A single effective strategy for behaviour management

behaviour management classroom management listening Nov 07, 2023

Effective classroom and behaviour management are essential for creating a positive and productive learning environment. There is a key principle that I have found works well and helps discover the reasons behind poor behaviours - "Seeking First to Understand, Then to Be Understood." This principle comes from the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and is a powerful tool for teachers and students in addressing behavioural issues and fostering empathy and understanding in the classroom.

I find, so often as a teacher, I get concerned with students understanding what I want to happen because I am the teacher and they are the students. Even when I think I am doing a good job trying to understand the student, as I reflect, I can tell I asked the wrong questions and that the student did not feel understood by me. Communication and dealing with people, especially children with various backgrounds and home experiences, can be difficult. But it is worth the time and effort.

1. Actively Listen to Students:

Active listening is a fundamental component of understanding and addressing behavioural challenges.In PDHPE, many of us teach this level of communication, but how often do we practice it?

Imagine a scenario where a student, Sarah, is consistently disruptive during class. Instead of immediately telling her to stop and threatening punishments, we can decide to actively listen first. I know this does not solve your immediate problem, but with people, we must be looking for long-term solutions, not just short-term. So, we decided to "ignore" her behaviour and continue teaching the lesson. After class, we might approach Sarah and say, "I've noticed that you've been having trouble staying focused in class. Can you tell me what's been going on?" Notice, we are not expressing how it made us feel, nor are we seeking to have her understand us, but we are seeking first to understand her and come alongside her.

Sarah, feeling heard and valued, might open up about her struggles with a recent family issue. As she answers use nonverbal cues like maintaining eye contact, nodding, and body language to convey your attentiveness. By actively listening, the teacher learns about Sarah's personal challenges and can offer support and understanding. This empathetic approach helps address the root cause of the disruptive behaviour and allows Sarah to be more open with us, which can then lead to her being open to understanding our dilemma with the disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Note also, that this is not just active listening where you repeat what the person said, you are looking to identify her feelings and empathise with her situation. To really understand what it is like to be her, with her background, in your classroom. It gives you a new perspective through which to relate with Sarah.

2. Empathize and Validate Feelings:

Empathy and validation are essential for creating a supportive classroom environment. This requires us to seek to understand the underlying reasons behind a student's behaviour or concern and to try to put ourselves in their shoes and empathize with their perspective. We want to validate their feelings and emotions, acknowledging that their concerns or frustrations are real and important to them. Let's continue our example:

Sarah has told us about her family issue, but instead of then shifting to what is happening in the classroom the teacher says something like, "I understand that your family issues can drain our energy. It can be tough sometimes." Notice how this is not just a restatement of what was said. It is identifying the emotions and feelings behind it.

By acknowledging Sarah's feelings and empathizing with her struggle, we validate her emotions. This validation helps Sarah feel supported and understood. By not asking closed questions, and often no question is needed, Sarah may continue to talk about what is happening and begin to make her own connections. We are also not going to start telling Sarah about how we had family issues and giving her solutions. We wait and let her ask for our help if she wants it. Our job is to create the atmosphere and relationship conducive to enabling Sarah to grow.

She may well bring the conversation back to the classroom. Now that she feels heard and understood, she may apologise for the disruptive behaviour and start to correct herself. This is now your chance to be understood. You can explain how her actions impact others and provide her with possible strategies to use in the classroom when her mind is on her family. She may then pre-warn you in a future lesson of further developments to the issue which provides you the opportunity to ask which strategy she might like to use to help herself and others today. Perhaps you will let her sit towards the back with a friend who can support her, or simply provide her with an empathetic nod of understanding so she knows she has been heard.

The goal is not to control the behaviour in class but to enable Sarah to manage her own behaviour and grow as a maturing child into an adult.

3. Ask Open-Ended Questions:

During the scenario above you can see we only asked one open-ended question. Such questions are designed to enable the student to speak first while we listen. We want to understand them first and then to be understood. We cannot expect the students to be mature enough in themselves to seek to understand us first. Instead, we encourage students to express themselves by asking open-ended questions that promote meaningful dialogue. These questions can help uncover the root causes of behavioural issues. For example, instead of asking, "Why did you do that?" ask, "Can you tell me more about what happened and how you were feeling?" The end result is remarkably different in terms of what the student is receiving from you and the impact you will have on the child.

Let's say for example that during a group discussion in the classroom, two students, Alex and Emily, have a heated argument. Instead of immediately intervening, we ask, "Can you both share your thoughts on this issue and help me understand what's going on? - Alex can you go first?"

By using open-ended questions, we are encouraging Alex and Emily to express themselves and share their perspectives. This approach promotes dialogue and helps the students gain a better understanding of each other's viewpoints. It also empowers them to resolve the conflict collaboratively, reducing our need to intervene in the future.

4. Provide a Safe and Supportive Environment:

Creating a safe and supportive classroom environment is crucial for students to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns and enables them to open up in order to be understood. Here's another example:

In a classroom, the teacher establishes clear rules for respectful communication, such as not interrupting each other, listening to other's perspectives to better understand their side, not shutting each other down or calling each other names. The teacher regularly reminds students of the open and supportive nature of the classroom beginning each lesson by encouraging students to communicate with each other and him, reminding them that their voice should be heard and that we respect each other's even if we disagree on our opinions. The teacher also backs this up by example, and by addressing times when it is not followed.

As a result, students feel secure knowing that their voices are heard and respected. This environment encourages open communication and trust, reducing behavioural challenges and promoting a positive classroom atmosphere.

Now, this might sound like a bunch of dreaming and not real life. You might say that you only have 1 period to get through the content and that disruptive student needs to go because they are stopping others from learning. And of course, there will be times when the student needs to leave the classroom, either for the safety of the students or so that the lesson can continue. But don't let this stop you from going back to the students and seeking to understand them. We can also work with our students, training them to apply a similar approach to their communication.

5. Teaching students to listen

Students are young and by nature, humans are self-centred. It is hard for us as teachers to stop and listen to understand our students, it is even harder for our students. We need to help our students learn to listen. Teaching the skills of active listening - maintaining eye contact, noding, rephrasing what the person said etc - is a good start, but we want to teach them to go further. We want to teach them to be empathetic in their listening and seek to put themselves in the other person's shoes. They want to try and identify the emotions and feelings within what is being said and check that not only have they heard what was said, but also how the events make the other person feel.


We can improve our relationships with students, our classroom environments, and student behaviour by first seeking to understand and then to be understood. By actively listening to our students with empathy, asking open-ended questions and providing a safe and supportive environment we can help our students manage their own behaviour.

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