Working with Low-level Disruption
“Best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” and the rest of the quote might as well read because of the little bugger in the second row to the front. Low-level disruption is the most difficult type of disruptive behaviour to deal with in the classroom, not only for us but also for the students that want to learn. We want active learning, but there is a very thin line between active learning and the actions of one or two students that can tip the whole apple cart. I try to look at low-level disruptive behaviour in terms of good-to-fit and poor-to-fit behaviour.
Good-to-fit behaviour is the type of behaviour that is fitting to the situation and poor-to-fit behaviour hampers the successful outcome of the lesson or situation. For instance, playing with a basketball is good-to-fit behaviour in a Physical Education (PE) lesson but not in a science laboratory. Or we can also say that sitting quietly is poor-to-fit behaviour during a PE bleep test whereas sitting quietly is good-to-fit behaviour in the library. Both examples show how low-level disruptive behaviour (even sitting quietly) is not typical of only students with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD).
Knowing and understanding this did not make it easier to teach Shelly*. She was a very busy, loud and strong-willed 15-year-old when I was her English teacher. Trying to teach Leanne was like trying to tame the proverbial Bull in the China shop. After countless meetings with Shelly’s mother and after the school exhausted all the Behaviour Policy options, there was only one option left – Shelly had to go on “long-term study leave”. To my surprise, the next day, Shelly was back. To be honest I only noticed her some time into a calm and enjoyable lesson. I didn’t want to rock the boat and left her sitting there. After the lesson she presented me with a piece of outstanding work.
At the graduation ceremony of the Class of ’06, I asked Shelly what made her change. “I didn’t change.” I was astonished at her answer because clearly she did change. “I just realised that working during lessons doesn’t change me, it’s just another side of me.”
Adolescents, by nature, are on a mission to be independent, display their newfound identity and to receive recognition, especially from peers. This often places them on a collision trajectory with classroom rules and conventions. As I saw with Leanne, trying to change them is futile and if we think back to our own journey through adolescence, pointless. To facilitate good-to-fit behaviour during lessons I use four strategies:
- Negotiating rules for learning and sanctions
- Battle the Boredom
- Zone Out
- Remove the stimulus
Negotiating Rules for Learning and Sanctions
As on any road in the world, there are not negotiable rules in schools and the consistent implementation of these rules are central to a calm and focussed learning environment. However, in lessons, I have seen that many of my colleagues follow an assortment of rules ranging from the near tyrannical to no rules at all. The inconsistency of this often causes confusion and especially where there are no clear expectations of behaviour, low-level disruption is common.
My very first lesson at the start of the academic year, as well as after every holiday, is to clarify mutual expectations (their expectations of me as a facilitator of learning and my expectations of their high achievement).
The most important of this clarification is negotiating the Rules for Learning and sanctions we are going to follow in our class. To do this I set up a group-work learning environment with roles for each of the group members. These roles include discussion leader, recorder, activity time-keeper and a person to give feedback. These roles are set out on the tables before the students come into class. I also divide the groups into colours and as they enter I hand out a coloured tickets to indicate in which group each student will sit. As they sit down they choose what role they will take during the group activity.
I provide a set of rules on separate cards that are not negotiable. These include:
- being on time to lesson,
- sitting according to the designated seating plan,
- to show good manners,
- complete homework and
- show good-to-fit behaviour that I explain this before hand.
During the lesson each group discusses rules additional to my list and - most crucially - add sanctions that will be followed if these rules are broken. We usually settle on a list of about eight to ten rules. We take feedback and by the end of the lesson we ensure that we have set of democratically agreed rules. I type these up and by the next lesson these rules are pasted on the front page of their notebooks. I also have large poster created by an arty students and we have signing ceremony where each member of the class signs to indicate their agreement of the negotiated rules and sanctions.
We have had very interesting sanction suggestions in the past. Adolescents are often quite unforgiving and it does take some guidance before we can come up with realistic and I must add, legal sanctions. I have also had to veto some rules such as allowing gum and mobile phones in lessons by reminding students that these were rules for learning and placing emphasis again on good-to-fit behaviour.
