Is Behaviour the Elephant in the Room?

Is behaviour the elephant in the room?According to Tom Bennett, behaviour expert and teacher, behaviour is “the elephant in the room, but the difference is sometimes people talk about elephants”.

Behaviour management practices are the responsibility of teachers. When asked about the role of the teacher aide, many teachers told me that they don’t expect teacher aides to manage student behaviour.

This view limits behaviour to ‘discipline’, but it is of course so much more than that, and teacher aides are in a position where they can play a significant role!

I want to talk about how teacher aides can work within the scope of their support role while making an important contribution to promoting positive behaviour in students. This information is based on our webinar titled, 3 Steps to Improve Behaviour in the Classroom and at Home that ATA hosted recently.

Here’s what Robyn, one of our Australian Teacher Aide members, had to say about the webinar:

I would like to thank you and Stella for the webinar conducted today. Found it a wonderful reminder of the strategies which we should all use daily not only in the classroom situation but at home as well. I related to your comment about having young adult children now and wishing I could go back and utilise this knowledge. The timing of the webinar was perfect for me to reflect on the past year and how I could have reacted or handled a situation better. Will be addressing a new approach in 2016.

Behaviour management isn’t a quick fix

An Australian university surveyed trainee teachers and found that they wanted strategies that they could instantly apply in the classroom. The research pointed out that the problem with any ‘quick fix’ solution was that when it didn’t work, the teachers didn’t know why.

As there is no single approach to behaviour that will work with every child, all of the time; it is helpful to look at the practices that research tells us, have the best chance of improving behaviour, most of the time. These principles can be applied both in the home and with students at school.

The motivation behind all behaviour is the desire to belong

In my early days of teaching, I came across a theory by Alfred Adler (1870-1937). He was a world renowned psychiatrist who was ahead of his time. As early as the 1900’s, he began addressing issues such as equality and parent education, but he is best known for his work in Individual Psychology. Adler said that the motivation behind all behaviour is the desire to belong.
Rudolf Dreikurs (1897-1972) built on Adler’s work and went on to explain that sometimes children learn the wrong way to belong, and that all behaviour, even negative ones, serve a purpose, such as getting your attention. He called them mistaken goals.

The key information we can take from this and apply both at school and at home, is that children will do most things to get your attention, but may have learned to go about it the wrong way. Doesn’t it follow, that if a child gets your attention for behaving inappropriately, that they are likely to continue on this path?

We pay up to 16 times more attention to negative behaviour

Research shows that we pay up to 16 times more attention to negative behaviour than positive behaviour. In a typical classroom, it is therefore likely that you will pay 16 times more attention to the students who are behaving inappropriately.

At home, you are 16 times more likely to notice when your child is doing the wrong thing compared to the times when they are doing something positive!

By focusing on inappropriate behaviour, children may learn the wrong way to belong. However, by giving more attention to positive behaviour, you show children that there are more acceptable ways to get attention. You are helping them learn the appropriate way to belong!

Planning the behaviours that you get your attention

Can you relate to the student who jumps up in the middle of group time and make a smart remark while the rest of the group rolls in laughter, or the student who loudly complains that they don’t want do the work the teacher has set, or the one who is constantly getting out of their seat and talks non-stop to other students? Does it feel like these students are continually seeking your attention? As I said earlier, there is no single approach that will work with every child, all of the time, so it is helpful to look at the practices that research tells us have the best chances of improving behaviour, most of the time.

By planning which behaviours you give attention to, you can influence the choices children make about how to behave.

These are the three key steps:
1. Identify the situation
2. Describe the inappropriate behaviours you can see
3. State the appropriate behaviour the student needs to learn

Don’t be tempted to change everything at once, but select one or two behaviours to begin with. Here’s an example:

1. Situation - Teacher aide is giving instructions to the students at the start of an activity
2. Inappropriate Behaviour - Student talks to the other students during the instructions
3. Appropriate Behaviour - Student listens when the teacher aide is giving instructions

These steps are of course best done in cooperation with your teachers, however accurate observation is a skill you can practice independently, and gives you an opportunity to provide useful feedback to teachers, at a later stage.

Descriptive encouragement provides better feedback

When you say good job, well done, great work, beautiful or fantastic, you are praising the child. What is missing is the information that would make this more meaningful. If children don’t know what they are being encouraged for, there is no feedback from which they can learn.

Descriptive encouragement tells the child exactly what it is they have done well. The beauty is that descriptive encouragement works equally as well for children who excel, as for children who find certain tasks difficult, and enables you to encourage effort, not just the end result. I really like that we can include all children, as it is very easy to overlook children who are doing the right thing.

Here are four things you can do to use encouragement effectively in different situations. I call them the 4 B’s:

Be observant: The first step in all situations, is to take the time to notice what students are doing. It requires that you are observant and aware of your surroundings. For example: At the start of a support session, make a point of noticing the students who are following instructions, have started work or are ready to listen.

Be specific: Describe what it is you see, or hear or feel. If relevant, tell them of any benefits, such as how what they did helped others get things done, or how it enabled them to do something.

For example: Tell the students what you observe: “I see you have your books ready. Thanks, that means we can begin!

Be real: Even young children know when we are not being genuine.

For example: There is an expectation that students set out their work neatly and one of the students in the group struggles to write neatly.
Non-genuine response: By telling the student “Lovely work” you are not giving them the right message and they will see straight through it. It is unlikely they will value your feedback.
Genuine response: By telling the student “You are writing between the lines today. ” you are acknowledging that this requires effort by the student. It is likely they will find this feedback encouraging.

Be unconditional: When you give encouragement, don’t use it to remind a student of past inappropriate behaviours. Remember the saying, if you can’t say something good don’t say anything at all!

For example: A student struggles to work in a group situation.
Conditional response: “You cooperated really well with your group today and you got through most of the questions. Why can’t you do that all of the time?”
Unconditional response: “You cooperated really well with your group today and you got through most of the questions.”

In this post, we have talked about building positive relationships with students by encouraging positive behaviour. In summary, we can promote positive behaviours both at school and at home. It is about, WHEN to give encouragement, WHY to give encouragement and HOW to give encouragement.

Don’t let behaviour be the elephant in the room. Talk about it with your teachers and colleagues.