How to respond to misbehaviour: low key skills plus much more.

Barrie Bennett’s book Power Plays introduces the bumps in great depth and is well worth getting a copy for your reference.  The great thing about this text is the labelling and definitions of the skills and strategies used by teachers to address behaviours. Thus, making it easier for teachers to collaborate and self-reflect on their practice.  In my first few lessons, I explicitly teach these first few bumps to students.  This informs them of what to expect if they do not follow the rules.  

Explicitly teach students how you will respond to rule breaks.

After I have taught students my signal to begin and introduced my behaviour expectations, I would pose the question ‘So what if students do not follow my instructions?’, then go on to inform them.  ‘I will give reminders of my very high expectations. For example I may say your name or look over at you to stop leaning back on your chair or tapping your pen during instruction.  But if you continue, I will ask you to stop or give you a warning.  If you continue, I will give you the choice to stop leaning back and remain in your seat or continue and I will move you.’  Now some students can try and be clever and correct you on this, ‘Miss, you never gave me a warning’.  I remind students that if you are a consistent rule breaker, let’s say for talking during instruction and this behaviour is consistent. You may be moved without any further reminder, warning or choice because the reminders and warnings were already given to the whole class as I introduced my signal to beginning.

Role-playing a few examples to students is good for their understanding and is also a good way for you to practice your script.  Try to keep it simple and be consistent. That is key.  As long as you are giving lots of feedback on your expectations of behaviours expected in the classroom and are consistent with the following up of students who are repeat offenders, the language you choose to use can be personalised to you.  The language of choice is really important and I sometimes say to classes, ‘I cannot control you. You are in control of you.  I can only give you choices and it is your decision on what you choose.  But there are good choices and bad choices.’  When I write it down, it doesn’t read as well as it sounds in class, but it has a great impact on some students.  You can see their mind cogs moving as they think about it.  

Golden nugget: Explicitly teach students how you will respond to misbehaviour.

The importance of the first three weeks of term.

Research shows that teachers that set out their stall in the first few weeks of getting your new class, with very high standards on behaviour, ensures better quality of teaching and learning the remainder of the year because student’s behaviour is much more manageable.  Emmer, Evertson and Anderson (1980) researched effective classroom management at the beginning of the school year.  Most apparent differences were in the areas of classroom rules and procedures and monitoring of pupils and delivery of consequences.  The results showed that effective teachers integrated rules and procedures into a workable system and it was effectively taught to the students.  

Effective teachers spent more time during the first week explaining and reminding students of the rules.  They taught students how to behave appropriately by rehearsing, using incentives to shape behaviour. Most taught students to respond to specific signals, sometimes called ‘Cue to Begin’.  Effective teachers had higher monitoring of behaviour and stopped inappropriate behaviour promptly. They also had higher ratings for eye contact.  Lastly, effective teachers managed time well, had smoother and shorter transitions, and had work ready for early finishers.  Directions were clear and written on the board.  Routines were step by step and with each step monitored, students were kept accountable for their work (Emmer et al., 1980).

Golden nugget: The first few weeks of school will make or break your year; ensure you work hard to set high expectations and follow up on all behaviours. 

When many low-level behaviours are happening all at once, this can be challenging, or if you have given too many warnings to remember who you have given them to.  Try to record them if this is the case. Use a notepad or something that you won’t lose or be rubbed off.  My old teacher Mr Smith, AKA Penfold, because he looked like the 1990’s cartoon character from Danger Mouse would tally on the board if we were late to class and add tally’s to the board if we were misbehaving in class.  Each tally would represent five minutes of lunchtime detention.  On one occasion, whilst sitting in detention, I remember Penfold popping out for a coffee, ‘I will be right back’.  During this time, Glen a regular in this particular detention class, crept from his front-row seat to the chalkboard and rubbed out one of his tally lines and sat back down, giving everyone else in the room the eyes that said ‘You dare tell on me’.  This public display is also not great for other classes coming into your classroom, so if you need to record, keep it in your diary.

I’m not going to lie. When there is lots of low levels behaviours all at once, it is difficult to manage.  It then becomes even more challenging with the mini-Politian’s who start with the ‘It’s not fair why do I have to move he was talking as well’.  There are many responses such as ‘yes and I will deal with his behaviour, but currently I am dealing with yours’ or ‘you were talking during instruction, he was not.  We are discussing your behaviour right now and I will manage others behaviour after I have got on with the learning, thank you’.  Sometimes behaviours can become too disruptive and a ‘reset’ is needed.  If you don’t, these behaviours could quickly escalate to more major ones, or teaching and learning becomes impossible.  