Battle the Boredom
Boredom is often at the root of most low-level classroom disruption. From the gifted and able student to those who are learning a new language to supporting those with special education needs (SEN), it is inevitable that even super teacher will have gaps in facilitating learning in mixed ability settings. And as we all know, adolescents will find ways of entertaining themselves if the learning is not entertaining enough.
Never underestimate the power and magic of the word search. It is a strategy that works. At the front end of the class, I installed a shelf case, made from covered boxes. Each shelf is labelled from Word Search Light, Standard, Genius and Gotcha. I confess that I did not create the word search activities, I went to WH Smith and bought four activity books and made copies.
The magic of the word search is that students may only access the word search bank once I’ve seen the work they have done and I am happy that they have achieved the outcome of the lesson. For the enthusiastic there is a wealth of word search and word game creation tools on the web. My favourite is Puzzle Maker:
Word Search Maker
Number Blocks and Maths Squares
Vova was a 13-year-old lad that arrived in London from an industrial town just south of Warsaw. He was a likable young person with a very basic command of English and lots of energy. His personality made him very popular with his peers. With his propensity to get English very wrong (and a normal dose of adolescent laziness), he was more often than not the source of low-level disruption. Vova loved the new friends and attention he got and often confused the borders between learning and playing. To help Vova, I set up a corner of my class as a Zone Out area. I convinced the caretaker to give me an old single-seat school desk and I glued a rebuilt second-hand laptop to it. I asked a colleague from the IT department to help me set up the laptop to limit the Internet browsing to language game websites I googled beforehand. I also had two very old CD ROMs with Rosetta Stone Level 1 and 2 English on that we installed. I printed Zone Out Vouchers and whenever Vova kept with the negotiated rules, I gave him Zone Out time. Most importantly, Vova would not receive these vouchers to just keep him quiet. They were only given when he followed good-to-fit behaviour and could show that he completed good quality work.
Not all went smoothly in the beginning. It did take some time to get the Wi-Fi set up (we ended up using a wired network connection) and I had to call in favours from the ground staff. It was also a challenge to get Vova to understand that Zone Out was a privilege and not a right and of course I had a chorus of “it’s not fair” from the rest of the class. We looked at the purpose of the Zone Out area and after a discussion Vova was left to get on with his learning. I also underestimated Vova's ingenuity once or twice and had to set up the browsing restrictions again, but the strategy worked. My colleagues in Maths and Science are using similar strategies, albeit without the laptop.
Remove the Stimulus
This is my most controversial strategy. It is based on Skinner’s understanding of stimulus and response and any teacher who has worked with disruptive adolescents will agree that the most disruption takes place because peers react, often in frustration, to what the disruptive student does. Zone Out worked effectively for Vova but Sam and Chris still loved the attention they got from poor-to-fit behaviour.
I communicated with the class that I would not be giving sanctions to Sam and Charlie, but rather to those that react to their disruptive behaviour. We agreed on the sanctions for responses as a 10-minute detention. I was consistent in giving the detention to those students that responded to the disruption. After a couple of lessons, I started to see a result: the students realised that by not responding to Sam and Charlie, they could actually continue with their learning and the Sam and Chris realised that it was not that much fun to be off task and not have an audience.
The Magic Bullet
Finally, nothing is as powerful in managing a class full of adolescents like a well-planned lesson. This is the most effective strategy in our bag of magic tricks.
A few questions I always ask myself about the learning that I have planned:
- Have I pitched the lesson at the right level?
- Have I planned the activities clearly?
- Are my lessons clearly structured?
- Do I know what the students must be able to do or know by the end of the lesson?
- Do my students know where to start, what to do next and what they are supposed to know by the end?
- Are the activities short and outcome specific?
- Is the time I give for the completion of tasks effective?
- Is my seating plan effective?
- Do I know my students and does my differentiation meet their needs?
Next week I will be looking at Working with Asperger’s Syndrome and creating an understanding of how to support students who disrupt because of ASD.
*(All names used in the blog have been changed.)