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Indiscipline in the Classroom (and strategies for dealing with it.)

Alan Speakes (student at Manchester Metropolitan University)

BEd ( 2.2 )
(permission given to reproduce this document in full)
full set of student writings at

September 1996 The reason for selecting this area of study is based on my own recollections of school discipline ( as a pupil ) and my new experience of school discipline as a trainee teacher. Also, the recent resurgence of concerns with the supposed escalation in cases of indiscipline and record exclusions that have been much publicised by the press and the media.

Commentators would have the general public believe that we are on the verge of complete anarchy, with almost daily stories of rebellion, assault, truancy etc. " Times have changed " they say, and the fabric of our society is disintegrating before our eyes. But is it ? " The police believe themselves powerless before a rising tide of mischief and violence, particularly a recent serious increase in ruffianism among City youth " This sort of statement is heard everyday and commands wide support... This statement of complaint was voiced in Parliament in 1898 almost 100 years ago ! I wonder how this would have been received nationally had they had the information technology available today ? ( and the tabloid press ) Isolated and rare occurrences can quickly be made into headline news today, with some of the miscreants becoming mini-celebrities. ( role models ) Although some of the stories that are portrayed do give great cause for concern, they are very rare occurrences and should not be allowed to disguise the fact that thousands of teachers never witness anything like it throughout their careers.

These rare occurrences shouldn't be accepted as the norm and allowed to prejudice our conceptions of our pupils or the young in general. For this could lead to us stereotyping our charges and this would seriously undermine and eventually defeat our teaching.

A century after the previous quotation, similar concerns resulted in the commissioning of a study by a group chaired by Lord Elton referred to as the Elton Report ( 1989 ) which was the most comprehensive study of school discipline ever conducted in Great Britain. The report contains 138 recommendations, addressed to every conceivable audience. Employers, parents, teachers and even pupils are offered advice on how they can contribute to reducing 'bad' behaviour in schools. Lord Elton, unlike many commentators, promised no miracles. " Reducing bad behaviour is a realistic aim " he commented, " Eliminating it completely is not " ( para.2 / 29 )

After wading through extensive evidence and research ( including its own ) the acting committee came to the conclusion that any search for simple or complete remedies would be futile. The summary covers some 8 pages, but its overview is quite clear, Discipline in schools is the responsibility of everyone and not only a matter for teachers. Nevertheless, it concludes that much indiscipline can be diminished by making teachers better at classroom management. The report offers a bewildering collection of definitions, trends, evidence of prevalence, historical evidence and most importantly, speculation about causes and cures.

The populist view that disorder and indiscipline in schools, like disorder in society in general is a recent phenomenon can be quite easily contradicted by reference to historical sources. There are many to choose from but a good example ( one of dozens ) can be found in Curtis ( 1963 ) Oxford on St. Scholastica's day in 1354, a pub fight ended with many dead and wounded.

A similar riot is documented as having taken place at Cambridge in 1381.

Since those early days up to the present, history is full of many many such examples and similar incidents and so it can be deduced that today's concerns are nothing new. Slightly different perhaps, certainly more publicised and in some cases dramatised, but not new. Misbehaviour then, in all its forms and in school in particular is not something that we haven't experienced before and is ( in my opinion) part of the human characteristic and I would find it inconceivable to imagine otherwise.

What exactly then is misbehaviour in the classroom ? how does it manifest itself ? and what can I as a 'teacher' do to control it ? ( notice the word control )

Uncertainty about the actual amount of indiscipline is widespread and is the crux of the problem. How can it be measured ? if indeed it can. What is indiscipline to one teacher may be accepted ( or ignored ) by another. Is there some sort of benchmark that the teaching profession could adopt and implement ? Doyle says the key to understanding misbehaviour is to see it in the context of classroom structures. He defines it somewhat ambiguously as ...any behaviour by one or more students that is perceived by the teacher to initiate a vector of action that competes with or threatens the primary vector of action at a particular moment in a classroom activity. ( Wittrock 1986 p. 419 )

