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Trying a new behaviour approach? Don’t give up!

This week, Adam Voigt encourages us to persevere with new approaches to behaviour management. After all, we chose them carefully, based on evidence and research. When you ‘try’ something new, he says, don’t give up the moment  it becomes difficult, real change takes time and perseverance. 

New things can be a bit scary. As a pertinent example, we recently replaced the dishwasher in our home. It’s been months now and I still haven’t turned it on. I can stack it, empty it, but its new and unfamiliar buttons confront me – and convince me I’m about to make a mistake. I pine for the old dishwasher that had one dial. Sure, it didn’t actually clean the dishes anymore…but at least I understood it. I know that right now many of you (just like my wife) are smacking your foreheads in disbelief at my antiquated and unproductive approach.

But this is just how it is with teacher practice. For decades, we’ve given punitive and out-dated practices a consistent, clear run, despite mounting evidence that it just isn’t working. We might ‘try’ something new, but the moment it becomes difficult we’re tempted to assume the default ‘adversarial position’ (the usual teacher role), and previous patterns of negative student behaviour are now likely reinforced.

It’s time we backed ourselves a little more. It’s time we understood the way that behaviours change – gradually and individually. It’s time we acknowledged our own intellect and creativity, and the knowledge of our students. It’s time to make a smart change and stick to it – even with our most difficult students.

You can be forgiven

The reason we sometimes struggle to sustain changes in our practice is that it often triggers a spike in the undesirable behaviour. Consider the graph below for a moment.

Figure 1. Behaviour tracker chart

Imagine one of your most challenging students is tracking along the blue dotted line at around 8 out of 10 management difficulty. At the first star, exasperated, you try something different – something you thought deeply about, perhaps shared with a colleague and came to a conclusion that it was solid practice. The high likelihood is that the student will resist this change, (for instance, ignoring, calling out – you know what’s coming!) and you’ll see an increase in problem behaviour, with the student travelling the red dotted line.

At the second star, we make a fundamental decision. You will be tempted to scream, “I tried that and it didn’t work!”. If you give up at this point, and revert to default measures, then only two things can happen. If you are fortunate, the student will quickly travel the purple line and re-establish their desired classroom norm. If you’re not so lucky, you just established a brand new norm – the red line. Ouch. That’s a lot of pain and effort for a negative result.

However, if you persist with your well-considered approach that matches your personal and school values, then the rewards will come. Over time the target behaviour diminishes (follow the green line), crosses the point of the old norm and plateaus as a new, improved norm. You’ll notice that the new horizontal version of the green line is not a miracle. There are still behaviours to address, but you can now apply this successful method to old and emerging target behaviours for sustained improvement and relief.  

You’re already good at this. Teachers are remarkable at creative intervention design – we just need to be strong and forthright enough to see the application of that design through. This isn’t just about your students, but about you. Focus in this area will increase your effectiveness and decrease your stress. As a particular cosmetic company would tell you … it’s because you’re worth it. What’s your default position when things go wrong?

The Cheat Sheet

Don’t have time to soak in the whole article today? Here are the big points …

  1. Stick with good practice until it works.
  2. We’ve run with punitive measures for a long time.
  3. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
  4. Don’t give up before things improve.
  5. You’re already good at creative interventions.

AITSL STANDARDS FOR TEACHERS … and you addressed them by reading!

The Big One

4.3 Manage challenging behaviour.

But also …

1.5 Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities

3.3 Use teaching strategies

3.5 Use effective classroom communication

7.1 Meet professional ethics and responsibilities                



Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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