruption in the lesson. I could also have used a glare to reinforce seriousness or escalated another way if necessary, but in this case, that wasn’t necessary. So, the lesson here is – don’t assume that a behaviour needs to be loudly and obviously corrected. This has worked for me a few times, and the trick is to keep holding out your hand (even while continuing to give instructions for the rest of the group) until you get what you want.
  2. Reinforcing instructions. We all have students who miss an instruction we give or don’t start a task straight away. One approach to getting a student on task is to use their name but this can sometimes prove an unnecessary attention-grabber for the rest of the group. One approach I use is to repeat the instructions and as I say it, look very intently at the student in question. Usually they pick up on the eye contact and therefore hear the instruction and start working. No one else even realises I’ve addressed the instruction to one particular student, except them. There’s no attention drawn to them, so no risk of them reacting. The lesson here is – you don’t always need to draw attention to a student who is not doing the task. You can simply nudge them (this still counts as silent behaviour management, as your speaking is about the general instructions, the specific management of behaviour is silent here).
  3. Hand gestures. Students generally already know what they are doing wrong, and so a range of hand signals can very quickly correct behaviour without anyone else noticing. All of these are so unintrusive as to be invisible to the rest of the group. The lesson is that you can correct a huge range of behaviours with a simple gesture, whilst avoiding giving long verbal corrections. Here are some examples:
    1. I put both hands at my waist and grip the bottom of my shirt whilst staring at a student. Almost all students instantly work out that I’m telling them to tuck in their shirt.
    2. Subtly place a hand out flat and then lower it whilst staring at a student – again, almost all realise that they are swinging on their chair and need to stop.
    3. Mimic a pen writing, which is another way of getting a student to start a task or write something down.
    4. Shake your head, which usually tells a student to stop doing the thing they’re doing wrong.
    5. Point at your mouth, and then a bin. Many work out that you’ve sussed the gum in their mouth. Sometimes just pointing at your mouth is enough.
    6. Point intently towards the work on the table in front of a student. This can quickly get them to write something or start a task.
    7. Put one finger at your mouth  – as in hushing someone. This is pretty obviously to stop someone from talking. You could also hold up your other hand as an indication that they need to wait before they can talk.
    8. Point towards a student, then put your hand flat with palm facing upwards and two fingers pointing out. Jerk the two fingers upwards to get a student to stand up. Why would you do that? To demonstrate the sheer fact that you can command them to do something without even speaking. It’s an exercise in demonstrating your authority/control.


Why are these so important/useful?

If there’s one thing that all of this ultimately relates back to the fact that for some students there’s nothing more exciting than a chance to have a confrontation, and even if there isn’t one, it still disrupts a lesson for everyone if you start having an argument with a particular student across the room or even correct behaviour. Some students hate being called out, and some get distracted by your referencing another student. It can be super-effective and very low cost to the focus of every other student if you use these simple and almost invisible approaches.

These are clearly not sufficient.

Of course, I am not saying never speak when managing behaviour. However, you must make careful judgements about which students might respond to you raising your voice, and which students will respond more to an almost eery calm. I can think of some students who need to have a rational conversation to explain why they have to do something or not do something, which can actually work; whereas simply yelling at them can end up aggravating them and achieving nothing. Other students (generally the nice ones who occasionally do something silly!) will respond more to a very stern reprimand. But there’s no simple answers here. It’s going to be trial and error. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way – and sometimes even switching between two radically different approaches while dealing with the same child can show you. Watching other teachers might also be effective. A student who was being belligerent towards me, calmed down a lot and even lowered his face somewhat in guilt when a profoundly calm telling off was issued by a senior member of staff (compared to my shouting in his face!).

I sometimes wish (when I’m in a good lesson!) that I could be filmed and describe my thought process when managing students and groups in a lesson. I think many trainee teachers would benefit from seeing not just the lesson, but the thought process in a teacher’s head. Sometimes lessons just seem to happen a certain way and students just seem to behave, but there’s a whole lot going on that isn’t always seen by people watching the lesson.

If you currently rely, or are assuming you will rely, on vocalised behaviour management, try some of the above techniques and perhaps use the underlying principles to help develop your behaviour management. Think: how can I avoid confrontation, fix the behaviour and avoid any disruption to the lesson caused by me dealing with behaviour?