I have serious reservations about this statement and in particular perceived by the teacher for this definition, if taken literally, makes anything that occurs in the classroom potentially misbehaviour. As an example of this ; whilst on Base A, I was working with a group of children and unfortunately had my back to some of the class. One of the girls tapped me lightly on the arm and asked if she could go to the toilet. I have had my hand up, she said, but you didn't notice. Is this misbehaviour? certainly not. If anything, it was my misbehaviour insofar as that I had become too involved with one group and not monitored the rest of the class. ( valuable lesson learned ) Yet Doyle's definition states ; anything that interferes with the teacher's state of mind is misbehaviour. This is clearly an inconsiderate and flawed point of view. A definition that I can relate to I found in Wragg ( 1984 ) who says that.'...there are at least two parties to any disruptive incident. Both contribute to it being defined as serious or not, or indeed as to whether it becomes defined as a disruptive incident at all.' Another anecdote from my teaching practice concerns a teacher ( with a lot of years in the job ) who didn't seem to have any consideration of proportion when confronted with behavioural problems in his classroom. ( I have mentioned this before in the School Day Assignment, but feel it is relevant here ) The slightest misdemeanour is treated as though it is a cardinal sin. Sanctions were immediate and severe and led to some quite heated exchanges. As an example (quite funny at the time ) one lad shall we say 'broke wind' and evoked a tirade of abuse from the teacher (and a detention ) I thought afterwards how I might have dealt with the 'offence' and what, if any, punishment was applicable.

1. Is it a serious offence ? NO

2. Did it warrant abuse and a detention ? NO

3. How might I have handled it ?


I would have tried hard not to laugh with the rest of the class, thanked him for his contribution to the lesson and carried on with the lesson. ( If it was a regular occurrence then a quiet word may have been required ) To make too much of these childish games is to actually encourage them if the class sees that it upsets or angers you. To carry on and not adopt any real significance to it is probably the best course of action ( although it must be tempting at times to let them all know how you feel about their behaviour. ) This type of classroom skill is of the type that Elton espoused and that when used effectively can diminish classroom problems. Well I must agree.

It occurred to me during practice that there was quite a distinction between some of the classes observed ( and indeed taught ) with regard to their behaviour. Some teachers couldn't control classes as well as others and yet in some classes there wasn't discipline problems at all ! The 2nd in dept. told me it had taken her the first 4 weeks of the term to instigate her ' code of conduct ' and how well it worked ! ( This will be returned to later )

This ability to control classes is regarded as so vital a part of a teachers repertoire of skills that it part of the assessment competencies of trainee teachers

( I hope due consideration is given to the relative lack of experience by the assessors ) To admit to having problems in this area is to admit to being weak, or so it is perceived by many. What rubbish, As I found out on innovative practice, collaboration and the exchange of ideas and strategies are a useful and maybe vital part of teaching and to try and go it alone is not only foolhardy it is completely unnecessary. My philosophy is, if in doubt or unsure ask ( and not just one person )

What skills can be utilised in the classroom before the lesson starts ? A frequently prescribed pre-lesson tactic is to make sure that you are ( if possible ) there ahead of the class, to greet them as they arrive, to engage in some form of banter as they enter the room. This helps diffuse any problems being carried over from the previous class or from break or dinner times. I successfully adopted this strategy during base A and will continue to do so, as the benefits far outweigh the benefits gained from an extra couple of minutes spent in the staffroom.

NOTE I have also been in the staffroom ( when having a non teaching period ) and have been witness to some staff waiting as long as 5 minutes after the bell before going to their classes muttering along the lines of ... well I suppose I had better...they'll being going crazy ( the pupils ) At this time I am not sure whether this is just apathy or whether the prospect of going late to a noisy class didn't bother them.