Using the ‘reset’ to get the whole class back.

The ‘reset’ looks like this.  You need to get them sat down at a lower level than yourself.  In P.E, this is easy, sit them on the ground and you can stand.  The reason for this is you can see everyone clearly and you are in perfect view.  I was lucky enough to have a classroom with perfect space at the front with carpet and I would get them to come and sit at the front.  The tone would start in a disappointed ‘teacher voice’, with a credible stance square on to them.  The language used would be along the lines of ‘I am disappointed by some of the behaviours displayed in this class and the lack of respect some people have for the education of the others in this class.  Parents and Carers would be horrified if I let this type of behaviour continue’.  I would then go over the classroom rules and expectations again.  

During this ‘reset’ if anyone would dare to interrupt or make a fuss, I would automatically send them out to the side so they could hear but are not with the group.  Or, if still not settling, get them removed if that is a process available to you in your school.  I would then continue with a more relaxed body stance and tone of voice, giving a growth mindset speech and go on about how much I cared about their learning.  I would then recap the actions I would take if they did not follow the rules and get back to the lesson.  

On occasions, I have used the ‘next step’ announcement that has worked. It goes like this.  ‘So class, last lessons some students behaviour was disappointing and I will not accept average behaviour in this class.  So today, if you are moved seats for talking during instruction then expect a follow-up phone call home’ or ‘If you are withdrawn from today’s lesson, I will be organising for you to be taken to a buddy class next lesson and putting you on a subject behaviour tracking sheet’.  This tracking sheet can be used to set agreed goals for your lesson and tacked over a period of time with consequences or rewards give if goals not met or met.    

Golden nugget: Try the ‘reset’ chat to settle a class that has numerous low-level behaviours simultaneously. 

The ripple effect.

  After the ‘reset’ chat is a great time to start looking for the positives.  In fact, looking for the positives should be an everyday goal.  If a group are first to get out their exercise books and put pen to paper, say ‘well done this table has their pens on paper already, fantastic thank you’.  You could use the tactic of concept attainment with yes examples and no examples.  This table is a yes example. This table is a no example.  Bill Rogers, another behaviour management guru who has some excellent books on CMS, talks about how easy it is for teachers to focus on the bad behaviours in their classrooms and not the good.  He would use the analogy of how when you look at a white sheet of paper with a black dot, you seem to focus completely on the black dot and not the white space.  This is what teachers need to try to do.  

This is also the normal ratio of good to bad behaviour.  There is so much good stuff happening in our classrooms. But, there is so much white.  Normally, there are not many misbehaviours, the small back dot.  But we seem to focus our attention on this black dot.  Catch them being good and use the ‘Ripple effect’ to make others want to join in being good.  This term ‘Ripple effect’ was coined by Jacob Kounin back in 1970 in his observations for research on behaviour management.  The idea is if a student is publicly reprimanded for a rule break, then others will witness this and not do the rule break themselves.  Now, this can work with the positive too.  Try it.  

Golden nugget: Remember to acknowledge students doing the right thing and use the ‘Ripple Effect’.

 Language is so important.  I learnt this the hard way when I was lucky enough to work in a job that had me working in primary schools training teachers in P.E.  As a secondary teacher, my language worked well with the upper primary school students. Still, I soon learned I needed to really frame my instructions with explicit instructions with the younger students. For example, one day I had a class of Pre-primary students that’s students aged 5 and I had finished an activity using cones spread out over the field.  My instructions to the class were ‘Great work everyone, now go and collect the markers’.  They were so excited and they all ran off.  Some of them picked up cones and others just ran around.  Then they all continued to run around, some venturing off up the field.  

Transitions need to be smooth.

