What to Do About Disruptive Behaviour - Part 3

Disruptive Behaviour 3

What to do about… Disruptive Behaviour: Part 3

In the third part of our serialisation, we will start to look at how to change disruptive mood and behaviour in the classroom, focusing on teacher/class relationship.

Part 3a: Changing Disruptive Mood and Behaviour

Parts one and two have been concerned with increasing awareness of some of the issues that give rise to disruptive behaviour and developing the skills necessary for change.

In this final part, we suggest strategies for three key areas and also some ‘Quick Fix’ measures.

As already discussed, there are a number of specific influences which affect children’s mood and behaviour. However, the focus for strategy can be narrowed to three major target areas:

  • Teacher Class Relationship
  • Curriculum Management
  • Code of Conduct

Troublesome moods which give rise to disruptive behaviour can be largely avoided by consolidating good practice in these three areas.

Teacher Class Relationship

What makes an effective relationship? What elements create an environment where learning is pleasurable and disruption minimal?


If trust can be developed between the class and teacher then disruptive behaviour is less likely to be a problem. Trust is a vital aspect of the relationship between the teacher and class, but it requires definition. Respect is an important part of trust. It’s an attitude that helps to create a trusting relationship. Respect grows when certain traits of character are perceived – understanding, openness and a non-judgemental approach.

If teachers genuinely try to understand the individuals in their class, they will be met with positive responses. One of the most meaningful experiences in life is to be understood, rather than judged or condemned. It starts with a desire to get to know how the world looks through the eyes of a particular child. Teachers do not have significant periods of time at their disposal, so a child’s world is discovered by building up a profile gradually, spending a moment here and there to understand their excitement and frustrations.

Most people have experienced the sense of injustice when a judgemental conclusion about them is reached. Trust is undermined when judgemental impressions are conveyed. Accusing children using exaggerated or generalized statements set up bad feeling.

“You are always losing things. You are careless.”

Could be replaced with:

“You seem to be losing things frequently, Matthew. Could you try to be more careful?”

Trust demands understanding, a non-judgmental approach and genuineness. Another way of putting genuineness is to be natural and open, where appropriate.

Consistent Boundaries

Clear and consistent boundaries are essential in building the teacher class relationship. If they are not established or kept they can give rise to disruptive behaviour.

To some degree, boundaries in the classroom are established when a teacher has a new class. They usually relate to such things as equipment, level of noise and ways of doing things. It may be helpful to explain that boundaries are lines which are not to be crossed. In order to help children stay in the lines, a boundaries check list could be worked on and put up in the classroom.

Example Boundaries List

What to do when you:

  • Are late
  • Want to get the teacher
  • Have lost something
  • You want to move about

There may be some other aspects of boundary setting to consider such as personal boundaries (both for teacher and child). What boundaries does the child need to put them in place when someone on their table keeps talking to them?

The relationship depends on these boundaries being negotiated and consistently applied. They may feel that one class member is treated differently from another for the same offence.

Children’s perception of inconsistent boundaries and the subsequent sense of injustice are a major cause of disruptive incidents.

Meaningful Communication

Meaningful communication requires skill! In dialogue such skills can advance the immediate meaning and understanding as well as the relationship itself. In the classroom communication can be adversarial and closed rather than open and conciliatory.

A confrontational, closed style may be the source of much disruptive behaviour. A teacher may be unaware that their manner of verbal communication is becoming more harsh and confrontational in an attempt to control increasing disruption. A mirroring process can be inadvertently set up where the noise level of disruption is matched by the teacher’s rising tone. New skills need to be developed.

What makes communication open, inviting and fruitful?

Two skills:

  • Listening for meaning
  • Negotiating for outcome

Listening for meaning

Listening for meaning can operate in two ways. One is listening to the content of what is being said: the other is listening to the more hidden meaning. The latter involves trying to discover what the communication means for the person delivering it.

How is that done practically? Listening demands attention! It is a skill which requires practice. There are many distractions to listening both from inward and outward sources. What is being said may have set you off on your own train of thought. For example, when a child recalls an incident in the playground you are reminded of a message that you have forgotten to deliver. Before you know it, you have missed a chunk of dialogue.

If the individual talking feels you are only half there, it can be destructive to that particular dialogue and set up subtle mistrust which militates against further dialogue.