Pace is also a vital element class control as I found out during a debrief with my central mentor following an observation. He commented that the lesson was good etc. but that the minor tellings off that had occurred could be arising because of a slight lack of pace. His advice was to give the class a target e.g I expect this to be done in 10 minutes and then count them down. He also suggested that I shouldn't be afraid to move the pupils together for whole class discussions. I tried these strategies at a later meeting with the class and the results where impressive, minor problems subsided ( though not completely ) and there wasn't as many off task.

'Withitness' is another skill that I am trying to develop, as mentioned earlier, being aware of what is going on all over the classroom whilst still working with an individual or a small group. Marland ( 1975 ) calls this the 'lighthouse effect.' Successful teachers, he comments, ( with respect to classroom order ) frequently scan the class and make remarks, which, timely and accurate, show that they are fully aware of what is going and are missing nothing...even when they do not particularly intervene in inattentive behaviour or minor infringements of ' rules '

There is a whole plethora of advice to be gleaned from the literature on how to deal with behavioural problems in the classroom, but is there only one way ? or are there many ? Personally, I think that each situation that may arise in my classroom is unique and happens in real time. How then to respond to trouble in the classroom.

The first response to perceived misdemeanours need not be verbal chastisement or comment. A stare ( avoiding too much eye contact, which can be confrontational ) can sometimes be all that is required to stop an unwanted activity or interruption dead in its tracks. An authoritarian stance with arms folded also works, but I think that this is a little too dominant, and is more of a sign of aggression than eye contact. One of the most effective methods of diminishing minor acts of misbehaviour or ' silliness ' is to move towards the area where the problem is occurring. This movement, although not directed to any individual in particular, and your close proximity to the troublespot has a deterring effect and quickly puts an end to problems without the need for any interruption to the work being done in the class.

Eventually, whatever strategies a teacher uses, however interesting, exciting, well planned etc. the lessons are, there will be many occasions when some form of punishment will need to be administered. The modern buzzword is sanctions, but at the the end of the day it means punishment. Punishment exists in a thousand forms and is always in our thoughts. Society has values that must be enforced if necessary ( and I am looking at the general not the specific )

and its punishments range from smacked bottoms ( no debate please ) tellings off, detentions, fines, and eventually imprisonment. These punishments ( in whatever form ) are our way off showing disapproval of the offence committed and without them would come the anarchy mentioned earlier. The contentious issue with respect to punishment is in its implementation and its consistency.

In secondary education, quite a lot of schools are beginning to bring in 'schemes' to help bring about a change in the attitude of its pupils towards authority through rewards and sanctions. The school that I was at during base A had just begun to implement such a scheme, called ' Positive Discipline ' when I arrived. A newsletter was sent out during the summer to all pupils (and parents) outlining the new scheme and its expected benefits. Its main message was that 'Positive Discipline' rewards good behaviour and also gives the school the opportunity to shape and influence for the better, the performance of all students. Great emphasis was also placed on ' working together ' to achieve this objective.

Rewards included : stars, stickers to collect, record of achievement diplomas, 'gold pens', vouchers to spend and activity afternoons.

The star system ( cumulative ) operates like this. Each pupil starts each lesson with a star ( integrated with the class register ) The stars are totalled at the end of each term and the appropriate rewards given. If however, they are late for class or are not equipped for the lesson, then they lose their star ( for that lesson ) Further sanctions under this scheme followed a ' tick system '

1st misdemeanour ......lose star and name written on board

2nd misdemeanour tick (next to name) LAST CHANCE

3rd misdemeanour ......2nd tick 5 minute detention

4th misdemeanour .....3rd tick 15 minute detention

5th misdemeanour .....4th tick 30 minute detention

6th misdemeanour ..( or very serious ) ..sent to holding room and parents informed. Eventually leading to the involvement of the head and governors re exclusion.

Staff also operated a red card system for out of lesson problems. If there was trouble during breaks or in the corridors between lessons then a red card would be issued and name taken. Three of these in any week incurred a half hour detention.

It was noted that the 5 and 15 minute detentions required staff commitment as they had to 'do' their own. Whereas the 30 mins detention was faculty based.