I realised the problem. I had not given explicit instructions on what to do next.  My instructions should have been something like, ‘this group, when I say go, can you collect all of the blue cones and come back and sit next to me – ready – go!’.  Instead, my class was running free around the oval and I was blowing my whistle and shouting for them to come back, frantically waving my arms in a ‘Come back’ motion—words matter.  I love listening to Zig Ziggler. He writes books on motivation and goal setting I highly recommend them.  In one of his books, he gives an example of how important words are.  “If you ask your child to empty your dishwasher and you don’t want them to smash anything, the last thing you should say to them before they start is ‘now, you be careful and don’t you be smashing anything’.  This is a guaranteed way of ensuring they will smash something.  What you should be saying is, ‘I have asked you to empty this because I believe you can be so careful with these dishes and I know you will have no problem doing it’”.

With-it-ness is so important.

With-it-ness is key, I cannot emphasize enough its importance.  It is paramount to watch the whole class at all times.  You need to think about your positioning when moving around the class, ensuring you are continually scanning.  Even during your one-on-one conversations around the room, ensure periodically stopping to scan the room.  Giving any reminders of behaviour expectations when needed. For example, you might be at the front of the class having a conversation regarding labelling a diagram and you scan and see James sitting in the far back leaning back in his chair. You may pause the conversation and say ‘James sitting properly, thank you,’ then continue your conversation.  When taking the register, ensure you are looking up and pausing.  This pause gives the moment of quiet to ensure there is no whispering or talking.  If there is, I would remind students of the norms of roll call.  ‘Please complete your ‘Do Now’ activity in silence so I can complete the roll call. This is a legal requirement and is for safety reasons.  If there is a fire, it needs to be completed correctly, so firemen are not putting themselves in danger looking for someone who is not here. 

The idea of this starter or ‘Do Now’ activity is to quickly settle the class and get students quiet for taking the register or roll call as we call it here in Perth.  The activity is simple for the student to complete independently, I sometimes ask them to write the Learning Intentions into their book, or if they find the questions too difficult, I asked them to write them down. We will discuss them as a class after.  This should not last longer than five minutes and you will only need a hand full of questions.  I always check that they have completed it and keep them accountable by letting them know that they will be completing it in their own time if they haven’t completed it.  This takes a little time to train them in your expectations, but well worth the effort.  

My current ‘Signal to Begin’ is ‘Eyes and ears on me 1,2,3’.  But over the years, I have played with a few different ones.  For the lower years, I shouted saying ‘Class, class’, then the class corralled back ‘Yes, yes’.  I have seen many different styles over the years and primary schools seem to have the most creative.  I loved the one, ‘Scooby, Scooby Do ‘ and the class coral ‘Where are you’.  Some use gesture such as the raise on the arm in the air and students are required to see this and raise their hand.  This one takes time but works well in large spaces such as assemblies that don’t have a microphone.  I have seen teachers use clapping to gain the attention of the class.  They would clap a rhythm and then students would clap this same rhythm back.  There are different labels for this skill. Some call it the ‘Cue to begin’ or Signal to Attend’. They are the same thing.

It is simply a way to communicate to the class that you need their attention.  Now, this is only a small part of the skill.  The hard part is teaching them to give their whole attention every time you do it.  When I introduce my Cue to Begin, I tell them my expectation is I have whole body listening, eyes and ears and whole body is facing towards me.  Then you ensure this happens, all students who don’t need reminders by using our Low-Key Skills and other tools from our CMS toolbox.  

The term ‘Low-Key Skills’ was popularised by Bennett and Smilanich (1994) in their influential book ‘Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach’.  A Low-Key skill is a simple, short and minimal action with the intention of stopping minor undesirable behaviours with minimal necessary force and ideally with zero lost learning time.  If you google Low-Key Skills, you get many examples and definitions.  Teachers have been doing things for years to manage behaviours most of the time without even thinking about it.  The beauty of labelling them the way Barrie has is that we can have a common language.  Things such as ‘The Look’, ‘Winning Over’, ‘The Pause’, Minimal Verbal’, ‘Non-Verbal’, ‘Proximity’, ‘Deal with allies’, ‘Planned ignore’, ‘Private Dialogue’, ‘Come on Back’ to name a few. 

During a lesson, you will use hundreds of Low-Key Skills. For example, in my lesson, I may meet the class outside early and, as I’m waiting, strike up a conversation with the students about the activities they did over the weekend. This is called (Winning Over).  Then when taking my register at the start of class, I use my ‘Signal to Begin’ and say ‘eyes on me 1,2,3’ I then use the (Pause) paired with (The Look) as I look straight at a boy at the back still talking.  He goes pale, stops talking and I respond, ‘Thank you’ (Minimal Verbal).  