How much more difficult it is to listen in the classroom when 101 things are going on. However, the principles still apply. Listening may be difficult because, legitimately, your attention needs to be elsewhere. An example of good communication in this situation would be:

“I really want to listen to what you are saying, Jason, but I can see a problem needing my attention. Can I go and sort that out and then pick up where we left off?” Needless to say, it is essential to do what you’ve said.

Communication is hindered when there is insufficient verbalizing of what is going on. The nuances of content need clarification as to their meaning. There are a number of ways that can be done. Asking; “Do you mean…?”, or “You said…”

The dialogue that is conducted between teacher and individual can be patchy because the content hasn’t been understood. You may think you have been able to pre-empt what is being said or deduce it without listening fully. Misunderstandings can occur as a result.

The other task in effective communication is to understand its personal meaning. What is the person conveying of what it means to them? Are they disappointed, excited, anxious?

Negotiating for Outcome

Negotiating for outcome is a concept that can alleviate disruptive behaviour when applied carefully. The teacher can achieve this by involving the child or class in discussion, so that an agreed outcome is reached.

When individuals are genuinely consulted and can contribute their own opinions and feelings about the outcome, it encourages ownership. If children have played a part in negotiating an outcome they will be more ready to go along with it.

Working with Feelings

It seems an almost insurmountable task for the teacher to effectively manage the feelings and moods that exist in the classroom; particularly those that lead to incidents.

When the disruptive behaviour is triggered by underlying feelings, it’s necessary to learn how to work with them to prevent them seething underneath the surface and erupting in trouble spots.

Gaining skills in this area is, perhaps, one of the most successful ways of dealing with disruptive behaviour.

The following scenarios illustrate ways of working with feelings.


Whenever story writing tasks are undertaken, David appears to be disinterested. He is easily distracted and finds it difficult to settle down. In addition, he annoys other children and is generally disruptive.

Take time to find out how David feels about story writing. It is not necessary to do it in the context of story writing itself. However, if you are addressing it at another time, it would be helpful to let him know what you’ve observed during story writing. Encourage him to think of ways that story writing can be more stimulating for him. If the problem is having to write what he considers a lot, maybe you could discuss with him a length he would find manageable. If the problem is not knowing where to start, then you could give him some guidelines. At the end, check out if he feels better about story writing.


You notice over time that Emma is paler than usual and doesn’t seem to be able to concentrate. She used to be more lively and energetic, but seems to have lost some of her spark. Looking back over her work, you see that its quality has deteriorated.

Reflect back to Emma what you have noticed; that she seems pale and less energetic, and her work seems to be suffering. Find out how she feels about what you have said. If she says she is OK, have a look at her work with her and try to reach an agreement about the change in her work. Explore with her what could account for the change. Check out if she feels more tired, or “under the weather”. She may be tired, but it has become habitual and she is unaware of it. However, she may be unwell and afraid of telling you or her parents.

Key Points for Working with Feelings

  • Encourage discussion of feelings and mood so there is familiarity with them. Initially, it may be helpful to focus on the feelings of others rather than on children’s own feelings. E.g. “How do you think the boy in the picture is feeling? Does his face give any clues?
  • Extend children’s vocabulary by focusing on words and phrases associated with feelings. Generally, children use words like good, bad, upset etc. to describe feelings. Help them to become familiar with more subtle feelings and the appropriate words.
  • Discussion of the following could begin some specific work on feelings: embarrassed, proud, pleased, depressed, jealous, frustrated. If they can distinguish and name their moods, it is a step towards intervention.
  • Make sure that the children are aware that all feelings are legitimate and part of the human experience. Many children will be uncomfortable with certain feelings and may be ashamed or embarrassed and would not want to own them, e.g. jealousy. If teachers are able to disclose their own troublesome feelings, children will feel more able to disclose theirs.
  • Ensure that you do not foster a judgmental attitude to children’s feelings. Invite the children to talk to you about their feelings.
  • Develop skills associated with active listening by:
  1. Paying attention to what is being said – not letting your mind wander.
  2. Understanding what is being said and how the child feels.
  3. Reflecting back the feelings. For example; ‘You seem to be upset.’ Or ‘You look confused.’

The copy in this blog post was taken from the book ‘What to do about… Disruptive Behaviour’ written by Judith Warren and published by Primary Teaching Services.

To download a PDF copy of the entire Disruptive Behaviour guide, please email us at chat@primaryteaching.co.uk

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