NOTE The ' holding room ' was a separate and isolated classroom ( always with a senior member of staff ) very well resourced but with a strict code of conduct. Pupils sent there ( usually for two days ) would be given work to do ( in complete silence ) and would have their breaks and lunch at a different time to the rest of school.

( denying them association with their friends )

Although only just implemented, the scheme was seen to be having a dramatic effect ( especially with the lower school ) and much of the chat in the staffroom included reference to it, but there was some concern voiced about the 'holding room ' not its function ( which at last gave the teacher somewhere to send the baddies ) but its name, giving the impression that some form of physical restraint was occurring. ( as I left, suggestions were being considered for a new name )

My own reflections of the scheme, having been away from it for some time and having experienced a school not operating a scheme, and also having read some literature about discipline in schools, I feel that it is ' something ' a tangible and coherent strategy that goes beyond ' school rules ' is clearly defined and perhaps most valuably gives the whole school population a framework within which to work. Most importantly, I am convinced of the peace of mind that the ' holding room ' option gives to many members of staff and I dare say that if stress levels had been measured before and after the scheme's implementation then they would be found to have dropped dramatically. Even though I feel that Positive Discipline works I have some reservations about the perceptions of misbehaviour and the consistency of the implementation of the sanctions across the school.

As an example, on one occasion whilst teaching, I took the star off a pupil for not bringing her homework. " But sir, Miss so and so let me off before when I forgot my book .." My comment was that the rules ( clearly displayed in every classroom ) had been broken and that I had applied the appropriate sanction, which was not negotiable. The girl continued to sulk for the rest of the lesson and did little work. Had I been a full time member of staff, I would have asked the name of the lenient teacher and had a word about consistency and the implications of its absence. For failure to achieve this will give the pupils the wrong message and lead to confusion and perhaps even greater disciplinary problems and confrontations. The children are looking for stability and consistency.

This scheme and the others like it, Assertive Discipline etc. are all hybrids of a sameness give security and direction to both staff and pupils and are to be welcomed as an addition / supplement to everyday ' school rules '. Most importantly, they introduce a rigid framework that has well defined boundaries which as Turner ( 1973 ) states time and time again is absolutely vital as a basis for effective teaching and learning. The notion of these boundaries is prevalent throughout Educational texts and I would like to quote a nice one that I came across in Cohen ( 1983 ) '....Imagine that you are driving across a bridge that traverses a very deep gorge. Would you drive towards the edge, to the safety barrier ? Of course you wouldn't. You would drive down the centre. What would you do if there was no safety barriers on the edge ? You would drive down the centre, just the same. Yet I guarantee that you would not feel as safe as you did with the barriers in place. Think about it. Strange, isn't it ? Just knowing that the boundary / barrier is there gives a sense of security and confidence.


Constructing these boundaries then, is a very powerful and practical way of establishing and maintaining a conducive atmosphere in the classroom, for it lets the children know where they are, where they are going and most importantly, how far they can deviate from the path before incurring sanctions. This in itself gives a little freedom in which the children can grow, mature, develop and still be able to ' test teacher and authority ' which, I argue, is a perfectly natural and necessary behaviour. ( Unless we want to just produce unimaginative and compliant automaton )

I would like to consider in a little more detail the ' testing teacher ' aspect of a first introduction to a class. When I was at school, we used to discuss ways of ' winding teacher up ' and yet now, as I prepare to be a teacher, I find myself condemning pupils for doing the same.

Teacher testing seems to be more prevalent at the start of the year and is the period when the teacher is trying to establish his/her boundaries and ground rules and their expectations of their classes

NOTE Initial Teacher Training would do well to see if it was possible to let its students see experienced teachers ( as one teacher put it on Base A licking them into shape took me 4 weeks ) go through the process of establishing their authority. This would, I am sure, help to alleviate some of the self doubt that is felt by student teachers when they are struggling to maintain order in their classes. Just to see an experienced teacher ' struggle ' at the start would restore confidence I am sure to many who thought that it was their ' weakness ' that was to blame for disciplinary problems.