After the ‘Do Now’ activity is complete, I assign two students to hand out the graph paper and again use my ‘Signal to Begin’ so I can introduce the activity.  There is a student tapping their pen, so I walk up to the table (Proximity). They don’t get the cue to I tap the table with my fingers and gesture for them to put it down (Non-verbal).  During my instruction, there is a student that has difficulty with his behaviour and often displays silly attention-seeking behaviour and he shouts out, ‘I need a pen’ I continue with my instruction, not even looking at the student (Planned Ignore).  

After I set the class off to task, I approach the student regarding the shouting out during instruction, kneel to his eye level and say ‘during instruction it is important that there are no distractions, if you need a pen, wait till the end of the instruction and put up your hand (Private Dialogue).  During the activity, there is a table of students talking about their Instagram activity and one student in the group who has not started the activity.  I remind the students of the expectations of class and that off-topic talk is not appropriate.  

The student who has not started working is given a choice to sit with their group and work, or if they choose not to work, they will be moved.  During this conversation with the student, one of the students sitting on the table joins in the conversation with ‘that’s not fair miss, that table over there is talking too’.  The student is reminded that the conversation I was having was not with them and they need to focus on their own behaviour and work (Deal with allies).  After the activity is completed, I approach the table that was talking and commented on how great a job the student who was late to start work had done (Come on Back). 

All these Low-Key Skills are reminders and are used whilst the flow of the class is in full flow.  If the behaviour continues, it is the next step that is really important to ensure students know you are going to follow up and be consistent.  Students will push the boundaries in the first few weeks and see how you react to them breaking the rules.  That is why the first few weeks are the hardest.  Now after the reminder does not work, in Barrie Bennetts ‘Bumps’ he calls it the ‘square off’.  This term I don’t like, but this is what it is.  The teacher stops teaching, turns to the student and gives them a clear verbal indicating that what they are doing is not ok.  ‘Jenifer, not talking when I am talking, thank you’.  When I teach, I use the term warning.  I might not know who keeps talking during the quiet reading, so I might say to the whole class.  ‘Next person to talk, will get a warning’.  This warning may be followed up with a choice. Continue to talk and you will be moved, so if you want to remain in that seat, choose not to talk.  

When we give a warning or use the ‘square off’, we must use a credible voice and stance.  You must say what you mean and mean what you say in a way that sounds like you expect students will do it.  You need to scream confidence, in your tone and your projection.  If your voice sound weak or quiet, you will be eaten alive.  Equally, your body language must match.  Don’t slouch or tilt your head or hips. Instead, straighten up and square your shoulders.  Barrie Bennett has a video clip that introduces his Power Plays book and in it, he describes the nuances of this beautifully.  Now there is a fine line between assertive and aggressive and we need to be careful never to cross it.  Barrie describes the continuum of light pink to dark red.  If we are too light pink, we will come across as a pushover, but if we come across as dark red, we are aggressive.  We want to portray confidence and assertion, not get up all in their face aggressively.   See for Barrie in action.

Transitions can easily turn a fab lesson on its head.  The start and the end of the lesson need real structure and routine.  When I first meet new classes, I meet them outside. I wait for silence, then give them instructions regarding what equipment they need and to start the ‘Do Now’ activity already on the board.  At the end of class, I ask the students to pack away and stand quietly behind their chairs.  I will then say, ‘I know when you’re ready to leave because you will be silent’.  If there is still noise, I will say, ‘Next person to talk will be asked to sit down’.  Most stop, if not all.  When they are silent, I dismiss a row at a time and for any student sitting, I ask to straighten a table or wipe the board.  They soon learn to be silent the first time quickly.  

Giving out equipment is another time for calm to become chaos.  I have observed teachers say, ‘You will need a textbook they are in the cupboard’, then the whole class stand and push and shove to get a textbook.  Then before you know it, you have Tracy crying because Daniel had stood on her toe, too eager to get the newer books.  Staggering is one way, letting a table or two go at once.  Alternatively, ask a few of the faster workers who finish early to give out the books and collect them.  

If attention-seeking behaviour is continual and you have managed the peers and have given numerous reprimands, choices and consequences, then you might try putting some goals in place for this student.  I would meet with this student for an informal chat and discuss some data and feedback on the number of times they have called out during class, as an example.  ‘So, Wendy, I made a note that last lesson I had to give you six reminders and two warnings for talking during instruction.  This was a reminder every time I addressed the class.  I even moved your seat. Can you remember this?’.  ‘Why is it you feel the need to call out consistently?’.  Give them the chance to respond.  Let them know why their constant calling out is disruptive, the rational.  ‘The reason I can’t have students calling out during instruction is that it disrupts the flow of the class, learning is our priority and we have limits on time.  With constant interruptions, the learning is slowed.  It is also disrespectful and is one of our classroom rules’.  Agree on some achievable goals and a time frame to come together to discuss them and what rewards or consequences will be put in place.

Now shouting out during class instruction is a real pain.  But I see many frustrated students calling out answers and getting into trouble when really, they were not misbehaving. They were just confused as to how the teacher wanted a response.  When observing newly graduated teachers, this is a frequent problem.  Teaching students the type of response you want is very important.  So let say you want to check for understanding and have prepared some questions to ask.  There are many ways to get this information from students.  The traditional ‘hands up’ call upon a student cold, everyone respond together, write it down on a mini whiteboard, share with a partner.  Now, if you don’t frame your question, then students will just guess.  Or even worse, the first question, the teacher said, put up your hand.  The second question the teacher took the response from a student who shouted out.  On the third question, the teacher reprimanded the students for shouting out.  Causing much confusion.  

If you teach a class that has many students with low-level misbehaviour, it can be difficult to manage. For example, a class may have 20% of students who may do the wrong thing and 80% behaving well and on task.  If we don’t manage the 20% well and minimise the disruptions by using our Low Key Skills and follow up with consequences, the calm learning environment can become mayhem.  If students don’t feel safe and the environment is noisy and students are allowed to wander around as they please, then bigger, more problematic behaviours arise.  Students who are normally well behaved then start to raise their heads with the mentality of ‘if you can beat them, join them’.  This then becomes the 80:20 shift.  When 80% are doing the wrong thing and 20% are well behaved.  

It might be lots of lower-level work avoidance behaviours that occur, which will have a huge impact on the learning of all students.  It is important to ensure this doesn’t happen through using your toolbox and seek support early if needed.  Because once this shift has happened, it is very difficult to come back from.  Starting up each class by introducing the classroom rules and having the ‘reset’ chat more often.  There are other tools to pull on that I will discuss in the next chapter.         

The power battle is seen more often in the classrooms where this shift has occurred.  This is generally when students reply ‘No’ to an instruction or become argumentative.  The power battle can be difficult to manage and is very stressful for teachers and students.  Responding to a power battle can be done by staying calm and going back to basics.  Using humour to defuse or moving the student away from the audience for a quiet conversation.  Using the language of choice, giving consequences and following up on any given.  

The most frequent in one of my schools that had a huge problem with mobile phones was when a student was asked to hand over their phone for having it out in class, their reply was no.  I would deal with this situation by asking them to a quiet part of the classroom and give them a choice.  ‘Phone use in the classroom is not ok, your choices are to hand over the phone and get it back at the end of class or refuse to hand it over and I will call your parents and ask them that you need to either keep it at home tomorrow or hand it in the office’.  Some students would continue to argue, ‘It’s not your property’.  I would simply repeat the choice and then follow through with that.        

The key to power battles, in a nutshell, is to use minimal verbal.  Don’t speak with their peers around, so they don’t have to save face in front of them.  The use language of choice.  Now depending on your school and the culture it has will depend on the consequences given.  Some schools would suspend for such a power battle.  Others would be suspending half the cohort if they suspended for such behaviours.  The benchmark is different for every school.  Most schools suspend if a student swears at a teacher and definitely if they physically assault another student or staff member.  Always follow your school’s behaviour policy and processes. 

I recommend the online course for classroom management at  

To read more about how to respond to misbehaviour after the class from hell. Read here.


Bennett and Smilanich (1994) in their influential book ‘Classroom Management: A Thinking & Caring Approach’.  

Emmer, E. T., Evertson, C. M., & Anderson, L. M. (1980). Effective Classroom Management at the Beginning of the School Year. The Elementary School Journal, 80(5), 219-231. 

Kounin, J. S. (1970). Discipline and group management in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Power plays:Moving from Coping to Cooperation in your Classroom.

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