One of the studies reported by Wragg ( 1984 ) is of a trainee teacher who had observed the regular class teacher conducting orderly lessons whilst lounging on his desk and making numerous quips. The student , when it was his turn to take the class, adopted the same strategy with what is described as chaotic and disastrous results along with outrageous indiscipline. The poor student had not observed, and not been privy to the extensive rule setting that this ' relaxed ' teacher had engaged in earlier in the term. The implicit message is here congruent with the explicit one, the teacher decides what is allowed and what is not and the pupil is expected to comply.

As I mentioned earlier, to recognise these skirmishes for what they are is usually all that is necessary to prevent them escalating into hostility. But, if you regard them as personal attacks ( and I admit to having done this ) you run the risk of prolonging and even aggravating the behaviour. I am now of the opinion that most of this type of behaviour is transient and non malicious and should be recognised and treated as such.


From reading the literature, from experience in schools and from my experience as a parent, what then is the inference for my future as a teacher, of this knowledge and how has it altered my perceptions.

I think that most importantly it has helped define my own conceptions of

children as individuals and also their belonging to a group that are developing into adults ( with their own principles and values that must be respected ) in a rapidly changing social environment. I also have developed strategies that work if implemented with consideration and consistency and that can be adapted wherever I teach to whatever age range etc. I am also increasingly aware that there is no prescription for all eventualities and that experience is invaluable but nevertheless a good platform from which to embark on a teaching career can be established through observation and reading in partnership with practice.

There will always be conflict, and as Doyle reports in Wittrock ( 1986 ) '...conflict between people, and specifically between secondary school pupils and teachers, is a consequence of misunderstanding, that is, a failure to communicate with each other and to understand intentions and feelings as well as the constraints ( false ) under which each is acting...'

What about the lessons themselves ? Giving the class an outline of what they're working towards is valuable ( once again direction and purpose ) Writing instructions on the board saves time and is a reference point. Partington and Hinchcliffe ( 1989 ) noted that effective classroom managers prepared extensively not only the content, but organisational matters such as movement, time and tasks. Also, that a variety of of activities and tasks is more likely to stimulate the pupils than monotonous periods of listening and writing. ( I don't know what will happen if 60/70% whole class teaching is prescribed by OFSTED through government intervention )


Perhaps, the reader is thinking that there has been some deviation from 'discipline' in this writing and that considerations such as an individual's homelife or ethnic origin have not been covered along with disabilities (both physical and learning ) but I will offer in my defence the magnitude of such considerations on the wordage constraints of this assignment.

I hope that I have shown through what I have written that I have read quite widely, considered the reading and formulated a personal and coherent account of my development, and the implications for my future as a teacher faced with the potential of having to deal with indiscipline in my classroom.

And finally, a nice ( and thought provoking ) passage taken from Turner

( 1973 ) '... then we might be able to get away from the idea that youngsters are simply Plasticine creatures to be moulded into sober and obedient citizens. Meanwhile, let us relax a little, remember that most kids have something worthwhile to offer, and that just occasionally it may be worthwhile listening to their ideas instead of talking at them all the time.'



Cohen. L. & Cohen. H. ( 1987 ) Disruptive Behaviour. London : Harper & Row


Curtis. S. J. ( 1963 ) History of Education in Great Britain. : Foxton. Cambridge University Press.


D.E.S. ( 1989a ) Discipline in Schools : A Report of the Committee of Enquiry chaired by Lord Elton. London. H.M.S.O.


Doyle. W. ( 1986 ) Academic Tasks in the Classroom. Milton Keynes. O.U. Press.


Marland. M. ( 1975 ) The Craft of the Classroom. London. Heinemann.


Turner. B. ( 1973 ) Discipline in Schools. London. Ward Lock Educational.


Wittrock M. C. ( 1986 ) Handbook of Research on Teaching. New York Macmillan.


Wragg. E.C. ( 1984 ) Classroom Teaching Skills. London. Croom Helm.

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